Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine


How The Press Sacked Justice Minister

By Charles Ndi-Chia

In an unprecedented show of 'press power' in Cameroon under President Paul Biya's new deal the country's Anglophone press have succeeded in removing the Minister for Justice. In the report below a correspondent documents events leading to the removal of Mr Ngongang Ouandji
A fight between the anglophone press and magistrates on the one hand, and the top brass of the National Oil Refinery (SONARA) and the Justice Ministry has subsided, albeit temporarily, with the Justice Minister earning a black eye. Minister Andre Ngongang Ouandji was flushed out of Office on Saturday, August 24, barely six days after the national radio harshly criticised what was referred to as two "bullying sessions" he had with magistrates and other legal authorities of the two anglophone provinces.

Mr Ngongang Ouandji's fall with four of his colleagues has proved Paul Biya's persistent promises to discipline officials of his government, no matter what high and/or influential posts they hold.

Ostensibly smarting from a series of foreign and local publications which directly criticised him the Minister went on official trips to the two anglo- phone provinces where he attacked legal authorities with a tirade of accusations and chastisement. In fourteen pages of vituperation, the ex- Minister said that the legal authorities were ignorant of the law. He claimed that contrary to the new legislation which was geared towards the harmon- isation of the francophone and anglo- phone legal systems, magistrates in the two provinces continued to apply texts which were outdated.

Mr Ouandji had warned that full national integration as advocated by Biya's government can only be achieved if Cameroonians show proof of good faith in applying the laws passed by the national assembly, or the rules and regulations passed by the executive, without sticking to texts inherited from the colonial masters.

The ex-Minister had further accused the anglophone magistrates of arbitrar- ily hearing disputes relating to the grants of public service and administrative documents and those concern- ing public lands. Such matters, he had told the magistrates, were reserved solely for the administrative chamber of the Supreme Court. Another point on which the former Minister frowned was hearing matters on border and chieftaincy disputes, both of which he claimed fall under the competence of duly established administrative committees.

He proceeded to charge the legal men for what he termed "misapplying the law" in matters concerning concur- rent and alternative sentences, temporary execution of judicial decisions and matters relating to the dismissal of staff representatives. During those two occasions he had deplored the misuse of court fees, failure to register court judgements and the non-wearing of robes during court sessions.

He however entreated the magistra- tes to honour their obligation of reporting to the chancellery all matters of peculiar importance and strictly applying all the circulars issued either by the Presidency of the Republic or the Chancellery and warned that government will no longer tolerate any manifestation of contempt of the laws and statutes of the republic.

Mr Ouandji had warned that full national integration as advocated by Biya's government can only be achieved if Cameroonians show proof of good faith in applying the laws passed by the national assembly, or the rules and regulations passed by the executive, without sticking to texts inherited from the colonial masters.

Apparently stung by the former Minister's scathing remarks, the anglo- phone magistrates returned the fire. They told him to his face that most of the provisions of the new laws are in- applicable in anglophone Cameroon. They said that harmonising the two legal systems would not be much of a bad idea, but that leap-frogging the civil legislation and jumping blindly at the criminal procedure would be putting the cart before the horse.

They also argued that the new civil laws disregard the fact that a citizen's rights derive from the civil ordinances and the criminal aspect of depends on his civilian standing

The magistrates cited the system in francophone Cameroon whereby a written report from a policeman or gendarme officer plays a paramount role in determining an accused person's guilt. They reminded Mr Ouandji that whereas in francophone Cameroon an accused person is considered guilty till proved otherwise, in the anglophone tradition an accused person is only a suspect till proved guilty, the burden of proof lying on the prosecution instead of the defence.

One of the magistrates remarked: "To accept a strange system which should shift the burden of proof onto the shoulders of a defendant would be tantamount to kissing goodbye to one of the most fundamental safeguards of a citizen's rights". Another retorted: "I feel touched that only magistrates in the anglophone provinces are accused of contradicting the so-called new text".


Two veteran commentators of the highly critical programme Cameroon Report', Sam Nuvalla Fonkem and Fai Henry Fonye, were later to descend on the issue like hungry lions. In a very philosophical contribution to the Sunday morning programme for in- stance, Fonye deplored what he called the growth of institutionalised corruption in public life, stipended mismanagement, tribal nepotism and the rampant injustices even at the doorstep of justice.

Regretting that some people were almost turning the country's government to a family business, the commentator warned that no one should try to play Father Christmas with justice and that justice ought not to be available only to the highest bidder as some top brass were trying to make it.

In an unprecedented commentary that was to be the talk of the town even after the Minister was pooh-poohed from office by Sam Nuvalla Fonkem for deriding the customs and welfare of any given community. He questioned whether it were possible to apply laws without conviction, and if it be wise politically, to apply alien laws in the name of integration. Fonkem warned that the applica- tion of such laws could only bring about alienation, which the minister himself recognised when he talked of some anglophone magistrates living in a closed circle.

Citing the former Minister's wrath against the coverage that was given to the SONARA oil theft, the fiery commentator said that Ngongang Ouandji's warning that information should not be divulged to the press, was a patent contradiction to the newly regained press freedom which the "New Deal" government displays as a showcase of open democracy.

"In effect, the Minister's charges against men of the legal profession has done severe damage to the legal profession in that the credibility and authority of anglophone magistrates have been grossly undermined.

"We hope that when the so-called harmonised legislation is examined in parliament, political fanaticism would give way to logic and realism," the Cameroon Report commentator rounded up.


Ngongang Ouandji's successor at the Justice Ministry, Benjamin Itoe (anglo- phone) certainly has the sword of Damocles dangling over his head. Should he please the powers that be by pushing through the controversial harmonised version of the law and incur the wrath of his minority anglo- phone brethren? Or should he try to abrogate it and risk losing his grip at the helm of the Justice Ministry like his predecessor? This is the question which Cameroonians, whether francophone or anglophone are asking themselves - presently.

N.B. Mr Ouandji had earlier in his address in Buia stated categorically that some senior citizens of the country could not be touched by the long arm of the law and so deserved special protection from the law courts and magistrates. He was apparently referring to the SOWARA General Manager Eding Bernard whose arrest in connection with the oil scandal of December 1984 he (Ouandji) had thwarted from his "good" office.

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