The Strike Action and Human Rights Cataclysms in Anglophone Cameroon
AFRICA, 20 Mar 2017
This paper, “The Strike Action and Human Rights Violations in Anglophone Cameroon”, narrates the details of the protests going on in the English speaking part (North West and South West Regions) of Cameroon. By so doing, the paper highlights (or carves out) the human rights violations inflicted on the English speaking Cameroonians by the “almighty” government of La République du Cameroun. It criticizes Mr. Biya’s regime in the manner in which the ongoing crisis is being handled. Further, the paper condemns the Constitution of Cameroon together with other local legislations—with inference from international human rights instruments duly approved or ratified by Cameroon. Finally, it suggests, by way of recommendations, the possibilities for a way forward.
Lawyers, teachers, students of the University of Buea, and the entire Anglophone community of both the South West and North West Regions of Cameroon are protesting against the government of Cameroon for what they consider as the marginalisation and francophonisation of both the legal and educational systems in the English speaking part (South West and North West Regions) of Cameroon.
The crises have experienced many twists, beginning from a strike action through a peaceful protest (demonstration) to what has been labelled by some as revolution. The struggle has brought untold hardship to the Anglophone people of the above regions, who have cataclysmically witnessed a wanton abuse of human rights, looting and destruction of property from the ‘almighty’ government of la République du Cameroun. It has equally paralyzed the courts, schools, as well as hampers business activities, most especially with the absence of the internet; shut down by the government of Cameroon to crackdown the protests. In this same struggle, families have lost their dear ones; the properties of many have been set ablaze while the constitutional rights of many have been encroached by the forces of law and order. Albeit the government has made several efforts to solve the problems, Anglophones believe that the government has exercised bad faith in handling the crises, reason why they have employed many tricks to cause schools to resume, even without the problems being partly or completely addressed. However, the reader would grasp the details of what has transpired in the paragraphs below.
The Common Law lawyers’ protest
Months ago, precisely on the 11th day of October 2016, Common Law lawyers took to the streets in protest of some injustices plaguing the legal profession in Cameroon. To the lawyers, most laws in Cameroon are in the French language, and that the Legal Department, for example, in the English speaking part of Cameroon constitutes mainly francophone authorities (State Counsel) who do not speak English—the language of communication used in the above regions. Further, that Common Law values are being eroded from their legal system despite the fact that Cameroon operates a bi-jural system—the common and civil law systems.
The issue of bilingualism
Article 1(3) of the Constitution provides that “the official languages of the Republic of Cameroon shall be English and French, both languages having the same status.” With respect to the foregoing, it is unconstitutional, therefore, for the government of Cameroon to publish laws only in the French language when the Constitution gives both languages the same strength. This could equally be fact-checked from the very last paragraph of all the legal instruments that have been published in Cameroon, be it in the French language or the selected few that have been published in the English language. The said paragraph provides, “la présente loi sera enregistrée et publiée au Journal Officiel de la République du Cameroun en Anglais et en Français.” The meaning to this is that which has been inscribed in the English versions. That is, “this law shall be registered and published in the Official Gazette of the Republic of Cameroon in English and French.”
In most cases, the laws in Cameroon are translated from French to English. This has been the case until recently when lawyers protested. As a result, the government of Cameroon immediately effected the translation into English of some OHADA texts that were basically in the French language. However, some laws that are not OHADA related have been abandoned in their original language, French. Note be taken that for the laws (e.g. OHADA) to have been translated from French to English amounts to a gross violation of human rights—the right to equality before the law—as these texts were supposed to be originally published in both languages, with none being the source of translation to the other. This is why some Anglophone Cameroonians, even lawyers, feel they are treated in their own country, a country that preaches peace—unity—democracy, as second class citizens.
The legal maxim symbolised in the Latin expression “ignorantia juris non excusat” is a general principle of law, loosely translated to mean “ignorance of the law is no excuse”. This maxim compels every Cameroonian citizen to be abreast with the law, irrespective of whether they are educated or not. This, too, explains the reason why it is a civic responsibility for every Cameroonian citizen to be informed, most especially when it concerns the affairs or functioning of the State. The Constitution of Cameroon (Article 1(3)) prides itself that Cameroon is a bilingual country, implying that, to be valid or constitutional, any official communiqué, laws, etc. must be written in both languages (English and French).
Based on the foregoing assertion, the questions which come to mind are: why are laws not published in English and French as provided by the Constitution? Is this not an attempt to marginalize the Anglophones? Will one be wrong to say that the law gives protection to some citizens (English speaking Cameroonians) with the right hand and takes it back with the left? The time for hazy democracy has long past, and there is urgent need for the wheel of real democracy to start turning in Cameroon. This way, all Cameroonians will feel the true sense of equality; they will also feel the true sense of democracy, as well as good governance.
The issue of francophonisation
Most judicial authorities, police officers and other auxiliaries of justice in Anglophone Cameroon are French speaking, and this greatly affects the dispensation of justice in this part of the country. In a criminal trial, for example, the Criminal Procedure Code of Cameroon clearly states that the State Counsel is a principal party. Unfortunately, this State Counsel (most of whom speak the French language), has to lead a witness to give evidence in an English court. In the same criminal trial, the Francophone State Counsel will have to represent a party (the State) while an English speaking lawyer represents his opposing client. Therefore, if the lawyer’s client is an accused, he will have to argue against the State Counsel in order to defend his client while the State Counsel does so in favour of the State. To argue a fact clearly requires mastery of a language. Hence, the saying, “a lawyer’s business is with words”. He must be a master of his own semantics. Lord Denning, MR., also makes this clear in The Discipline of Law when he says “to succeed in the profession of law, you must seek to cultivate command of language.” He adds that, “words are the lawyer’s tools of trade. When you are called upon to address a judge, it is your words which count most.” By and large, can the interest of a party be better protected in an English court where the State Counsel or even the judge is a francophone? Will justice be done in a case where a francophone investigator (gendarme), for example, investigates an Anglophone suspect in the French language? All this, although we suffer many more in Anglophone Cameroon, affects the rights of fair trial, due process, defence, etc.
Erosion of the Common Law values
In line with the erosion of common law values, the wordings of the Cameroon Constitution are silent as to the use of the word “bi-jural”. This is not to imply that the Constitution doesn’t talk about it. Conversely, the preamble of the Constitution of Cameroon recognises the Common Law (Anglophone) values by use of the expression “cultural diversity.” It states that “we, the people of Cameroon, proud of our linguistic and cultural diversity.…” To understand the intention of the legislature requires knowledge of the word “cultural diversity”, more carefully looking at it from our Cameroonian perspective. First, “Culture” is that complex whole encompassing morals, laws, religion, knowledge, arts, customs, and other habits acquired by people of a defined region. Meanwhile, “cultural diversity” means having too many cultures within a defined region. Cameroon has 262 ethnic groups (tribes) with different cultures. Despite this, the country is equally blessed with a national culture, made up of two distinct regional cultures—the Anglophone and francophone regions, where two legal systems operate—the civil and common law, inspired by the French and English respectively. The Constitution prides itself in Article 1(2) that Cameroon is “… one and indivisible.” It was so reiterated by Mr. Paul Biya in his annual speech of the 31st day of December 2016. The reason for this Constitutional provision is obvious. It is a relief that appreciates the fact that Cameroon is made up of two distinct entities—the Southern Cameroons and La République du Cameroun. To Mr. Paul Biya, these two legal entities have pledged to live together. If this is the case, then for peace to reign between the two entities, both cultures (laws inclusive), must be jealously preserved—without one (Civil Law) being superior to the other (Common Law).
The Bamenda/Buea protests by lawyers
They started with a peaceful protest in Bamenda, North West Region of Cameroon. There, they succeeded in exercising some of their constitutional rights. After the Bamenda protest, the Common Law lawyers agreed to continue with the protest in Buea. Before they could arrive the Court premises in Buea where they planned to assemble, the forces of law and other had already invaded the place. They disrupted any group of lawyers they could find on the streets. They pulled some from their cars, and even confiscated the car keys of many. In an attempt to stage the protest, they were interrupted, dispersed, tortured, inflicted with inhuman and degrading treatments; their wigs and robes seized and desecrated, their property looted, and their law offices (chambers) violated by the forces of law and order—amounting to breach of human rights. The fact is, Cameroon is signatory to a plethora of international human rights treaties and instruments. These instruments, even the Constitution of Cameroon, accord the Common Law lawyers with certain freedoms, namely: freedom from torture, freedom from inhumane and degrading treatment, and freedom from being dispossessed of their property. On the other hand, the said instruments guarantee the right to a peaceful assembly, the right to a strike action, the right to move freely within the country, etc. Surprisingly, these rights were grossly violated, and the entire Fako Division, with concentration in Buea, was heavily militarized. Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says, “no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”; this is almost repeated mutatis mutandis in the preamble of the Cameroon Constitution. Briefly, it is important to mention that the rights of lawyers were grossly hampered.
To have militarized the entire Fako Division in order to prevent the lawyers from enjoying their constitutional right to a peaceful protest is yet another breach—contrary to Article 3 of the above cited Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Also, the Constitution provides for a plethora of rights and freedoms that the Common Law lawyers were supposed to enjoy without interference from the forces of law and order. For example, the lawyers who assembled in Buea were dispersed, and this is in violation of their constitutional right. The Constitution says, “the freedom of communication, of expression, of the press, of assembly, of association, and of trade unionism, as well as the right to strike shall be guaranteed under the conditions fixed by the law.” The lawyers whose properties were looted, ceased or confiscated were equally deprived of their constitution right to own property. The Constitution says, “ownership shall mean the right guaranteed every person by law to use, enjoy and dispose of property. No person shall be deprived thereof, save for public purpose and subject to the payment of compensation under conditions determined by law.” Until this day, the government of Cameroon has not bothered to open up investigation against the perpetrators of these barbaric acts. And despite all this, the same Cameroon continues to pride itself as a democratic country. Democracy is pragmatic in nature—it means the respect for the rule of law—the respect for the principle of separation of power—the respect for human rights. Anything that falls short of this is sham democracy, one that is used to deceive citizens of the Republic of Cameroon for, perhaps, a vote; one that is used to deceive the international community for diplomatic advantages, and one that suits the whims and caprices of the maker.
For lawyers to be in robes (solemn outfit) means they intended a peaceful demonstration. Robes are used only in solemn occasions. They were not armed neither were they exercising violence. For the forces of law and order to have rubbished them, even with the use of arms, exhibits the lack of proportionality as required by the law. It is therefore obvious to think that the forces of law and order were acting upon instructions from the government of Cameroon. That is, to beat up the lawyers, seize their legal outfits (wigs and robes). Otherwise, why has the government not reacted to this illegality? Lawyers are the auxiliaries of justice. They promote the respect for the rule of law. Therefore, they’re a useful tool to the State.
Protest of the English speaking teachers
When the English speaking teachers of both the South West and North West Regions of Cameroon realised that lawyers of the above extraction were still in high gear for their demands, they took the courage in both hands, and went on strike too. Amongst others, the teachers protest that the English sub system of education has been francophonised, and that the Common law has been wiped out from the university curriculum. This, according to the teachers, is where they share interest with lawyers.
The right to education
The right to education, most especially quality education is a human right. This right, of course, is not only free but compulsory to primary school children. The shut down of schools in Anglophone Cameroon because of teachers’ strike amounts to a breach of the basic right to education. However, it should be recalled that teachers have the right to a strike action—and if they must strike for what they consider just— the authorities that be should faithfully arrest the crisis so that children are also not affected. Legally, the fact that children have lost about nine weeks without school violates their right to quality education. According to UNICEF, quality education is characterised by five elements, to wit: 1) the learner’s outside experiences, 2) learning environment, 3) content of education, 4) learning processes, and 5) educational outcomes. The 2016-2017 academic year in Cameroon (Anglophone) have fallen short of these standards. That is to say, children haven’t achieved anything academically that is worth the ‘content of education’ as in one of the above ingredients for quality education. Besides, their learning environment is very unhealthy with respect to the strike action; and the threat they face with the presence of armed military men in all the streets of the North West and South West Regions. Can children study in a militarised environment they’re not used to? No, of course!
Logically, 2016/2017 academic year has already lost nine weeks. If the government is minded to adjust same by adding the nine weeks after the end of this academic year (June 2017), then it would affect the 2017/2018 academic year which starts in September 2017. By this logic, the idea that schools will resume rests on a slippery slope. Also, the right to quality education is grossly violated when Anglophone children are taught in Pidgin English or ‘francanglais’ by francophone teachers. Although some finally pass their exams, their incompetence starts rousing when they meet stiff competitions in the job market, which ends up eliminating them. The legal bases for the above rights are the Constitution of Cameroon, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. While the former protects the right to education in its preamble, the latter provides for same in its Article 17(1). It reads, “every individual shall have the right to education.” It has already been expounded that the right to strike is guaranteed by these same instruments. See, for example, the Preamble of the Constitution.
The Buea University students’ protest
Students of the University of Buea (South West Region) have contributed enormously in fanning the strike flames. They resorted to a strike action on grounds that their presidential grants (50.000 Francs CFA per student) be given to all University of Buea students; and that some unspeakable charges were imposed on them by the Vice Chancellor—Dr. Pauline NALOVA LYONGA. The charges include: payment of the sum of 10.000 Francs CFA as fine for late registration, payment of the sum of 500 Francs CFA in order for students to collect their results, and the payment of other sums in order that students are able to collect their transcripts (academic records).
Intervention of forces of law and order
Students of the University of Buea assembled on campus on the 28th day of November 2016 for a peaceful demonstration. Surprisingly, the forces of law and order stormed the university campus with arms, and got unarmed students tortured, arrested and abandoned behind stinky and unventilated bars. As if this wasn’t enough, the armed military men went to students’ hostels, and forced their doors open, raped and murdered some, and looted the property of many. And as if they had not done their worst, they removed the pants of some students, especially girls, and flocked them on their buttocks; resulting to lacerated wounds, they tied the legs and hands of some boys; and got them well beaten. They also forced some to lie on filthy water that had been thrown on the ground; and many of them were tortured under their legs, their whole body, and the houses of some were ramshackled. Sadly, and as if the government has no respect for its own citizens, some of these innocent students, including minors, were charged to Court in Buea, Fako Division of the South West Regions, for the following offences: 1) non possession of national identity card, 2) insurrection (student said to be in possession of a bullet), 3) destruction of State property (university vehicles, etc), and 4) assault on a military officer. Since lawyers were on strike, the situation begs the following question: Was there a fair trial? Were they informed of their right to counsel? Was the right to due process respected? Were they investigated in a language that they understand? Common knowledge demonstrates that the answers to the above questions sway to the negative as, most at times, there is miscarriage of justice in cases where litigants are unrepresented before the law courts. An example in support of this, and which has already been expounded, is in an English Court where the judge speaks French and the litigant before him speaks English.
In the above case, the rights of many students were abused, and this occurred at a time when they were trying to protect other rights from the overzealous administrative authorities of the university of Buea: the right to a peaceful protest—the right to a lawful assembly—the right to quality education—the right to their entitlement (presidential grants)—the right to a healthy learning environment, to name a few. These rights are firmly embedded in the Constitution of Cameroon, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and many other instruments ratified by Cameroon.
The entire Anglophone populace joins the protests
As the balloon kept going up, many disgruntled youths together with Anglophone parents decided to add their weight to the struggle. In a peaceful protest, basically of a twin nature that took place in the capital towns of both the South West (Buea) and North West (Bamenda) Regions, the angry protesters carried banners bearing the inscription “we want a two-state federation” whilst others had it as “we want our independence”, etc. In the midst of this topsy-turvy, the ‘almighty’ government of La Republique du Cameroon unleashed their unruly armed forces, whose interest was not to restore peace and tranquillity but to assault, harass, rape, torture, inflict inhuman and degrading treatments on the protesters. Some of the protesters were tear-gassed, and many were killed. The forces of law and order arrested people indiscriminately, and many youths were kidnapped and ferried to Yaoundé, where they await trial. This is what happened in villages like Ekona, Ndop, Munyenge, Bali, Kumba, etc.
The supreme interest of any democratic nation is the people. Cameroon is one of Africa’s states with a modern Constitution that sermonises the rule of law, human rights, and the respect for justice. Regardless of this, Cameroonians continuously witness a dictatorial regime. The twin protest of both Buea and Bamenda makes one to hold that Cameroon is a lawless State. Otherwise, the forces of law and order would not have molested unarmed protesters who were on the streets to exercise their constitutional rights. In a nutshell, there was breach of Articles 3, 5, 9, 12, 13(1), 17, 18, 19, 20 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It follows that the Constitution of Cameroon and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights were also violated. See also the United Nations Convention against Torture, and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
The birth of the Consortium
The leaders of the trade unions (FAKLA, MELA, MALA, NOWELA, SYNES-UB, TAC, CATTU, etc.) exhausted much energy in order to achieve their goal. Later, and because they thought the regime’s divide and rule tactics would take them off guard, they resorted to a synergy that gave birth to what is known as the ‘Consortium’, led by Barrister AGBOR BALLA Felix NKONGHO—President of Fako Lawyers’ Association (FAKLA), and assisted by Dr. FONTEM A. NEBA, who acted as Secretary General. The Consortium was created to act as a voice for the people, and to represent the Anglophone people in the event of dialogue with the government.
Repressive measures / dialogue table
The government in their usual style ignored the protesters, hoping that the lawyers, for example, will resume work when they get hungry. They underestimated the height they thought the struggle will attain. In many instances, they sent threatening SMS to people’s mobile thinking it would extinguish the flames. They employed repressive measures as opposed to finding a lasting solution for the crisis. When the government realised that the heat continued to be on despite several repressive measures, they created failed commissions like the Ghogomu’s, etc. to mediate with both parties. The commissions were embarrassed that their old fashioned divide and rule tactics wasn’t good enough to play the trick. To have attempted dialogue on an unlevelled ground (government’s appointed representatives for the Anglophones) exposed the government’s bad faith.
According to the French Daily Le Messenger, Mr. Paul Biya on the 9th day of January 2017 appointed Ashbishop KLEDA Samuel of Douala—Cameroon as mediator in the Anglophone problem. It was strange to believe that Mr. Biya could acknowledge what his ministers refused never existed. Mr. ATANGA NJI Paul, ISSA TCHIROMA and many others castigated in the airwaves of CRTV and others that there was no Anglophone problem. Haven appointed the Ashbishop to mediate the matter between the Anglophones and the State means that Mr. Paul Biya has acknowledged the crisis. This acknowledgment, of course, is a welcoming relief to the entire Anglophone community who almost felt that they have been abandoned. In effect, the following questions become absolutely necessary: Is there an Anglophone problem? Who are the parties in the dispute? Yes, it is good to initiate dialogue, but the issue about parties should not be underestimated. Can there be any frank dialogue without the leaders who initiated the protests? The credibility of the Ashbishop maybe attacked if these worries are not addressed—they level the ground for frank talk.
General knowledge, of course, commands us to know that in conflict resolutions the representative(s) of one of the parties in dispute cannot be appointed by the other party in the same dispute. By this, I mean that the government of Cameroon imposed a leader to represent the trade unions in a dispute the government plays a party role. If this is the case, then what was the purpose of the Consortium? Dialogue involves two or more parties. If a leader must be appointed by the government to represent the Anglophones in a dispute where the state is a party, would it be right to say that there are two parties in the dispute? Will the process deserve the name ‘dialogue’? To Mr. Paul Biya, this is what it takes for the Anglophone crisis to be given a befitting burial.
Ban of civil society groups and arrest of the Consortium leaders
Since the Consortium was created to dialogue with the government on behalf of the groups it represents, its leaders made several attempts to sit on a talking table with the government but to no avail. They were constantly being ignored. As the struggle unfolded, the Consortium started acting as the voice of the Anglophone people (North West and South West Regions). The entire Anglophone community is totally in support of the Consortium, and won’t spare their breath, even one bit, for its activities (the strike and ghost town operations). As the Consortium gained grounds, despite the unsuccessful efforts of the government to ensure that schools resume, and that the ghost town operations and strike be called off, Rene Emmanuel SADI, the Minister of Territorial Administration and Decentralisation, passed an Order on the 17th day of January 2017, banning the activities of the Consortium. In his own words, he says, “the groups Southern Cameroons National Council (SCNC) and the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium (CACSC) declared null and void for their purpose and activities which are contrary to the Constitution and liable to jeopardise the security of the state, territorial integrity, national unity, and national integration.”
The principle of Non-retroactivity with the banned Consortium
At law, this is to say any subsequent activities of the Consortium are illegal. The government of Cameroon had several times engaged dialogue with some of the leaders of the Consortium. The leaders stood their ground—one of which is the return to a two-state federation. Surprisingly, since the government was unable to deceive the leaders to call off the strike, they arrested them. The questions which immediately come to mind are: why did the government engage dialogue with leaders of a group (Consortium) they later considered illegal? Why was it banned only after several failed dialogue attempts? Is the ban not an effort to incriminate the leaders? Otherwise, why treat with them in the first place? The law of Equity presumes that their acts had been ratified the moment the government engaged dialogue with them. Therefore, their arrest is unlawful. Similarly, the law provides for the principle of ‘non-retroactivity’, which is a basic principle under international law, to the effect that a rule (minister’s Order in this case) does not have effect from the date it was made. It means, therefore, that the Order of the minister banning the Consortium takes effect from the time the Order is made. Therefore, the arrest of the Consortium leaders soon after the ban was illegal at law—as the leaders committed no ‘other’ offence after the ban. Illegal arrest is a breach of fundamental human rights. Sadly, they were arrested without respect for due process of law—without summonses—without knowledge of why they were arrested—and without warrant.
Barrister AGBOR BALLA Felix NKONGHO , Dr. FONTEM N. NEBA (all Buea), and MANCHO BIBIXY (Bamenda) were charged to court for the following offences: acts of terrorism, hostility to the fatherland, secession, revolution, group rebellion, incitation of civil war, contempt on public bodies and public servants, spreading of false information. Another issue that poses serious legal threat is that the punishment for terrorism is the death penalty. Meaning, the leaders risk being condemned to death if they are found guilty. However, the province of death penalty has been expunged by many human rights laws to which Cameroon is signatory. For instance, Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides that, “everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” On its part, the Constitution of Cameroon says, “every person has a right to life, to physical and moral integrity and to human treatment in all circumstances. Further, that under no circumstances shall any person be subjected to torture, to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.” Therefore, I make bold to challenge Cameroon’s Law on the Suppression of Acts of Terrorism for being unconstitutional. In constitutional law, the general principle is that any local legislation that is against the constitution of a state is unconstitutional. Besides, Article 45 of the Constitution of Cameroon makes it clear that in cases of conflict of laws, duly approved or ratified international laws take precedence.
In line with the above analysis, one begins to wonder why most of the above offences attract the death sentence as punishment. It therefore leads to the conclusion that Cameroon’s Law on Terrorism has been enacted to serve as a tool for the State to suppress the activities of political parties, civil societies, and to a greater extent the thoughts of a free thinker. The illegality injected in the Law on Terrorism reduces the law to no law at all. And as Saint Augustine puts it, “an unjust law is no law at law”.
The presumption of innocence
After their illegal arrest, they were ferried to the filthy and unventilated Kondengui prison in Yaoundé, where they were investigated in the French language, a language they don’t understand well. Similarly, the Kondengui prison is relatively too far for their families, their medical doctors, and their lawyers who by law, are supposed to be in constant touch with them. Briefly, there’s breach of their basic human rights. These rights include: the right to a healthy cell, the right of due process of law, freedom from arbitrary arrest. See the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. See also Articles 9, 10, 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Consortium leaders’ case is like the biblical case of King David, where he committed too many sins with one leading to the other. Presumption of innocence is a basic right. Both the Constitution and Article 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provide for the respect of this right. To have kept them behind bars for too long is a breach of the right of presumption of innocence. The government of Cameroon may want to justify their position under Section 224(2) of the Criminal Procedure Code, which supposes that bail may not be granted in cases of felonious offences, resulting to life imprisonment or death penalty. Section 224(2) above is therefore unconstitutional as the mother law, which is the Constitution, provides no frontiers with respect to the presumption of innocence. See also Article 45 (supra) of the Constitution and Article 11 (supra) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. See the African Union Charter on Human and peoples’ Rights. Therefore, it is logical for one to conclude that Cameroon rather suppresses than protects it citizens’ rights.
The illegal arrest of Justice AYAH Paul ABINE
Justice AYAH PAUL ABINE, a Cameroon Supreme Court judge was also arrested in connection to the struggle. The arrest of this legal icon who, too, has been behind bars beyond statutory time, is grossly illegal. It contravenes the provision of Section 629 of the Criminal Procedure Code of Cameroon which says, “where a judicial or legal officer is likely to be charged with committing an offence, the competent Procureur General shall request the president of the Supreme Court to appoint an investigating magistrate as well as three other magistrates of a grade at least equal to that of the magistrate incriminated and they shall hear and determine the matter at first instance….” This illegality is what made the said justice to have resisted arrest, saying that he can not be arrested by juniors whom he schools.
Competence of the Military Tribunal in the matter
Some people have questioned why the leaders of the Consortium are tried before the Yaoundé Military Tribunal when there is a Military Tribunal in Buea and another in Bamenda. Well, if they must be tried as terrorists for contravening Cameroon’s terrorism law, despite the flaws in the Terrorism Law, then the answer to this worry is spelt out in Section 3(4) of Law No. 2008/015 of 29 December 2008, to organise Military Justice and Law down Rules of Procedure Applicable before Military Tribunals. The section provides that, “the Yaoundé Military Tribunal may in the event of exceptional circumstances such as specified in Article 9 of the Constitution which constitute serious threat to public order, state security or terrorism, exercise its powers throughout the national territory.” Article 9 of the Constitution gives the president of the Republic the power to declare a state of emergency or siege where circumstances so permit. This, of course, is what happened in Bamenda yester years when the president of the Republic declared a state of emergency, youths were arrested and taken to Yaoundé for trial. This is equally the reason why hundreds of the Anglophone youths have been arrested and ferried to Kondengui in Yaoundé.
Internet blackout and legal consequences
Hours after the arrest of the Consortium leaders (Barrister AGBOR BALLA NKOGHO Felix and Dr. Fontem NEBA), precisely on the 17th day of January 2017, the government of Cameroon shut down the internet in the English speaking regions. Frankly, social media contributed as a valuable assert through which the struggle subsisted. People from other cities or parts of the world could easily see pictures, videos or listen to audio recordings of the things that were happening in Cameroon. It also facilitated communication with foreign bodies, embassies, and some human rights organisations. Cameroon’s government devised this strategy of shutting down the internet because of the skeletons they have in their cupboard. In the minds of many, the government orchestrated this approach in order to hide the mass killing perpetrated on the English speaking people of the South West and North West Regions (genocide) by their armed forces. Conversely, the Cameroon’s Communications Minister, ISSA TCHIROMA BAKARY, told the BBC that the use of internet has been abused in the English speaking part of Cameroon, and that it has been used to destabilise peace. To this, one will say Cameroon has decided to set the whole house ablaze just to kill a very small (enemy) rat. However, rights of citizens have been violated and damage suffered as a result of the blackout. To begin with, internet provides the means through which people communicate. While some use the internet for their business purposes, others use it as their library for research, or classroom for online studies; and to some, for leisure activities. As said earlier, both national and international legal texts protect the right to education. Therefore, students who have been using the internet to study or for any other academic purpose have the right to institute an action for breach of their right to education. Similarly, any businessman who has suffered damage or economic loss as a result has the right to institute an action for breach of contract, etc. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is succinct on the issue of communication on media. It states that, “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”‘Regardless of frontiers’ implies that there’s no statutory or legal limitation as to how information or ideas are received or circulated on the media, be it social. On the other hand, the Constitution of Cameroon provides that, “the freedom of communication, of expression, of the press … shall be guaranteed under the conditions fixed by the law.” Here, the Constitution provides for restrictions which are subject to other texts. However, Cameroon has no axe to grind with Article 19 of the above law, as the said gap has already been filled by Article 45 of the same Constitution, which is to the effect that “duly approved or ratified treatise and international agreements shall, following their publication, override national laws, provided the other party implements the said treaty or agreement.” The legal interpretation is that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights takes precedence over the Constitution of Cameroon or any other national law that guarantees the freedom of communication. Therefore, the freedom of communication is without frontiers. This was the stand of the government of Cameroon in “Human Rights in Cameroon (White Paper Published by the Government of the Republic of Cameroon)”. Published in November 1993, Page 43, where it is said that “one of the priceless victories won by the Cameroonian people over the past few years has been to be able to express themselves freely through all the mechanisms provided by nature and technology.” This closes the debate, and approves the fact that freedom of communication is without frontiers, and that it amounts to a breach of this right to have shut down the internet whereas the English speaking people are entitled to it.
Another sector in Cameroon that has been deprived of its basic right is the media. The Chairman of National Council of Communication (CNC), Peter ESOKA, has threatened to outlaw any private media house that broadcasts or publishes anything relating to the strike action or the Anglophone struggle. This breach is what has provoked some journalists to say it is an “attack” on freedom of the press and communication.
Conclusion / Recommendations
All in all, Cameroon is one of Africa’s countries with a modern Constitution that protects, promotes, and guarantees the rights and freedoms of every citizen. It is not an exaggeration to say this Constitution meets with the universally acceptable standards, particularly in the domain of Human Rights. However, this is a piece of beauty that remains solely on paper—with implementation almost impossible. This notwithstanding, the Constitution of Cameroon has its setbacks.
We observed, in the foregoing paragraphs, the blatant abuse of citizens’ constitutional rights. We also observed the many illegalities, unconstitutionalities, and the dictatorial system used to crackdown the Anglophone crisis—though founded in both national and international laws. This, one would say, shifts Mr. Biya’s regime from a ‘democratic’ to a dictatorial one. It exposes Cameroon as a lawless State. The strike action taking place in the English speaking part of Cameroon has a constitutional bearing. Instead of the government of Cameroon to respect the law, they resorted to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatments against citizens who are exercising their constitutional rights. If the government of Cameroon is the government for the people, then the peoples’ voices must be heard.
Based on the above crisis, considering a bright future for the children whose education for the 2016/2017 school year is already lost, mindful of the need for a long lasting peace between the Southern Cameroons and La Republique du Cameroun, and considering the respect for the Constitution of Cameroon and other international human rights laws to which Cameroon is signatory, I do hereby RECOMMEND that the government of Cameroon should do the following:
- Unconditionally release everyone arrested in connection to the protest;
- Engage in a frank dialogue with the Anglophone leaders who initiated same;
- Reinstate internet in the English speaking part of Cameroon;
- Uplift the ban of all civil society groups outlawed as a result of the protest;
- Allow the media house to work in accordance with the laws in force;
- Respect the Constitution of the State and all other international laws to which Cameroon is signatory; and upon doing so, abolish death penalty as provided in Cameroon’s law on terrorism, etc., for being grossly illegal;
- Immediate redeployment of francophone administrative authorities, judges, teachers, and others from the English speaking part of Cameroon to their place (or training) of origin.
- Open up investigation against the forces of law and order who, by the use of force, inflicted torture, inhuman and degrading treatments on the lawyers, students, and others who suffered same in the event of the protest.
- Stop the mass killing of English speaking Cameroonians as it amounts to Genocide, an offence against the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, adopted on the 9th of December 1948.
Jean Atabong Fomeni is a Barrister of the Supreme Court of Cameroon. He studied Peace and Conflict Studies at the European Peace University in Stadtschlaining, Austria and holds an online certificate with the United States Institute of Peace. He is also an author and has written a plethora of articles amongst which, The Criminalization of Homosexuality in Cameroon Violates International Human Rights Laws. He is founder of Flashlight Organization for the Rights of Vulnerable Groups and also consultancy head of Fomeni Legal Consultancy, a reputable Law Firm in Cameroon.
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 20 Mar 2017.
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