Cameroon frees MSF workers, but aid organisation still faces resistance in Central African state

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MSF workers pictured attending to a ship crew.
MSF workers pictured attending to a ship crew.
  • Cameroon's Buea Military Tribunal has dropped charges against five Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) workers accused of enabling insurgents.
  • The organisation says authorities are unresponsive to its pleas for it to resume its work.
  • In 2020, MSF was stopped from operations on the basis of allegations that it was supporting local armed groups.

The Cameroonian government is hesitant to allow Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to resume operations in English-speaking northwest and southwest regions, despite clearing five of the organisation's workers of terrorism charges.

Conflict erupted in 2016 when citizens in English-speaking regions staged protests, complaining that the central government had marginalised them.

Until 1961, the areas formed part of a British colony. Tensions escalated in 2017 when the Cameroonian military clashed with separatist fighters after the separatists declared their unrecognised state of Ambazonia.

An MSF nurse and ambulance driver were arrested just after Christmas in 2021 after they rushed someone who had been shot to a hospital in Nguti, southwestern Cameroon.

Both workers were released on a provisional basis in May 2022 after serving a five-month prison sentence for cooperation with secessionists.

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A month later, a community health worker and an assistant field coordinator were detained for a similar offence.

Another MSF worker was accused in absentia.

However, in their cases, the Buea Military Tribunal ruled that there was no evidence to prove that they were working with the separatists.

By 29 December last year, all MSF workers had been released from custody.

Sylvain Groulx, an MSF coordinator in Central Africa, said the organisation was "enormously satisfied with the judgment that exonerates our five staff members – and, by extension, MSF as an organisation – of any wrongdoing."

At the time of the arrest of the MSF workers, the organisation stopped operations in that part of Cameroon.

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Groulx said they were forced to stop working because the accusations were "against all medical and humanitarian ethics and laws". He said they were "simply doing their jobs – treating patients in front of them".

The organisation still wants to work in the region, but the Cameroonian government hasn't been cooperative.

"Despite our attempts to open a channel of dialogue with the government to ensure our teams can continue vital activities in the southwest region, the government has been unresponsive.

"This has made it difficult to reach an agreement that ensures working conditions guarantee the safety of our teams and patients.

"This prevents us from resuming critical lifesaving medical services, which are desperately needed in the southwest," he said.

It was not the first time MSF halted operations in Cameroon.

In December 2020, authorities suspended MSF's medical activities in the northwest region following allegations that the aid organisation was supporting local armed groups.

MSF consistently denied this, both publicly and in meetings with government authorities.

MSF has been active in Cameroon since 1984 and in the southwest region since 2018.

Since 2019, MSF medical teams have conducted more than 400 000 medical consultations in the southwest area, including more than 68 000 in medical institutions.

The News24 Africa Desk is supported by the Hanns Seidel Foundation. The stories produced through the Africa Desk and the opinions and statements that may be contained herein do not reflect those of the Hanns Seidel Foundation.

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