What One Man’s Detention in Cameroon Says About France’s Role in Central Africa
Michel Thierry Atangana Abega spent 17 years in detention in Cameroon, locked in a tiny underground cell. He was alone for nearly all that time, denied access to lawyers and doctors and dependent on charity to supplement meager, state-issued rations. His primary connection to the outside world came from a radio that carried local stations and, sometimes, Radio France Internationale and the BBC.
Born in Cameroon in 1964, Atangana studied in France and became a naturalized French citizen in 1988. He embarked on a career as a financial engineer and, in 1994, traveled back to Cameroon to develop road projects. It was in that capacity, he says, that he got to know Titus Edzoa, who was then a high-ranking official in the president’s office in Yaounde.
In April 1997, Edzoa surprised Cameroon’s political class by resigning his post and announcing he would run in that year’s election against President Paul Biya, who has stifled most forms of political opposition since taking power in 1982. The next month, Atangana was questioned about his alleged links to and support of Edzoa, then detained for 52 days before finally being presented before a judge. Both Atangana and Edzoa were eventually convicted of embezzlement, among other crimes, and imprisoned until February 2014, when Cameroonian authorities caved to mounting international pressure and granted the men’s release. Atangana denies the charges against him, and activists who’ve followed his case say no evidence was ever provided to support them.
Only in the final years of Atangana’s detention did the French government and media show much interest in his case. This despite the fact that Atangana had traveled to Cameroon on a French passport and registered as an expatriate once he was there. Former French President Francois Hollande spoke out about his detention in May 2013, denouncing it as “unacceptable.” But while Atangana was housed in the French Embassy in Yaounde for several days immediately after his release, French officials told him he needed to come up with his own money to buy a plane ticket to leave the country. Since then, Paris has made clear Atangana is on his own in seeking compensation from Biya’s government; just last September, the French minister of foreign affairs, Jean-Yves Le Drian, wrote as much in a letter to French lawmaker Serge Letchimy about the government’s engagement on the case.
But Atangana is intent on making it as difficult as possible for French authorities to forget about him. On a visit to New York and Washington this week, he sought to drum up additional support from American officials and NGOs, whose early advocacy on his behalf he credits with spurring Cameroonian authorities to free him in the first place. His goal is to keep public attention on his case so France feels pressure to back his quest for compensation, as well as push for judicial and other reforms in Cameroon. “We cannot instrumentalize a justice system just to go after an individual,” he says during an interview at a Manhattan hotel.
“L’affaire Atangana,” as it is sometimes called in the French press, speaks to France’s complicated relationship with its former African colonies and those who hail from them.
There have been small signs of progress. In the final year of his detention, a report by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention recommended that an investigation be launched to identify those responsible for the legal action taken against him, and that those people be punished. The report also said Atangana should be awarded damages “for the harm caused by being deprived of his liberty.” Last month, Setondji Roland Adjovi, a member of the working group, was granted a meeting at the French National Assembly to press those points for the first time.
“L’affaire Atangana,” as it is sometimes called in the French press, speaks to France’s complicated relationship with its former African colonies and those who hail from them. For his part, Atangana sees his treatment at the hands of his adopted country as evidence of racism. “There is a problem for French people who are of foreign origin,” he says. “We don’t feel as though we benefit from the same rights as everyone else.”
French authorities’ reluctance to intervene more forcefully also reflects the awkward compromise successive French administrations have struck in Cameroon and other countries in Central Africa. While Biya’s democratic and human rights deficiencies are well-documented, there is widespread fear of what will happen when he leaves office, so Paris has elected, for the time being, to deal with him as he is. “It’s not that France has taken a hands-off approach,” says Jeffrey Smith, an activist who pushed for Atangana’s release in past roles at Freedom House and Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, an advocacy organization. “They’ve taken a hands-on approach with a very pro-stability lens. They’re really trying to maintain the status quo, which is in their best interests.”
Increasingly, though, it’s unclear whether the status quo in Cameroon will hold for much longer. Biya turns 85 next week, and his country has been buffeted in recent years by the Boko Haram insurgency on top of unrest in its western Anglophone regions, where separatist sentiment appears to be rising and attacks on security forces are becoming more frequent.
The political opposition, long co-opted and undermined by Biya, sees a potential opening in the presidential vote planned for later this year. Candidate Akere Muna, an anti-corruption activist and lawyer, is pushing for a unified opposition front, though it remains to be seen what the Social Democratic Front, the most prominent opposition party, will do. And even if the opposition were to rally around a single candidate, there’s little indication Biya would allow for a level playing field.
As he watches the campaign from afar, Atangana says he’ll be eager to see the political positions of opposition candidates. He hopes they extend beyond simply wanting to get rid of the current leadership to cover reforms and development projects that can attract the support of Cameroonian voters. “Power isn’t given. It must be taken,” he says. “And it must be taken by projects. To be a candidate is not a political project. Wanting to remove a president, even if he’s been there a long time, is not a political project.”
Just as important for Cameroon, he says, is finding a way for the rule of law to take root so that investment can come in and development initiatives—like the road construction he was working on all those years ago, before his arrest—can be carried out. “Today there is a big debate,” he says. “We want to develop Africa. We say Africa is the continent of the future. But today I say and I repeat: We can’t develop Africa if we don’t respect the rule of law.”
Source: World Politics Review