Prominent Nigerian lawyer says Buhari agents maltreated, deported Southern Cameroonian refugees unjustly
The conflict in Southern Cameroun following the declaration of the Republic of Ambazonia has created a humanitarian crisis with thousands of Southern Cameroonians fleeing into Nigeria. In this interview published by The New Telegraph, a lawyer and human rights activist, Abdul Oroh, examines the plight of the members of the Interim Government and other deportees including other issues. Excerpts…
What is your take on the influx of Cameroonian refugees into Nigeria?
The crisis in Cameroon has been there for a long time and many Cameroonians, especially the Anglophone Cameroonian in the South-West and North West provinces have been fleeing their country as a result of many years of oppression. In fact during our struggle for democracy in Nigeria, when we travelled abroad for conferences, seminars and other activities organised by the United Nations, we were always meeting people from Southern Cameroon. They were always at those fora to let people know about their situation. The problem dates back to the 1960s. The Southern Cameroonians constitute 20 per cent of the population of Cameroon as at the time they had independence in 1961.
After the defeat of Germany in the First World War, Cameroon was divided into two and a part of it was given to Britain under United Nations Trusteeship. The other part was given to France under the same UN Trusteeship. At that time, even what is now Adamawa and Taraba states in Nigeria were also part of the U.N. Trusteeship under the British and was governed together with Nigeria. So that was why in those days, we had a party called the National Council of Nigeria and Cameroons (NCNC). Later, South-Western Cameroon became part of the Eastern Region of Nigeria while the North Western Cameroon became part of Northern Region of Nigeria.
When Nigeria became independent in 1960, Francophone Cameroon also became independent. So what happened was that the Anglophone Cameroonians felt somewhat uncomfortable with Nigeria and the UN gave them the option to either remain in Nigeria or go with Cameroon.There was a plebiscite and the northern part opted to stay with Nigeria.
That is why we have the people of the then Adamawa Province in present day Adamawa and Taraba states.Those in Southern Cameroon voted to go with Cameroon. But before even the British packed and left completely, the Southern Cameroon had been self governing at the same time the Northern Region and Eastern Region of Nigeria were self governing.
Later, the Southern Cameroon which was part of Eastern Nigeria walked out of the Eastern House of Assembly to join their Kith and kin on the other side. But before they could do what they called the Act of the Union, which would have defined the terms of their relationship, the Francophone Cameroon had already taken over their territory. The Republique du Cameroon had already moved in troops and gendarmes with the encouragement of France.
If France, a democratic nation colonised Cameroon, why has Cameroon remained virtually under a dictatorship?
Initially, Ahmadou Ahidjo who was their first President was a benevolent dictator and he tried to make the people including those in Southern Cameroon feel at home. The first two Vice Presidents were elected from Southern Cameroon while he was President.
But in 1965, he introduced a single party system which was in vogue in many parts of Africa. Of course, during this period there were agitations for an Act of the Union because it was supposed to be a federal republic . Before independence, the Cameroonian flag had one star but after that plebiscite, it became two stars and the whole idea was to show that it was a federation of two groups. However, this federal system was not defined either in their constitution or as a law.
The Republique du Cameroon was driven by the French colonial policy of assimilation which meant that the language, culture, food and way of life would be French. Up till today, you can see that many of these Francophone countries in West and Central Africa are still using the CFA Franc which is tied now to the Euro.
Today all their foreign exchange are domiciled in the Central Bank of France. So there had been a tendency towards restoration and retaining the system they have found themselves. Some of the people want the restoration of the status quo ante, others say, let us see whether we can struggle through the system and get recognition and equal treatment. These two tendencies had been coexisting in Cameroon but none of them had ever accepted the situation in the country. When Ahidjo introduced the single party rule, he had to enforce it using military fiat but the people have been agitating against it for many years.
Why has the matter lingered till the present day?
Around the early 1970s, President Ahmadou Ahidjo had what he called a referendum. This referendum was designed to eliminate the whole possibility of having any opposition or desenting voice and he got over 90 percent endorsement. At that time, it was still the United Republic of Cameroon with the two stars on their national flag. He however eliminated the idea of having a Vice President, created the position of a Prime Minister and appointed Paul Biya to handle the portfolio. Before this appointment, Paul Biya had been the Chef du Cabinet which is the equivalent of our Secretary to the Government of the Federation.
Ahmadou Ahidjo was a loyal servant of France but after ruling Cameroon for 23 years, France forced him to step down though he was just 55 years old. They then appointed Paul Biya as the President. Immediately Biya came in, he enacted a decree changing the name of the country from United Republic of Cameroon to La Republique du Cameroon which was the original name of the country at independence in 1960 before its union with Southern Cameroon. He also removed one star on their national flag by fiat, leaving only one star on the important national symbol.
So as you can see, in Cameroon, a President can also govern by decrees without recourse to their National Assembly. The Southern Cameroonians are saying that by that act alone, Paul Biya had seceeded because he had broken the bond that united them. He has ruled for about 32 years; he has never tolerated opposition and he is not making any plans to step down. In fact they have elections this year, he’s 85 and he’s still running again to retain his seat. Right now, there are Cameroonian refugees not only in Nigeria but in Ghana, Congo, Angola, Mozambique, United States, South Africa etc. These are people who fled their country because of oppression
Does it mean there are no other political parties apart from the ruling party in Cameroon?
There are other political parties but they don’t have any significant impact on the politics of the country During the election in 1992, a Southerner and other progressives in Cameroon, formed a party called Social Democratic Front (SDF). The party won the election but the results were allegedly rigged by the French and Biya was returned.
They didn’t have any qualms about it; they simply changed the results just to keep him in power. As a result of these interferences from France you can see that almost all the Francophone countries in West and Central Africa, with the exception of Senegal, had been having political instability. Look at Cote d’Ivoire, Mali, Burkina Faso and even Togo. It is only Senegal and even there was crisis in Benin Republic at some time.
What other factors could have been responsible for the instability?
You know that in the Anglophone countries, you have the common law system like the one we have here in Nigeria. It upholds the principle of presumption of innocence until you are proven guilty, you are entitled to representation by a lawyer and the due process is followed in prosecution.
These are all part of the common law tradition but it is not obtainable in Anglophone Cameroon. Their students were supposed to be taught in English Language. In fact they had always been taught in English but suddenly the Government of Cameroon had been discouraging that and they are now even bringing only Francophone lawyers to the courts in Southern Cameroon.
These are lawyers who speak only French and the Anglophone lawyers are now expected to speak French or cease to appear in courts in other parts of Cameroon.
Isn’t Cameroon a bi-lingual country?
The issue is not even bi-lingualism, the issue, according to them is discrimination. Those who speak English are considered inferior to others who speak French, in fact some ministers have referred to them as dogs. It is the oppression of a linguistic minority in Cameroon. Some of those people agitating for freedom can speak French because they were forced to learn the language but it is wrong to force people to speak a language. As a Yoruba, you must not be forced to learn Hausa or Igbo. As a Nigerian, you cannot be forced to speak French; that is the issue now.
Since October last year, all the schools in Southern Cameroon have been closed because the teachers were protesting. They arrested all their leaders. Instead of negotiating with these people, the government is using force; shooting on sight, burning villages, arresting people and assassinating some of them. Even members of the Bar were not spared and some members of the parliament from the region decided to leave the parliament They walked out of their parliament.
In the course of all these agitations and violence, some Southern Cameroonians met and declared the Republic of Ambazonia for their people.
Have they seceeded from Cameroon?
If you ask them, they will tell you that it is not a secession because they’ve always been two different countries and what bound them together have been removed. They will also argue that the Act of the Union which ought to had defined their relationship was never enacted by the parliament of the Republique du Cameroon. They will tell you that they have been in bondage all these years.
How come many Cameroonians are now refugees in Nigeria?
As a result of this latest crisis, about 40,000 Cameroonian refugees are in Nigeria and have been duly registered by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Now, some of their leaders who engineered this breakaway are also in Nigeria. They are here because the closest land border to them is Nigeria through Cross River, Taraba and Adamawa states. Don’t forget that there is ethnic affinity between these people and the people of the three aforementioned states in Nigeria. So, they have been fleeing in droves into Nigeria. You need to visit the website of many Cameroonian newspapers to see what is happening.
At a stage, their government cut off services in that region. Since last year, there has been no internet access in Southern Cameroon.There is even a joke around it as some people now describe the situation as a conflict between the Internet and non-Internet Cameroon.
It is rather unfortunate that even though these are our neighbours, many Nigerians including our leaders do not know the problems they have been facing in that country.
In Niger too, we have the Hausa and Fulani tribes; in Chad we also have these tribes who share language and cultural affinities with their kinsmen in Nigeria.
We have the people in Cameroon who share cultural affinity with the Efik, Ibibio, Ekoi and other tribes in Cross River State. There are also thousands of Nigerians living and working in Cameroon and most of them are in Southern Cameroon.
So, Nigeria ought to show greater understanding of what is happening in Cameroon and possibly intervene in such a way that there could be a peaceful resolution of some of these conflicts. Apart from the military cooperation at the level of tbe Multinational Joint Task Force (MJTF) in the fight against Boko Haram, there seems to be no real contact between Nigeria and Cameroon. However, some people have alleged that there seem to be a secret pact or an unholy alliance between the two countries to oppress or suppress the agitation of the Southern Cameroonians.
These people were meeting in Jabi, Abuja. They hadn’t even started their discussion; they just ordered for breakfast when some soldiers stormed the place, asked them to lie down, handcuffed them and took them away. That was on January 5, 2018.
Initially we thought it was the Department of State Security (DSS) that did the job. Some people thought they were security agents from Cameroon but when we made enquiries through the DSS, they told us that no Cameroonian agent will do that in Nigeria.
They said that even under the policy of “hot pursuit,” they cannot pursue their enemies from Cameroon all the way to Abuja. Maybe along the border something can happen without the knowledge of the Nigerian authorities but even that one is closely monitored and very rare.
We later found out that they were detained by the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) on the directive of the National Security Adviser (NSA). So, we wrote to the NSA to grant us access to these people. Although he acknowledged receipt of the letter, he did not respond to our request. We then wrote to the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) and Minister of Justice; the Minister of Foreign Affairs as well as the Minister of Defence on the same issue but response was not forthcoming
Later, another batch of Cameroonians were arrested in Gembu, Taraba State. These were refugees fleeing their country. They were fleeing because of the violence and oppression there. They are not part of the leadership of the movement in Southern Cameroon but were arrested by the police and handed over to the military.
They were subsequently flown to Abuja and detained in a secret location. The next day, both the refugees from Gembu and the leaders of the Southern Cameroon agitation were put in an aircraft and flown to Cameroon.
Before their deportation, we had filed an action in court to grant us access to them and for them to be released but they didn’t even allow us access to them. But on the 18th of January 2018, based on our petitions, the UNHCR at the intervention of Nigerian Minister of Foreign Affairs, was granted access to those people.
Officials of the UNHCR saw them, profiled them while they were still in detention . By that time they had spent about two weeks in detention. Many of them who were not really refugees or who had not asked for asylum used the opportunity and asked to be granted asylum.
Were they granted asylum?
No! Once a refugee requests for asylum in Nigeria, what our government should do is to set up a committee between the Nigeria Commission for Refugees, Nigeria Immigration Service and the UNHCR to review the case of the refugee(s). If Nigeria feels that they cannot grant them refugee status to stay in Nigeria, the law says they should hand them over to the UNHCR which will now transfer them to a third party. Nigeria is not supposed to send them to a country where they don’t feel safe.
They are supposed to be treated with respect and dignity but these people were detained by the DIA in an underground cell which was a dehumanising and a cruel form of punishment.
Many of them are intellectuals; their President, Sisiku Ayuk Tabe is a lecturer with the America University of Nigeria, Yola.
The other one, Dr. Fidelis Nde Che is the Director of Academic Planning at the same university; Elias Eyambe is a lawyer; Blaise Berinyu is also a lawyer. These are members of their Bar association that fled the country. Dr. Nfor Ngala Nfor who is the oldest among them is 66-year-old has been a refugee in Nigeria for a long time. He is a recognised refugee. Some others like him had requested for asylum; some are already recognised and carry refugee documents.
The other man, Dr Cornelius Kwanga is a senior lecturer at the Umar Musa Yar Adua University, Katsina, while Dr Ogork Ntui is also a lecturer at the same university. One of those arrested is an Associate Professor at Bayero University Kano (BUK) and has been resident in Nigeria since 1993. He is even married to a Nigerian. Dr Henry Kimeng is an Associate Professor at the Ahmafu Bello University (ABU), Zaria and has been here since 1987, thirty one years ago. There is also Mrs Nalowa Bih, a single mother of two kids living in Abuja here. She is a lawyer and of dual citizenship, holding Nigerian and Cameroonian passports Dr Ojong Okonghu Enoh is a naturalised Nigerian. He has a Nigerian passport and is a businessman based in Calabar.
Do you also have the identities of those arrested in Gembu?
Of course, the ones from Gembu, the first three names, Wilfred Augustine, Thank God Genesis and Nasiru Uba are all Nigerians. One of them is 21 years, the oldest, Augustine is 52. They have Nigerian citizenship and hold Nigerian passports but were living in Cameroon before the crisis.
What do you want the Nigerian government to do about these people now that they’ve already deported them?
We want a open investigation to be conducted on the treatment these people got in the hands of government and security forces in Nigeria. We need to know how they were arrested, who gave the order for their arrest, why they were arrested and why they were deported to Cameroon to meet certain death. What happened to them violates both the UN Convention, the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights and even our own law on refugees.
I am also demanding that those who are Nigerians among them should be returned to Nigeria; those who are not Nigerians but have been deported, the Cameroonian authorities should be asked to hand them over to the UNHCR if Nigeria doesn’t want them back in this country. It is the UNHCR that can help find a third party country for them because they are not likely to get justice in Cameroon.
The Cameroonian Minister of Communications, Issa Tchiroma Bakari, has already declared that they were terrorists and that “they will face Cameroonian justice for their crimes.” These people have not even been interrogated and they’ve not been tried by any court of law.
Are you not hopeful they can get justice in Cameroon?
You remember that I told you earlier that the Cameroonian legal system which is operational in La Republique du Cameroon ( the Francophone part) is adversarial. But these people are not from La Republique du Cameroon, they are from Anglophone Cameroon and they are only exposed to the common law system which recognises presumption of innocence, the fact that you can be defended by a lawyer and you are not supposed to say anything to incriminate yourself.
Our grouse remains that they have not even granted us access to meet them and they have not granted access to their families to see them. Some of them have medical challenges such as high blood pressure, one has kidney problem and one of the women is pregnant .
So, right now, nobody knows the fate of all these people. We don’t also know the fate of even those who are Nigerians The Federal Government has not said a word about them. Even though some media reports quoted the Minister of Defence as saying something, he did not mention their names.
Is the deportation not justifiable?
It cannot be justified. Nigeria has no extradition treaty with Cameroon and even if there is a treaty secretly signed, unless it is ratified by the National Assembly of both countries, it cannot take effect. They must go through the due process of law. The committee which the Minister of Defence said had been set up must meet to review the status of these people before you take any action.
You may recall the Abdulrahman Shugaba case who was deported to Cameroon way back in the 1980s, he was deported based on the allegation that he was not a Nigerian and of course you know what the Supreme Court said about it. The law is clear on this matter because the courts had ruled on it in the past; there is already a precedence.
You are not supposed to deport, you are supposed to protect a refugee. Even if he is involved in armed combat, that is granted but not conceding that any of them was involved in acts of insurrection in their country, they are still entitled to be treated with dignity and should be made to face justice according to the due process of law.
Culled from The New Telegraph