Cameroon’s opposition leader and internationally renowned human rights activist, Kah Walla, has vowed to continue peacefully protesting government repression, following her release from police detention on Friday — an outcome she attributes to grassroots support and a vocal, globally resonant social media campaign that demanded her liberation.
The President of the Cameroon People’s Party, a member of the Vital Voices global women leaders’ network, and a speaker at the Women in the World Summit in 2012, was arrested last Friday morning along with 11 other activists, in the Cameroonian capital Yaounde.
The group was taken in ostensibly for wearing black, and asking supporters to do the same and post pictures online as a demonstration against the regime of President Paul Biya. The 83-year-old has been head of state for 34 years and, despite widespread opposition, is maneuvering for another run for president of the Central African nation.
— Kah Walla (@KahWalla) April 7, 2016
One of the longest-serving “Big Men” of African politics, and one of the world’s oldest heads of state, Biya is only outstripped by notorious autocrats like Robert Mugabe for years in office. Accused of paying himself an exorbitant salary in a nation where almost 40 percent live in poverty, presiding over structural corruption and persecuting his political opponents, Biya stubbornly refuses to release his grip on power. Named one of the world’s top 20 worst dictators by the NGO Allgov.com, the president is seen as ill-equipped to deal with the rising threat of terrorism from Boko Haram, who killed 25 in the northern Cameroon town of Bodo in a January suicide bombing.
In an interview with Women in the World, Walla said the government had accused the opposition of “rebellion, inciting insurrection and inciting revolt” because they wanted to distribute pamphlets asking Cameroonians to “#WearBlackThis Friday and to Pray for the future of Cameroon!”
— Nelson Muffuh (@nmuffuh) April 9, 2016
— 2DJ (@Weloje732) April 8, 2016
— 1000 Forms Of Fear 🦈 (@randzejude) April 7, 2016
But after Cameroonians reacted to her arrest — turning up outside the police station in protest — and the rapid mobilization of #FreeKahWalla forces on Twitter and Facebook, as well as diplomatic pressure from the U.S., France and some African nations, Walla and her fellow activists were liberated. “The local media did an excellent job in picking up the story and informing Cameroonians,” she said. “People heard on the radio and actually came down to the [police] station and began to gather round the station. The international media also picked it up, but social media was a huge part and on social media the biggest groups were Cameroonians — in the diaspora, in Cameroon and in our networks.
“So many of us as activists belong to really powerful networks and personally I belong to the Vital Voices network and I have been at Women in the World, I’ve been with Women’s Campaign School at Yale. All of these women’s networks did an extraordinary job in spreading the message, by starting petitions online and really communicating so the government felt very strong pressure from all directions.”
In an email message to supporters, Walla admitted she was “definitely and most certainly not okay.”
‘‘What happened in my country to me and other political actors is not okay,” she wrote. “Cameroon should not and cannot continue to be governed in a manner that is unjust and unfair to the majority of the people, denying them basic services such as water, electricity, healthcare, etc, while a handful live in extraordinary opulence. Taking this stand, consistently and determinedly, in Cameroon will eventually get you water-hosed, jailed or worse.”
According to Walla, many women’s and human rights networks called their governments and asked them to contact the Cameroonian Government after her arrest. “We know at least three governments did put diplomatic pressure,” she told Women in the World.
Walla confirmed that the U.S. was “definitely a part” of applying diplomatic pressure for the activists’ release, as well as France and some African governments. She said she was very encouraged by the way events unfolded last Friday. “What happened was extremely powerful because the people in Cameroon on the ground acted. Then other governments could come in. This is our fight: we lead it, we own it and we are going to determine the outcome of it.”
“It is in everybody’s interest that we come to a more democratic and more just Cameroonian society. What we saw on Friday it was from the ground up even the put into play by citizens in the country.”
The Cameroon Concord newspaper reported that the waves of arrests signaled a government fearful of an Arab-Spring style wave of protest in Cameroon, and Walla agreed. “This government is very much afraid — and that is why they are hyper-reacting to everything that we do,” said Walla. “For us, removing this government by popular uprising is a democratic option, if that’s what Cameroonians want.”
Notwithstanding the risk — remote though she believes it is — that Walla could be denied re-entry to Cameroon, she departed overnight Monday for Paris and London, where she will speak with political allies in the expatriate community before meeting with Oxford University’s Skoll Foundation. “We will definitely continue with the ‘Fridays in Black’ and we do not foresee that there will be any violence on the part of the government because they definitely realize they made a mistake last Friday,” she said.
Calling all Cameroonians in London. Would love to meet, April 15th . Please DM if interested. Black Friday in London. Yes!
— Kah Walla (@KahWalla) April 12, 2016
The CPP leader is asking Cameroonians — ordinary supporters, religious figures, journalists and high-profile activists, locally and in the international diaspora, to keep taking their pictures in black and posting them online. “We did not get charged with wearing black — nobody can charge you for wearing your own clothes. We’re asking Cameroonians to continue with the protest,” she said.
There were positive signs the government was bowing before popular pressure, however Walla said it was still very difficult to say whether the push to stop Biya’s planned run for re-election would be successful in the short-term. “We are seeing a dynamic in Cameroon that we have not seen for 25 years and it is very encouraging to see a growing movement that’s really tapping into that energy. Our vision and our hope for our country is that we will be through with it as quickly and with as little violence as possible.”