Could Nigeria’s court ruling ease the conflict in southern Cameroon? 0

On 1 March, in the case between 12 Cameroonian separatist leaders and the Federal Government of Nigeria, Justice Anwuli Chikere of the Federal High Court in Abuja ruled that the forced deportation of the 12 leaders and 39 other Anglophones from Taraba State was illegal and unconstitutional.

The judge said that irrespective of whether they posed a threat to the Nigerian state or not, the Federal Government did not follow due process and thus violated both the Nigerian constitution and articles 32 and 33 of the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.

Stating that their human rights were violated, Justice Chikere ordered their return to Nigeria. He also decided the government should pay compensation of ₦5-million each to the 12 and ₦200 000 each to the 39 other deportees. The 12 are leaders of the self-proclaimed independent territory of Ambazonia, an outlawed territory in Cameroon’s mostly Anglophone regions, where some English-speaking residents seek to restore what was formerly British Southern Cameroons.

While seeking refuge in Nigeria, the individuals, including their leader Sisiku Julius Ayuk Tabe, were seized in January 2018 at the Nera Hotel in Abuja and extradited to Cameroon. The UN, particularly the UN High Commission for Refugees, which had records of the 12 as refugees and asylees, strongly condemned the act and called for their return. After being held incommunicado for over 10 months in Cameroon, they are now on trial before a Yaoundé military tribunal for terrorism-related crimes.

The ruling has given new impetus to the hotly contested issue. Legally, justice seems to have been served but politically, the implications are unclear. There is a need to closely examine the legality of the court’s ruling, to ascertain what it means in practice. Can the court compel the Nigerian government to enforce the ruling? Will the Cameroon government heed the court’s decision by releasing the leaders?

As it stands, there is no extradition treaty between the two countries. This is contrary to Cameroon’s communication minister Issa Tchiroma’s argument that the arrest and transfer of the 12 from Nigeria to Cameroon conformed with the law. He cited three security accords signed by Cameroon and Nigeria in 1963 and 1972 which, although not extradition treaties, define rules of cooperation in matters of security between the two countries.

Inasmuch as the ruling censures the Federal Government of Nigeria, it does present options to resolve the deepening armed conflict in the two English-speaking North West and South West regions. Anglophone militias in these areas are battling pro-regime soldiers in their quest to separate and establish a new country. These Anglophone separatists want emancipation from the French-dominated Cameroon.

The separatists will no doubt expect some reaction from the government of Cameroon to the court’s ruling. If the Paul Biya administration were to ignore an overture from the Nigerian government to return the deportees, and find the deportees guilty of terrorism – which could include the death penalty – this could escalate tensions. It would mark a turning point for the conflict and a missed opportunity for restoring peace in the country.

Although capital punishment is a far-fetched outcome, a guilty verdict is not an unlikely scenario. This is a country where state authority remains heavily centralised in the executive branch, and legislative decision making is often opaque and without consultation. This is evident in the government’s unilaterally designed conflict mitigation strategies, such as the creation of a Bilingualism Committee in response to the perceived linguistic marginalisation of the English-speaking regions.

Similarly, government created the ill-fitted National Committee for Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration. The committee has been unable to make inroads in disarming militants, many of whom have shown no signs of surrendering their arms without dialogue.

These government initiatives don’t reflect a real analysis of the root causes of the current crisis. Linguistic marginalisation is a simplistic explanation that belies the decades-long exploitation of citizens by the ruling elite, who depend solely on patronage. Even more troubling have been government actions to vilify Anglophone communities in the wake of the crisis, and the failure to hold security services accountable for attacks on civilians.

Cameroon’s government could instead use the Nigerian court’s ruling as an opportunity to start a process of national reconciliation. Having suffered setbacks in its legitimacy, government could restore trust and social cohesion with citizens by prioritising peace building rather than state-building.

By heeding the Abuja High Court ruling and repatriating the 12 leaders who are seen by their followers as the legitimate brokers of peace in any dialogue process, chances are the Cameroonian leadership can set a new course towards stability.

It could capitalise on the faction of Anglophone ‘federalists’ who hope for a return to the former federal system of government without the structural exploitation and under-development of the two Anglophone regions by the Francophone political centre of power. This has been at the heart of the ‘Anglophone problem’.

The process of finding a durable solution would ideally be facilitated by the international community through the UN. Central to such a dialogue and reconciliation process will be a commitment to holding both separatists and security forces responsible for crimes committed against innocent civilians. It must also provide justice for the thousands who have been killed, and redress for those rendered homeless due to the burning of their villages, resulting in the massive exodus into Nigeria in the first place.