There has been a mixed reaction to last month’s decision by Cameroon’s Court of Appeal to confirm the life sentences handed down by a military tribunal to six Cameroonian lecturers convicted on charges of terrorism and secession.
The men were part of a wider group that was detained in Abuja, Nigeria, in January 2019, and flown to Yaoundé, the Cameroonian capital. There, they faced a military tribunal relating to their alleged attempts to create a new state in Anglophone Cameroon – the Republic of Ambazonia – with one of the academics, Julius Ayuk Tabe, as interim president.
In addition to Tabe, the other convicted academics – all of whom were working in Nigerian universities – include Fidelis Nde-Che from the American University of Nigeria in Yola, Egbe Nguitui Ogork and Cornelius Kwanga from Bayero University, Kano; and Tata Henry Kimeng and Augustine Awasum from Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria.
Possible increased tension
It is anticipated that the court verdict may increase tension in the two English speaking provinces of Cameroon, and derail peace talks started in July which were expected to resume between the academics and the central government of Cameroon facilitated by Yaoundé’s Catholic Archbishop Jean Mbarga and supported by the ambassadors of Britain, France and the United States.
The Court of Appeal heard the case on 17 September 2020 following a decision by the academics to challenge the August 2019 findings of the military tribunal, which is under the control of the government, in a civilian court.
In an exclusive interview with University World News, Barrister Sevidzem Berinyuy, legal counsel to the lecturers, said the appeal was filed after the judgment of the military tribunal in August 2019. He said his office only received acknowledgement of their 64-page defence submission on 3 February 2020.
“The Court of Appeal by nature and definition is a higher court of records whose proceedings are essentially an exchange of written submissions of both parties before oral arguments are made to substantiate the adopted written submissions. Curiously, we never received the counter-submission from the state counsel. When we raised this issue, presiding Judge Mindjimba Mindjimba and assistant judges Njola Crispin and Joseph Mekuobouth ignored our observations on this important subject of legal procedure,” said Berinyuy.
When the case came up, the proceedings were in French. Barrister Nicodemus Tanyi Amungwa, who was present at the court session, told Newsmen that Section 354 of the Court of Appeal’s Criminal Procedure Code states that where an accused “speaks a language other than one of the official languages understood by members of the court or where it is necessary to translate any document produced in court, the presiding magistrate shall, on his own motion, appoint an interpreter of not less than 21 years of age, who shall take oath to interpret faithfully the testimonies of persons speaking in different languages or faithfully translate the document in question”.
Language is at the core of the political struggle by Anglophones in Cameroon who consider themselves to be marginalised by the Francophones despite the “federation of equal partners” forged in 1961 which, inter alia, agreed that French and English languages would be treated equally.
According to Amungwa, the three judges ignored protests from the academics’ legal counsel and “insisted that only French language would be the mode of communication”. The proceedings were therefore one-sided and, after deliberations lasting about 30 minutes, the three judges reconfirmed all decisions of the military tribunal. In addition to confirming the life sentences, the accused were instructed to pay the costs of litigation amounting to US$422 million.
The court proceedings and verdict have received mixed reactions. Barrister Julius Achu, based in Yaoundé, criticised the conduct of both the accused persons and their lawyers. “They both understand the French language. They should have seized the opportunity to express their sentiments before the judges. Maybe the judges would have been sympathetic to their grievances and granted them some kind of amnesty,” he said.
He strongly opposed the creation of the Ambazonia Republic, suggesting that what is required is merely a kind of autonomy for the English-speaking part of the country. “The unity of Cameroon is not negotiable,” he said.
Appeal to international bodies
Dr Mukail Babayero, of the faculty of law, Kano State University, said he is opposed to the involvement of the military in a case concerning civilians. “The government of Cameroon has shown extra-judicial interest by sending these university teachers to the military court which found them guilty.
“The case ought to go to the civil court since they are civilians. I think as a matter of urgency and for the safety of our colleagues, steps must be taken to take this important matter to the African Union, the International Court of Justice, Amnesty International and other similar international bodies,” he said.
In international law, abduction and extradition are not allowed by nation states. However, Dr Akadu John from the faculty of law at Imo State University said both Nigeria and Cameroon are guilty of illegal abduction and unjustified extradition. “The African Union should look into this case with a view to preventing a recurrence of this unfortunate incident,” he said.
Dr Ayuba Kalloh, based in the faculty of law at the University of Jos, said parading abducted university teachers before a military tribunal in a democratic state like Cameroon is an aberration. “This is against international practice. They ought to appear before a civil court for trial. This is a miscarriage of justice which can be challenged.”
(university world news)