Nigerian academics hail court ruling on lecturers deported to Cameroon

File photo of President Muhammadu Buhari and Cameroonian president, Paul Biya

Nigerian academics have welcomed the judgement by the Federal High Court sitting in Abuja ordering the repatriation of six academics from the former British Southern Cameroons (Ambazonia) and four other refugees who were all in Nigeria and who were abducted and illegally deported from Nigeria on January 5, 2018, on the allegation of plotting to destabilise the government of President Paul Biya of Cameroon.

Two separate judgments were handed down by the presiding judge, Anwuli Chikere, on March 1, 2019, in connection with the matter.

In the first case – brought by a group of human rights lawyers against the National Security Advisor and Attorney General – the judge ruled that the arrest of January 5, 2018, and subsequent detention of the academics at the National Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) was illegal and unconstitutional. In the second case – brought by the deportees – the judge ruled that the deportation of January 26, 2018, was illegal and violated the deportees’ rights as guaranteed by the Nigerian Constitution.

Power of the courts

The court ruling has been hailed by the university community and staff unions as a sign that the courts can still protect and defend the rights of foreign nationals and citizens who are either working, residing or are refugees in Nigeria. The Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) has promised to ensure that the judgement is enforced.

The academics are part of a larger group of 57 Cameroonian refugees and asylum-seekers who are Anglophone restorationists. Some of them have been living in Nigeria for decades and at least one has a Nigerian wife and children.

The university lecturers are: Professor Augustine Awasum, Faculty of Veterinary Surgery & Diagnostic Imaging at the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) Zaria; Dr. Henry T. Kimeng, Associate Professor of Civil Engineering also at the Ahmadu Bello University(ABU) Zaria; Sisiku Julius Ayuk Tabe, Assistant Vice President and Pioneer Head, Information and Technology, American University of Nigeria in Yola; Dr. Fidelis Ndeh, Assistant Professor and Director, Academic Planning, American University of Nigeria in Yola; Dr. Cornelius N. Kwanga, Senior Lecturer, Department of Economics, Umaru Musa Yar’adua University in Katsina; and Dr. Egbe Ogork, Associate Professor of Structural Engineering, Bayero University, Kano.

On the issue of their illegal arrest and detention, the judge ordered the state to pay damages of N5 million (US$13 to each detainee “as general and aggravated damages for illegal violation of their fundamental rights to life, dignity of person, fair hearing, health, freedom of movement and freedom of association”. On the issue of their deportation, the court ordered the state to pay damages of N200,000.

The judge also ruled in both cases that the Nigerian state was under perpetual injunction restraining it from further violation of fundamental rights without lawful justification.

She also ordered that the deportees should be returned to Nigeria as soon as possible.

Solitary confinement

Since their deportation from Abuja to the Cameroon capital Yaoundé in January 2018 at the hands of Nigerian and Cameroonian security forces, the deportees were initially kept in solitary confinement at a maximum-security prison facility without access to sunlight, family, lawyers or specialized medical care for 11 months after which they were moved to another maximum – security prison facility with some limited access to family and lawyers.

They are yet to be charged or arraigned for any crimes because lawyers in Cameroon have consistently challenged the jurisdiction of the Military Tribunal in LRC to try scholars who faced a death penalty if eventually the ‘kangaroo military tribunal’ brings them to trial. The lawyers argue the composition, jurisdiction, language and historical precedence which makes the court incompetent to hear the case or guarantee a free and fair trial of the academics. As refugees who were abducted, their lawyers have persistently insisted that the national and international laws should be respected and the scholars should be returned to Nigeria from where they were kidnapped.

Soon after their deportation, a team of human rights lawyers led by Femi Falana and Abdul Oroh filed a case in the Federal High Court in Abuja challenging their detention and deportation. In their submission they rejected the allegation that the group were terrorists bent on overthrowing the LRC government.

In July 2018, University World News reported that Me Oroh, who is representing the detainees, said the deportees were members of a political organisation demanding a complete restoration of their homeland, the British Southern Cameroons to complete independence and be free from the annexation by the La Republique du Cameroun.

In an exclusive interview with University World News following the March 1, 2019 judgments, Mr Oroh said he had written to Nigeria’s Attorney General Abubakar Malami, informing him of the judgments.

“In my official letter to the attorney general, I attached a certified copy of the two court rulings on this subject matter. I received a call from the attorney general acknowledging the receipt of my letter. He assured me that my letter was receiving urgent attention and that his ministry would soon comply with the court ruling,” said Mr Oroh.

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Nigeria’s academic community have welcomed the rulings and hopes are high that the repatriation will be expedited as quickly as possible.

‘The world is watching’

Caleb Abraham from the Faculty of law at the University of Uyo said both Nigeria and Cameroon are signatories of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

“In the light of these rights, the arrest and deportation of our colleagues is illegal and unconstitutional. Therefore, both the Nigerian and Cameroonian governments should implement this court ruling by ensuring these teachers and others are repatriated to Nigeria and their rights in Nigeria are enforced. The entire world is watching,” he said.

Adekunle Akinlaja from the Faculty of Law at Ambrose Alli University, Ekpoma, said both President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria and President Paul Biya of Cameroun may find it difficult to explain and rationalise their actions on this matter within the provisions of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the UN’s Universal Declaration.

“However there is still room to rectify these wrongs,” he declared.

Highlighting the lack of irrationality in the government’s actions, Muktar Ismail, based in the Sociology Department at the University of Jos, said Egbe Ogork was married to a Nigerian. “By right they are Nigerians. How would the Nigerian government rationalise its actions against those who by marriage are now Nigerians?

Kolawole Akomolafe from the Economics Department of the Federal University Oye-Ekiti noted that the list of the “alleged plotters” included names of responsible scholars and teachers. “These are scholars and teachers who have dedicated their lives to the development of Nigeria. I have known them for over 20 years,” he declared.

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