Freedom in the World
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Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Cameroon's political rights rating improved from 7 to 6 due to the creation of an electoral observatory.
Cameroon's human rights record came under international scrutiny in 2001, when nine young men disappeared after being detained by a notorious anticrime squad called the Operational Command. The young men, who came to be known as the "Bamenda Nine," were detained in January for allegedly stealing a gas canister. Local human rights groups said they were killed a few days later. President Paul Biya sacked the unit's chief operational officer, who was detained with others in the unit. They are to face trial in a military court. In the political sphere, Cameroon made a step forward in 2001 when President Biya appointed members to the National Observatory of Elections. Its president is a longtime member of the ruling party, but its vice president is an outspoken woman of more independent credibility.
Cameroon was seized during World War I, in 1916, and divided between Britain and France after having been a German colony since 1884. Distinct Anglophone and Francophone areas were reunited as an independent country in 1961. Approximately one-fourth of Cameroonians are Anglophone. The Biya administration remains largely Francophone, and the country's main opposition is from Anglophone Cameroonians. The linguistic distinction constitutes the country's most potent political division. Cameroon's population comprises nearly 200 ethnic groups. For more than three decades after independence, Cameroon was ruled under a repressive one-party system. In 1992 and 1997 President Biya held fraudulent multiparty elections, which he won after a boycott by the opposition Social Democratic Front (SDF), led by John Fru Ndi.
Privatization has progressed, but graft and the absence of independent courts inhibit business development. The government in 2000 set up an anticorruption body, but it is unlikely that any serious reform will take place until changes are made in the government and judiciary. Biya in 2001 sacked a number of ministers, who were considered to be among the most overtly corrupt, in an effort to retain some credibility in the eyes of international donors.
Although Cameroon's constitution provides for a multiparty republic, citizens have not been allowed to choose their government and local leaders by democratic means. Presidential elections have been devalued by rampant intimidation, manipulation, and fraud. In 1996, the constitution extended the presidential term to seven years and allowed President Paul Biya to run for a fourth term. His reelection in 1997 with 93 percent of the vote was marred by serious procedural flaws, as well as by a boycott by the three major opposition parties, because the government dismissed demands for an independent election commission.
Legislative elections have also been fraudulent. The ruling Cameroon People's Democratic Movement won 116 seats and the SDF won 43 in polling in 1997, overseen by regime loyalists in the ministry of territorial administration. The next legislative polls are scheduled for May 2002 and local elections are to be held that year as well. During the last municipal elections, in 1996, the opposition won a number of mayoral seats. However, the government changed the constitution and appointed its own officials as city mayors, effectively nullifying the election results through an administrative maneuver.
Cameroon's courts remain highly subject to political influence and corruption. The executive controls the judiciary and appoints provincial and local administrators. Military tribunals may exercise jurisdiction over civilians in cases involving civil unrest or organized armed violence. A military court in March 2001 released six members of the Southern Cameroon National Council after 15 months in detention without trail.
In the north, powerful traditional chiefs known as lamibee run their own private militias, courts, and prisons, which are used against the regime's political opponents. Torture and ill-treatment of prisoners and detainees are routine in Cameroon, despite legislation passed in January 1997 that prohibits torture. Indefinite pretrial detention under extremely harsh conditions is permitted after a warrant is issued or in order to "combat banditry." Prison conditions are harsh, and inmates routinely die.
Numerous nongovernmental organizations generally operate without hindrance. Various intelligence agencies operate with impunity, and opposition activists are often held without charges or disappear while in custody. Security forces routinely impede domestic travel, repress demonstrations, and disrupt meetings. Three people were killed in October 2001 when authorities cracked down on demonstrators of the Southern Cameroon National Council. Dozens of protesters were detained. A youth group linked to the ruling party reportedly pointed out leading council members to authorities.
The constitution provides for freedom of the press, but serious restrictions inhibit open political exchange. Criminal libel law is regularly used to silence regime critics. Eleven years after the national assembly passed a bill liberalizing the audio and visual media, Biya signed the legislation into force in 2001. A handful of private radio stations were already operating without a license, but they only broadcast religious or music programs locally. Radio Veritas, which is operated by the Roman Catholic Church, is preparing to set up in Cameroon. Another independent station, Radio Magic, applied for a license and began broadcasting out of Douala in August 2001. It was shut down immediately. Radio Veritas and Radio Magic would be the only independent national broadcasters, which is significant in the run-up to elections in 2002.
Freedom of religion is generally respected. Slavery reportedly persists in parts of the north, and discrimination exists against indigenous Pygmies and other ethnic minorities, while the Beti and Bula dominate the civil service and state-run businesses.
Violence against women is reportedly widespread. Women are often denied inheritance and landownership rights even when these are codified, and many other laws contain unequal gender-based provisions and penalties. Female genital mutilation is practiced in some parts of the country. Cameroon is a transit center and market for child laborers and traffickers.
Trade union formation is permitted under the 1992 labor code, but some of the code's provisions have not been implemented and many government workers are not covered. Workers have the right to strike but only after arbitration, the decisions of which the government can overturn.