Culled from Reform and Repression in Cameroon: A Chronicle of the Smoldering Years (1990-1992) by Dibussi Tande (Forthcoming).
On February 19, 1990, officers from the CENER, Cameroon’s national intelligence service, raided the law office of Yondo Mandengue Black in the city of Douala. They demanded that Black, a former President of the Cameroon Bar Association (CBA), hand over the bylaws and program of the political party that he was in the process of creating. After a search of the office yielded nothing incriminating, Black took the officers to his residence where he handed over a draft document titled “Coordination Nationale pour la démocratie et le multipartisme” (National Coordination for Democracy and Multipartyism).
Addressed to the Cameroonian people, the document criticized the one party system and the Biya regime, lamented about the worsening economic situation in Cameroon, and called for the reinstitution of multiparty politics in the country:
After a quarter of a century of the AHIDJO era, characterized on the political front by a drift towards monarchy and on the economic front by a state of perpetual take-off which never gained altitude, the Cameroonians – all the Cameroonians – took it for granted that the man of rigor, of order, the new master of Cameroon’s destiny, would turn this painful page in our country’s history once and for all, and make possible the progress we have waited for so long.
Today we face the disappointment of the Cameroonians, which is constantly, unceasingly increased by the demand of policies whose direction bears no relation to everyday problems.
We must not again accept, for a third time, the unhappy experience of a regime which oppresses the people.
At a time when the winds of freedom and its corollary, democracy, are blowing throughout the world, we have not right to fold our arms and do nothing…
Cameroon, our beautiful country, must be reborn with a multiparty system and a responsible National Assembly, completely independent of the executive.
It is there, at the summit of the most fundamental principles, principles around which the social majority of Cameroonians and the political majority of the Avant-garde may unite in solidarity, that today’s fight, which is the fight of all Cameroonians, must take place.
You may pledge us your participation in this noble and sublime battle by signing and returning this appeal: appeal from the National Coordination for Democracy and a Multi-party System.
Yondo Black was immediately arrested and taken to the notorious Brigade Mixte Mobile (BMM) in Douala. Within a week, 10 other individuals were arrested for being part of the group that had drafted the document and that was working towards creating a political party in Cameroon. These arrests marked the beginning of the Yondo Black affair which would change the Cameroonian socio-political landscape forever.
According to Jean Michel Tekam, a key member of the group, the incriminated document came out of a January 23, 1990 meeting between three political groups; Yondo Black’s Mouvement National pour la Democratie (MND), Jean Michel Tekam’s Front Democratic Camerounais (FDC), and the Social Democratic Front (SDF) represented by Albert Mukong and Vincent Feko. According to Tekam, the goal of the meeting was to work out the details for merging the three groups into a single political party. Mukong, however, contradicts this version of events in his memoirs (1992: 128). According to him, Tekam had indeed suggested a merger of the three groups during the meeting, but the other participants rejected the idea. Instead, a National Coordination for Democracy and Multi-party System was established to study ways to reintroduce multiparty politics in Cameroon. A six-person committee headed by Yondo Black was established for that purpose, and it was a draft of the group’s first document that ended up with CENER agents.
[For yet another version of the January 23, 1990 meeting, see Vincent Feko’s interview in The Post newspaper (Friday, 01 September 2006) in which he states that it was by chance that he and Mukong stumbled upon the meeting between the Yondo Black and Tekam groups, and that they were never active participants in deliberations that took place.
On February 2, 1990, Charles Rene Djon Djon, one of the committee members, asked a female acquaintance who was a Secretary at the National Ports Authority to type and make copies of the draft document. After typing the document, she kept a copy for herself which she later gave to her boss, Samuel Banini. Afraid that he might be caught in a police dragnet if it was discovered that the subversive document had been typed in his office, and suspecting that the entire incident was probably a blackmail scheme orchestrated by Djon Djon, Banini contacted Luc Loe, the Governor of the Littoral province on February 12, 1990. The governor asked him to get in touch with CENER, which he did the next day.
On February 17, Julienne Badje was arrested at her home in Douala while Djon Djon was arrested in Eseka, about an hour’s drive from Douala. Two days later, CENER agents picked up Yondo Black, Anicet Ekani, Henriette Ekwe, Regina Manga, Kwa Moutome, Rudolphe Bwanga and Hamani Gabriel. Vincent Feko was arrested on February 21 in Douala while Albert Mukong was picked up in Bamenda on February 26 and transferred to Douala. Regina Manga whose only crime was that she happened to be in Yondo’s office when it was raided by security offices was released a fortnight later. On March 22, 1990, the remaining 10 detainees were transferred to the Kondengui maximum security prison in Yaounde.
The arrest of Yondo Black, a former President of the Cameroon Bar Association, and Albert Mukong, one of Cameroon’s most celebrated political prisoners under the Ahidjo and Biya regimes (Mukong, 1989), instantly transformed the “Yondo affair” into a cause célèbre for human rights activists and pro-democracy advocates around the world. The arrests were discussed extensively on the foreign media particularly Radio France International (RFI), the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and Voice of America (VOA). In fact, many Cameroonians first heard of the arrests on these foreign radio stations. Still operating under the restrictive and oppressive rules of the one-party state, the Cameroonian public and private media barely mentioned the arrest of the “Douala 10.” Human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International soon joined the fray calling for the unconditional release of the detainees. Lawyers’ associations around the world, among them the US-based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, also called for the immediate release of Yondo Black and others.
Embarrassed by the widespread indignation at the arrest of individuals who were simply advocating multipartyism, the Biya regime released a statement on March 13 insisting that the 10 had not been arrested for trying to create a political party, but for violating the provisions of Ordinance 62-0F-18 of 12 March 1962 concerning the repression of subversion. They were specifically charged with holding clandestine meetings, fabricating and distributing tracts hostile to the regime, insulting the Head of State, and inciting revolt. The statement pointed out that the right to create political parties was enshrined in Article 3 of the Cameroon constitution, and that Cameroon was still a one-party state simply because, through no fault of the government’s, no one had so far tried to create a political party. The statement added that the 10 could not possibly have been jailed for challenging the government because other individuals had taken the same government to court without being harassed or persecuted.
The Cameroon Bar Association Goes into Action
On March 27 1990, the Cameroon Bar Association (CBA) held an extraordinary General Assembly in Douala to discuss the arrest of Yondo Black. The highlight of the General Assembly was the opening address by Bernard Muna, President of the Bar Association, in which he condemned the absence of the rule of law in Cameroon and the authoritarian nature of the one-party system, and declared his support for multipartyism.
In his address, Ben Muna stated that the arrest of Yondo Black and nine others was the symptom of a serious disease eating deep into the fabric of Cameroonian society. This disease, he argued, was the absence of human rights and democracy:
Let us suppose that the 10 detainees actually held clandestine meetings, distributed tracts criticizing the government, etc., etc. Then the question one must ask is why should they have to resort to holding their meetings in a clandestine fashion and to criticize the government with anonymous tracts when the right to hold meetings and to form associations is guaranteed in our constitution, as well as in the International Charter of Human Rights and in the African Charter… The response to this question is simple: in Cameroon during the last 25 years, citizens who have dared to exercise their rights have been arrested, tortured and detained.
He urged Cameroonian lawyers to take a stance in support of basic human rights and to defend the rights of Yondo Black and his alleged accomplices:
I am convinced that the time has come for lawyers to take a stance… We are not behind bars but we are prisoners of our fear… Barrister Yondo might be behind bars, but here we are, the real prisoners, tiptoeing in order not to awaken our conscience… I call on the Cameroonian Bar to express in one clear voice, the problems of human rights in our country. I hope they will have the courage to do it.
In its final resolution, the CBA condemned the search of Yondo Black’s law office and his detention, both of which it considered illegal. It demanded that the government abrogate the 1962 subversion ordinance, and put an end to administrative detentions and all other measures used to deprive citizens of their individual liberties without going through the courts. Finally, it demanded that all persons detained under these administrative measures be released immediately and unconditionally.