For the past six years, Cameroonians have witnessed a wave of spectacular arrests and detention of former top-ranking government officials and business moguls over corruption.
Heading the list of arrests is former prime minister Chief Ephraim Inoni. Others are Marafa Hamidou Yaya, former minister of Territorial Administration, Jean-Marie Atangana Mebara, former secretary-general at the presidency, Urbain Olanguena Awona, former Public Health minister, and Polycarpe Abah Abah, former minister of Economy and Finance.
The anti-graft crackdown was codenamed ‘Operation Sparrow Hawk’; some Cameroonians think the war is a witch-hunt by a long-serving president Paul Biya, who has been in power for 33 years.
Most of the former aides of President Biya, who have either been convicted or are still being held in pre-trial detention on corruption-related charges are widely believed to have been members of an ill-defined group known as the G11, which was plotting to unseat Biya.
A US diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks on the possible successor of President Biya had mentioned the then premier, Mr Inoni, and Territorial Administration minister, Mr Hamidou Yaya, as the clean, competent and well positioned successors to the enigmatic Cameroonian leader.
“Marafa Hamidou Yaya has an excellent relationship with the US embassy – as well as the French, Japanese, British, and others. Like PM Inoni, Marafa’s intelligence and effectiveness have raised his national profile and [made] him a possible presidential candidate – perhaps even the front-runner,” then US ambassador to Cameroon, Ambassador Niels Marquardt, according to a Wikileaks report.
The same cable classified Jean Marie Atangana Mebara, then minister of Foreign Affairs, and Mr Abah Abah, the minister of Economy and Finance, as “the corrupt and powerful” successors to Biya.
Ironically, among the arrests and detentions that have made waves within the country include that of Mr Inoni, Mr Hamidou Yaya, Mr Abah Abah, and Mr Olanguena Awona.
The recently published Cameroon 2014 Human Rights Report by the US Department of State suggests that the most important human rights problems in the country were torture and abuse by the security forces, particularly of detainees and prisoners; denial of fair and speedy public trial for suspects; and life-threatening prison conditions.
Though there are no available official statistics on the number of political prisoners in the country, it is common knowledge as Cameroonians say that there is a complete government in prison.
“Political prisoners used to be detained under heightened security, often within the Secretariat of State for Defence. Some detainees were held within the General Delegation of External Research under high security, and the government did not permit access to such persons on a regular basis, or at all, depending on the case,” the US government reported.
The US government annual report describes Mr Hamidou Yaya as a “political prisoner.”
Prior to his appointment as Cameroon minister of interior in 2002, Mr Hamidou Yaya served as secretary-general at the Presidency of the Republic of Cameroon from 1997. He was convicted in 2012 on corruption charges and sentenced to 25 years imprisonment in a trial that activists say “featured little hard evidence”.
The Council of the Socialist International convened at the United Nations headquarters in New York adopted a special resolution, appealing for the release of the former minister.
“The Socialist International expresses its concern at the imprisonment of Marafa Hamidou Yaya in Cameroon, on seemingly politically motivated charges. Though steps are needed to tackle corruption and embezzlement in Cameroon, this process should not be used as an excuse to settle political scores,” the special resolution read.
The constitution and law provide for an independent judiciary, though observers say the country’s judiciary is still at the beck and call of the executive.
The court system is subordinate to the Ministry of Justice. The constitution names the president as “first magistrate,” thus “chief” of the judiciary and the theoretical arbiter of any sanctions against the judiciary, although the president has not publicly played this role.
The constitution specifies that the president is the guarantor of the legal system’s independence. He also appoints all judges with the advice of the Higher Judicial Council where he is president. Critics question how the executive can be separated from the judiciary when the head of the executive remains “first magistrate.”
President Biya has always argued that there are no political prisoners in Cameroon. In a press conference he granted together with his visiting French colleague, Francois Hollande, last July at the State House in Yaounde, Mr Biya boasted that the high ranking former members of government now in jail have been tried by competent courts and found guilty of mismanagement of public funds.
He claimed that the Cameroon judicial system is independent and void of any external influence.
Corruption was more or less a taboo topic in Cameroon decades ago. But Mr Biya, in a move that is believed to have been influenced by international donors, began putting in place several measures to ensure probity in the management of state funds about a decade ago after the country was had been classified among the top-most corrupt nations in the world.
In 2006, President Biya created the national anti-corruption commission, NACC. It is the main anti-graft institution that is empowered to investigate allegations about corrupt practices and/or officials.
Many Cameroonians however describe the structure as a toothless bulldog for it does not have the mandate to freeze, seize or confiscate assets belonging to corrupt state officials.
On January 31, 2007, the Cameroon leader gave an interview to French television channel France 24where she said, among other things, that corruption is a vice which is not specific to the country.
“It is a global phenomenon, but we think a country like ours, which does not have enormous resources, will stand to benefit if we avoid wasting money and other funds. We are determined to go on and we have not only proceeded to arrest some officials who are today facing the law, but have also put in place a certain number of structures,” Mr Biya said at the time.
In 2011, the Cameroonian leader created a special court; the special criminal court to try perpetrates of economic crimes involving huge amounts .
Cameroon has signed and ratified the United Nations Convention Against Corruption.