On April 3 2014, bulldozers with the support of armed gendarme officers razed down the houses of some 300 cattle rearing minority ethnic mbororo indigenes located at Banjah Village in Bamenda. The destruction of their homes was the brutal end to a court battle that has lasted for five years. The Mbororos have occupied the land since 1904 but the Catholic Church under Archbishop Cornelius Fontem Esua, needs the land to construct a multi-million dollar University and even a last minute court injunction to stop the destruction went unheeded.
UK Based Human rights activist Sarli Sardou Nana examines the case of a religious land grab in God’s name.
Ardo Adamu Bi Mamada is the traditional ruler of the Mbororo indigenous minority cattle herders of Ndzah (also known as Banjah) village in Bamenda III Sub Division in the North West Region of Cameroon. The Ardo’s residence was situated on what is popularly called the “Mamada Hills” in Ndzah village just outside Bamenda.
Ardo Adamu’s late father in the person of Ardo Mamada Bi Sodhari settled on the Mamada Hills around 1904 during the German colonial rule. He was appointed Ardo at the same time with Ardo Sabga Bi Hoba who founded Sabga. He was one of the first Mbororo herders to arrive the North West Region and he was a very popular traditional ruler especially as he had many cattle. It was because of his popularity that where he settled was named “Mamada Hills” named after Ardo Mamada Bi Sodari. They were issued a Certificate of Occupancy of the land by the British colonial administration in 1933.
The present farming community of Ndzah (Banjah) arrived as hunters and settled in the area in 1933 from Baforchu. That was 29 years after the Mbororo settled there. They are fully supporting the Catholic Church and the Government to evict the Mbororo. It is suggested that they have been promised jobs and other incentives to back the Catholic Church’s actions. There is a history of attempted illegal encroachment on the same lands by some members of the farming community.
Ardo Adamu Bi Mamada succeeded his late father Ardo Mamada Bi Sodhari in 1964 at the age of 15 as the traditional ruler of the Mbororo indigenous herders of Banjah. He was subsequently recognized as such by the independent Cameroon sate. At the time of their violent eviction a total of about 300 people comprising 108 Mbororo herders live on the Mamada Hills with their families as well as over 1200 cattle, 300 sheep and 150 horses.
The Catholic Church started a process of illegally grabbing the land without the knowledge of the community around 2009. In 2011 they got a Temporary Grant from the Minister of Lands awarding them the land. Sometimes in 2012, the Archbishop of Bamenda, Cornelius Fontem Esua took unknown people to Mamada Hills and laid claim over all of the Mamada Hills said to belong to the Catholic University of Bamenda. When Ardo Adamu Bi Mamada tried to challenge the Archbishop’s claim over their ancestral land, he was arrested by elements of the Gendarmerie Brigade Research Unit in Mile 4 Nkwen, Bamenda, severely tortured and arbitrarily detained.
He lost sight on one of his eyes, lost one tooth and developed permanent sight problems as a result of the torture inflicted on him during and after his arrest. He was eventually charged to court in the Court of First Instance of Bamenda in suit No CFIBA/798C/12. Ardo Adamu Bi Mamada was accused of having on or about the 3rd day of September 2012, at Ndzah village in the Mezam Judicial Division, without being so empowered, used land belonging to the Catholic University of Bamenda and thereby committed an offence contrary to and punishable under section 8(4) (5) of Ordinance No 74/1 of 6th July 1974 to establish rules governing land tenure in Cameroon.
On 31 December 2012, one other close adviser to the Ardo, Mallam GEBO was arrested, tortured and detained and was only released after payment of FCFA 30,000. He suffered 21 days Temporal Incapacity as a result of torture.
Ardo Adamu Bi Mamada having been ridiculed, feeling terribly embarrassed, confounded and frustrated with the treatment he received from the Archbishop, and could not understand how he could be charged to court for using land his family has occupied since 1904 and all of a sudden said to belong to the Catholic University, instituted suit No. CFIBA/15CM/2013 in the Court of First Instance of Bamenda against the Catholic Arch Diocese of Bamenda and the Catholic University of Bamenda. In the said suit, Ardo Adamu Bi Mamada prayed the court for an eviction order, evicting the Catholic Arch Dioceses of Bamenda from their ancestral land.
In reply to the suit referred to in the preceding paragraph, the Archbishop of Bamenda through his Counsel filed a Counter Affidavit on the 27/02/2013 wherein they attached Arrêté No. 000947/K.6.1/MINDAF/D1/D13 dated the 2nd day of September 2011 as Annex “A”, where the Honourable Minister of State Property and Land Tenure made a Grant of 46 hectares, 38 acres and 98m of land in Ndzah to the Catholic University of Bamenda, represented by Archbishop Cornelius Fontem Esua.
Despite the fact that the above Arrêté allocated 46 hectares of land in the Mamada Hills as a Grant to the Catholic University of Bamenda, the actual piece of land presently claimed by the Archbishop is about 300 hectares. The Land Tenure laws in Cameroon provides that the Minister in charge of lands can allocate a Grant only where the piece of land is below 50 hectares. A Grant above 50 hectares of land can only be made by the President of the Republic. It was for this reason that the Archbishop of Bamenda applied for 46 hectares of land which the Minister approved despite the fact that about 300 hectares of land is being claimed.
Ordinance No 74-1 of 6th July 1974 to establish rules governing land tenure in Cameroon defines national lands in its article 14. Article 14(1) provides that national lands shall as of right comprise lands which at the date on which the present ordinance enters into force, are not classed as public or private property of the state and other public bodies. Article 15 goes further to state that national lands shall be divided into two categories.
1. Lands occupied with houses, farms and plantations and grazing lands manifesting human presence and development;
2. Lands free of any effective occupation.
Decree No 76 – 166 of 27 April 1976 to establish the terms and conditions of management of National Lands in Cameroon makes provision on how a piece of land can be allocated to an individual or corporate body as a Grant. Article 1 of the above Decree provides that national lands which are unoccupied or unexploited shall be allocated by Temporary Grant of Right. Article 2 of the same Decree provides that temporary rights shall be granted for development projects in line with the economic, social or cultural policies of the state. Article 3 stipulates that the duration of the temporary grant may not exceed 5 years, and in exceptional cases, it may be extended on reasoned application by the grantee. From the above provision of the laws, a Temporary Grant in Cameroon can only be made over unoccupied or unexploited national land.
In paragraphs 7 and 8 of the counter affidavit filed by the lawyer of the Archbishop and Catholic University of Bamenda, it is stated that the crops and houses on the land given by the state to the Catholic University as a grant were properly evaluated by the competent administrative services and all those affected had been paid financial compensation except Ardo Adamu Bi Mamada who refused to take ‘compensation’. Annexes “C” and D to D1 were attached to the Counter Affidavit to justify that fact. That only buttresses the fact that the land allocated to the Catholic University as grant by the state is occupied and exploited national land. How then could the Archbishop and the competent administrative services of Mezam in violation of the law prepare the file of the Catholic University and misled the Minister in charge of lands to sign Arrêté No. 000947/K.6.1/MINDAF/D1/D13 on the 2nd day of September 2011 allocating 46 hectares of the Mamada Hills as a grant to the Catholic University?
While the court cases were going on, the Senior Divisional Officer for Mezam, Nguelle Nguelle Felix in May 2013 led a bulldozer to Bambili and demolished 13 house belonging to Bambili villagers who have land titles on their lands to create a resettlement site for the 300 Mbororo and their animals. The Bambili people have made it clear that anyone who comes to their land will be killed. Even if they went to the land there is no building, no facilities. So this is not secure, safe, appropriate or enough land to resettle the community.
Meanwhile the prosecution witnesses in suit No. CFIBA/798C/12 wherein Ardo Adamu Bi Mamada was charged for using land belonging to the Catholic University never attended any court session and after more than 10 adjournments, the matter was dismissed for want of diligent prosecution. On the other hand, on the 31st day of July 2013, the Court of First Instance of Bamenda delivered its ruling in suit No CFIBA/15CM/2013 instituted by Ardo Adamu Bi Mamada to evict the Archbishop and Catholic University from their land. While dismissing Ardo Adamu’s application, the presiding Magistrate, after a locus (court session on Mamada Hills), advised as follows.
“This court’s advice to the applicant is simple; having found that the land in question falls within the definition of occupied and exploited national land, he should seize the competent Minister of State Property and Land Tenure that made the grant or the competent Administrative Court”.
When Ardo Adamu Bi Mamada was served with a copy of the counter affidavit in suit No. CFIBA/15CM/2013 and he saw Arrêté No. 00947/K.6.1/MINDAF/D1/D13, his lawyer immediately challenged same with a petition to the Minister of State Property, Surveys and Land Tenure in Yaounde. After three months, the Minister did not reply to the Petition and as required by law, the Minister’s non reaction was considered as rejection and Ardo Adamu instituted the matter in the Administrative Court of the North West Region in Bamenda in suit No NWAC/R/CF/004/2013. Ardo Adamu Bi Mamada also filed an application for stay of execution of the Minister’s Arrêté pending the determination of his suit challenging the legality of the said Arrêté. By filing the application for stay of execution in the Administrative Court, the Archbishop is legally estopped from enforcing the Minister’s Arrêté.
Contrary to the above legal provision, the Archbishop of Bamenda Cornelius Fontem Esua on the 7th of March 2014 served Ardo Adamu Bi Mamada and other Mbororo family heads of Ndzah village with a 2nd “Quit Notice”, requesting them to quit their lands on or before the 14th of March 2014 as any date thereafter, a caterpillar will destroy their houses and farms without further compensation. In the same vain, the Divisional Officer of Bamenda III Sub Division Ayuk Walters Tarkang served a letter on the Ardo and his subjects captioned “Occupation of your respective parcels on the resettlement site at Ndzah”. In his letter, the Divisional officer requested the Mbororo family heads of Ndzah village to immediately move to new resettlement site as their ancestral lands which they presently occupy have been allocated to the Arch diocese of Bamenda as a temporary grant.
Ardo Adamu’s lawyer replied to the Quit Notice of the Archbishop and the letter of the Divisional Officer of Bamenda III by reminding them that the legality of the Minister’s Arrêté is pending determination in the Administrative Court of the North West Region in Bamenda in suit No NWAC/R/CF/004/2013. He even attached a Certificate of filing the suit in the Administrative court signed by the Registrar-in-Chief of the court attesting to the fact that Ardo Adamu Bi Mamada has instituted suit No. NWAC/R/CF/004/2013 challenging Arrêté No. 00947/K.6.1/MINDAF/D1/D13.
On the 19th March 2014, the Archbishop of Bamenda sent a caterpillar to Ndzah village to destroy the houses of the Mbororo herders. Ardo Adamu’s lawyer called the Senior Divisional Officer of Mezam Nguelle Nguelle Felix by phone to find out whether his administration had sent a caterpillar to Ndzah to destroy the houses of the Mbororo and he insisted that he had given firm instructions to his subordinates not to interfere with the lands of the Mbororo in Ndzah till the matter is resolved by the Administrative Court of the North West Region and the administration was not aware of any caterpillar going to the Mamada Hills in Ndzah.
The Mbororo herders of Ndzah came out like one person and prevented the caterpillar from destroying their houses. It resulted in a squabble wherein the Archbishop’s representative Jobain Cosmas was seriously injured and the windscreen of a Toyota Hilux vehicle of the Arch Diocese of Bamenda was shattered. Fon Christopher Achobang who is a sympathizer of the plight of the Mbororo of Ndzah had an injury on the head. Abdulkarimu Shehu who is the organizer of the Mbororo of Ndzah took elements of the 4th Police District to the site after the incident was all over.
After this incident community reps met with Prime Minister Philemon Yang on March 22, 2014. They submitted a petition (which was not the first time). He assured them to stop any further activity on the land until the Administrative Court makes a decision. He obviously did not or his subordinates decided to ignore his instructions.
Representatives met the Minister Lands and all relevant government officials including North-West Regional Governor Adolphe Lele Lafrique. All of them agreed that no action can be taken until the Administrative Court takes a decision. Yet it is these very officials who authorised and enforced the demolitions and eviction.
The indigenous Mbororo herders of Ndzah have seriously defended their ancestral land from Archbishop Cornelius Fontem Esua. If Cameroon is a state of law and if one were to consider who is mostly to be law abiding, it will obviously be the Archbishop and the clergy. We are witnessing the contrary where the Archbishop is violating the laws of the state with impurity in an attempt to illegally deprive the Mbororo minority indigenous herders of Ndzah village of their ancestral land. The Archbishop is obviously receiving the support of the local and wider government of Cameroon especially as the former Divisional Delegate of Lands in Mezam reminded the Ardo that the President of the Republic of Cameroon is himself a Catholic and will always protect the interest of the Catholic Church.
On the 20th day of March 2013, Abdulkarim Shehu was arrested by elements of the Judicial Police in Bamenda on the strength of a warrant signed by the State Counsel of Mezam Division. He signed four warrants with two in the names of Abdulkarim Shehu and Fon Christopher Achobang respectively with two having no names and the policemen are at liberty to fill the names of any Mbororo from Ndzah they deem necessary to arrest. Mallam Yunusa another community organiser was arrested on to join Abdulkarim. Both were released after 8 days in detention. Fon Christopher Achobang went into hiding and is yet to be arrested.
On 3rd April 2014, the Catholic Church backed by 50 gendarmes and North-West Administration hired 3 bulldozers that demolished all homes belonging the Mbororo of Mamada Hills. A Court Injunction served to the gendarmes by Court Bailiffs was ignored. They were supported by the Fon (Chief), Nkwenti Ndaka, Chairman of Ndzah Traditional Council. The community has now been rendered homeless and destitute in violation of the law.
No consideration was given to children, elderly and the sick in this process. Children’s school needs were ignored. Their emotional or welfare needs did not matter to the government or the Catholic Church.
The Justice and Peace Commission of the Catholic Church in Bamenda ignored the plight of the Mbororo of Banjah despite several meetings with its head Laura Anyola Tufoin who is also a member of Cameroon’s National Commission on Human Rights and Freedoms. She has received an Award from the US Government for her work on Child Trafficking. She works on conflict resolution in the North-West Region but for for 5 years since this conflict started inside Bamenda she has not raised a finger.
The Archbishop was offered alternative land and also financial compensation in Mankon (Bamenda) by a benefactor and Mbororo rights supporter. Fon Angwafor of Mankon confirmed he has land that can do but their offer was ignored by the Church.In fact it is better proposition from an business point of view given the promixity of Sacred Heart College, Mankon with possible multi-use facilities for the University.
The Archbishop was offered alternative land and also financial compensation in Mankon (Bamenda) by a benefactor and Mbororo rights supporter. Fon Angwafor of Mankon confirmed he has land that he can offer was ignored by the Church. In fact it is better proposition from an business point of view given the proximity of Sacred Heart College, Mankon with possible multi-use facilities for the University.
Saturday 5th April 2014, the destitute Mbororo of Banjah, marched peacefully to the Bamenda Cathedral, the residence of Archbishop Cornelius Fontem Esua where they are organising an indefinite sit-in. The Catholic authorities called in gendarmes to remove the protesters. Gendarmes removed them from the premises of the Catholic Church but they continued their protest on the road side entrance to the Big Mankon Catholic Cathedral.
This case demonstrates that Mbororo people in Cameroon do not have or enjoy any land rights. This is a case where the present land laws were violated with impunity. Court orders and ongoing due process were ignored. All the key government officials were on the side of the Catholic Church. A part of the Catholic Church which is a state (The Vatican) operating within and in connivance with another State have dispossessed people of their rights and made them destitute. It shows human rights campaigners are selective about whose rights they defend. The future looks very bleak indeed for all vulnerable and marginal groups in Cameroon.