Human Security and the Problem of Jungle (Mob) Justice in Cameroon
Author: Walters Tohnji Tikum Samah, PhD
Originally published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on10/27/2006
Cameroon is renowned for its relative stability and is often referred to as an island of peace in a continent characterised by a multiplicity of violent conflicts. Of course, one normally would expect such a country to be Africa’s success story in matters of human security. Unfortunately, jungle justice, which has taken unprecedented heights within the past decade or more, constitutes one of the greatest threats to human security and the rule of law in Cameroon. How then can a country that seems to enjoy such stability have such a dismal human security record? This paper examines the phenomenon and argues that the weakness and failure of the state in ensuring the citizens’ security is largely to blame.
Defining the Concepts
Jungle justice is when the population (an irate mob) take upon themselves the responsibility of inflicting penalty on an alleged offender/criminal without proving him guilty of the offence. In order words, it is a situation where the masses take upon themselves to render judgment on a matter without hearing, or without giving the accused the right to a defence. This is ‘justice’ without trial. This often leads to death by stoning, burning or lynching. This act is frequent with cases of aggravated theft. Here, persons most often presumed to be bandits, are lynched by the masses on grounds of alleged (armed) robbery. This usually takes place after a public alarm is raised, followed by mass mobilisation and concluded by beating and lynching. Surprisingly, in recent times, another strand of jungle justice opened up and is now administered even on traditional leaders accused of abuse of power and other excesses.
Protecting its peoples is one of the first responsibilities of any republican state. But unfortunately, the concept of security has for a long time been interpreted narrowly to mean the security of territory from external aggression, protection of national interest or the security of state official and VIPs. Emphasis is not given to the individual on the assumption that his security emanates from that of the state. However, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in its 1994 Human Development Report pioneered a new concept of human security which stressed the need to take into account the legitimate concerns of individuals and ordinary people who sought security in their daily lives (personal security).
In Cameroon, like in most of Africa south of the Sahara, urban hardships have pushed many young people out their homes to the streets as they struggle to survive, where they become vulnerable to all sorts of crimes. Indeed, families and communities no longer can act as safety nets for children in need, but are instead producing poor, helpless and powerless children most of whom resort to street life and violence (Lugalla & Kibassa, 2003). Even more, the rate of unemployment in the country is very high. The hard times also lead to many school dropouts constituting a social nuisance. Things are made worse by the complicated recruitment process into the public service, which is mostly through competitive public exams called concours, which often take the form of what Max Weber describes as “patrimonial recruitment” (Weber, 1966: 342). Characterised by all sorts of favouritism and corruption, this ridiculous system of recruitment has increasing been pushing hundred of thousands of talented and qualified Cameroonians to the street, displaying preference for incompetent workers (Fonge, 1996: 305). Lack of education and unemployment therefore lead to crime, thus completing the vicious cycle.
Corruption, embezzlement and a high rate of injustice have brought about social inequalities, leading to two distinct classes of people in Cameroon: the haves and the have-nots. While some people have become extremely rich, others within the same state continue to suffer in abject poverty. A list of billionaires including their accounts in foreign banks and their estates at home was published in a local newspaper. This shocked Cameroonians who realised that a few people could be richer than the country. The situation is aggravated owing to the fact that those who attempt to open up small and medium-size businesses are easily frustrated by the battery of taxes they are supposed to pay. As a consequence, hard work and education is no longer viewed by youth as means of achieving the dreams of modernity. With very limited choices for survival, many young people have turned to illicit means of enrichment such as trickery and arm-robbery. Hence, crimes are out of hand as the state has failed to assume and guarantee human security. In some major cities, notorious armed gangs operate with almost total impunity, making it risky for people stay out of their homes after 7:00pm. Without the provision of effective national security, therefore, citizens take personal measures to secure themselves and their property.
In fact, when people perceive threats to their immediate security, they often become less tolerant; hence they resort to jungle justice. It suffices for an alarm to be raised by such cries or shouts as ‘thief! thief!” for the masses to fall on person of doubtful comportment, found taking a suspicious posture within the neighbourhoods. Armed ‘to the teeth’ with sticks and machetes, they hit and beat the suspect from every direction. Of course, this goes contrary to the principle behind the rule of law that, “no one is entitled to take the law into his own hands” (Mbu, 1993: 17).
Causes of Jungle Justice
One of the main causes of the proliferation of jungle justice in Cameroon is the decline and erosion of state authority. This is partly attributable to the near collapse of the judiciary system. Due to its corrupt nature, the judiciary has deviated from its original mission of justice to become a centre of injustice. The police and gendarmerie that are supposed to maintain law and order and ensure the respect and protection of persons (civil protection) and property have a very poor image in Cameroon. Like the judiciary, these security forces are often involved in corrupt practices that make them very unpopular. They extort money from taxi drivers and businessmen with impunity and carry out extra-judicial killings. In addition, they commit numerous security problems and are responsible for Cameroon’s dismal human rights records. Security forces in Cameroon are mostly deployed to disrupt or eradicate civil disobedience when peaceful marchers go out in protest against some excesses by the government (Mbu, 1993; Fonge, 1996: 264). No wonder, the present regime has survived popular uprising with the aid of security officers, who are always ready to apply brute force and unscrupulous tactics to quell and intimate the protesting crowd. This has extended even to university campuses. Meanwhile, the people continue to be victims of men of the underworld on daily basis.
There are many stories of the police failing to intervene to save life and property when armed robbers attack neighbourhoods at night. Some armed robbers even find it safer to operate in residences located around police posts. In 2000, the government created a special military operational command unit to combat the high crime wave that had bedevilled the economic headquarters of Douala. This turned out to be a unit against the population as it increased excesses by gendarmes, extortions and all sorts of abuses (see Amnesty International, Africa Watch, International Service for Human Rights, United Nations Human Rights Committee, US State Government Country Reports on Human Rights). This led to the disappearance of nine inhabitants of the neighbourhood of Bepanda which caused protest and civil strife leading to the disbanding of the operation. Instead of carrying out and investigation the perpetrators were simply transferred to other provinces.
Conscious of its incapacity to ensure human security, the state has authorised the creation of private security companies, which appear to be more effective in protecting life and property. But this is affordable only by the rich economic and bureaucratic elite and so the majority of the people remain exposed. In such a situation, where the state cannot provide protection and security to the people, the citizenry withdraws it allegiance to the state and resorts to alternative means of protection. The failure of the state to provide human security coupled with the desire of the masses to bring the situation under their control, as a means of self or collective defence, has led to the upsurge of mob justice.
Nowadays it is common to watch on TV channels images of thieves being administered mob justice by incineration. This is because the people complain that many of the thieves handed over to the police are found in the streets few days after to continue harassing them. There exist many instances when the population have marched to police or gendarme stations to administer mob justice on detainees. For instance, on 20 April 2005, over 2000 people in Bali-Nyonga in the North West Province stormed the local police post, overpowered the policemen on duty and broke into the cells and pounded on 4 notorious arm bandits, killing two (Cameroon Post N° 33, April 27-May 12 2005:5). The four thieves, who had just been rounded up by the police, were responsible for waylaying and killing a taxi driver a week earlier. Similarly, in April 2006, the population Douala attacked the gendarme post, insisting that some enormous arm bandits be handed to them. In the confrontation that ensued between the security forces and the population, one gendarme officer was seriously injured.
In another incident that took place in Batibo, still in the North West Province, the population stormed the office of the security forces, compelling them to release a notorious gang of arm robbers that had recently been arrested. The gang was specialised in terrorising businessmen trading along the Cameroon-Nigeria Highway. Upon their release by the forces of law and order, five of them were immediately lynched. In the North West Provincial headquarters of Bamenda, noted for its high crime wave, mob justice is a daily occurrence.
With regard to the application of jungle justice on traditional leaders, the night of 19 January 2006 was the turn of Chief Simon Vugah II of Big Babanki in the North West Province. He was brutally murdered by his own “subjects”. For one year, the king was out of his village having been dethroned and forced on exile by the villagers. They accused him of seizing and selling community farmland on which the people depended for their livelihood. He was also accused of rape, forcefully marrying adolescent girls and selling traditional artefacts. After his banishment from the village, Fon Vugah took refuge in Mankon, a neighbouring chiefdom. In an attempt to recover the throne he had lost, he returned to Big Babanki and sneaked into the palace at night. When he was discovered the population was immediately alerted. The chief was then apprehended and dragged to the boundary with the neighbouring chiefdom of Bambui, where he was lynched and burnt to death. When security forces went to arrest people suspected of participating in the assassination of Fon Vugah, the population got involved in a scuffle with the law enforcement officers, during which a gendarme officer, Sub-Lieutenant Gerald Njiah lost his life. It was purported that this officer went to arrest a man in his home who raised an alarm that drew the attention of his neighbours. They came out in their numbers and stoned the officer to death. (Cameroon Tribune, N° 1 March 2006: 9). What baffles many minds is why people would decide to kill their own crowned prince. This an act uncommon in an area like the Grassfields, reputed for its strong respect for traditional leadership. However, the people’s reaction is understandable when one takes into consideration the fact that many chiefs like that of Bali Kumbad had committed grievous acts against the people and went free.
In March 1992, Cameroonians were called to the polls in the first multiparty legislative elections following the return to pluralistic democracy. The Fon (chief) of Bali Kumbad, Doh Gah Gwanyim III, was anxious to win the some seat on the ruling CPDM ticket. On the Election Day, 1 March, he stuffed some ballot boxes with CPDM ballot papers. As he brought them before the palace for voting to begin, some of his “subjects” insisted on opening the boxes to see. The Fon took out his gun and opened fire on his people killing three (Mbu, 1993: 72). Enraged by his action, the villagers went on rampage and burnt two cars belonging to the chief and some houses in the palace. The government reaction was to send gendarmes to Bali Kumbad to protect the chief, who had escaped. Later on, some villagers were arrested following an order from the Senior Divisional Officer for Mezam, Bell Luc Réné (Mbu, 1993: 47).The Fon was later on declared winner of the legislative elections which took him to parliament. This makes the state to appear as an agent of the individual’s insecurity. With this precedence, the people of Big Babanki could therefore tender no mercy on the dethroned traditional leader.
The phenomenon of jungle justice has led to the development of two schools: one that advocates its use and another that condemns it. Those who advocate the application of mob justice claim that it is a good way of solving or curbing crime wave. They go on to argue that because it is administered by the people (masses), it should be considered as the supreme tribunal. Those who support jungle justice also hold that its frequent application is the best way to discourage robbery in society. They consider it an effective strategy to combat the wanton and atrocious acts of bandits. On the opposite side, those who reject jungle justice have highlighted its moral, biblical, legal and human rights implications to justify why it should be condemned.
In moral perspective, jungle justice is derogatory to human personality. Human beings should not be treated in worst ways than animals. In fact, jungle justice is like moving from one wrong to another. It is synonymous with terror, decay in morality and collapse of public authority. The consequence is an eventual victimisation of innocent people. It can occur that a person is wrongfully accused of a crime and be immediately subjected to physical torture and eventual lynching. Quite often, in communities where jungle justice has gained currency, an individual can cause it to be meted out on his enemy for vengeance. Besides, jungle justice minimises human values and undermines human security, which are essential factors of peace. It should be mentioned here that jungle justice dehumanises both the perpetrator and the victim and thus should be considered an abomination.
To some people, inflicting a penalty on a person on mere allegation denotes an uncivilised society. Indeed, jungle justice is a descending spiral that culminates in the destruction of all – the state, the perpetuators and the victims. To the perpetuators, it may call for conviction and even sentencing. For the state, it shows its inability and failure to respect the social contract with its people that oblige government to guarantee and ensure their security. For the society as a whole, it belittles mankind and destroys community life. If we recognise the fact that life is the most sacred thing on earth, then, there will be no cause for people to do away with what one cannot replace.
Human rights activists, on their part, find many things wrong with jungle justice considering the many human rights issues involved such as, the right to life, the right to be treated in respect of human dignity and worth, the right to due process of law and to be heard by a just and impartial court of law. In this regard, the principle of presumption of innocence and freedom from torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment must be observed. That is why, when the Chief of Big Babanki was lynched, a local NGO, Humanus Foundation, issued a press release dated 1 February 2006. It read:
Humanus Foundation strongly condemns this barbaric act, which defies the human dignity and the rule of law. It is indispensable that perpetrators of this human act be brought to justice….The government should also effectively assume its responsibility by checking against excesses by both traditional rulers and the population (Humanus Foundation Press Release N° FH/5/06/02/07).
The Bible equally condemns mob justice. This is in line with the fact that God created man in his own image, gave him protection and did not authorise fellow men to deprive others of their right to life (Genesis 1:27). It further states that man should judge his fellow brother for God is the supreme judge of all people. (John 7:24 -51). So killing somebody in the name of jungle justice is a sin. In addition, jungle justice is against natural justice, which advocates the right to a hearing. This means that no man should be condemned unheard. Natural justice demands that alleged offenders be treated with all humanity and respect. Some legal traditions like the Anglo-Saxon law even go as far as stating that the accused is presumed innocent until he is proved guilty. Of course, to prove his guilt, a constituted court must ascertain beyond reasonable doubt that he committed the offence. Jungle justice is thus out of question for it defies all principles of justice and must be condemned energetically.
The Cameroon law (constitution and penal code) also condemns jungle justice, especially when it leads to the loss of life. The preamble of the constitution stipulates the necessity to a fair trail and the law ensures that this is respected in courts. What should normally happen is that the allegation is investigated into by the legal department in conjunction with the police or gendarmerie. If it discloses a case against the alleged offender or criminal, the latter may be deferred or committed to trial before a competent court. It is only the basis of evidence from witnesses that a decision can be taken on whether the person is guilty or not. If guilty, he can be condemned, if not, he is discharged and acquitted. It is thus criminal to inflict jungle justice on a person. Jungle justice is also against international conventions such as the convention against Torture of 26 June 1987, to which Cameroon is a signatory. Article 1 of this convention defines torture as “…any act by which severe pain or suffering whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person…punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed…”
Conclusion and the Way Foward
Having examined the problem of jungle justice in Cameroon, it comes out clearly that, far from solving the problem of human security, it has complicated and worsened the situation. Its use, which is in defiance of natural, human, biblical and legal rules and conventions, has created more problems for humanity. In fact jungle justice is not a tool any civilised people should adopt to resolve conflict or maintain peace in society. However, one must acknowledge that people’s lives and survival are being threatened everyday by the high rate of insecurity in the country. To curb the ugly trend, the role of the government is paramount. Some of the measures it can undertake include, building confidence between the masses and security personnel, combating corruption in the judiciary system, educating the masses on the law and the legal implication of jungle justice and rekindling the spirit of duty consciousness and professionalism in public authorities. Each citizen has the obligation to obey the law. It is hoped that the approval and adoption of the new harmonised penal code in Cameroon that will go operational as from January next year will go a long way to improve the situation.
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Bio: Dr. Walters Tohnji Tikum Samah the Executive Director of the Campus Centre for Peace & Dialogue (CACEPED) International, University of Yaoundé I