By *George Fuhkum
I read with a lot of interest a news report in the February 23, 2015, edition of your paper titled “North West Lawyers Reject Francophone Judges”.
Permit me make a contribution as a prisoner, litigant and keen observer of the Northwest legal landscape concerning the recent appointment of Francophone judges, especially at the Legal Department of the Northwest Court of Appeal. Since the said transfers and appointments, I had anticipated comments from the English media to no avail, till your recent front page stories that sparked debates in the media on the issue of submissions in the French language by the Francophone judges.
I will attempt some probable reasons for the appointment of Francophone judges in key positions in the Northwest and more, especially, on the issue of submission in the French language and the justice system in general. This is done with the strong conviction that it can shed light on the subject matter, as well as many other unsaid things so far in the continuous tussle between the lawyers and the judges.
Firstly, it must be a progressive judicial policy of the Ministry of Justice in Yaounde to dispatch Cameroonian trained magistrates to any part of the country irrespective of their background in any of the official languages. Anglophone judges were equally sent to other regions in high profile positions in the West and Adamawa Regions as Attorney General and President of the Court of Appeal, respectively. An Anglophone from the Bamenda Attorney General’s Chambers was also appointed in Poli in the North Region as a senior State Counsel. It is also worth nothing that majority of judicial police officers – both gendarmes and police – are Francophones and do their reports or submissions to the courts in the French language.
Secondly, the above visible policy of the Ministry of Justice must have been motivated by numerous complaints and petitions received by the Ministry, as well as other institutions like CONAC and the National Commission For Human Rights and Freedoms, among others, on the state of justice in different Regions. Northwest litigants and petitioners were definitely inclusive, taken into consideration the fact that the Northwest litigant is a petitioner by attitude when dissatisfied with a situation. The recent petitions by the Northwest lawyers, news stories of the Wum people and the Menchum State Counsel, just to mention a few, can unarguably substantiate this fact.
Thirdly, if it can be established as above, that some Northwest litigants and petitioners had addressed worries, concerns on the handling of judicial matters in the Region, it can be rightly inferred that Anglophone judges were not doing their job properly in the Region to an extent. Reasons why; the Ministry had to scatter – by way of transfer – most of the Anglophone judges, to other parts of the country and bring in Francophones as a solution to their petitions.
Anglophone litigants, including the Northwest lawyers as well as some previous Anglophone judges are, therefore, partly responsible for the advent of Francophone judges in the “Common Law System”. Seemingly, one can rightly assume that these Francophone judges are on special assignment to restore sanity in the Northwest.
The year 2014 at the Bamenda Court of Appeal witnessed the hearing of very ugly matters on appeal that wasted the precious judicial time of the court and caused prejudice to many litigants out and behind bars.
Judgments on appeal from some of the lower courts could not be believed to have emanated from an Anglophone judge in the so called “Common Law System”. Transferred Justice Njie on October 21, 2014, in the matter between “Amuche Louis Atanga vs The State” remarked in his judgment that, the magistrate in the lower court made a caricature of the law. Please, take note that we can freely comment or cite these cases as finally decided matters without fear of prosecution. There were other very sensitive matters like “Amungwa Nicodemus Tanyi vs The State whose judgment from the lower court was squashed by the Appeal Court. The trial and judgment of the lower court did not, in anyway whatsoever, reflect a product from a “Common Law System”.
It is very regrettable to note that these cases were short-sightedly, if not, maliciously, instituted and prosecuted by Anglophone lawyers and magistrates.
Any too busy Appeal court is a clear indication that too many things are wrong in its lower courts. The resultant effect of the unwarranted miscarriage of justice was waste of precious judicial time at the Bamenda Court of Appeal to redress “erred” judgments and enormous prejudice to the appellant, and subsequently petitions by some appellants in regard to their judicial ordeals.
Lastly, many judges, prior to the last transfer, held certain positions for long and there was absolute need by any reasonable standard of administrative policy, for promotion and change. One can rightly speak of a “Bechem-nian” decade at the Bamenda PG Chambers today or an “Afong-nian” era at the High Court of Mezam, an Ngwene-nian time at the Mezam Legal Department and the kangaroo sessions in the lower courts of the above cited matters.
However, what is at the centre of debate is the issue of submissions in the French language by our fellow Francophone judges and not their transfer to our courts, but by logical and legal analysis, NOWELA cannot unreasonably reject their submissions in the French language and formally accept their transfer to the Northwest courts, because their working language is French.
The Northwest Lawyers should either reject or oppose their transfer and, resultantly, the issue of submissions in French will be automatically dealt with. But, this will, in fact, constitute an uphill task for our Northwest Lawyers, especially from a legal standpoint. Even if the Francophone judges finally yield to working in English, their performance shall not be as effective as in the French language. As the NOWELA President, Barrister Robert Nsoh Fon, rightly remarked on CRTV’s Press Hour on March 1, 2015, the Constitution of our country is vague on the use of one or both of the official languages. It simply states that, French and English are the two official languages. Consequently and regrettably, for NOWELA, there is no official language code for usage, not only in our courts, but also in any public institution. Reasons why NOWELA was shunned by the Prime Minister, Philemon Yang in their recent Yaounde trip. Advisedly, they could have requested an audience with their Minister, Laurent Esso, for a humble mitigation in bid for a solution.
It is very interesting to notice the sudden reaction of NOWELA and their plan of action in order to maintain a status quo or lex non scripta, that is, the unwritten law whereby businesses of the courts in the two Anglophone Regions were conducted in the Queen’s language. Seemingly, what NOWELA has failed to perceive is the judicial handwriting on the wall indicating a practical harmonisation or hybrid of the two legal systems, that is, the “Common Law System” or “Anglophone Law System” and the French Civil Law System.
All along this write–up, I have deliberately put in quotes or inverted commas the compound term “Common Law System” given to us by our former colonial master, Britain. The truth and bitter pill is that, even prior to the advent of our fellow Francophone judges in Northwest courts, the so called “Common Law System” had long suffered deep erosion and total adulteration as presently decried by NOWELA.
The following prevalent practices in many of the Anglophone courts do not, in any way, reflect ingredients of the borrowed British Common Law System, viz; illegal arrests, torture of suspects during police investigations and lack of intelligence by many investigators, reliance on false police reports, false statements in affidavits by even some lawyers in order to deliberately mislead a Court and win a matter by all means, prolonged detention without trial (Habeas Corpus), trial of suspects in absentia or default without due procedure of the law, thus lack of adversarial exchange of arguments and evidence, for example, a person can be tried and sentenced in absentia before being arrested and not arrested before being tried and sentenced, presumption of guilt by way of bail rejection, missing case files, excessive court fees, delays in submissions, trials and passing of judgments, delays in executing court orders in regard to persons acquitted by a court decision, inequality before the law and influence peddling, double jeopardy, abuse of office by some judicial authorities etc.
All of these result in lack of fairness and justice in sharp opposition to the modus operandi of a typical court in the Common Law System.
In conclusion, the main expectation of litigants and all Cameroonians in general should be the proper administration of justice by any judge, wherever assigned, irrespective of the official language used or law system. The fowl cry of NOWELA is not only ill-disposed to the incoming Francophone judges, but also prejudicial to their clients in prison custody and does not address the major problems plaguing our justice system.
It will, therefore, be wise for NOWELA to quickly adapt and collaborate with the Francophone judges by requesting the State to make provisions for interpreters and translators at the courts concerned as recommended by the newly appointed President of Bamenda Court of Appeal.
A fact to further discredit NOWELA is that, most of the “Old Generation” lawyers studied law in the French language at the University of Ngoa-Ekelle, they do speak and understand French, all magistrates are trained at ENAM in French and English. The so called “New Generation” lawyers are from a good bilingual system and posses commendable bilingual skills. We litigants are interested in fairness and justice within a reasonable time limit. Grant us justice and relief in Moliere’s language and not the contrary in the Queen’s language and we shall be comfortable. May justice roll like waters… Amos 5:24 RSV
* George Fuhkum Evangelist and Businessman, inmate at Central Prison Bamenda, B.A, Philosophy; Diploma, Christian Min., & Conflict Management