Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

Cameroon executions: difficult to condemn?

By Ben Mensah

The fact of the coup attempt, the scores that were killed and the confusion and lawlessness that it created cannot be denied. Hence if only "just law was applied to its perpetrators why did Paul Biya not take the opportunity to trythem openly?"

Now that quotable figures have been released by Yaounde radio of those who were arrested, executed, jailed or freed in connection with the coup attempt against President Paul Biva on April 6th, one is tempted to ask why the news blackout which gave cause for rumours, speculation and even contradictions in statements issued by government officials.

Officially, 1,053 people were arrested in connection with the coup plot, 617 were freed immediately, 436 cases were heard by a military court, 46 death sentences were passed, three in absentia, two sentence of life imprisonment, 183 received prison terms of between two and 20 years, another 183 were freed while 22 had their cases referred for further investigation.

Understandably, the aftermath of a coup attempt in which scores of people were killed and the attempt could only be crushed after more than forty-eight hours, was bound to be infested by the kind of confusion in which the President, while being discreet about the tribal composition of the plotters, his minister of Defence and Chief of Staff were blaming the northern elements in the military.

It was this same confusion which made it possible for an uninformed peddling in the number of people executed or jailed even before the trials could start before the military court

Even now no names have been given of those who went on trial and the only clue to the execution of the sentences passed by the court is contained in a speech in which President Biya thanked the people of Cameroon for their vigilance and support.

He said, 'those who resorted to arms in disregard of honour and law have been overcome and arrested. They have just been tried by our country's justice and condemned with neither softness or hatred. The law -- just the law was applied to all'.

The fact of the coup attempt, the scores that were killed and the confusion and lawlessness that it created cannot be denied. Hence, if only 'just the law' was applied to perpetrators why did Paul Biya not take the opportunity to try them openly?

In November 1982, the ruler of Cameroon for two decades, President Ahmadou Ahidjo, on medical grounds gave up power in favour of his hand-picked successor, President Biya. Coming soon after a similar 'abdication' by President Senghor of Senegal, President Ahidjo's resignation was hailed as a wise decision by an African leader to smoothly transfer power to another leader.


But it was not long after when the former ex-President Ahidjo began to regret the loss of his dictatorial powers and initiated moves to change the country's constitution so that as Chairman of the sole political party he could have precedence over President Biya.

Biya quickly saw through this plot and reacted by re-shuffling his inherited cabinet and replacing most of his ministers he considered loyal to Ahidjo.

The peculiarities of a country that was a former German colony, partitioned between the French and British after the second world war and which was also characterised by tribal and religious divisions immediately presented ex-President’s supporters of northern origin in the Biya government to resign. He was snubbed and out the country started accusing the southerner Biya of having 'plot-phobia, being weak, a cheat and hypocrite Eventually, ex-President Ahidjo and two military officers were tried for treason and sentenced to death. This was later commuted to life imprisonment but Ahidjo was out of the country.

Meanwhile, pressure was mounting from local and external sources for President Biya to relax the autocra rule of the Ahidjo era and allow for political activity and press freedom. He also had to re-organise the country's security network. This latter task was to spark off the coup attempt by th members of the Presidential guard built by ex-President Ahidjo mainly with personnel from his northern tribe

If President Biya had therefore tried the coup plotters in the open, he would have had the easy task of exposing their criminal and selfish intentions and interests and win the approval of all Cameroonians for the punishment meted out to them. He could also have forestalled not only pleas for clemency and mitigation from the international community but also possible condemnation from the world press for executing such a large number of military personnel.

But then President Paul Biya, certainly must have learnt a lesson from the fate of elected African leaders who were not only removed from office by their soldiers and disgraced. Some were even executed for unproven crimes! If the soldiers in the Presidential Guard had succeeded in their coup attempt on April 6th, their criminal action would have been legalised and Colonel, Major or Flt-Lt, 'X' would be presenting himself as a head of state, Chairman of a Provisional Defence Committee or simply leader of the Revolution.

Like the scores of people who were killed during the turmoil, President Biya himself would also have been targeted and detained or kept in seclusion. And if he had not been killed, he and his ministers would have been incarcerated in readiness for secret trials, the kind of which is taking place in Nigeria without a whimper from the international press or legal organisations.

And sooner rather than later the short and relatively liberal rule of President Biya would have been presented as the darkest period in the history of Cameroon. And if it is true that ex-President Ahidjo was the brain behind the plot, he might be invited back from exile to continue from where he left off or play a leading role in the new military regime.

Hence, if President Biya has tried, executed, imprisoned and freed the coup plotters against his government without subjecting the proceedings to public view or even naming the men involved, then this action must be viewed from the above standpoint.

Secret trials or ordeals are by no means the best way to establish the guilt or innocence of an accused yet it looks like the African soldiers who are currently feasting on the defencelessness of civilian democratic governments to stage coups d'etat and then try the deposed political leaders in camera or before special tribunals and other forms of Kangaroo courts make it very difficult to condemn the Cameroonian experience.

talking drums 1984-05-28 Cameroon executions - Buhari - Ghana's PDC-WDCs