Overview of civic space
Since the 1990s, a plethora of Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) has registered in Cameroon. At first, it was to help in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Later, the focus was on women’s rights and the environment. In recent years, more and more CSOs, Associations, or Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) have been created to combat the degrading socio-political context. So, now we have many organizations for peace and human rights.
Despite this growth of CSOs, the civic space in Cameroon has largely remained constrained. CSOs can operate, but only under strict, at times self-imposed, limitations. They understand that if they step out of line and act in a manner that is perceived by the state as oppositional, they risk unwelcome attention and potential repression from state authorities, and in the last four years, from non-state armed groups as well. A common constraint on the civic space in Cameroon is the harassment, intimidation, and attacks on CSO activists and human rights defenders by actors from both the state and the non-state. Added to this is the suspicion and discord amongst CSOs themselves. There is constant division over funding, partners, and sometimes personal gain or recognition. This division is exploited by actors from all sides of our conflicts.
Civil society has been gradually examining ways to combat the above challenges. There have been activities to raise awareness about CSOs and their role in nation-monitoring, especially in areas of human rights abuses and budget realization, nation-building by providing trainings and jobs, and conflict transformation. There have also been actions towards mobilization of CSOs for networking and coalition-building. The only hope for a strengthening of the civic space in Cameroon is through CSOs working together and not against each other.
Coronavirus makes it worse
Coupled with these struggles within a shrinking civic space, the coronavirus pandemic has been challenging for the CSO work with the ongoing violent conflicts in the North, North West, and South West regions of Cameroon. The conflict in the North West and South West regions is known as the “Anglophone Crisis.” In the northern borders with Nigeria and Chad, communities of our Far North Region experience attacks of the terrorist group called Boko Haram. Then we have the nonviolent conflicts including, the refugee inflow in the East Region, the political and governance debacles, land conflicts, women and girls’ rights, the fragmentation of social cohesion, and the looming uncertainty of political transition due to longevity of rule and age of our president.
Peace work in Cameroon takes place around all these conflicts, and now, the coronavirus pandemic comes on top of all this. Peace workers and human rights actors cannot move to areas of their work, and humanitarian organizations cannot gain access to the parts of the country that need assistance due to restrictions around the virus.
The civil society here stands in the middle—untrusted by all sides in various degrees—threatened with the law and arrest by government authorities, and threatened with death by the non-state armed actor, while looms the threat of COVID-19.
In this article, I want to look mainly at how the coronavirus pandemic has complicated the already difficult peace work in Cameroon.
The challenges to human and organizational life have been numerous. The prohibition and restrictions of movement and the restriction of assemblies or gathering of people have reduced the activities of peace work drastically. Activities carried out through sensitization campaigns and workshops have been limited because of the limited number of people allowed to assemble. Moving people from one town to another has become risky, and therefore, some work had to be suspended.
Beyond these there has been the undoing of some successful work. In the Adamawa region, there have been reports of young girls who had been saved from early marriages and undergoing training or school going back to their marriages during the period of suspension of schools and suspension of work by some CSOs due to Covid-19. In conflict areas, some of the headways made by peacebuilding CSOs have been undone during the coronavirus restriction period.
Impunity: The shutting down of movement and gatherings emboldened perpetrators of acts of violence who felt immune from prosecution. The attacks and intimidation on the civilian population and CSO workers have been on the rise. CSOs and peacebuilders have been harassed and intimidated in attempts to curtail criminal activities of kidnap and ransom. The slowdown in CSO activities has led to more banditry.
The health of peace workers themselves is in jeopardy. Those working for peace have taken precautions and follow government and sanitary restrictions both to show by example and protect themselves. When they do conduct authorized activities, they are also risking infection from the coronavirus because the general population on the other hand do not take the pandemic seriously, and thus do not follow the sanitary or protective restrictions.
Digital and online difficulties. Peace work in the COVID-19 era is now mostly digital or remote, but in our context, this itself is a major difficulty. Digital, online, and internet literacy is low. It has even been difficult for government structures to function properly, not for lack of means, but for lack of knowledge and lack of the technology necessary to hold online trainings or meetings and work remotely from home. People gather around tables and in halls for conferences and workshops putting even more people at risk.
Family life during this pandemic is challenging for the children not going to school, the unemployed graduate, and the parents who have the children at home all day and all week. The cost of feeding and utility bills are higher than ever. Market prices are fluctuating since food production is unstable.
These challenges have greatly affected CSOs, reduced peace work, and constrained even further our civic space. Most CSOs have gone solo and local, trying to survive either by depending on government or international donors.
Despite these challenges, CSOs continue advocating for peace and crying out against human rights abuses. We have also continued working toward keeping our civic space.
Community Assistance: CSOs have been giving out assistance. Many communities have come to trust better the CSOs in their localities who have been accompanying them through this pandemic. Some CSOs have become pillars in their community. This, in turn, has helped to facilitate the activities of the CSOs in those communities.
Financial Gain: Organizations that produce masks, hand sanitizer, and other materials gained financially by selling these things in some communities and to some individuals. Most of the products were given out for free or sold at low prices, but even at that, we can say there was some financial gain.
Online Education: The COVID-19 pandemic forced our public and private organizations or structures to upgrade their digital knowledge. There is ICT capacity building as CSOs are learning how to conduct online meetings and online work through webinars. Our partners are now using Zoom and WhatsApp for online meetings and trainings. Our organizations are becoming more and more digital and are learning to adapt to the situation.
Recognition of one another and from other Partners: During this pandemic, CSOs are learning to recommend others to do their work in places that they cannot go. Traditional and Municipal Councils and even government structures and international partners recognize CSOs and their contributions to dealing with COVID-19. CSOs themselves are learning to collaborate with one another.
The coronavirus is taking a long and tedious toll on peace work as well as on various areas of civil society work. The civil society space is shrinking due to more and more dependency on the government. All around the world, people are demanding more from their governments, which means that the powers that be will have more control over their lives.
What gives peacebuilders in Cameroon hope is their desire and determination to keep on working. Within communities where there are CSOs, they are able to continue some of their activities, especially those in organizations working on youth fragmentation, hate speech, women empowerment and those involved in training of trainers. Peace work toward social cohesion is still much needed and conflict transformation has to be improved for the future of Cameroon.
Movements and gatherings have been reduced, but the zeal for peace work is still strong in Cameroon as can be seen in the fact that organizations are still carrying out some activities. Most of all, during this pandemic, Cameroonian peace workers have had to depend on themselves and increase their networking and coalition-building efforts. We are now encouraging and advocating for all sectors of the country to develop a post-COVID-19 plan. It is clear that even peacebuilding or conflict transformation will have to account for the post-coronavirus pandemic world.
Reverend Gustav EBAI is a journalist, pastor, peacebuilder, and human rights defender from Cameroon. He currently serves as a consultant/trainer with Civil Peace Service in Cameroon. He attended MPI’s 2019 Annual Peacebuilding Training.