Editorial : Gov’t’s communication policy needs urgent review

In an era where communication and information technology, ICT, is at the finger tip of everyone everywhere with a smartphone, the Cameroon government must adapt its communication policy to match with the changing times.

The government’s defensive, aggravated and finger-pointing response to the Ndu massacre exposed its ineffectiveness, contradictions and inconsistency.
Last Friday, the world got up shocked and traumatised by graphic pictures of Cameroonians including babies and pregnant women massacred in Ngarbuh village in Ndu sub-division of the North West region.

Reports that trended in the social media claimed “soldiers stormed Ngar village also known as Ngarbuh in the Donga Mantung division, North West region, killing dozens and burning several others alive. The soldiers reportedly came from Ndu and Tatum accompanied by scores of government-sponsored vigilante group members. The death toll that earlier stood at 25 rose to 27 this Saturday”.

“We cannot tell what prompted the killing. This came as a shock to many of us…even kids and women were killed by the soldiers,” according to one report which was corroborated by several other news outlets with some putting the number of fatalities at 30.

The Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Kumbo, George Nkuo, in whose jurisdiction the devilish massacre took place, in a public letter dated Tuesday, February 18, pointed out that: “We have been reliably informed about a very sad incident which took place on February 14 in the village of Ngarbuh-Ntumbaw in the Saint Martin de Porres Parish.

Troops invaded Ngarbuh at 4am and we are told that 24 people were killed among who were; pregnant women and little children….Some of the victims were burnt alive and several others wounded, a total of nine houses burnt down and hundreds of people from Ngarbuh are displaced and seeking refuge in nearby villages under deplorable human conditions”.

The government denies the figures and perpetrators belatedly.The Defense and Communication Ministers, Joseph Beti Assomo and Rene Emmanuel Sadi respectively issued statements on Monday and Tuesday, explaining that only one woman and four children died.

The government spokesman, in his own statement, blamed those who accused the defense and security forces for the crime. “Without prior investigation or any fact-checking of factual data, several political activists, die hard detractors presenting themselves as ‘human rights specialists, leaders or spokesperson of political parties’, immediately stormed national and international media to attribute responsibility of this incident to the National Defense and Security Forces through untimely and ungrounded statements,” Minister Sadi stated.

He buttressed a February 17 statement of Defense Minister, Joseph Beti Assomo, as having “formally denied these outrageous and misleading allegations and establish the truth of the fact as they emerge from a cross-checking undertaken with promptness and diligence by the specialised services”.

According to the Minister, “the alleged killing of 22 villagers including 14 children by Cameroonian Defense and Security forces in Ngarbuh is fake”.
Minister Sadi told journalists that: “The armed gangs that were wreaking havoc in this area, sowing terror and despair among the population took refuge in a peripheral hamlet called Ngarbuh to set up their rear base here and reorganise the racketeering of users while perpetuating unspeakable abuses on the road leading to Ntumbaw”. He added that security forces stormed Ngarbuh on Saturday February 15 following an alert from the population.

“In the heat of the action and not far from the landmark chosen by the secessionist rebels as a logistical base for the storage of illicit goods, arms and ammunitions of various calibers, as well as adulterated contraband products, narcotics and amulets, elements of our Defense and Security Forces were violently attacked by a group of heavily armed individuals,” the government spokesperson narrated to the media.

According to his account, “the legal forces consisting of six elite elements responded vigorously and professionally, neutralising seven assailants and routing other individuals from the armed secessionist group. During this clashes, a fire broke out in a fortified shelter that contained explosives and flammable materials stored by armed rebels. This led to blasts, followed by tongues of fire that eventually spread and reached nearby dwellings”.
By Sadi’s explanation, the killing of civilians was an accident due to cross shooting resulting to explosions, causing spreading fire that burnt houses.

But the Senior Divisional Officer of Donga Mantung, Simon Nkwenti Ndoh, in contradicting the minister, said during a visit to the village yesterday that “I am here to tell the population that the massacre was committed by separatist fighters”.

Why does the government, which has state agents in every subdivision including the DO who represents the head of state, wait for three long days to issue a statement which it would have been the very first source the same day given the availability of ICT?  Whose statement is authentic, that of the minister of communication, Defence or SDO? It is not the first time multiple, at times contradicting voices, have been heard explaining government actions or inactions in Cameroon. 

While the Prime Minister was touring the Anglophone regions last year announcing a dialogue President Biya had promised would be no-holds-barred, he was being contradicting by the Minister of Territorial Administration, who said not all issues would be on the table.

After the twin elections, it was the Minister of Territorial Administration and Elections Cameroon, ELECAM, General Manager who briefed the media. So who really speaks for the government? If it is the government spokesman, shouldn’t he be the one to explain government policies, incidents of all nature accompanied by the minister in whose domain the issue falls so as to answer technical questions if need be?

The policy, as it is now, limits the attributes of the spokesman, creates room for contradictions, overlapping functions and becomes ineffective. It needs a radical review especially at a time the country is mired in several conflicts that are attracting international media and human rights activists to become proactive rather than an ebbing defence. 

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