By Maxcel Fokwen*
Mariatou Mohamadou is a widow with five children living under threat of surviving on land which her husband left in the locality of Mbanaka, Tigniere subdivision, Faro and Deo division of the Adamawa region. Pressure from a business magnate to gain large expanse of land for cattle rearing and other ventures puts her future in jeopardy as she is being forced to relocate.
The plight of this Mbororo widow ties to a perennial and recurrent problem of customary land ownership. In the Mbere and Faro and Deo divisions of the Adamawa region, multiple land cases within the corridors of Lamidats, courts and the offices of administrators continue to put the survival of hundreds of Mbororos on the line.
The Bagyeli pigmies, another minority group in the Ocean division of the South region, also face the same problem. They continue to live a ‘strange’ life owing to changes in their way of life linked to land-gabbing by investors.
The cry and wish of these minority groups is for the country’s 1974 land law, which gives the state an overbearing control over all unregistered land, to have a human face.
Alhadji Danko Hamidou, a Mbororo elite resident in Meiganga, Mbere division, said there is urgent need to review and empower customary land ownership. This, Danko believes, is one of the best ways to address conflicts emanating from land.
Over in Bessiang, a locality in the Ocean division, South region of Cameroon, the Bagyeli Pygmies who consider themselves as indigenous owners of the land where they live, continue to face pressure from government that is increasingly leasing their ancestral habitat to multinationals.
Their attachment to nature is under growing threats in this area, which forms part of the Congo Basin Rainforest that is attracting investors.
Awana Timothe, a local among the Pygmy minority, recounted that their lives are in jeopardy as multinationals carry out major investments such as palm oil plantations and timber logging with government’s approval.
Across the Adamawa and parts of the South region, the Pygmies and Mbororo minority groups have one feeling; they feel their voices have been silenced over land handed down to them by their ancestors.
Awana likened the situation to mean, they who have lived for centuries in the South have now become squatters and begging for survival owing to interest for multinationals and investors.
Land law puts minorities in jeopardy
Cameroon’s decades-old land law categorises all land into public and private land. The 1974 land tenure law makes provision for the registration of land titles to certify ownership meanwhile all unoccupied land is deemed state land held in the interest of the public. Beyond this, only a negligible portion of the population go through that process.
Experts picture the law to have been drafted to speed up huge investment in Cameroon shortly after the country’s independence but in recent times, minority populations are at risk of survival despite the acknowledgement of the customary land ownership rules.
The Chad-Cameroon pipeline project of 2000 to 2004 saw government using the 1974 land law, which makes all unoccupied land state property to evict traditional landowners from their property. Situations like this abound in the Mbere, Faro and Deo divisions in the Adamawa and in the Ocean division of the South region.
Often times, conflicts spark between livestock headers, farming population wishing to use forest land for perennial crop cultivation and forest population such as the Bagyeli Pygmies in the South seeking to protect their history, identity and way of life.
The rich at origin of land conflicts
Across the areas mentioned above, locals said without pressure from investors both foreign and local and other businesspersons seeking for land lease, hardly would there be any threat to their ownership of land. In the Adamawa, most blamed the spike in land disputes on well-known businesspersons seeking large expanses of land for livestock breeding and other investments.
In the South region, the Bagyeli Pygmies some 30 kilometres South of Kribi blame their land misfortune on agro industrial companies and timber exploitation enterprises. In most cases, they recall having lived in peace until people started showing interest in their land for different purposes.
Plight of Mbororo minority
A representative of a group of Mbororos, who had undertaken to enclose a parcel of land for collective investments, disclosed that they are still in court owing to a decision of a Divisional Officer, DO, of Tignere who suspended the activity.
Days after, our source said, the association was surprised by a prefectural order by the Senior Divisional Officer of Faro and Deo which ordered the provisional allocation to a certain Abdoulahi Aboubakar of the same land they had planned to use.
The order claimed that, the land found in an area known as Mbankana. The representative of the group of Mbororos said the parcel was handed to them by their forefathers and has been used not only for small scale livestock rearing but for farming by women.
While these are holding unto to customary law land ownership, administrators are issuing orders under the guise of the 1974 land law having made all unregistered land state property.
Victims who are Mbrororos concerned here lay claim to land in Sark-Sanou, Mayo-Nisang, Mayo Kodjoli and Mayo-Mbakana.
Among them is 43-year-old Ibrahim Deihiro. He is married to three wives and father of eight children.
Deihiro recounted having been living on the disputed piece of land for over 20 years. He has a thatched house built on the land where his family resides. Not too far from there is a ranch of 60 cows.
In Another disputed pasture, Sani Sani, 50, a shepherd, married to one wife and father of nine children, is also in distress owing to a litigation over land he is laying claims to. Sani said the portion was handed to him over 25 years ago.
In the face of uncertainty, the parcel where he resides is found a ranch of 70 cows, 50 sheep, a fruit farm comprising oranges, avocado and a plantain farm which he hopes to hand over to his children in case of death, is his major problem.
Asiatou Issa whose husband is battling to retain land recounted that: “We are married to the same person. We live here and our husband controls a ranch of 50 cows. Our husband is very honest to his employer who gave us this land over 20 years ago. But today we are being threatened to leave”.
“There are court cases…where do we go to from here with children and how do we survive,” Assiatou said in the presence of co-wife Mariama Issa who nodded her head in confirmation.
Unending court cases, conflicting administrative decisions
Added to the complicated narratives from victims, some who did not want to be identified told The Guardian Post that multiple administrative edicts and court cases continue to linger while the minority population continues to live under difficult conditions.
One of the victims whose only name he gave as Dairou said successive administrators take different decisions over the same land disputes oftentimes leaving the Mbororo minority in despair.
A bailiff in Ngaoundere told us off record that, very often, he descends to the field across the Adamawa region to get records of mostly Mbororos who are under threat of being evicted from ‘their land’.
Efforts to get local administrative officials react on the allegations that some of them are part of the problem were unfruitful.
MBOSCUDA raises land ownership rights threat
In October 2019, the President of the Mbororo Cultural and Development Association, MBOSCUDA, for the Adamawa, El Hadji Oumanou Biri, wrote to the Governor of the Adamawa region decrying the abuse of the land rights of the Mbororo minority.
“…. I write to your high office to let you know the prevailing abusive expropriation of Mbororos in complicity with administrative officials… In effect, this abusive land expropriation affects men, women and children in Tignere subdivision precisely in an area known as Carrefour Ngaoutere Mbankana Bantai, Carrefour Kondon right up to Mbela Tougue passing through Mbela Ngabi…,” Ousmanou Biri wrote.
He asserted that, “ this zone is populated with over 80 percent of the Mbororo minority who are marginalised and are victims of this practice which not only seeks to create social tension that could threaten peace and stability of the country but also to destroy President Biya’s living together policy”.
Pygmies feel defiled, disposed of natural right
In Adjap village on the peripheries of the Ocean division, Medong Bartholomew blames multinationals for having triggered a shift in their way of life. Medong says since government leased land to an oil palm producing company, they were evicted from their land without consent.
But an official of the said company, who spoke on conditions of anonymity because he was not authorised by hierarchy to speak, denied the accusation. The official said it is the state that granted them right to operate in the area.
To Medong, the destruction on their land is an abomination. Medong recounted that, their ancestors never imagined a day will come when even the state would be battling with them over land.
He recalled that past generations never told them of whether there is any law governing land ownership, but he is aware that with them, land is handed from one generation to another.
With reports of government estimated to have leased over 42,000 hectares of land in the South region in over 15 years to investors, the Bagyeli Pygmies feel severely dealt with. They who used to live and access the forest for non-forest timber products, farming, medication and other needs at will now need permission to visit certain areas.
Meanwhile, the people still feel incomplete despite a government decision to hand them some 15,000 hectares out of 37,000 reportedly leased to investors. This came after an outcry from civil society groups but the Bagyeli still feel the action is not enough.
Despite resettlement camps that companies erected for the Bagyelis, they still feel deeply wounded, in need of their land freedom to be restored.
Like the Mbororos, most of them too hold the view that, there is need for the state to review its land laws to take into consideration their “natural rights to own land”.
MBOSCUDA president suggests declassification of land reserves
Alhadji Ousmanou Biri, Adamawa
Regional president of the Mbororo Social and Cultural Development Association, MBOSCUDA, among other things, told The Guardian Post that there is need to declassify some land reserves to reduce the pressure on available land.
While calling for a review of the land law, Ousmanou Biri said the current land laws are violated with impunity, leaving minority groups in a fix.
He lamented that all across the Adamawa, Mbororos suffer neglect when it comes to land rights. The MBOSCUDA president said, they are not consulted in most cases. He cited cases in the Mbere and Faro and Deo divisions wherein he said, individuals only surface with land titles and documents, threatening most Mbororos to quit land they have been exploiting for years.
He also talked of cases of investors who access communities and go to either the Lamido or an administrator to get authorisation over land without the knowledge of the Mbororos.
On the role of administrators, Ousmanou Biri quipped that, “there are some who do their job well while others side with investors at the detriment of the indigenous minority groups”.
Land rights lawyer proposes solution
Barrister Nounah Stephen Mongkuo, specialist in human and environmental rights, who has been working with many Non Governmental Organisations, NGOs, for many years mainly to protect human and land rights of local and indigenous communities living around the protected areas, said there is need of (I think need for) a change in approach.
According to Barrister Nounah, there is need to seek the opinion of indigenous minority groups before leasing out land for whatever purpose.
The human and environmental rights lawyer said oftentimes, the opinion of indigenous groups is not taken into consideration when it comes to land ownership. He proposed adequate consultation of minority groups and adequate compensation to handle some of the minority land ownership challenges.
The lawyer said it is not only the 1974 land law that needs a review to protect the rights of minority indigenous groups but also the country’s 1994 forestry law. Barrister Nounah also talked of indigenous minority rights violated in the mining of minerals.
Cameroon, the lawyer said, needs to align its land law on the same level with the international conventions that protect the land rights of minority indigenous groups.
On the multiple court cases indigenous minority groups face, Barrister Nounah said: “They need lawyers and while defending them, the lawyers should evoke international conventions that protect indigenous people’s land rights because our local laws are weak. Most of our laws don’t match with international laws that protect the rights of indigenous communities”.
He suggested the need for stakeholders to step up advocacy for government to also play its role in looking into the plight of minority indigenous communities.
*Maxcel Fokwen is Desk Editor at The Guardian Post Daily Newspaper. This article was first published in The Guardian Post no.2046 of Tuesday January 12, 2021.