Calls for release of students jailed over Boko Haram joke

Amnesty International has called for the release of three students sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment by a military tribunal in Cameroon after they shared a joke among each other about the recruitment criteria of Nigeria-based extremist Islamic group Boko Haram.

The three students were found guilty of “non-denunciation of terrorism related information” on 2 November 2016. They have appealed their conviction and sentence. After several delays, the appeal is slated for 15 June, according to an Amnesty International statement.

Students Fomusoh Ivo Feh, Afuh Nivelle Nfor and Azah Levis Gob shared the following text message in November 2014: “Boko Haram recruits young people from 14 years old and above. Conditions for recruitment: 4 subjects at GCE, including religion”.

The message was intended as a comment on the difficulty of finding a good job – even in Boko Haram – without being highly qualified. The joke was seen by one of the students’ teachers who confiscated the phone and handed it to Cameroon’s political authorities. All three were arrested. According to Amnesty International, they were transferred to the prison in the capital Yaoundé on 14 January 2015 and kept in leg chains for four months.

In Nigeria, students have been following the case with shock and disbelief.

Comedy culture

While the National Association of Nigerian Students has roundly condemned the arrest and sentencing of the students, the student wing of Nigeria’s Association of Comedians is particularly shocked. A culture of comedy is growing in Nigeria where jokes are told at social functions, political rallies and marriage ceremonies. Comedy, agit-prop, riddles and jokes are also fast becoming a source of income for students.

According to student comedians who spoke to University World News, Boko Haram is not off limits as a comic subject in Nigeria.

“This is incredible. Sending three innocent children to a military tribunal for mere jokes about Boko Haram is very strange. With the tons of jokes we crack on a daily basis with regards to Boko Haram, all Nigerian comedians would have been sentenced by now to the firing squad. With all due respect to President Paul Biya, I urge him to release immediately, without any preconditions, all three students,” said student comedian Yinka Afa who is based at the University of Ibadan.

Another student comedian, Puis Puis, based at the University of Nigeria Nsukka, said positive and negative stories emanating from the Nigerian army about their campaign against Boko Haram are used as comedic fodder – even in the presidential palace and at state banquets held in military barracks.

Freedom of speech

“Up to now, no comedian has been arrested, interrogated and jailed in Nigeria where freedom of speech is embedded in the Constitution. I don’t think this ugly incident in Cameroon could take place in Nigeria because our level of culture is very high. Today, the success of the Nigerian hip-hop music industry and the Nollywood film industry are partly due to the high content of jokes about any public or private establishment,” said Puis.

Christiana Kawo, a student of theatre arts at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, recalled that Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari had arrested Nigerian generals accused of stealing funds aimed at prosecuting Boko Haram – a positive story, he said, that was also regarded by student comedians as potential material for jokes and public commentary.

Along with students, Nigerian academics have been similarly shocked by the case.

African charter

Dr Adewale Suenu, an expert on international relations at Lagos State University in Nigeria, said the arrests were unlawful and went against the letter and spirit of the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights to which Cameroon is a signatory.

“Within the context of postcolonial Africa, the incarceration and humiliation of the three students simply demonstrates that the Cameroonian state is not sincere about the application of this charter. There is no reason for treating these young students as terrorists on the basis of simple telephone messages.”

Suenu said the reaction of the government was a reflection of the “state of paranoia” among members of the ruling party, also evidenced in the detention of leaders of Anglophone Cameroon who are falsely accused of working hand in glove with Boko Haram.

“The repression and brutal incarceration by Paul Biya of students and leaders of Cameroon’s Anglophone region are further proof that the country is drifting towards dictatorship and anarchy,” said Suenu.

According to reliable sources in Lagos, a Nigerian coalition of human rights organisations is to write to the African Bar Association with a view to requesting the pan-African body to intercede on behalf of the three students.