Rights groups condemn deportation of academics and others

International human rights groups have condemned the Nigerian government for deporting 47 Cameroon nationals, six of whom are university lecturers. They were deported on suspicion of being 'terrorists' and are now being held by security forces in Cameroon.

The six university staffers, some of whom are academics of international repute, have lived and worked in Nigeria for years, even raising their families in the country. They were among a group of 12 people arrested on 5 January in Abuja where they were holding a meeting. They were held in Abuja by the Nigerian State Secret Service without access to their lawyers and families.

According to an Amnesty International statement issued days after the incident, the detainees are activists committed to campaigning peacefully for independence of Anglophone Cameroon.

Calling for the Nigerian authorities to respect their legal and human rights, the director of Amnesty International Nigeria, Osai Ojigho, warned that if they were extradited to Cameroon, the activists risked an “unfair trial before a military court and the deeply disturbing possibility of torture”.

On 1 February, after the deportation of the 47 Cameroonians, including the six lecturers, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, issued its own statement in which it noted its concern over the “forced return by Nigeria of 47 Cameroonians, who were handed over to the Cameroonian authorities on 26 January 2018”.

“Most of the individuals in question had submitted asylum claims. Their forcible return is in violation of the principle of non-refoulement, which constitutes the cornerstone of international refugee law.”

In a statement seen by University World News, senior United States government official Heather Nauert has called on the Nigerian and Cameroon governments to respect the human rights of those deported.

A statement from Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon, announced on 23 January that the “terrorists” had been deported from Nigeria and were in custody.

Femi Falana and Abdul Oroh, lawyers representing the Nigerian Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), told the families of the detained that the academics were part of a group that had been preparing for a meeting with the United Nations agency in charge of refugees when they were arrested in Abuja and deported to Yaoundé.

More than 10,000 Cameroonian refugees fleeing the military conflict in the region have been taken to different UN camps of safety in Taraba, Benue, Akwa Ibom and Cross River states of Nigeria.

Dr Benedicta Barh of the department of political science, University of Jos, Nigeria, argued that the government should let the Nigerian community know the offences of the deportees and the reasons for their extradition.

Barh said the illegal deportation was a bad example of a lack of respect for the rule of law. “It is an assault on academia and we must rise up against it,” he said.

Respected academics

The arrests have left staff and members of campuses where these academics reside in shock, while academics at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, in Northern Nigeria have protested against the deportation. Staff and students at the faculty of veterinary medicine have begun collecting signatures petitioning the unconditional release of their colleague, Che Augustine Awasum, professor of human and animal surgery.

Professor Yinka Okubanjo described Awasum as a hard-working research fellow and said that he was suffering from a medical condition that required treatment. “He [Awasum] is one of the few colleagues who combines both human and animal surgery. He has trained, with the collaboration and partnership of his colleagues, more than 1,000 veterinary surgeons since joining us two decades ago,” said Okubanjo.

“Professor Augustine Awasum is a Cameroonian and British citizen; he was preparing to go for his annual medical check-up in the United Kingdom before his detention and deportation,” he added.

Students and staff at the geology department at Ahmadu Bello University have also embarked on a petition drive to secure the release of their colleague, Henry Kimeng, an associate professor in geology.

Dr Bisman Landorg told University World News that Kimeng was a fine scholar who has contributed to the development of the department in terms of research, expertise and attraction of funds from oil companies nationally and abroad.

“He and his colleagues have produced much needed manpower in Nigeria’s oil and gas industries. He is married to a Nigerian and both of them have children. The Gestapo manner of his extradition is not only crude but also violates international law and his fundamental rights. His wife is planning to challenge in court this dastardly act of the Nigerian government,” he said.

Two more Cameroon nationals, senior teaching and technical staff from the American University of Nigeria in Yola, Adamawa State in North Eastern Nigeria, are also among those detained and deported. They are Julius Ayuk Tabe, head of the information and communication information centre, and Fidelis Ndeh, director of the academic planning centre.

Barrister Abdul Oroh, who knows both academics, said: “Julius Ayuk Tabe and Fidelis Ndeh are assets to the university. Students and staff admire them. They are role models.” Oroh said supporters want all refugees from Anglophone Cameroon to be assisted through a political solution involving dialogue and not military aggression.

Several other campuses have also been affected by the loss of teaching staff through the deportation, including Dr Cornelius Njikimpi Kwanga, senior lecturer, Umaru Musa Yar’adua University in Katsina, and Egbe Ogork, associate professor, Bayero University Kano.

In a recent interview on Cameroon’s state broadcaster, Bakari Issa Tchiroma, the country’s communication minister, confirmed that Nigeria had deported the university teachers he described as “terrorists” to Cameroon. While thanking Nigerian authorities for this gesture, he explained that those deported would be taken to court to face charges of subversion against their motherland.

Barrister Femi Falana said he has formally approached the International Committee of the Red Cross and Amnesty International for help.

Professor Abdullahi Tomfam of the faculty of law at Ahmadu Bello University said that there is no justification for the Nigerian government to have granted the request by Cameroon to illegally deport the university teachers. “Political expediency and an informed personal relationship between President Muhammadu Buhari and President Paul Biya may have given rise to this violation of the rights of my colleagues,” he said.

Another academic, Dr Balarabe Usman, faculty of law, University of Maiduguri, described the deportation as a “sad development” and said that a group of university teachers representing several faculties of law are looking into the circumstances of the deportation with a view to presenting legal opinions to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and other international agencies, since there was no extradition treaty between Nigeria and Cameroon.