By Boris Esono Nwenfor
Following international pressure and an admission of guilt on the part of Cameroon’s security forces, the President of Cameroon Paul Biya announced a commission of inquiry into the incident on March 1, 2020. Sadly, it is two years now since that commission was announced and nothing concrete has been made regarding the trial of some twelve (12) individuals who are on trial.
According to media reports, the trial of those arrested began on December 17, 2020, before the Yaounde military court. The defendants include two soldiers: a sergeant and a first-class soldier of the 52nd Motorized Infantry Battalion, BIM, a gendarme, a former separatist fighter, and 17 ethnic-Fulani vigilantes, who remain at large. They have been charged with murder, arson, destruction, violence against a pregnant woman, and disobeying orders, Human Rights Watch reported.
Research by Human Rights Watch research concluded that government forces and armed ethnic Fulani killed 21 civilians in Ngarbuh on 17 February 2020, including 13 children and a pregnant woman, burned five homes, looted scores of other properties, and beat residents in a reprisal operation against the community suspected of harbouring separatist fighters.
“Whichever group has done this has threatened that there will be more violence ahead,” he said. “The people we’ve spoken with are extremely traumatised and didn’t expect this,” James Nunan, an official from the UN’s humanitarian coordination agency Ocha said.
Senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch Ilaria Allegrozzi said: “When the trial started, it was welcomed as a step toward justice and tackling impunity for military abuses in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions.” “But two years after the massacre, victims and their families are still awaiting justice, while security forces have continued to commit serious human rights violations.”
The killing of women and children in Ngarbuh was greatly condemned by the national and international community including the UN Secretary-General, Britain, France and one of the renowned human rights defenders in the country Barrister Felix Nkongho Agbor Balla.
Regarding the killing, French president Emmanuel Macron promised to “exert maximum pressure” on Biya to end “Cameroon’s intolerable human rights violations.” Since that call in 2021, it seems the French president has forgotten about his promise as the rate of human rights violations at the hands of Cameroon’s security forces is increasing by that day.
Lawyers for the victims and their families told Human Rights Watch that sections 177 and 189 of Cameroon’s Criminal Procedure Code provide the possibility that a magistrate could go to Ngarbuh and collect testimony from witnesses. But instead, lawyers said, courts have used section 336 of the Criminal Procedure Code to allow criminal proceedings to be heard and determined without witnesses present.
“Testimonies of administrative and military authorities, who serve as prosecution witnesses, in this case, try to show that those killed in Ngarbuh were separatist fighters and not civilians,” said Barrister Menkem Sother, one of the family members’ lawyers. “It looks like the goal of the investigation will be to show that the Cameroon security forces only killed separatist fighters in Ngarbuh and that the killing of any civilians was the work of vigilantes.”
“If the parties are not satisfied with the judgment and the case is referred to the appeals court, the review will be carried out by the same judge,” said Barrister Richard Tamfu, one of the family members’ lawyers.
“This is a blatant violation of the right to appeal to an impartial tribunal as set out in the Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Fair Trial and Legal Assistance in Africa, judicial impartiality is compromised if “a judicial official sits as a member of an appeal tribunal in a case which he or she decided or participated in a lower judicial body.”
For the past five years, Cameroon’s security forces and separatist groups have been engaged in a war that has seen thousands of people killed and others displaced. The violence in the South West and North West Regions has claimed more than 3,000 lives and caused the displacement of over 730,000 civilians.
“The lack of justice for the killings of civilians in Ngarbuh and the recurring military abuses are avoidable consequences of the failure to ensure effective investigations and prosecutions,” Allegrozzi said. “Cameroonian authorities should rein in their security forces, ensure an end to abuses, and guarantee that those most responsible for the Ngarbuh killings, as well as other serious abuses, are held to account in fair and effective trials.”
And with the days go by it is yet to be seen if the verdict of those who were arrested and on trial will be ever made. Even if it is, would it have been a fair one when according to Human Rights Watch, there is “limited opportunity for access and participation by victims’ families, the lack of probative witnesses, and the fact that senior officers with command responsibility have not been arrested or charged?”