In early May, at the foothills surrounding Mount Cameroon, Buea seems to have almost forgotten the four years of violence that pitted Anglophone separatist groups against Cameroon’s defence forces. In the capital of the south-west region, the shops of Great Soppo have reopened and are blasting Nigerian music to attract customers. Traffic jams are also once again clogging the Malingo Junction in the city centre.
71-year-old Paul Ayah Abine has been living within this secure enclave, in the heart of a region in crisis, since his release from prison on 30 August 2017.
He spent nearly eight months behind bars in Yaoundé for advocating federalism, before being released by a presidential decree. Glasses perched on a face marked by the weight of age and hardship, the former magistrate received us at the headquarters of Justice for All, a legal aid firm he opened in the Bomaka district, which is located in the eastern part of the city.
Paul Ayah Abine “will never leave”
While some of the leaders of the Anglophone movement preferred to go into exile amidst increasing pressure from Yaoundé, like politician Joseph Wirba and barrister John Fru Nsoh, Abine assured us that he “will never leave.”
Despite a stint in prison, which resulted in him going deaf in his right ear, he wants to continue to make the voice of this marginalised linguistic community heard, as it persists in denouncing the central government’s actions.
“The situation on the ground is getting bogged down,” he says in a hoarse voice, referring to the incidents that regularly bloody the north-west and south-west provinces and which are typical of a security environment that remains unstable.
Some of the incidences that he mentions include the fire at Muyuka’s sub-prefect office, the attack on a religious gathering in Kumbo, the kidnapping of four communal agents as well as the head of the disarmament centre in Bui, Bamenda’s demobilisation and reintegration, the dead town operations launched in Mamfé and Ekok and finally, the countless suicide attacks that plunges the army into mourning.
Despite the years of conflict, he remains convinced that Francophones and Anglophones can live together peacefully in a federal republic made up of 10 states, rather than the current 10 administrative regions. These words earned this former member of the ruling Rassemblement Démocratique du Peuple Camerounais (RDPC), who at one time sat in parliament and on the Supreme Court, the ire of his former friends within the regime.
Not only was he sentenced to prison, but “[his] bank accounts were blocked without reason” and he stopped receiving his retirement pension, despite having served as a magistrate for four decades. So although he keeps photos of himself with Cameroon’s President Paul Biya, former prime minister Ephraim Inoni and other government leaders in his office, Abine assures us that he has definitively “distanced himself from politics.”
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But how did one of Yaoundé’s former allies become one of the main faces of the Anglophone Crisis? A graduate of the Université Fédérale de Yaoundé in 1976 and the National School of Administration and Magistracy (Enam) in 1978, Abine has been part of the inner circle of Cameroonian senior officials since the early days of Biya’s presidency.
This ambitious man – who is originally from Akwaya, in the south-west department of Manyu – spent the first 20 years of his professional life climbing the ranks within the judiciary. In the early 2000s, he was the vice-president of the Cour d’Appel du Sud-Ouest.
At Akwaya’s service
During the 2002 legislative and municipal elections, the people of Akwaya asked him to represent them in parliament. He had clear policy goals in mind. “I had to use my position in Yaoundé to work towards opening up a region that had been forgotten by public policies.”
I think that this amendment made us jump back 200 years and I am convinced that everything that is happening today would not have happened without this change to the Constitution.
His constituents were convinced that he was the right man for the job. The magistrate then agreed to swap his toga for the sash that members of government wore. “At that time, Akwaya had no road. The only acceptable road was the one that linked the locality to Nigeria. We only had two health centres and two schools,” he says.
But on the floor of the House, things didn’t go as planned. On nearly 15 occasions, he requested a private audience with the President of the Republic so that he could discuss his community’s needs. However, only one of these requests was granted.
In 2010, the member of parliament was finally offered a private meeting, but with Belinga Eboutou, who at the time was the head of the presidency’s civil cabinet. Even today, Akwaya is one of Cameroon’s most isolated communes. Did the frustration that he felt cause a change of heart?
In 2008, Abine surprised the public by opposing the proposed changes to the Constitution, which removed term limits that would have prevented Biya from running again for president in 2011. “Nobody understood me when I led this campaign, despite all the threats,” he says. “I think that this amendment made us jump back 200 years and I am convinced that everything that is happening today would not have happened without this change to the Constitution.”
In the aftermath of this constitutional change, he resigned from the RDPC, created the Peoples Action Party (PAP) and ran for president in the October 2011 presidential election, in which he won 1.26% of the vote.
Despite this affront, Biya appointed him to the Supreme Court three years later. But in 2016, when the streets of Buea and Bamenda were filled with protestors, Yaounde could no longer hide its distrust of this man who had advocated for federalism in 2011.
On 21 January 2017, Abine was arrested and placed in detention at the Secrétariat d’État à la Défense (SED), despite the immunity conferred on him by his status as a magistrate.
All conflicts end around a negotiating table. Why go to war? I don’t promote violence. But if the government is wrong, I will say so; if others are wrong, I will also say that they are wrong. The law must always prevail.
Should he have agreed to tone down his words? Did he add fuel to a situation that was threatening to get out of hand? “It was the lawyers and teachers who started it,” he says. “I have never been a member of the Anglophone Civil Society Consortium. I had asked them to open up this platform to politicians like me so that issues such as federalism could be put on the table, which could not be done.”
Abine has not changed his mind, despite his time in prison. “As far as I am concerned, according to the law, the two Cameroons have still not been reunited. UN Resolution 1608 of 21 April 1961 stipulates that Southern Cameroon is officially independent, but that it has to finalise a governance agreement with Britain and the Republic of Cameroon. This has never been done,” he says.
Abine knows that his words will offend some, but he is determined not to stray from the path he has set himself. He wants to believe that this crisis will be resolved peacefully. “All conflicts end around a negotiating table. Why go to war? I don’t promote violence. But if the government is wrong, I will say so; if others are wrong, I will also say that they are wrong. The law must always prevail.”
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