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Human Rights

Dry words
Her boyfriend has been caught up in a conflict between different colonial
legacies in Cameroon – Lucy Davis makes a plea for justice.

Nuhu Salihu Jafaru: slowly being broken by uncertainty and fear, unable to work or sleep.
photo courtesy of LUCY DAVIS

In English-speaking Cameroon, in North West Province, there is a telling term for all written correspondence. Whether it’s congratulations on the birth of a child or condolences on the death of an elder, when there are ceremonies which peasant farmers or cattle herders are unable to attend they ask young students of the village to write down the message for them on pages torn from school exercise books. The message is called ‘dry word’. This term reflects all the impotence I feel now in trying to communicate the dangerous and complicated situation facing my boyfriend and four of his compatriots in Cameroon.

Nuhu Salihu Jafaru and I met while working together at the Mbororo Social and Cultural Development Association of Cameroon (MBOSCUDA). The Association works for the cultural rights and development of the previously nomadic Mbororo people. It has 5,000 members and runs school projects, land-rights initiatives, pastoral development projects, women’s groups, health-education and family-planning programmes.

The Association has always had a delicate relationship with the Cameroon Government and with one man who has great influence with it, Al Hadji Baba Danpullo, in particular. In October last year he had four leading members of the Association – Musa Usman Ndamba, Nana Sali Sardou, Jaji Manu Gidado and Nuhu – locked up in the Bamenda police station in North West Province. They were held without charges or access to lawyers in appalling and violent conditions for a period of two weeks. After pressure from international human-rights organizations and embassies they were released on bail. The four have now been charged with ‘Defamation of Character of a Leading Government Official’ – Al Hadji Baba Danpullo.

This man is very wealthy and has a diplomatic passport. He views the Mbororo people as his personal clients – he could guarantee their vote for the ruling party at election time. Now he has taken over large portions of the land where their cattle graze. I have personally experienced the way he uses the ‘court’ at his private ranch in the North West Province to try, sentence and ‘request fines’ from local Mbororo cattle-grazers, using trumped-up charges to extort money. MBOSCUDA has been fighting for land rights and to put an end to patrimonial politics, so conflict with Al Hadji Baba Danpullo was inevitable.

The political situation in Cameroon is extremely volatile. Gestures towards democratization have raised expectations and led to the creation of several new grassroots movements, opposition political parties and newspapers. The regime refused to cede power to the winners of the elections in 1992 and has since played ‘cat and mouse’ with critics, periods of brutal repression following free expression. ‘Structural adjustment’ policies and currency devaluation have left the Government unable to pay civil servants for periods as long as 18 months.

Cameroon was once a German colony, then divided between British and French occupying forces after World War Two. In theory British and French educational and administrative systems coexist – in practice the Francophone majority dominate. The Anglophone Movement grew and lobbied unsuccessfully for the reinstatement of the previous federal system. It now seeks outright independence. Delegations have been sent to the European Union and the United Nations. Strikes and marches have been organized at which provocative material about the present regime was circulated.

It is on these texts that the defamation claims are based. But the material came from the Anglophone Movement conference and was not written by any of the four Mbororos facing charges. They have been accused of allying themselves with the Anglophone Movement and of being ‘national traitors’. The issue has been blown up by the opposition media into something far greater than a single, non-governmental organization working for the rights of a specific group of people who are in conflict with Mr Al Hadji Baba Danpullo.

Court hearings in December were adjourned when he declared that he wished personally to attend the next session. He says he wishes to bring further and as yet unspecified charges against the four.

All this does not bode well. I recently spoke to Nuhu by telephone and he sounded extremely scared and disillusioned. He is unable to work or sleep, is restless, sick and slowly being broken by constant uncertainty and fear. Five of his close friends have been bought off by Al Hadji Danpullo – the economic situation in Cameroon makes people desperate, unwilling to stick their necks out and susceptible to bribery.

I am writing these ineffective ‘dry words’ today in the hope that outside media attention will put pressure on the Cameroon Government to allow my Nuhu and those accused with him to continue their work in safety. I have contacted the mainstream media in Britain and Denmark but unfortunately they are only interested in ‘events’. As in Nigeria with the death of Ken Saro Wiwa, the interest comes only when it’s too late. Cameroon is sensitive to outside opinion and – fortunately perhaps – there are no other international economic interests at stake.

Politely written ‘letters of concern’ should be sent to His Excellency President Paul Biya, fax: 237 221 699.
Copies to Nuhu Jafaru, c/o Lawyer Harmony Bobga Mbouton, PO Box 315 Bamenda, North West Province, Cameroon, tel/fax: 237 361 614 and to Lucy Davis at Øster Allé 25 v 35, 2100 Copenhagen, Denmark, fax: 45 35 36 02 15.

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