By Dibussi Tande
On December 23, 1992, the Bamenda High Court (in case No. HCB/19.CRM/92, Nyo Wakai and 172 others vs. the State of Cameroon) released 173 individuals who had been arrested during the state of emergency in the Northwest Province and held "under absolutely dehumanizing conditions and deteriorating in health and have hardly had any medical attention.” The ruling by the Bamenda High Court infuriated the Biya regime because it went against the explicit instructions of the Minister of Justice and included an scathing condemnation of human rights abuses perpetrated by security forces during the state of emergency. A furious Minister of Justice insisted that the ruling was illegal because the Bamenda High Court was a court of “private jurisdiction” and the presiding judge, Justice Fombe, a “private judge” who was not competent to rule on “administrative (public) acts.” He therefore asked the Minister of Territorial Administration to suspend the release of the detainees.
Common Law vs. Civil Law
The ruling of the Bamenda High Court highlighted the longstanding tension between the common law system in the English speaking provinces of Cameroon, in which the rights of the individual were primordial, and French-inspired civil law system in Francophone Cameroon which was obsessed with issues of national security or public order at the expense of individual rights. In the Anglophone common law system, freedom from arbitrary arrest and wrongful detention, and the presumption of innocence, were considered standard legal tenets. However in Francophone Cameroon, these were considered “privileges” which citizens enjoyed only thanks to the magnanimity of omnipotent government officials such as the sous-préfet, the préfet or governor.
In the night of December 26-27 the 173 detainees were bundled into four buses of the Urban Transport Corporation, SOTUC which were brought in from Douala, and then stealthily transported to Yaounde. According to the detainees, the windows of the buses were shielded and the detainees forced to seat on the floors and barred from talking to each other. Since they were not allowed to take toilet breaks, detainees defecated on papers and bowls which were then thrown out of the windows. Others did it on their trousers and were forced to take them off and throw out of the windows. By the time the buses arrived in Yaounde, they smelled like pit latrines. Throughout the trip, irate gendarmes (10 in each bus) took out their anger on the detainees, insulting and beating them at random. The detainees arrived at the Kondengui maximum prison around 10 a.m. on December 27. According to the prisoners, the cells in Kondengui were worse that the BMM toilet.
In an acerbic reaction to the transfer of the detainees to Yaounde, the Honorable John Ngu Foncha wrote yet another letter to Paul Biya titled “Illegal treatment of my people” in which he condemned the non-respect of the verdict of a court practicing the common law system and the ill treatment of Anglophones.
In light of these violations, I consider that the present conduct of affairs in Cameroon is a clear rejection of the joint committee of the General Assembly of the United Nations which led to UN resolution A/C4/L685 of April 18, 1961, whereby the federal United Kamerun Republic was established.
Uprising in Bamenda
As word got out in Bamenda that the 173 BMM detainees had been moved to Yaounde, it was also rumored that Justice Fombe had gone into hiding and that plans were afoot to whisk off Fru Ndi to Yaounde to join the other detainees. The Bamenda population which had so far stoically handled the hardship of the state of emergency finally revolted. By midday on December 27, about one thousand people had formed a human fortress around Ntarikon Palace. By 6 p.m. the crowd had doubled. Elsewhere in the town, thousands of people were busy putting up roadblocks to prevent security forces from taking Fru Ndi out of Bamenda. Roads leading out of Bamenda were barricaded with uprooted trees, abandoned cars and other objects, many of which were set on fire. In some areas, 20-ton trucks were packed across roads, while in others, engine oil was poured on tar. That night, Bamenda was transformed into a war zone as security forces trying to dismantle the barricades clashed with protesters determined to keep them in place. Sporadic gunfire and explosives could be heard all over town. By 10 a.m. on December 28, thousands of people from all over the Northwest province were in the streets of Bamenda defending the roadblocks. Some of them also occupied the Bamenda airport to prevent the rumored landing of commando units from the Koutaba airbase. The Takumbeng also reinforced their security cordon around Fru Ndi’s residence. The resistance spilled over to the neighboring to the towns of Bafoussam and Mbouda in the West province where barricades were erected on the roads leading to Yaounde.
As the situation became increasingly uncontrollable, the Governor of the Northwest province announced on Radio Bamenda that reports of Fru Ndi’s imminent arrest were “malicious rumors” and assured the public that “there are no magistrates in hiding.” This did little to calm the situation as clashes continued well into the night. The arrival of troop reinforcements from Douala and Koutaba later that day only added to the tension.
State of Emergency Lifted
On December 28 at 8 p.m., a statement was read on CRTV announcing the end of state of emergency:
On the proposal of the Prime Minister and Head of Government, the President of the Republic today signed a decree (no. 92/256 of December 28, 1992) lifting the state of emergency in the northwest as from December 29, 1992. This decision follows a series of long standing consultations with many political personalities and the clear return of calm to the entire northwest province.
In so doing, the Head of State was once more highlighting national reconciliation between Cameroonians without any regard to political opinion and showing his unshaken will to ensure the successful continuation of the democratic process in Cameroon. The lifting of the state of emergency will surely work for constructive dialogue between all the political forces and constitutes the government’s invitation to all Cameroonians to renounce all kinds of violence in the political life of our country…
When the the state of emergency was imposed on the Northwest province on October 27, the Biya regime had claimed that the goal was to restore peace and order in the province. Ironically, when president Biya signed the decree lifting that state of emergency, there was complete anarchy in the province.
In the afternoon of December 29, 1992, Lieutenant Colonel Pom Guillaume, Chief Administrator of the state of emergency and the Northwest Gendarmerie legion commander arrived at Fru Ndi’s residence accompanied by Ben Muna, the SDF’s campaign manager who was one of the few high ranking SDF and Union for Change officials who were never arrested. The two men wriggled their way through the impressive protective human security cordon still around the residence. Once inside, Lieutenant Colonel Pom formally handed a copy of the decree ending the state of emergency to John Fru Ndi. About an hour later, Captain Ahmadou Abdoulaye who had been in charge of the 200 troops “protecting” Fru Ndi ordered his troops to retreat. The troops then began their march on the one-kilometer stretch of road towards the Bamenda provincial hospital roundabout as a very skeptical and wary population watched the unfolding scene. They then boarded military trucks for an undisclosed destination. With this last official act, the state of emergency, Cameroon’s “mother of all horrors” officially ended. After being officially notified of the end of the State of emergency, Fru Ndi issued his first post-state of emergency statement:
The two months of martial rule have hurt our national pride and injured our human dignity more than 32 years of one party dictatorship… The state of emergency was an act of injustice. It was a smokescreen for horrendous human rights abuses. It was an excuse to violate legislation, bypass the courts, humiliate men of law and rule by the gun. These are the fine tactics of an illegitimate regime. The state of emergency was imposed by the dictator to divert the attention of Cameroonians and the international community from the real bone of contention, namely the STOLEN VICTORY… We call on all Cameroonians imbibed by the tenets of democracy and GENUINE CHANGE to remain vigilant and determined to struggle on until our STOLEN VICTORY is recovered.
In spite of the official end of the state of emergency, the violence in Bamenda went on a little longer. The troop reinforcements which had arrived just as the state of emergency was being lifted unleashed their own brief reign of terror as they broke into homes and dragged out occupants where were then forced at gunpoint to clear the barricades. They also used tear to disperse thousands of wary individuals who were still in the streets because they did not believe that the state of emergency had really been lifted. These individuals spent another night keeping Virgil in case the regime had one final trick up its sleeves. During the three-day resistance, over 28 people suffered gunshot wounds but no one was killed during the entire episode.
It was after the case of Nyo Wakai vs. Cameroon that it became quite routine to transfer individuals accused of political offenses in the common law jurisdictions in Anglophone Cameroon to civil law jurisdictions in Francophone Cameroon. Some observers argue that the seeds of the current controversial policy of sending francophone civil law magistrates who "understood" the system to the English regions of the country were planted during this landmark case.
Culled from Reform and Repression in Cameroon: A Chronicle of the Smoldering Years (1990-1992) by Dibussi Tande (Forthcoming).