The President of Cameroon is named Paul Biya. He’s been the president of Cameroon since 1982. Before that, from 1975, he was prime minister. Depending on how you count it, Paul Biya of Cameroon is one of — if not the — longest serving world leader.
My guest today, Maurice Kamto, challenged Paul Biya for the presidency in national elections in 2018. Kamto lost in what he plausibly claimed were rigged elections. He subsequently lead a peaceful protest movement against the government of Paul Biya — until January last year when he was arrested and thrown in prison for ten months.
I spoke with Maurice Kamto while he was visiting Washington, D.C. And as you’ll learn from this conversation, Maurice Kamto very much credits the United States Congress with helping to secure his release from prison.
Maurice Kamto is a lawyer and professor of law with the University of Yaounde, in Cameroon. He is the leader of Cameroon Renaissance Movement, which is known by its French acronym the MRC. We kick off this conversation discussing the circumstances of his arrest in January 2019 before having a longer conversation about the precarious nature of democracy in Cameroon today.
Maurice Kamto: (00:00)
We were arrested on the 28th of January, 2019. We organized a peaceful demonstration on the 26th of January, the same year. The purpose of the demonstration was to protest first of all, against the ongoing civil war in the Northwest and Southwest of Cameroon with a lot of debts. Just let me give you some figures. According to sources, 3000 to 12,000 debt for the past three years between 600 to 800,000 internally displaced persons, 35,000 to 40,000 refugees in Nigeria, no school for the past three years. No economy whatsoever because the government self declared that they will not be collecting taxes anymore in the regions because the economy is down and many, many villages between 200 to 400 villages burned down to ashes. That’s why we say, stop it. Put an end to it. That was the first reason why we made the demonstration. The second being the post electoral crisis.
Maurice Kamto: (01:23)
I was a contendant for the presidential election of 2018, 7 of October, 2018. And according to the figures, I was the winner in the police stations. But unfortunately the constitutional council of Cameroon will proclaim Mr Biya the winner, the current, Mr Biya is the current president in Cameroon. So we were demonstrating against them and they tried to hold up. The third issue was that massive embezzlement of public funds, public money where Cameroon, was supposed to organize the2019 African cup of nations. And the government made a provision of thousands of billions of CFA France, I don’t know the equivalent in the U S dollars, but lots of money in our currency. but eventually they withdraw, we withdrew, sorry, we withdrew the organization of that event from Cameroon because the infrastructures were not there, but the money needed so we said bring our money back.
Maurice Kamto: (02:36)
So these are the three reasons why we were, we organized the demonstration on the 26th of January, 2019.
Mark Goldberg: (02:43)
So you’re demonstrating against the conflict, commonly known as the Anglophone crisis in parts of Cameroon. Although you yourself are a Francophone, I could tell by your accent.
Maurice Kamto: (02:54)
Yes, I’m Francophone indeed.
Mark Goldberg: (02:56)
And you’re also against the electoral malfeasance that you allege robbed you of your rightful victory against president Biya and also corruption. Who were those who were demonstrating and where were these demonstrations?
Maurice Kamto: (03:10)
Members of my political party, I’m the leader of the Cameroon Renaissance movement and Mouvement pour la Renaissance du Cameroun in French. and demonstrations took place all over the country and basically in the largest city, Douala, Yaounde, which is a capital city of our nation and the many other cities including Cung, Bafoussam, Bafang and so on and so forth.
Mark Goldberg: (03:36)
So two days after those demonstrations, you were arrested, how were you arrested? What were the circumstances of that and who, who else was arrested?
Maurice Kamto: (03:46)
We were three of us having lunch in the house of one of our supporters and ally during the presidential election. And some few minutes after we finished our lunch somebody came in and said, there are police policemen, officers outside, but we were in our rooms already we’re three of us myself, the host, and a third supporter. Mr Christian Penda Ekoka, the former advisor to president Biya, who during the elections to the decision to support me and not him. Andand thensort of the police officer with 10 or three, or between five to 10 people came in heavily armed and asked my name, where is Mr Kamto.
Maurice Kamto: (04:46)
I came out from the room and he also asked me, where is Mr. Penda? He came out of his room and then you say, well, you are under arrest, and I asked, where is your, where, where is the arrest warrant? Do you have any? And he said, no. So do you have no reason why I, there is no reason why I should be following you. And the false was we had no choice but to follow him. And then he brought us to the police station in Douala city and then later on they transferred us to Yaounde handcuff and chain and we traveled for 300 kilometers, handcuffs and chain. And the terrible execution is that we couldn’t during the trip do our natural, you know, go to ease yourself.
Maurice Kamto: (05:43)
You know, they will not allow you because they will not remove the handcuffs. So yes, we did it on ourselves. And then later on they brought us to Yaounde and put me in a special unit police unit, and my other supporters in different, in a different place which is also a, a military unit with lots of humiliation. But I would not be complaining to, on my own fate because what is terrible is the treatment, the reserve to many of our militants. You know massive torture is something which you cannot believe it it’s even very difficult to describe because it’s painful. You know, people got their head broken arms. And the, in the, in one of our supporter, they ask him, I’m talking of Mr. Penda a former counselor, advisor, close advisor to Mr. Biya. You know, it’s a really very high position in my country and they ask him, remove your, undress. And he removed his coat and he thought it was enough. And then no. I asked you to undress. He will remove his shirt and the pants and the underwear and put your hands on the wall. He puts his hands on the wall and say, and afterwards he will say, turn around and he turned around just to humiliate him. So this, these are the kind of situation he went through.
Mark Goldberg: (07:20)
So were, were you ever subjected to that kind of abuse?
Maurice Kamto: (07:25)
I must say no. No, no. I must say no.
Mark Goldberg: (07:28)
So you were arrested in Douala transferred to Yaounde. At what point were you ever formally charged with a crime and what crime were you formally charged with?
Maurice Kamto: (07:41)
We spent twelve days in the special police unit and then later on the task force, they presented us to a judge and the charges were, hostility against the fatherland which for which we were, we risked to be sentenced to death. We risked to be sentenced to death revolution rebellion. and I don’t remember. There were eight, around eight charges. But the main ones were the three I just quoted, hostility against the fatherland, rebellion, revolution, and what else? Destruction of public assets. Yes, destruction of public assets. We made it a very peaceful demonstration. They didn’t have any evidence whatsoever. And we have all the videos showing that people were very peaceful because our, we asked our militants don’t confront those we charge of the maintenance of our public order, I mean, police agents and gendarmes. If they come close to you or they pour tear gas or water on you just sit down and put your hands up and sing the National Anthem. This is exactly what they did as you, everyone can see on the videos.
Mark Goldberg: (09:10)
So, thus began a nine month ordeal in which you were in prison? What, how were you at all from your prison cell, were you able to help organize your movement and stay the leader of your political party?
Maurice Kamto: (09:28)
Oh yes. Butthe, we have a, in our party we have five vice presidents. So after our arrest and detention the first vice president was in charge. But he maintained a close relationship with me. We were in contact almost every week at least even if he couldn’t come into the prison because we, it, it was not easy. Sometimes they would not allow him to see me. We could find a channel to stay in contact, in touch. that’s why we could, I could still direct or give the main instructions on how to lead the party. but on a daily basis, it was the vice president who was in charge, but he was arrested, because after that demonstration on the 26th of January, we had another demonstration on the 1st of June because our militants wanted to demonstrate to ask for our release, immediate release without any condition. But they arrested him during that demonstration and he’s still in jail and he was severely brutalized. Torture his head, his head was broken, his left arm. and he spent somefour monthswithhis left armin theI don’t know how you say it in English, butyou know, in the hospital with, for his left arm broken by police and gendarms. So as I am speaking to you, he’s still in jail.
Mark Goldberg: (11:19)
Maurice Kamto: (11:46)
Yeah. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to shed some light on that particular point. But before saying that, I would say that when we were brought before the court it was military court and we challenged the jurisdiction of the court saying that the military court cannot try civilians, according to our laws because there is a clearly a judgment of the Supreme court of Cameroon which forbids that. And also according to the international legal instruments military court cannot try civilians, but they didn’t make a decision at that point at all. Despite the fact that we insisted that week, we’ll have a ruling of the court on that issue. They never make a judgment on that. Now, how were we released? We were brought to the courton the 6th of September.
Maurice Kamto: (12:51)
And one of our colleagues were very bad and they postponed the judgment, the trial, they postponed the trial. And then some day, some day after we heard that something was going to happen to us, we didn’t know if it would be our release or our transfer to another prison. Andon the 5th of October, the judge knows that we were freed. But the reason why we’re free is clearly the international community pressure, including the stance of the U. S. Congress.
Mark Goldberg: (13:38)
What happened, what happened in the U. S. Congress that you think helped secure your release?
Maurice Kamto: (13:43)
Yes. The U.S. Congress passed resolutions, asking clearly, first of all, thethe, the resolution of theAnglophone crisis, the humanitarian problems. Secondlyour release without any condition. Thirdly, the reform of the electoral code before any further elections in Cameroon. These are the three main issues contained in that resolution. And that was really very, very helpful.
Mark Goldberg: (14:13)
And you’re named and you, and, and your co-defendants, or your compatriots who are arrested were, were named by name in that congressional resolution.
Maurice Kamto: (14:22)
Yes, absolutely. And in that respect, it was something really amazing because despite the fact that the Cameroonian government will give the impression or says that they don’t care, they did care. Absolutely. because after that the European union parliament passed a resolution in the same vein asking for the three issues. I’ve just quoted previously. Resolve the Anglophone crisis, release without any condition the detainees, Mr. Kamto once he’s quoted to me that members of his political party Cameroon Renaissance movement arbitrarily detained and thirdly reform the electoral code before any further elections in Cameroon and the Canadian parliament, in the same light and the African union commission for human rights and people pass also a declaration in the same vein.
Mark Goldberg: (15:24)
That’s really interesting to me, just as like an observer of international relations to see the impact that that U. S. Congressional resolution had and how it had been mirrored in the European union and in Canada and taken together that international pressure you think led directly to your release from prison, nine months after you were arrested for as you say, no good reason.
Maurice Kamto: (15:48)
Absolutely. We are convinced that if our fate only depends on Mr. Biya who is the current president in Cameroon, then I’ve not been able to be here speaking to you because definitely the intention was to maintain us in jail if not send us to death. But at least to serve the longest pain they put the the, the tribunal could sentence us. So we clearly think, we are convinced that it is, it is thanks to the U. S. Congress stand and the emulation by other countries, and institutions that we are free today.
Mark Goldberg: (16:33)
So you mounted the most significant challenge to Paul Biya’s almost four decade rule in 2018, you are now out of prison. we’re speaking just a few days after local and municipal and parliamentary elections in Cameroon that you are party boycotted. Can you sort of explain to me, why did you decide to boycott those elections if you did so well in 2018?
Maurice Kamto: (17:03)
Yeah. we went to the elections in 2018 after, to begin with I will explain to your viewers or listeners that we first went to elections in 2013. We were then seven years old because our political party was formed in 2012 and we experienced the electoral code and see that there were a lot of shortcomings in the code and that’s why we won in many constituencies. But who had declared the loser. So we said something must be done. We wrote to the president of the Republic and all the administration involving the electoral process, including the electoral body, which is which is named elections Cameroon in Cameroon, but they never answered. They never even acknowledge our letters. Then, we realize that most often the opposition are, the opposition parties are weak in Cameroon because they are not represented all over the country.
Maurice Kamto: (18:18)
So we work hard between 2013 and 2018 to make sure that we are implanted all over the country. And that is exactly what happened. And the reason why we said this by the fact that they didn’t, did not reform the electoral code. We are now well established in the country to go to elections with a chance to be the winner. And that is exactly what happened because we were, we are the winner. We were the winners in the police stations. But unfortunately, the constitutional council will proclaim Mr. Biya the winner. So now we were and we could demonstrate in the face of Cameroonians and the in the face of the entire world because they cover the litigation before the constitutional council live. So everybody could see our demonstration. And we could assure to people that out of 58 register electoral registers only 32 electoral registers were false and with no signature just generated by computers.
Maurice Kamto: (19:35)
So we were clearly the winner. So in 20, the elections of the ninth of February, 2020, we convened a meeting of our political party at the highest level. And the question was, should we go to this election or not? And the answer, the clear answer was no for obvious reasons. The first one being that with an ongoing war in the English speaking part of Cameroon, it is obvious that the people of that area will not be participating to elections because they will not have a chance in the, in the context of civil war with a heavy presence of military, they will not take part to the elections. In doing so, we were sending, or the government was sending a clear message to these populations that they are not Cameroonians anymore. We could not support the government in splitting the country because I’ve been fighting against any separatism or cessation whatsoever in Cameroon.
Maurice Kamto: (20:40)
I’m in favor of federalism to settle the matter on how to resolve the issue. The second reason why you couldn’t go to elections was there is no reform of the electoral code after we have demonstrated before the constitutional council. And after all the international community is we’re asking for reform of the electoral code before any further elections. Almost on the line, the fact that even elections, Cameroon, which is the electoral body set up by the very same government, in two separate reports asked for the reform of the electoral code. And that never happened for these two reasons we could not go.
Mark Goldberg: (21:19)
So, basically the fact that the needed reforms to ensure free elections had not been taken place. Plus the ongoing war led your party to boycott or not participate in recent municipal elections. You know, you, I’m speaking to now in Washington D. C. Presumably you’ll go back soon to Cameroon. What are your plans when you arrive back in Cameroon?
Maurice Kamto: (21:48)
Before asking that question, I will like to draw the attention of the fact that we appeal for boycotts and we are happy that Cameroon voters massively followed our appeal because according to the data we have just received the past two days, the maximum participation was 28%. So meaning that the turnout for that elections were really very, very low. This38%is given by the African union observers and they made a press conference in which they give these during weekdays they said the people who did not take part of this election whatsoever, so we are happy that people are following us massively in Cameroon. Now, our plans when we go back in Cameroon, first of all is to continue to do our work as a political party, although they will not allow us to hold any public meeting before our station on detention.
Maurice Kamto: (23:05)
And after our release, we cannot hold public meetings in Cameroon as a political party. I mean, this is something which is just unacceptable in a country where they claim to have multipartyism where they claim to practice democracy.
Mark Goldberg: (23:23)
There’s a reason that Paul Biya is one of the longest serving leaders in Africa, if not the world.
Maurice Kamto: (23:28)
Yep, absolutely. He’s 88 or 87 or 88. and he’s been serving as president for the past 38 years and having been private…
Mark Goldberg: (23:39)
He’s pretty good at cracking down on the opposition it sounds like.
Maurice Kamto: (23:43)
Yeah. Having been a prime minister for nine years, it means that he, he’s at the forefront of a political game in Cameroon for the past virtually, almost 50 years.
Mark Goldberg: (23:56)
I mean in the face of, I mean, just the fact that he’s been there so long, he’s able to manipulate the institutions of government to prevent opposition parties like yours from really gaining a foothold and corrupt everyone in the process. He’s patronage and then the institutions of governments is avert democracy. How are you able to advance democracy under those conditions?
Maurice Kamto: (24:20)
Well, let me be frank with you, be straightforward with first count of Cameroonians because we are going to mobilize them now that it is obvious to everybody that legitimacy is not on the side of Mr. Biya. We were, we knew that, but now we have the evidence through the fact that the turn out to, to the last election was really very low only 30%, and according to some sources it is even 15%. Secondly, the massive turnout to our meetings in the diaspora. I don’t know if you are able to see what happened in Paris, in Montreal, in Toronto, here in Washington D C it is just amazing. We had our meeting rather in Maryland and not in DC.
Maurice Kamto: (25:08)
So now everything is clear that the legitimacy in Cameroon is on our side and that truly we were elected during the 2018 elections, we are going to continue mobilizing Cameroonians, sensitizing them that we cannot let that government continue to kill our fellow compatriots in the Northwest and Southwest. And that we have the solution to that crisis. I would come back shortly and briefly on those solutions. The second aspect is that we do count on the international community to reinforce the pressure and to put more pressure on that dictatorship to make sure that they stop what is going on and organize real inclusive dialogue in Cameroon to reform the, to look at the form of this state to reform the Cameroonian state. And we do think that with such a reform, you will need the reform of the constitution. If not in new constitutions, you will need new rules of the game for elections. And then we’ll start the whole electoral process again and give Cameroonian a chance to elect the legitimate leaders accountable to them.
Mark Goldberg: (26:31)
Well Mr. Kamto, Thank you so much for your time. This was very interesting to hear directly from an opposition leader in a country like Cameroon and to learn your experience and from having you tell your story, learn more about the political challenges in Cameroon today. So thank you.
Maurice Kamto: (26:49)
Thank you, sir. Thank you.