The men in hoods stormed into the room in the capital city of Africa’s biggest country. Fortyseven Camerounians who had run into Nigeria for safety were whisked away to an unknown destination by masked men. Nine days later, the captured were sent back to Yaoundé, Cameroun’s capital, where they had previously fled from for fear of their lives.
It would be more than three months after before Cameroon’s minister of Information would say something about the matter: “All of them are doing very well. All of them are in very good health, all of them are enjoying whatever is enshrined in our Constitution.”
Cameroun’s abrasive report on the status of their 47 nationals is contrasted by the deafening silence of the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights and for Refugees. The African Union has gone mute.
The Economic Community of West African States of which Nigeria and Cameroun are members, are silent. All of these fly in the face of a 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. It is important to visit the background of this Convention. At the end of the second World War, there was collateral damage. Europe alone accounted for over 39million human deaths. Families were separated from each other. Hunger was a staple.
Horrendous crimes against humanity had been perpetrated. Predictably, people fled to safety to nations that were considered safer than the boiling battle grounds. The United Nations in furtherance to Article 14 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights thought to put together a multilateral treaty that in a sense will not allow people who run away from a bear to be stung by an adder. The 1951 Convention became the product of that thought. The treaty defines who a refugee is, the rights of individuals granted asylum, the exclusion of war criminals from the circumference of the treaty, and visa-free travel for holders of travel documents issued under the convention.
In 1967, an additional protocol was created which removed the time limits prescribed by the treaty. The provision hence applied to refugees ‘without any geographic limitation and thus gave the convention universal coverage. Denmark was the first state to ratify the treaty on 4th December, 1952 and most recently, Nauru signed the convention and protocol to make up 146 states who have agreed to the concessions and rights that should be accorded to refugees.
The Issue with the 47 Cameroonians Any person who is outside his country of nationality, and who is unwilling to return to his country of nationality or unwilling to avail himself to the protection of the country of which he is a national due to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion; is a refugee. Following the protest of teachers and lawyers against what they perceive as marginalization of the Anglophone Cameroon, many have had to flee for safety from a country where democratic principles are undermined by Paul Biya’s 35- year perennial leadership.
The 47 Camerounians who left Cameroun ran into Nigeria for safety. Sadly, on 17th January, 2018, these refugees who sought asylum in Nigeria were sent back to Yaoundé in gross violation of the non-refoulement principle of International Law.
The Law forbids a country receiving asylum seekers from returning them to a country in which they would be in likely danger or persecution based on their race, religion, nationality or membership of a particular social group or political opinion.
This principle which is pointedly spelt out in Article 33 of the Convention is now deemed Customary Law and a trucial law of nations. It is a law that ought not be breached for any purpose or under any circumstances. This however has not been the case as certain countries have honoured the convention in breach than in compliance. In 1994 when genocide ravaged Rwanda, Tanzania violated the non-refoulement principle when it closed its borders against more than 50,000 Rwandan refugees who were fleeing genocidal violence.
Zaire would later join Tanzania in 1996 when around 500,000 refugees were returned back to Rwanda before the country had gained stability. The actions of Tanzania and Zaire were not visited with sanctions. As is often the case with refractions that recur without consequences, such actions begin to take on a telling potency and could impeach the legitimacy of a written law where it is not checked.
It is in that sense that Nigeria’s complicity in the refoulement of Sisyku and his 46 friends call for the intervention of the Economic Community of West African States, the African Union and the United Nations. Why Nigeria Cannot Afford the Ignoble Reputation Considering the social and humanitarian consequences that goes with asylum, it does not make for a humane decision for persons who run for safety to be sent back to the line of fi re. Nigeria in particular, cannot afford to treat the 1951 Convention as a suggestion rather than a mandate for many reasons but especially for the following: Nigeria is the seat of the Economic Community of West African States and a giant in the African Union.
The African Union which was formerly known as the Organization of African Unity had on 10th September,1969 in Addis Ababa adopted a convention governing the specific aspects of refugee challenges in Africa. As the African Big Brother, Nigeria ought to show and be a clear example of the bindingness of regional standards for refugees more so as the continent is working assiduously to impeach its ignoble status as the poster child of war and global poverty. There are also municipal laws that spell out the minimum standards of the treatment of refugees and persons who need International protection. Section 1 (1) of Nigeria’s National Commission for Refugees Establishment Act prohibits the expulsion or return of refugees.
The letters of the Law are clear: “As from the commencement of this Act (29th December 1989), and notwithstanding any other law or enactment, no person who is a refugee within the meaning of this Act shall be refused entry into Nigeria, expelled, extradited or returned in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of any territory where(a) His life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular group or political opinion; or (b) his life, physical integrity or liberty could be threatened on account of external aggression, occupation, foreign domination or events seriously disrupting public order in any part or the whole of that territory.
It is pertinent to note that four out of the 47 Cameroonians have dual nationality. While Cameroun prohibits dual citizenship. Nigeria’s law abhors expulsion of its citizens. Section 41 (1) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria states: Every Citizen of Nigeria is entitled to move freely throughout Nigeria and to reside in any part thereof, and no citizen of Nigeria shall be expelled from Nigeria or refused entry thereby or exit there from. Article 12(3) and (5) of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights read: (3) – Every individual shall have the right, when persecuted to seek and obtain asylum in other countries in accordance with the law of those countries and international conventions. Subsection 50 reads: The mass expulsion of non-nationals shall be prohibited. Mass expulsion shall be that which is aimed at national, racial, ethnic or religious groups. By the same token, Nigeria has fallen short of the glory of the Rome Statute and the Organization of African Unity Convention on Refugees.
Nigeria needs to secure its moral authority in the sub region by its compliance to laws. One way to do this is to bring up the case of the 47 Cameroonians to the table with the view to making right the wrong that has been occasioned. For a more wholistic address of the issue, the soulless oppression of the militarized democracy in Cameroun needs to be recognized for what it is. Paul Biya’s 35-year reign is long overdue for an overhaul. The seat he sits in is a democratic chair and not a throne. African leaders do not have to suffer the indignity of being removed if they leave at the point where illegitimacy sets in.