NEW YORK — New York. The University of Maryland Eastern Shore's award of an honorary degree to Cameroon's President Paul Biya Sunday will be sadly ironic. His government has launched a brutal crackdown on the university in his own country. Since the beginning of April, hundreds of students from the University of Yaounde are reported to have been detained, held in deplorable conditions and subjected to physical abuse.
Academic freedom in Cameroon is characterized by self-censorship, reinforced by the pervasive presence of security agents and occasional acts of violence by the authorities. The university is an organ of the state, controlled by the government -- and, by extension, the ruling party. Human-rights violations in Cameroon center on the tight restraints on freedom of expression and association, abysmal prison conditions and security forces that act with impunity, all of which serve to intimidate those who would voice dissent.
In recent months, however, calls for liberalization have combined with growing economic problems, leading to a series of demonstrations and strikes. The security forces have responded with wide-scale arrests and violence. Since early April, the use of force by police against demonstrators has led to about a dozen deaths, according to official sources (48, according to unofficial figures), and many others were wounded. In addition, several hundred people have been detained in the capital, Yaounde, including scores, if not hundreds, of students.
The arrest of the students was linked to a strike which began April 2 at the University of Cameroon. The students demand the release of all students detained by the government; an end to the harassment of students suspected of taking part in peaceful demonstrations; the departure of the security forces from the campus, and a commission to investigate abuses -- looting, beatings, rapes and killings -- committed by the security forces during their "occupation" of the campus. Armed soldiers have patrolled the campus since mid-March. Reports from Cameroon indicate that during April, 58 students may have died in detention.
This is not the first time that the security forces have invaded the campus: a year ago, on May 26, 1990, students at the University of Yaounde held a rally in support of the launching of an alternative political party, the Social Democratic Front. Some 200-300 students were arrested; most were released after a short period. There were reports that police went to dormitories on the night of the demonstrations, checking identity cards and randomly beating students. Other reports indicated that soldiers raped some of the women.
In response to the mounting unrest, President Biya promised in late April to re-establish the post of prime minister and grant a general amnesty for political prisoners. The amnesty would be a welcome step, but it is difficult to see how appointing one of the president's former lieutenants, Sadou Hayatou, as prime minister indicates any concessions toward reform.
These hollow actions by the government feed into the increasing frustration of some of the demonstrators, who are resorting to more desperate, violent measures. There are growing fears that violence on both sides will make a bloody confrontation inevitable. Mr. Biya's Cameroon provides a clear case of an authoritarian leader relying on the repressive state apparatus to stem the tide of democratization and, thereby, to remain in power.
It is unfortunate that the University of Maryland Eastern Shore is conferring its honors upon President Biya at a time when the university community in Cameroon is under attack, and when he has lost legitimacy in the eyes of his own people. Instead, it is his victims who deserve the university's recognition.
Janet Fleischman is research associate of Africa Watch.