On April 22, 2010, a journalist died under doubtful circumstances in the clammy cells of Kondengui maximum security prison in Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon. The journalist was called Germain Cyrille Ngota Ngota. He was popularly known as Bibi Ngota. He was editor for a tabloid called Cameroun Express.
By Azore Opio
Bibi Ngota had been arrested on February 5, 2010 together with three other journalists from different media organs. They were investigating alleged corruption in Société Nationale des Hydrocarbures (SNH), a state-run oil company. Bibi Ngota never saw the end of his investigation. Official reports said he had died from HIV infection complications. The Federation of African Journalists said Bibi Ngota ‘had died from lack of medical attention while in prison for his reporting.’
The Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, would comment after Reporters Without Borders discovered that journalists in Cameroon are not only not recognised but are not protected by the nation’s laws.
“The detention and death of journalists represents a loss for any society; the loss of a pair of eyes and of a voice that can inform the public about issues that concern us all. I trust that the authorities will do all they can to shed light on this tragic death…” Irina Bokova had said.
As Bibi Ngota was not so lucky, so had been Lambo Sandjo Pierre Roger, aka Lapiro de Mbanga. A critic of the Cameroon government and a famous musician, Lapiro was no outsider to censorship. Earlier in 2008 after criticising Paul Biya’s regime of tinkering with the constitution to liberalise the presidential mandate, Lapiro was arrested. Also the chief of his village of Mbanga, Lapiro was charged with ‘fomenting unrest and destruction of property’ and jailed for three years in the New Bell Prison in Douala, the economic capital of Cameroon. On his discharge from jail, he escaped to the US where he later died on March 16, 2014 and was cremated according to his wish. Lapiro had been the vocal musical advocate for Cameroon’s wretched lot and unemployed youths.
While in the New Bell dungeon, Lapiro had lived the life of a political inmate. Attacked by typhoid fever and respiratory complications, the activist nearly died in December 2009. While he suffered, the authorities chose to look the other way. Lapiro survived, thanks to medications brought to him by his wife. Appeals to the Supreme Court, and by international human rights NGOs such as Freemuse based in Denmark, US-based lawyers’ organisation Freedom Now, Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, all fell on deaf ears. In 2010, Lapiro was quoted in an interview he gave in prison as saying that, “If my wife didn’t travel four hours here and four hours back every day to give me food and if Freemuse hadn’t publicised my case worldwide, I’d have been dead long ago.”
He had described his trial as “Kafkaesque and conditions in the prisons where he had been locked up as “rotten”, and added, “I’ve never done anything of the sort [encouraged youths to burn and destroy property]. Instead, I did everything to prevent that from happening.”
According to Lapiro, his fate had been “‘decided in advance’, despite the utter lack of evidence against him.”
Not only political forces drive the harassment of rights activists in Cameroon, market forces of trade in illegal timber, ivory and other elephant products, protected wildlife species and land grabs for agribusiness have invaded the rainforests of Cameroon, hastening the destruction of the forests. The efforts of the stewards of the environment and citizens rights are often thwarted by those who profit from illegal exploitation of the forest and its products, from land grabbers. These harassments and destruction by chain saws and bulldozers are maintained by corrupt officials as countless activists endure fear and uncertainty because of threats to their lives.
Nasako Besingi, CEO of The Struggle to Economize the Future Environment (SEFE), in 2012 found out that protesting against land grabbers is a deadly business. Nasako had begun peaceful campaigns against an American agribusiness company, Herakles Farms, in Mundemba, South West Region of Cameroon, when he and two of his colleagues were arrested and detained without trial in prison for several days. Before his arrest and detention, employees of Herakles Farms had assaulted Nasako as he accompanied a French television crew which was touring the area. Sadly, Nasako was not alone in the face of harassment and numerous charges including attempting to organize illegal meetings.
A fiercely committed environmental group, Nature Cameroon, based in Nguti, in the middle of forest concessions in the South West Region of Cameroon, in September 2013, found itself faced with suspension. The CEO of Nature Cameroon, Dominic Alekeh Ngwesse, was informed via official mail that he could not organize any meetings any longer, most likely because they had been resisting Herakles Farms. Verbal and phone call threats to his life flowed after the suspension letter.
Fon Christopher Achobang, independent human rights defender, on April 27, 2015 found himself behind the bars of the gendarmerie brigade in Mbengwi in the Momo Division, Northwest Region. Then he was transferred to the Mbengwi Principal Prison and regained his freedom only a month later on May 5, 2015. Bail: 2 million francs cfa and two sureties with land titles. Achobang’s crime was, or rather, is, trying to bring Mbororo cattle keepers and their neighbours who are mainly farmers to dialogue and stop conflicts between themselves, as well as the destruction of crops through overgrazing and bush fires. Achobang’s case is ongoing.
Many civil society organizations and individual rights activists in Cameroon have had, from time to time, to come face to face with threats, intimidation, arrests, detention, litigations, suspension, and sometimes even imprisonment. And death. Grassroots rights groups across the country are harassed, often violently by both the official and corporate world for simply standing up for the rights of their communities and their environment. Sometimes these harassments spill over to even innocent citizens because of their political leanings.
On August 9, 2009, Ndeh Michael Ndeh, born to Ndeh Sunde Richard (RIP) and Tameze Kamdoum Georgette Rosette, had to hurriedly leave Cameroon for the USA. He was in deep fear for his life as he travelled far away from his motherland. Ndeh Michael was prompted to flee after police raided their home and arrested his father along with him. Both were detained on Monday, March 10, 2008. Ndeh was separated from his father and detained for two days, during which he underwent interrogation. He was released on Wednesday, March 12, 2008. Is father wasn’t so lucky. He was released on Saturday, May 10, 2008.
Ndeh and his father, initially a lawyer turned businessman, were harassed simply because the main opposition party in Cameroon had approached them to rent their buses for a peaceful demonstration. Ndeh’s father was a transporter. He and his son would also be accused of undermining state security with the aim of destabilizing the regime. Young Ndeh would be released on condition that he does not engage in any public demonstration and to no longer maintain and relations with members of the main opposition political party. Ndeh’s father remained in detention for two months before being released. He too was told not continue doing his transportation business. In the end, the old man had to try and dispose of his vehicles. But before he could liquidate the vehicles, some men in uniform set fire to the garage and warehouse. That marked the beginning of Ndeh’s father’s demise. A further mistake would cause the death of two watchmen working for Ndeh’s father. They had somehow recognised two men who had set fire to their employer’s garage. And then Ndeh’s father went to report to the police. This only incurred the wrath of the officer on duty. In March 2010, one of the watchmen was found dead, hung in his own room, and the second will be found dead in June 2011 in a gutter.
Ndeh’s own error was to approach the opposition party leaders in the hope of denouncing what had happened to him, his father and their watchmen. That was it. His home was once again raided, and a summons served to his mother for him to report to the authorities. Fearing the worst, Ndeh heeded his father’s advice and fled the country.
One sad event led to another in quick succession. Ndeh’s father vanished. When his wife, Ndeh’s mother, went to report that her husband was missing, the officers gave her a cold shoulder. She was told her husband had not been to the police station but a warrant of arrest had been issued against him all the same. Soon after that, Ndeh’s family residence was again raided, his mother threatened because her son had not presented himself to the police.
In January 2012, a decomposed corpse turned up an abandoned house. Suspicious, Ndeh’s mother went to investigate and discovered that the corpse was that of her missing husband. An autopsy report confirmed that he died sometime in June 2011. Ndeh meanwhile, is at large for fear of his life.