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Cameroon Judiciary Is In Sordid State – Barrister Bonu 

Interviewed By Elvis Tah

Barrister Innocent Bonu is a household name in the Cameroon Bar Association, who is very critical about the judicial system. In this exclusive interview with The Post, Bonu tells of how the judiciary is corrupt and how it has been neglected by government. Excerpts:

The Post: You have been practising for decades. What can you say about the state of the Cameroon judiciary?

Barrister Bonu: It is really unfortunate that the judiciary is now in a sordid state; a state of complete neglect. Taking a glance at the court yards, you will see misery everywhere; misery in the eyes of litigants, lawyers, magistrates. I have been practising for the past 25 years and it wasn’t like this. There is only one High Court in the whole of Fako Division. The Court of First Instance has only three court halls and seven magistrates who are supposed to be sitting, but not all the sittings are regular.

You will also notice that the typewriters that are in use are the ones which were bought far before the period of independence. It is true we have one or two computers dotted here and there, but you can imagine the High Court of Fako still using such obsolete typewriters. What do we expect to find in some other remote areas? Go to the Customary Courts; I am telling you that we need to sit down and weep for the judiciary.

This, more or less, has to do with logistics, but what about the manpower; lawyers, magistrates, clerks and so on?

I see frustration in them. Why would they not be frustrated? They don’t have court halls to sit in. For the magistrates, their salary situations have improved, but I can tell you that some magistrates were transferred to this region but it took them two to three months to have houses. When I was growing up here in Buea, there were houses that were allocated to magistrates, such that when they were transferred, it was automatic.

What do you think should be done to remedy the situation?

The solutions are very visible. From the training in ENAM, things must be put in the right place. The Ministry of Justice should have itself well organised, such that promotion is on merit and not on relation or tribal basis. When people are promoted based on tribal leanings or relations, some people will never know when they will be promoted. There is no motivation for them to work harder in order to earn a promotion.

In essence, you are saying that promotion in the judiciary is not based on merit?

As a lawyer who has put in 25 years of practice and I see magistrates being promoted, if you ask me what criteria are used, I cannot say with certainty that this is the criterion. I am just a lawyer. If you ask about other countries, I will tell you that before you become a judge, you are supposed to have practised as a lawyer for a number of years and then you have the experience.

Imagine that somebody leaves ENAM and is promoted to sit as a judge in the High Court with the capacity and capability of sentencing somebody to death. A man who has just left school, what do you expect? You know, within a number of years, they say these are the number of judgements that this particular judge has been able to deliver and the society is a silent audience; they know the judges, they know the good and bad judges.

At least there should be a provision for the society to have a say. Before appointments, the officials can come down to Buea, carry out their independent investigation and know the good judges and the bad ones who do not sit. There are judges in Buea who do not sit but when it is time for appointments, they are promoted, whereas the ones who make an effort to sit are not promoted.

It seems lawyers and magistrates are operating like strange bedfellows?

No. I will tell you that there are many magistrates that I admire and I have personal relationships with. I do sympathise with their misfortunes or whatever is coming their way, but I am telling you that between lawyers and magistrates, I don’t see any problem. We were classmates at the university, we live in the same society and we know what they go through, but it is also true that some of them who don’t want to socialise have a poor relationship with us.

In Buea, the President of the Court of Appeal is friendly with almost all the lawyers, we enjoy her and she is always there, like a mother to advise us. Whenever we have happy or sad moments, she is always there, but that is not what is important. What is important is how the society benefits from that relationship. Do we suffer from several adjournments; are our clients complaining? Yes. I can tell you that for the past two to three years, I have not done two matters regularly.

What do you think accounts for the numerous adjournments?

It is because the magistrates are not sitting; the court’s time is 9 am. But if you come here at 11 am or 12 noon, you will realise that the court is not sitting. The magistrate will call from a distance that they are taking dates. The poor client keeps spending money on transport coming to court for uncountable number of times and matters are adjourned continuously.

That wasn’t the situation in those days. Lawyers spend more time here taking dates and doing nothing. There are allegations that some magistrates are vindictive towards certain lawyers and, as a result, the lawyers, in order not to strain relationship, resort to giving bribes to the magistrates.

What is your take on that?

Well, any lawyer who gives bribe is a lawyer who wants to give bribe, because there is nothing like somebody forcing you to give bribes. If you have a good case, there is no need for you to give bribes. Secondly, the Court of First Instance is just a Court of First Instance; there is also the Court of Appeal, there is a Supreme Court; so if a lawyer gives bribe, it is what he or she wants to do. If a lawyer doesn’t want to bribe, he or she will not bribe. You can allow the judgement to go the way the magistrate wants it to go and then you go on appeal.

What is the situation of the Bar Council?

Well, I left the Bar Council about two years ago; the Bâtonnier is around, so you can find out from him how the Bar Council is faring. If you talk to him, he will give you his achievements, but if you ask me, since I am not in the Bar Council, I am not having any feelings as such. There might just be some minute things which I may not be able to see or feel.

But as a former Bar Council member, you are better placed to make an appraisal of the Bâtonnier’s reign?

Well, he knows what lawyers want and he is supposed to know how lawyers feel. That is his first duty. It is he who will be able to enumerate his achievements. If you ask me what we did, I will tell you that we did a few things for ourselves.

Two years is too short a time for you to do everything, but I can tell you that in seven years, we launched the Bar exams, we acquired a plot for the Bar so that we can build our headquarters, we came up with a project to have a law school at the Buea University; it hasn’t materialised, but it is in the relay. Some other people have to take the baton and continue, because we also completed what other people started and left.

So, I think that Barrister Eta Besong has taken the relay baton, he knows what he has done, I might not know because those deliberations are done in the Bar Council meetings. There used to be a newsletter of the Cameroon Bar Association called Bulletin De Bâtonnier. If we had that and read through, perhaps I would have been able to say that this is what he has done.

At least, there is something you will remember Barrister Eta Besong Jr. for, during his tenure as Bar Council President?

Well, the only thing is that there is peace in the Bar. That’s all what I can see. I cannot say there is a storey building here or there because most of those things are done in the Bar Council deliberations.

And how is your relationship with Barrister Eta Besong Jr?

Very healthy, that is on a one-to-one. Bâtonnier Eta Besong Jr. and Barrister Innocent Bonu, I think they are very close. We call ourselves brothers.  

What about Fako Lawyers Association, FAKLA, which has thus far, gone through turbulent moments?

FAKLA is up and strong; they had their elections about three weeks ago and the new president is doing well.

But there are allegations that some lawyers are still divided concerning the elections and that you are planning to form another association?

FAKLA is an association of lawyers who are based in Fako; it is a legal body. I can see some lawyers coming from certain villages or tribes and they have their associations, so they have the right to form all those associations. But that will not split FAKLA. I don’t see any split in FAKLA because the majority are on one side and it must be like that. You can’t have everybody on the same side. What we should be concerned about is what the new president, Barrister Stanislaus Ajong, will make in the association.

Any last word…

Well, I am praying that the government should know that the judiciary is also an authority which also needs a lot of attention like they pay to the Executive and the Legislature, because, truly speaking, if the judiciary fails, there will be anarchy. That is why there is mob action, because, if people don’t go to court, they will resort to mob justice.

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