OFFGO empowers communities to resist land grabbers
On 21 September 2015, a traditional ruler in Mbengwi, Cameroon submitted a 12-pages OFFGO report to the Governor of the North West region, Cameroon. The Sub-Division Mbengwi covers 29 villages, on and its land surface is estimated at 80,000ha. OFFGO also recorded destructions, and transferred all available data to the authorities, for example video material (for example cattle entering farm land, and threats by graziers). Some elements in this OFFGO report (over intensified grazing, poor pasture management, erosion, farmer-grazier conflict) has been reported before, more precisely in 2012 by the World Bank. The situation between then and now has not been changed. The World Bank identifies poor pasture management as one of the core reasons of the farmer-grazier conflicts. Although various stakeholders have a say in this management (local administration, traditional rulers, farmers, graziers), the 2015 OFFGO report identifies the head of the local administration as one of the key players.
The people of Mbengwi, known as ‘Meta’, are characterized with a common ancestry. Their presence has already been registered in the German colonial era (late 1800s/early 1900s), and the available data on native human settlements date back to the 13th century. Their politico-administrative association (presently MECUDA) has been created in 1963. The Meta society counts 29 villages, but ironically 31 Chiefs (what is, according to 10 Chiefs, the result of attempted land grabbing by the local administration). Mbengwi comprises 9 Mbororo settlements. OFFGO’s members see the position of Mbororo as indigenous people, and as a one (coherent with view in OCHCR E/C.12/CMR/CO/2-3), and promotes the development of the settlements. OFFGO’s members are however worried about the use of violence by some Mbororo citizens against Meta villagers. Based on recorded audio and video fragments, (S/C, due to privacy reasons) the settlers are forcing communities to leave their ancestral lands, and are threatening with violence and killings.
The OFFGO report followed the submission of a petition from 400+ farmers and 10 traditional rulers about intensive and ongoing violent conflicts between farmers and graziers in Mbengwi. Additionally to this petition, traditional rulers in Nyen (P1/P2) and Tudig wrote the Mbengwi agro-pastoral commission, which constitutes local administrators dealing with land use matters, about illegalities in land allocation for permanent grazing in Mbengwi. The allocation of land for grazing activities is regulated by ‘Decree No 78/263 of July, 3 1978 to establish the terms and conditions for settling farmer-grazier disputes’. The agro-pastoral commission first of all discusses the allocation of rural areas to agriculture and grazing, and this to the needs of the inhabitants and demands of development. This interpretation is well accepted at the level of farmer and grazier organisations and associations, including by the Mbororo Social and Cultural Development Association (Mboscuda) in Cameroon. This association empowers the Mbororo community to secure their rights as valued active citizens in Cameroon.
With the submission of the farmer-grazier report in September 2015, the authors seek the promotion and protection of the rights of all land users in Mbengwi, which includes farmers and graziers. The traditional rulers and the farmers reported cases of abuse of power, harassment, intimidation and land grabbing by the local administration in Mbengwi. To report these problems to a higher authority falls within the scope of what human rights defenders do. According to the UN, the term “Human rights defender” is used to describe people who, individually or with others, act to promote or protect human rights. Human rights defenders seek the promotion and protection of civil and political rights as well as the promotion, protection and realization of economic, social and cultural rights.
After a follow-up meeting in October 2015 between a traditional ruler, our OFFGO President J. Cappelle (Belgium) and the Governor of the NW region, the Governor transferred the report to the Senior Divisional Officer of Momo. The Governor requested a proper investigation.
The Senior Divisional Officer organized an investigative meeting on 21 January 2016. It covered several land conflict matters, including a farmer-grazier conflict in Tudig. This conflict was reported in the OFFGO report. OFFGO provided guidance and legal support to the Council of the Tudig village in relation to this particular farmer-grazier conflict. Besides a representative of the Senior Divisional Officer, up to 15 local elements of the local administration (Delegates), as well as the Divisional Officer were present.
During this investigative meeting, the Divisional Officer threatened with administrative actions against members of the farmers group OFFGO, with a focus on its President and Vice-President. In a letter from 15 February 2016 to the Governor of the NW region, the traditional ruler of Tudig complained about these threats against the village and our OFFGO President. In our reports and letters, we explain the identified problems, and propose recommendations. Each of those suggested solutions have been widely debated and accepted at community level.
Shortly before and after this investigative meeting, our President received several judicial summons, both by the Mbengwi Gendarmerie, of which one covered an arrest warrant. Although no arrest took place, the Mbengwi Gendarmerie cautioned us constructively. The commandant in charge of the Gendarmerie reminded us about our rights and duty to communicate freely, but that some elements of the local administration and judicial system are trying to use their powers to arrest and detain us for exercising our rights. And on the 8th of March 2016, our OFFGO President got summoned by the Police Commissioner of Mbengwi, allegedly upon request of the Divisional Officer. The Police revealed a plan to remove Mr Cappelle from the region or the country, upon initiative from the Divisional Officer, as a result of his September 2015 report and support to traditional rulers, farmers and graziers. The investigation resulted in a Police letter to the higher authorities (No. 0053/SNS/MBE. 2/VOL 1/PS89, available at [S/C]), with the message that our OFFGO President poses no threat to Cameroonian national security.
Land grabbers want to stop OFFGO. They use force and extreme violence.
What was expected to be the end of a period of administrative harassments, our President Mr Cappelle received a summon from the Gendarmerie of Momo on 25 April 2016. During the investigation that took place on May 5 2016, the Gendarmerie informed him about a complaint from Mr Baba Danpullo, about Mr Cappelle’s activities in Esu and Big Babanki (both in the North West region of Cameroon) in relation to a matter of land use by Mr Danpullo. Although the presumption of innocence and a fair trial are core fundamental rights, the Gendarmerie of Fundong already made final conclusions before any investigation took place. Indeed, in Gendarmerie report No 106/EM/CIE/DDG/4 du 20/3/2016 (available at [S/C]), the Gendarmerie of Fundong accused Mr Cappelle of attempted murder on billionaire Baba Danpullo. The Gendarmerie made this decision without seeing Mr Cappelle or his lawyers. No investigation took place. The Gendarmerie of Fundong transferred its findings to the NW Gendarmerie, in a ‘bulletin de renseignement’, who on its turn communicated it to the Gendarmerie of Momo.
Mr Cappelle’s right to justice has been violated and denied. Access to justice is a core fundamental human right. Although the Gendarmerie of Momo planned to start its investigation on May 11 2016, our President got arrested on May 10 2016, detained in a Yaounde prison cell and removed from the country. His fundamental right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty has not been respected. It is worth noting that our OFFGO president has never been to Esu (contrary to the accusations in the Fundong gendarmerie report), and that OFFGO has set up an initial cooperation with a group of farmers in Big Babanki, with a focus on sharing knowledge on financial management of pig farming. These are non-violent actions, and fall within the development agenda of OFFGO.
OFFGO managed to receive a copy of internal communication between the chef of staff at the Belgian embassy in Cameroon and the administration of the Foreign Affairs Department in Brussels. A first communication (P1/P2) dates from 10 April 2016. The Cameroonian security department accuses, in its call with the Belgian embassy, our OFFGO President of incitement of the youth. The security department seems not to have been properly informed about Mbengwi Police report No. 0053/SNS/MBE. 2/VOL 1/PS89, with the conclusive message that our OFFGO President poses no threat to the Cameroonian national security. No investigation took place between 8 March (date of Police report) and 10 April 2016 (date of mail). According to the Belgian embassy, the call was made one week earlier, in the week of 28 March 2016. This is a few days after the transferred Gendarmerie Fundong report to the Gendarmerie of the NW region. Based on this simple phone call, and without any investigation, the Belgian embassy subsequently allowed the Cameroonian security department to proceed with a suggested plan to remove our President, as human rights defender, from the country. During the arrest and detention, the Belgian embassy deliberately refused proper consular protection, although it acknowledged on May 13 2016 that he got removed from the country for his activism. It was only on the last day of detention that the Belgian embassy took its first, but limited, initiatives on the matter.
The call from the Cameroonian security department came at 1 week after the circulation of Fundong’s Gendarmerie report No 106/EM/CIE/DDG/4 du 20/3/2016, and at 1 month after Mbengwi Police report No. 0053/SNS/MBE. 2/VOL 1/PS89. Within a period of 2 weeks, Mr Cappelle’s reputation changed from human rights defender (in Police report No. 0053/SNS/MBE. 2/VOL 1/PS89) to terrorist (in Gendarmerie report No 106/EM/CIE/DDG/4 du 20/3/2016), and in the call from the security department to the Belgian embassy P1/P2). In that period of 2 weeks, no investigation took place. The Gendarmerie of Fundong did not uphold in report No 106/EM/CIE/DDG/4 du 20/3/2016 the core fundamental rights of presumption of innocence, right to fair investigation, fair trial, right to justice.
Shortly after the removal from the country, up to 200 farmers marched peacefully to Mbengwi centre, some for more than 3 hours in the rain. They protest against the removal of our OFFGO President and the harassments by the local administration. The harassments against the farmers group continued… On 26 May 2016, the Mbengwi Divisional Officer ordered the destruction of OFFGO’s properties, the arrest of OFFGO administrators and farmers, and the complete destruction of the Tudig community farm. Ironically, it is this Divisional Officer that has been accused by hundreds of farmers and tens of traditional rulers of land grabbing and abuse of power. On July 16 2016 and February 2 2017, it further resulted in the arrest of other OFFGO administrators, including of the representative of the traditional ruler of Tudig (Vincent Awazi). On July 16 2016, the bailiff of the Mbengwi court of First Instance used falsified signed convocations as unlawful tactic to arrest two OFFGO farmers. The charges against the 2 farmers are: violation of a sous-prefectoral order and the illegal retention of 2 goats. The State Counsel seems to have missed or ignored official Police, Gendarmerie and Mayor documents on the two matters, what would have been sufficient to correctly understand the full context, and continued with its motivation to bring the 2 farmers to court. No trial has taken place so far. OFFGO provides legal support to all its members, including in mentioned cases.
On February 2 2017, the Mbengwi State Counsel tried to arrest and detain the representative of the traditional ruler of Tudig, and transferred him to court, what would take place on February 8 2017. At court, no case against Vincent Awazi was on the court role. Although he has been arrested, and is out on bail, he has not been informed about any charges, even at weeks after the arrest on February 2.
At the same day of arrest of the representative of the traditional ruler in Tudig, a group of 5 armed (machetes, traditional guns) aggressors entered his village, Tudig, and destroyed property (farms, fences, houses), and intimidated farmers and graziers. They also threatened villagers in a neighboring village (Acha). It has not been their first attempt. Some of them entered the villagers in September and November 2016, and demolished parts of the community farm of Tudig. Their objective is the forced eviction of OFFGO supporters. The Tudig Village Council filed a complaint at the Police of Mbengwi, including the names of the attackers. The Police commissioner guaranteed attention to the matter. For now, the leader of the aggressors has not been found.
Victory for justice
The European Commission answered OFFGO in July 2016 and in November 2016 (P1/P2), confirming to follow up the case and the human rights situation in Cameroon, with due attention and within the limits of its competence.
The Belgian authorities communicated in Belgian parliament on December 2016 to have decided to put the land rights issues on the agenda of bilateral meetings with the Cameroonian authorities.
Confronted with Gendarmerie report No 106/EM/CIE/DDG/4 du 20/3/2016, Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Didier Reynders, explains in his reply to Parliamentarian Question 967 that this document constitutes an element that eventually might be relevant in a judicial investigation.
The Mbengwi legal department warned the Mbengwi Divisional Officer about his alleged involvement in land grabbing. OFFGO started this debate in September 2015 with its Report on the farmer-grazer conflict in Mbengwi Sub-Division.