Yaoundé, Cameroon – Five-year-old Josephine first met her father Louis Ambe when the coffin bearing his lifeless body was being lowered into the ground between the graves of his parents at the family residence in Bafia-Muyuka in southwest Cameroon.
It was April 19, 2022.
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When she was born in November 2017, Ambe was in the sixth month of detention in the capital Yaoundé, awaiting trial. He had been arrested along with 16 others in Bafia-Muyuka, ostensibly in connection with the armed conflict in North West and South West, the country’s two English-speaking regions.
He died in prison earlier this year.
Josephine and her seven-year-old brother will remain with Martha Ambe, Louis’s stepmother who raised him from when he was eight, and who’s taken care of his children since he was arrested.
“I had hoped to see Louis released one day and meet his children whom he had barely known,” she said. “Each time I think about his death, I imagine how to take care of the children he left behind.”
Death in custody
There have been reports of other inmates dying in custody, including detainee Thomas Nganyu Tangem who fell ill in custody and later died chained to his hospital bed in Yaoundé in August 2020. His death and images of him shackled to a hospital bed prompted widespread outrage.
Ambe, his lawyer Amungwa Tanyi Nico said, was one of a group of 17 cocoa farmers arrested over a price dispute as the conflict was picking up.
Seeking leverage to force the farmers to lower their prices, the village chiefs in Muyenge – Ambe’s village – branded them separatists, Nico said.
Their case at the Yaoundé Military Tribunal suffered “unjustified delays”, he told Al Jazeera, with Ambe’s case in particular adjourned more than 40 times until he fell ill and died in detention.
“He vomited almost 2 litres [of blood] and they rushed him to an inadequate facility at the Kondengui Central prison where they could not attend to him on time,” Nico said.
The news of his death left his family pained as they wonder how to raise his children with meagre earnings they had hoped Ambe’s return to farming would boost.
Conflict in North West and South West
In 2016, lawyers and teachers in the country’s two Anglophone regions organised peaceful protests complaining of political and economic marginalisation by the central government, which like the eight other regions of Cameroon, is Francophone.
The situation spiralled into violence after the government used force against the protesters, leading to unrest in North West and South West.
Five years on, the conflict between the Cameroonian military and separatist fighters seeking a breakaway state of Ambazonia for the two troubled regions is still on, despite a national dialogue convened by President Paul Biya in 2019.
The secessionist agitation has been bubbling underground since a 1961 plebiscite joined the Anglophone regions, then a British colony with the rest of Cameroon, a former French colony.
But a change of the country’s name from the United Republic of Cameroon to Cameroon in 1984 deepened dissent in the area and rebel movements crystallised after the 2016 protests.
Since then, there have been stories of displacement and tragedy across North West and South West.
Death and detention
According to a February 2022 report by the International Crisis Group, at least 6,000 people have died in the conflict while another 765,000 have been displaced, of whom more than 7,000 are refugees in neighbouring Nigeria.
Human rights groups say government troops have committed human rights violations, including burning homes and entire villages as well as torture, detention and killings. Armed separatists are also reported to have kidnapped hundreds of people, and tortured and killed civilians.
In February 2020, at least 20 civilians, including children, were gruesomely killed in Ngarbuh, a village in North West. Eight months later, six children between the ages of 12 and 14 were killed by gunmen in a school in Kumba, South West region with about a dozen injured.
Beyond financial needs, experts say there’s a lack of psychosocial support for those caught up in the conflict, especially children who lose their adult caregivers and find themselves having to live with relatives in sometimes unfamiliar locations.
“And the majority of these children are left unattended and they develop [behavioural] conduct issues,” said Ndongndeh Godlove, a theologian and clinical counsellor in Bamenda.
“Sometimes it helps to say farewell to your loved one…but when you know that s/he died in detention, with no opportunity to bid goodbye, it is psychologically tormenting,” he added. “It takes years, to say the least, to help this child.”
“DNA of the Biya regime”
Human rights activists say Ambe’s case is a mockery of Cameroon’s judiciary system and evidence of many being detained without a fair trial in the country’s prisons.
More than 240 detainees have been in prison since 2017, some of whom have never been brought to trial, Kah Walla, human rights activist and leader of the Cameroon People’s Party (CPP) told Al Jazeera.
During Biya’s presidency, a recurrent feature has been the random detention of dissidents and anyone critical of the government’s handling of the crisis or the president’s 40-year rule.
There are no signs of that ending soon. According to a January 2022 report by Amnesty International, more than 100 people from the Anglophone regions have been arrested, with some tried and sentenced under a 2014 anti-terror law.
“This is part of the DNA of the Biya’s regime,” Walla said. “We have the government of Cameroon, the guarantor of rule of law, being the person who is violating the law”.
In April 2016, she launched FridayInBlack, a weekly peaceful protest that sees members of the CPP and the civil society group Stand Up for Cameroon wear black every Friday and protest within the premises of the party headquarters and online.
Taking the protest online came about because of citizens’ need to “express themselves politically with regards to a particular cause of a particular situation without putting themselves in a confrontational situation with the government or the armed forces”, Wallah said.
The Ambe family insist their son was innocent and activists agree with them that his killers may never be held accountable.
“Until the court of competent jurisdiction finds you guilty, you are innocent [and] Ambe died as an innocent person,” Nkongho Agbor-Balla, founder of the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa told Al Jazeera.
“The family will feel extremely bad because their child was taken away from them more than four years ago, no trial took place and his lifeless body was brought to them.
“Justice delayed is justice denied.”