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We Can’t Have Independent Judiciary Without Independent Judges – Hon. Ayah 

Interviewed By Yerima Kini Nsom

The Member of Parliament, MP, for Akwaya, Hon Justice Paul Ayah Abine, has bemoaned the overbearing influence of the executive on the judiciary, saying that the independence of the Judiciary in Cameroon is far-fetched. "We can’t have an independent Judiciary without independent judges," the outspoken MP averred in an interview with The Post recently.

To him, greed for material aggrandisement and the quest for promotion have made some magistrates virtually toys in hands of the powerful and the rich. Hon Ayah, who hails from Akwaya in the Southwest Region was a magistrate before he entered Parliament. Read on:

Did you enjoy your job as a judge? How independent is the judiciary?

My goodness!! It was wonderful. I enjoyed my job very well and I would have liked to continue but for the pressure from my people. You talk about independence, independence is not given; a judge makes himself independent in the decisions he takes; in following procedure, in respecting the law and especially listening to his conscience. That is what makes the judge independent because if every judge is independent and takes decisions independently, then, of course, the judiciary is independent.

In doing that in the context of Cameroon, we forget about promotion, we forget about punitive transfer. I can give you my example, may be it was because of the stance I took in my profession that I pushed vehicles all through my career. As a Grade I magistrate, I pushed vehicles to Nwa; as Grade II, I pushed to Jakiri; as Grade III, I pushed to Fundong and, as Grade IV, I pushed to Ndian. So, you must be prepared to face those consequences if you are a judge.

As a judge for many years, can you remember one of the best decisions you took?  

I leave it to the public to judge. Wherever I worked, at least, people can testify how I did my job; whether I did it honestly. The decisions I took too, I leave it to the public to appreciate. Every decision I took I did after reflection. I put what I had to decide into the law and I saw whether it was within the law and once it was within the law, I took my decision. So, to me all the decisions I took were important and reasoned decisions and I think I took some of the most incisive decisions in the Cameroonian context where nobody wants to take a decision that can offend those in authority.

I am in a very awkward situation on how to name them to you because I am not in my library in Buea.  I know that in Nkambe there was a case before me when the then all-powerful Hon. Nsakwa wanted to seize land from Kungi women and I took a stance in favour of the poor women and everybody was surprised.

There was also a decision I took about the cattle graziers. Since they are wealthier than the farmers; everybody is always on their side but I remember that I took a decision where I said that the administration was corrupt and that they are corruptly taking sides with the graziers and I took a decision in favour of the poor farmers, I did that in Nkambe. I also remember that the gendarmes who were very powerful at the time …

you know when President Ahidjo was still in power everybody was afraid because the gendarmes could just write anything to implicate anybody, but I took a decision against the gendarmes who arrested a girl just around my premises because she did not have an identity card and I said if that was the law, then it meant that if somebody went into a pit toilet and his identity card drops in the toilet, then the whole identification officials will move inside the toilet and issue him one before he/she came out.

Also, I said it would mean that women would no longer wear loin cloths because there will be no pockets for them to put their identity cards, so loin cloths will eventually be banned. In Ndian, I took a decision where they said that the courts do not have anything to do with chieftaincy matters and I said no, that is not the law. The law says that the courts have no jurisdiction over matters arising from the appointment of a chief. The law does not say that all chieftaincy matters as we say in Cameroon are outside the jurisdiction of the court.

And then, of course, I took decisions to the effect that things like the CIMA code, like OHADA, which provided that the working language was exclusively French, were inapplicable to Cameroon despite the constitutional provision that once an international instrument is ratified, it is above the constitution. I say no, if it were defined you do not conform to the constitution, then, of course, the ratification is not proper and therefore such an instrument is not applicable. Cameroon being a bilingual country, you cannot restrict Cameroon to one of the languages with the exclusion of some other part of the country. So I took a lot of decisions like that.

There was this other decision you took about a police superintendent in Kumbo, Can you remember?

Yes, of course at that time the Commissioner I think was Lazare Tchakounte, or something like that.  If somebody overtook him with his car, he said the person was giving him dust; he will arrest him, impound his vehicle and seize the key.

He did that with one Land Rover and the vehicle disappeared and then I took a decision that the commissioner had a gang of bandits and that what he was doing was banditry. There was a civil award against him.  He went and complained to the Presidency and they told him that since it was a court decision, he could only go on appeal. They advised him to just go quietly and pay the money. And, of course, there was the famous report I wrote as head of the divisional supervisory commission in Ndian during the 1997 elections. 

I wrote that the elections were very poorly organised; it was not possible that the CPDM (at that time I was not even in politics) should have 100 percent in every one given polling station. It is not possible in life which means that they wanted to show that everybody who registered voted. And that from registration to voting, nobody died, no woman gave birth, nobody travelled. No, I said this is not possible. So I took a lot of decisions; unfortunately, at that time there were no computers, I do not have copies of the decisions but I have good memories of them.

What is your view of the judicial system in Cameroon?

You see, President Paul Biya said something very interesting on the advent of multiparty democracy. He said that we have to be very careful because we cannot talk about democracy without democrats. We do not mean democrats in the American sense of a Democratic Party but people who know what democracy is all about.

Similarly, in the judiciary, I have also cautioned that when we talk about independence of the judiciary, we have to be a bit cautious because we cannot have an independent judiciary without independent judges. In Cameroon today, if you listen to judges and to their judgements and see what they are doing, there is a big question mark. Let me start with a critical case where a judge is afraid. A judge cannot be afraid because his oath of office is to do justice to all manner of people without fear or favour.

The emphasis here is on fear before favour. So a judge who is afraid is not a judge. A judge who thinks about promotion cannot deliver the goods.  So, when a person makes up his mind to become a judge, he has to forgo and forget a lot of things and place himself in a position where he must be fair. There is too much emphasis on materialism and comparison with other units. There is too much emphasis on one’s own career, protecting one’s career and once you put all those things in your mind, you cannot render justice.

So, would you agree, intoto, with those who say that justice in Cameroon is hawked to the highest bidder?

I have heard that on the radio a number of times and when I look around and I see people who left school only yesterday driving ostentatious vehicles, I see the expensive houses they’ve built; there is a reason to put a question mark, because, throughout my career, I had a little Volkswagen. In fact, there was a time I was driving a vehicle that looked like a bread van.

When people came to look for me in Kumba; they said there was no judge there, whereas I was the President of the court. In my neighbourhood, people said I was a boulangerie driver "only say the man like coat." I was at the head of a high court and I eventually bought a Cressida because I had an accident with my little car and I was given an insurance award. But when I see the way judges are so opulent with money now, there is a reason to put a very big question mark.

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