Land!!! it is perhaps the most important of all factors of production. It is also one of the most crucial resources required for the development, growth, and advancement of a country or people. It is even used to define and shape people’s identity and dignity in some parts of Africa. Access to and ownership of land in Cameroon has often been viewed by many as the reserve of the rich and influential class in society. According to the Cameroon land tenure ordinance of 1974, all land in the country belongs to the state. The process of transferring ownership of these lands to private individuals has always been regarded as costly, time-consuming and impeded by administrative bottlenecks.
Fako is one of the six divisions of the South West Region of Cameroon. English is the most widely spoken language here though indigenous languages still feature prominently in the people’s daily conversation. It is host to several institutions considered revered to the state of Cameroon like the Cameroon Development Corporation, the National Oil Refinery (Societe National Des Rafinage, SONARA) and other major sources of State revenue. This is one of the divisions in Cameroon that has often generated fireworks in the country when it comes to the question of land ownership and acquisition.
Human Rights Activist and Deputy Secretary-General of the Bakweri Land Claims Committee Barrister Ngongi Ikomi says the crisis of land and land ownership in the Fako date as far back as the Berlin colonial conference of 1884. It was in 1884 he says, when, “in the town of Berlin in Germany, a few arrogant, greedy, power-hungry, European leaders met and decided to arbitrarily ‘carve out and divide’ Africa and allocate to themselves vast inhabited territories on the continent as their personal or state’s property.”. Mola Ikomi, as he is fondly called by his Bakweri tribesmen explains that it was the forceful occupation of the Bakweri lands in 1884 by the Germans after the Berlin conference that ignited what is today known as the Fako land crisis or the Fako land-grabbing mafia. “The Germans, on arriving Africa and forcefully appropriating lands that were never and would never be theirs, were quick to identify the natural wealth of Fako. They decided to make it theirs – peacefully or by force…the Germans then set out to make vast plantations on these lands and forced the Bakweris to work on these plantations as slaves or laborers”.
In 1946, in retaliation to what they described as the dispossession of indigenous Fako land by the Germans, the Bakweri, one of the largest ethnic groups in Fako division created what is today known as the Bakweri Land Claims Committee with objective of ‘campaigning for compensation for, and restitution of, their lands initially expropriated by the Germans at the end of the 19th Century, and taken over by the Government of Cameroon, immediately after the reunification of British and French Cameroons in 1961’. The group has upon the attainment of independence by Cameroon been engaged in a long-ranged struggle to protect indigenous land from what Barrister Ngongi refers to as “callous and atrocious land grabbing” by administrators in the region with the complicity of the chiefs of these communities “These Chiefs don’t even give these lands to the administrators in exchange for anything worth it. They just hand these lands out to these foreigners in exchange for so-called protection from their own subjects. Any subject who rises in objection to the land grabbing going on is arrested and detained on trumped-up charges. I have spent the greater part of my time since my return to this country removing people from detention. People put there by their own chiefs.” he says.
In 2014, what started as a radio talk show discussion between Barrister Ngongi, Journalists and panelists on state media CRTV in Buea triggered a wider long-term debate that later became known around the country as the Fako land-grabbing mafia. Several high-profile personalities and civil administrators in the South West have within this time had their fair share of the unhealthy media attention as part of the narrative on land grabbing in Fako prominent amongst them being South West Governor Bernard Okalia Bilai, Former SDO of Fako Zang III, former Divisional Officer of Tiko Che Patrick Ngwashi, late mayor of Buea Ekema Patrick Essunge and a host of others.
South West Regional Secretary of the National Commission on Human Rights and Freedoms Christopher Tambe Tiku, speaking on the issue of land grabbing in 2017 revealed that the illegal acquisition of native land by these administrators is often facilitated regrettably by the custodians of the cultures and traditions of these same people. He explains that it is with the complicity of the chiefs and “ill-intentioned officials of state property, surveys and land tenure” that civil administrators grab huge portions of native land ‘indiscriminately’. “we have uncovered over time systematic conspiracies between the Chiefs and the administrators in the South West Region to dispossess natives of huge parcels of land most of which was ceded to the natives through their chiefs by the CDC”.
In 2016, Mr. Tambe Tiku and Barrister Ngongi, led a delegation to the then Prime Minister Philemon Yang to bring to his knowledge the “callous and atrocious manner in which land grabbing was taking place in this area (Fako)”. The outcome of this visit was the setting up of a commission of inquiry by then minister of State Property, Surveys, and Land Tenure Jacqueline Koung à Bessike to look into the Fako land crisis. Some officials of the South West Regional Delegation of State Property, Surveys and Land Tenure, the Chief Mathias Esuka Etonge of Molyko, Late mayor of Buea Ekema Patrick Essunge and others were also summoned by the National Anti-Corruption Commission (CONAC) for questioning on the use of land surrendered by the CDC. This followed a previous visit to the South West Region by CONAC officials and subsequent investigations into the land crisis in the region. “They came here time and again but to date, no one has seen the report of that commission. Even some of the people who constituted that commission were themselves land grabbers in Fako. We even got the then minister of State property Jacqueline Koung to sign a ministerial order suspending the CDC land surrender but no one respected that order. We still find land being surrendered every day into the same hands of these degenerate chiefs’ laments Barrister Ngongi.
Regional Delegate of State Property, Surveys and Land Tenure for the South West, Annuh Boris Meende whose ministry has been accused of complicity in the land grabbing mafia however maintains that the accusations of land grabbing and illegal land acquisition levied against civil administrators and government officials in the region have never had any legal backing. “there is no legal provision in Cameroon that forbids anybody from owning parcels of land in any part of the country. We have even read media reports insinuating that the Cameroon land tenure ordinance of 1974 forbids civil administrators from owning parcels of land in their areas of assignment. No such provision exists in the Cameroon land tenure ordinance. The only provision I know of is that you must be a Cameroonian before you can acquire landed property in Cameroon. The ministry has a procedure and a series of requirements needed for the establishment of a land title and any individual who meets these requirements and provides the requested documents is entitled to the land.
According to Mr. Annuh, there is no evidence pointing to malpractice by administrators or traditional rulers in the process of land acquisition in the South West Region. He interprets the accusations of land grabbing against civil administrators in the region to the lack of a reading culture in Cameroonians whom he says have not had time to find out what the law says on the process of land acquisition in the country. “The law favors the indigenous population but it equally makes provisions through which non-indigenes can acquire landed property in any part of the country…everybody born in Cameroon has the right to acquire land in the country as long as he provides the required documentation. I don’t know the mechanisms people use to classify others especially administrators as land grabbers. If they follow the right procedure and acquire their land, people should enquire how they can follow that same procedure and acquire their own land rather than calling them land grabbers” he adds.
At the heart of the controversy on land grabbing in Fako has been the Cameroon Development Corporation that has since the days of German colonial rule, maintained custody of wide expanse parcels of land in Fako, Meme and other divisions in the South West Region. The corporation came under the spotlight following its land surrender scheme through which it relinquishes ownership of some parcels of this land to indigenes of Fako division through their traditional authorities/chiefs. The management of the CDC has in recent times been criticized however for not managing its land surrender scheme appropriately, the consequence of which has been the eventual ownership of these lands by administrators and other officials. “Our kids are the ones who toil and die every day in the plantations of the CDC but each time they think of providing land for the development of our community, they hardly get us the members of the communities involved. They will rather hand the land to our corrupt chiefs who in turn sell the lands back to the governor and the D.0 while we continue to pay rents all our lives. Explains Gilbert Namangi, Resident of Molyko Buea, South West Region of Cameroon.
Kebbi Ekwile, Property Manager at the Cameroon Development Corporation, however, maintains that the CDC’s land surrender scheme is managed in line with modalities laid down by ministerial text in 2003. He explains that all applications for land surrender are directed to the administration via the Divisional officer of the subdivision where the land is located for onward transmission to the SDO. The SDO, he says upon receipt sets up a site board commission for review of the application- a commission which he says usually includes representatives of the CDC and that upon completion of the entire process of land surrender as prescribed by the Ministerial text, the CDC no longer retains control of the land and cannot be responsible for the management/mismanagement of the land. “Once the land has been handed over to these communities, it ceases to be the responsibility of the CDC to decide what becomes of the land. It is the responsibility of the state and these communities and not the CDC. in 2014, there was an addendum to the 2003 ministerial text on land surrender which says communities must show evidence of land use after the surrender but this is done to the administration and not to the CDC.”
Mr. Ekwile, however, admitted that the Corporation has over the years received complaints about the mismanagement of surrendered land and the role of administrators in it. “a ministerial committee was set up sometime in 2014 to look into all these complaints and the CDC as part of that commission but until today we don’t know the findings of that commission. Somewhere along the line, the CDC was complete… sidelined. But we remember there was a suspension of the CDC land surrender scheme because of that problem. It was largely as a result of the mismanagement of the land in the Molyko area.” he explains.
All attempts to get a reaction from the Chief Mathias Esuka Etonge of Molyko turned out unsuccessful. Our request for an audience with South West Governor Bernard Okalia Bilai for a statement on the subject was also turned down.
 Che Azenyui Bruno is a Cameroonian freelance Journalist and civil society activist. He is the communications officer of the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa (CHRDA). You can follow him on twitter at @CheAzenyuiBruno.
This report was produced with support from the Reseau de Lutte Contre la Faim (RELUFA) and its partners as part of its policy research into land resource governance and management in Cameroon