/ 1 February 2023

Cameroon’s ‘disappeared’ later found dead

Popular radio journalist Mbani Zogo Arsène Salomon, better known as Martinez Zogo, was found dead on the outskirts of Cameroon’s capital Yaounde

Last Sunday, popular radio journalist Mbani Zogo Arsène Salomon, better known as Martinez Zogo, was found dead on the outskirts of Cameroon’s capital Yaounde. 

Zogo was kidnapped by unknown people five days earlier. His decomposing body showed signs that he had been tortured prior to his death.

The murder is the latest in an escalating trend of forced and sometimes fatal disappearances inCameroon.

In one incident last year, 40 commercial motorcycle riders were stopped and taken into what appears to have been state custody. Twenty-four of them later turned up in detention at a military facility in Bamenda, the capital of Cameroon’s northwest region. 

Later, in court, they were accused of collaborating with Anglophone separatists.

The sister of one of the 16 who remain unaccounted for said of the day last April when they were taken. “My brother called and asked me to sun his traditional wear. After that conversation, I have not seen nor heard from him.” This is despite visits to variouspolice stations and gendarmerie brigades for any information.

In 2020, the Cameroonian government admitted that journalist Samuel Wazizi died in prison shortly after he was arrested the year before for his critical reporting on the government’s handling of the separatist conflict.

That conflict, which forms the background for most of these disappearances, began in October 2016, when lawyer and teacher unions launched street demonstrations against the obligatory use of French in schools and courts in the country’s two English-speaking regions.

The two regions, in northwest and southwest Cameroon, are home to about five million of the country’s 24 million people. When these protests were suppressed by the state, the situation degenerated into an armed struggle for the independence of what secessionists call Ambazonia.

Disappearances have been a key part of the struggle, with all sides taking people. The families are left with no closure. 

“It’s been over four years today. I cannot tell where my father is nor if he is alive or dead,” said Abedine Akweton Abilitu, whose father was arrested in 2018 on suspicion of collaborating with the rebels. “I had to drop out of school to assist my mother in searching for dad.” 

His mother died last May without ever knowing what happened to her husband. Secessionist groups have also been accused of “disappearing” people. Their main targets are civil servants in the conflict areas.

In June 2021, these groups were accused of kidnapping six high-profile delegates in the southwest of the country. One of the delegates later died.

In December that year, the local chief, Fon Yakum Kevin Teuvih, head of the assembly for traditional rulers in the northwest region, was taken by separatists.

Justice and closure are even more elusive when the rebels are the captors. “They don’t have a legal structure, no visible and organised command chain, so it becomes extremely difficult to seek justice,” said Blaise Chamango, head of Human is Right.

Human rights defenders are resorting to unusual strategies to get answers.

“I remember we once sent a lady to go and cry in front of a security post in Buea, where her son was held incommunicado for months.” Chamango said. “Three days later he was released unconditionally.”

According to reports from the Crisis Group and the United Nations Office for Humanitarian Affairs in Cameroon, more than 2.2 million people are affected by the crisis in the northwest and southwest regions of Cameroon.

More than 6 000 people have been killed according to the same reports, and 956 000 displaced, of whom more than 70 000 are refugees in Nigeria. 

This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian. It’s designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy at mg.co.za/thecontinent/