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Christian Penda Ekoka, an opposition activist in Cameroon who is currently under arrest and facing a possible death sentence.facebook

Armed with degrees from two Canadian universities and a long career in business consulting, Christian Penda Ekoka thought he could help revive the struggling economy of his Central African homeland, Cameroon.

But after accepting a post as a top adviser to Cameroon’s long-ruling dictator Paul Biya, he says he witnessed corruption, greed and mismanagement. After seven years, he quit the government and joined an opposition coalition – and now finds himself in prison, facing trial by a military tribunal, while his family in Canada awaits news of his fate.

Mr. Penda Ekoka and scores of other Cameroonian activists, including opposition leader Maurice Kamto, were arrested in late January after protesting against the alleged rigging of last October’s election in which Mr. Kamto finished second to Mr. Biya. Six protesters were injured by police bullets.

For demonstrating against the official election results, dozens of opposition activists – including Mr. Kamto and Mr. Penda Ekoka – have been charged with insurrection, rebellion and “hostility to the homeland.” If convicted by a military court, they could be sentenced to death.

“These opposition leaders could very well get wrongfully convicted for peacefully expressing their discontent,” said Mr. Penda Ekoka’s son, Stephen, who works as a digital analytics consultant in Toronto.

“Civilians are not supposed to be judged in a military tribunal, but these peaceful protesters were charged with outrageous bogus charges, as if they were traitors assaulting the state.”

Mr. Biya, 86, has ruled Cameroon for nearly 37 years and is now the oldest president in Africa. He has become notorious for his frequent travel to Europe, costing an estimated US$182-million in state money since 1982. He often spends months at a luxury hotel in Geneva, where his entourage reportedly runs up a bill of up to US$40,000 a day.

His country, meanwhile, has slid deeper into poverty and civil war. Nearly half of Cameroon’s population survives on incomes of less than two dollars a day. Elections have been tainted by widespread allegations of vote-rigging and intimidation. Protests in the country’s anglophone regions were violently suppressed, leading to a secessionist rebellion in which hundreds have died.

Human-rights groups have documented atrocities by Cameroon’s army, including massacres of civilians. In response, the United States announced it would withhold some of its military aid to Cameroon, but other countries – including the former colonial power France – have largely overlooked the atrocities, seeing Cameroon as an ally in the fight against Islamist extremism in West Africa.

The crackdown on opposition activists, including Mr. Kamto and Mr. Penda Ekoka, could lead to a worsening of the bloodshed inside Cameroon. “Imprisoning Kamto and his supporters could radicalize various independent groups to an unimaginable degree,” Stephen Penda Ekoka told The Globe and Mail in an interview.

He said he believes his 66-year-old father and other opposition leaders were arrested and imprisoned in an attempt to dismantle the opposition coalition and disqualify it from future elections, and to intimidate Mr. Biya’s critics and discourage them from challenging the results of the October election.

As a senior adviser to the President, Mr. Penda Ekoka had pushed for reforms on a wide range of economic and social issues, including railways, pipelines and bilingualism. But he soon became disillusioned.

“Reports of lavish self-indulgence of certain high officials were rampant, yet they were kept in office for a long time and sometimes even promoted, despite blatant red flags of misappropriation of funds and corruption,” his son said.

“He turned away from Biya because it became quite clear that this regime cared too much about maintaining power and not nearly enough about helping people.”

Christian Penda Ekoka, born in Cameroon, moved to Canada in the early 1970s after receiving an academic scholarship from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). Four of his children and grandchildren are Canadian citizens.

Other Canadians of Cameroonian descent have been affected by the crisis. “Many have had close family and friends killed, injured, arrested or, most commonly, displaced from their homes since late 2016,” said Chris Roberts, a University of Calgary scholar who has studied the Cameroon situation.

Esther Tesi, a Montreal nurse who runs an NGO to help displaced people in Cameroon, said she has childhood friends and family members who have been killed. Her aunt and uncle’s house was burned down by the Cameroonian army, and a cousin and three of his friends were shot at close range by soldiers last year, she said.

“It’s still very painful to talk about,” she told The Globe. “Many are gunned down in cold blood. Many civilians are being shot and killed for no reason. We have so many orphans and widows and helpless aged parents left on their own.”

Some advocates, including Mr. Roberts, have called on Canada to play a greater role in Cameroon, especially since Canada’s expertise in federalism and bilingualism could be valuable in mediating in the conflict. Since the 1960s, Canada has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in development aid to Cameroon.

Nathalie O’Neil, the Canadian high commissioner to Cameroon, has voiced concern about Cameroon’s heavy-handed response to the protests in late January.

“Canada is concerned about the excessive reaction of security forces during recent peaceful demonstrations, and arrests – including of opposition members – adding to existing tensions in Cameroon,” she said in a tweet this month.

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