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An appraisal of the administration of criminal justice in Cameroon

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The ultimate purpose of administering criminal justice is to provide a remedy in cases of illegal restraint or confinement by testing the legality of a person’s detainment and or arrest and to ensure that justice is administered. The main goal of this study was to examine the administration of justice in Cameroon.

Specifically, the study, explore the legal mechanisms regulating the administration of justice in Cameroon; investigate whether the rights of defendants are protected during criminal hearings; look at the challenges to the administration of Criminal justice in Cameroon. This study has adopted a qualitative research method.

Using this method, information for this work is obtained from primary and secondary sources. In Cameroon, criminal defendants have certain rights laid down by the law. These rights aim at protecting the dignity of the defendant during the criminal proceedings, and the law provides for the protection of these rights. 

Constraints faced during the administration of criminal justice in Cameroon. include; the problem of identifying special applications, absence of a proper law training institution, the inability of the CPC to define special applications and the unreported nature of cases.

To ensure proper administration of criminal justice, laws should be strictly respected and there should be a proper analysis when doing transfers of judges within the various jurisdictions of the courts in order to avoid a situation where a civil law-oriented judge will be sent to a common-law court where it is not his field of expertise




1.1 Background to the study

The evolution of criminal justice administration in Cameroon can be divided into roughly three stages, the pre-colonial administration of criminal justice, colonial administration of criminal justice, and post-colonial administration of criminal justice.

1.1.1 Administration of Criminal Justice in Pre-colonial Cameroon.

In pre-colonial times, the customary laws and institutions of the various ethnic groups in Cameroon regulated the administration of criminal justice. The customs of the people constituted the law; these customs were not identical in each and every tribe. But similarities were abundant[1]. These customs were not written because writing was unknown in those societies at that time. There was a mechanism for the settlement of disputes. Cases, whenever they arose, were decided, depending on the gravity of each case, either by the family head, quarter head, or the chief and his council[2].

Criminal offences were relatively few, and those that there were may be classified into four groups: (i) There were offences against sexual morality – incest, rape, and adultery. (ii) As regards offences against property, theft was a common crime. (iii) There were also offences against the person – wounding or killing. Whether by physical violence, poisoning or by esoteric means. (iv) There were offences against the chief, the prototype of which was adultery with any of the chief’s wives, and offences against the community as a whole such as witchcraft per se,[3] desecration of revered objects and places, and treason (that is, deserting the village)[4].

It is of interest to note that although this is a bird’s eye view of pre-colonial customary law as it was more than a century ago, the law has not changed much even today. The Muslim Foulbe or Peuhl in northern Cameroon need special mention because they have a different system of law from the one just discussed for the other Cameroonian societies. These people were invaders from North Africa who entered Cameroon via Bornu and Sokoto about the early nineteenth century. Much of their criminal law was based on Muslim Sharia law (sometimes mixed with local customs)[5].

The administration of traditional justice was supported by the belief in the supernatural or the spirit world.[6] That belief was a great deterrent to the commission of crimes. A person who had decided to commit an offence was often deterred from doing so for fear that some evil consequence would befall either him or his family[7].

This deep religious belief resulted in a preponderant role being accorded to the diviner (or fetish priest) in the community. He was both priest and judge in some communities. In other communities, he was a kind of expert witness whose evidence was often conclusive on the matter in dispute. The diviner exercised religious and lay functions as well as decide cases between individual litigants.


Secret societies existed; for example, the Kom kwifon, the Bali nqumba, the Bassa um and munqi, the Bamileke kamve and kuentan. They were an arm of the traditional government. They worked hand in hand with the elders and the chief. However, they enjoyed a large measure of autonomy. Their functions were multiple and diverse.

They exercised judicial, executive and legislative functions. Sometimes they acted as a police force, a tribunal, gaolers, or bailiffs. The role they played was neither a “feudo-vassalage nor of political clientship”[8].

These societies apprehended wrongdoers, policed the market, inflicted punishment imposed by the king and his council, tried cases of witchcraft, murder and adultery with the king’s wife referred to it by the king, disciplined its own members, and dealt with infringement of its injunctions[9].

1.1.2 Administration of Criminal Justice in Colonial Cameroon

After a period of Anglo-German rivalry for spheres of influence along the Cameroonian coast, Germany outwitted Britain and annexed Cameroon. But thirty-two years later, by one of those ironies of history, the British were back in Cameroon; this time, with the French.

Although Britain and France held Cameroon under international tutelage agreements, each power pursued its own separate colonial policy in the sector it occupied and introduced its own laws therein. Thus, during the colonial period, Cameroon had three systems of criminal justice administration, the German, British and French systems.

Germany had no colonial policy in Cameroon as such. Her overriding interest in the territory was the intensive exploitation of its natural resources to feed the expanding industries of Germany. To achieve this goal, her rule was direct in some areas of the territory and indirect in others. In the coastal areas where German authority was firmly entrenched, the Germans ruled directly. A number of traditional institutions were disbanded and the chiefs were only chiefs in the name.

They could be de-stooled. They could be flogged. Some of them were absorbed as paid auxiliaries of the German administration. They received their orders from the local district office.

They owed their chiefly stool not to their people or by inheritance but to the German Administration. In the interior, the story was different. The Germans adopted a system of indirect rule mainly for practical reasons.

The protectorate was vast, communication poor and German personnel scarce. The Germans, therefore, signed treaties with local inland chiefs and relied upon them to support the Administration; German control and influence being only very remote.

The result of all these was that in most of German Cameroon (save the coastal areas), the administration of criminal justice remained largely unchanged.

Under French rule, the administration of justice took the form of the dispensation of two types of justice, la justice indigene (native justice) and la justice europee’ne(European justice).This system was merely the policy of assimilation in practice in the judicial sphere.

Unassimilated natives were subject to droit indigene (indigenous law) regarded as being made up of primitive and uncivilized customs. Once the native had evolved from a primitive Cameroonian to a modern Frenchman, he was branded citoyen (citizen) and subject to droit europeene.The unassimilated was treated harshly by the justice system compared to the assimilated, and this partly led to the resentment that eventually resulted in independence movements.

Under the British colonial administration of Justice, Cameroonian criminal justice was administered similarly to that of Nigeria. Accordingly, laws in force in Nigeria were extended to British Cameroons. Proclamation No. 1 of 1916 which came into force retrospectively on January 24th 1916, provided that:

All British military officers in command of detachments of troops and all British civil officers appointed to temporarily administer any territory in the Cameroons are hereby authorized as from the date of their appointments to hold courts with full jurisdiction in civil and criminal matters in which natives are concerned in so far as it is known, and, if not known, the laws of that part of Nigeria in which they hold appointments immediately prior to their present appointments”.

The Governor-General of Nigeria with the advice and consent of the Legislative Council of Nigeria and in accordance with Art. 4 of the Nigeria Protectorate Order-in-Council, 1922 and article 5 of the Nigeria Legislative Council Order-in-Council, was empowered to provide for the administration of justice, the raising of revenue, and generally for the peace, order and good government for the Cameroons.

The British Cameroons Administration Ordinance No. 3 of 1924 was enacted with effect from February 28, 1924. By this Ordinance, German law, in so far as it was previously in force, was automatically superseded. These provisions formed the basis of all legislation in the Cameroons until the introduction of the Richardson Constitution of 1946.

British indirect rule meant that Native Authorities were endowed with executive, judicial, fiscal and partly legislative powers, as well as being granted statutory authority. The Native Authority had its own police who maintained the peace in their various localities.

They had the power to arrest, detain, and bring before the native courts anyone who infringed public order. Native law and custom remained in force to the extent that it was neither repugnant to English ideas of justice nor incompatible with any written law in force in the territory.

1.1.3 Post Colonial Administration of Criminal Justice

Following independence, the administration of criminal justice in Cameroon passed to Cameroonian authorities and was overseen by the ministries of justice of the two federated states of West Cameroon and East Cameroon. The laws and institutions of criminal justice remained largely the same as they were under British and French rule. Following the creation of the Unitary State, the administration of justice was merged. 

The organization and functioning of the Cameroon Judiciary is regulated by one ordinance. The laws which organize the professions of barrister, bailiff and notary public are all applied nationwide. Ordinance No. 72/ 4 of 26 August 1972 and its subsequent amendments have harmonized the administrative organization and the attributions of the courts but, more especially, the legal department. There exist differences related to the mode of collection of evidence and the manner in which it is adduced in court.

The personnel of investigative agencies, irrespective of the areas where they perform their functions, receive their training in the same national institutions. Likewise, judicial and legal officers undergo the same academic and professional training in both official languages (English and French) and are initiated to the fundamental principles of the different legal systems.

1.2 Statement of the problem

The ultimate purpose of administering criminal justice is to provide a remedy in cases of illegal restraint or confinement by testing the legality of a person’s detainment and or arrest and to ensure that justice is administered. Administering justice per se is an ancient and fundamental principle of English constitutional law.

A proper administration of justice has been backed up by international, regional and national legal instruments. Internationally, it is supported by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948; regionally, by the African charter on Human and Peoples rights, and in Cameroon, it is supported by the constitution, the CPC, Penal Code among other supportive legislations.

In spite of the existence of these international, regional and national legislation guaranteeing the Administration of criminal justice and the respect of the rights of individuals, illegal detention and delay in criminal proceedings is still prevalent in Cameroon.

Multiplicities of cases have been documented in Cameroon by human rights associations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and states such as the United States, Britain, France amongst others to justify the denial of citizens’ rights justice and some irregularities in the criminal justice process in Cameroon.

What accounts for this state of affairs? In other words, what accounts for the continuous denial of some detainees rights to habeas corpus or illegal detention in Cameroon despite the existing international and national legislation in place?.

What accounts for continuous adjournment of cases and delay in the criminal justice proceedings in Cameroon Hence, this study sought to examine the extent to which the respect of the right to a fair administration of criminal justice is upheld in Cameroon during criminal proceedings within the framework of existing legislation.

1.3 Research questions

1.3.1 General Research Question

How is criminal justice administered in Cameroon?

1.3.2 Specific Research Questions

This study seeks to answer the following specific research questions:

  • What are the legal mechanisms regulating the administration of justice in Cameroon?
  • Do the rights of defendants protected during the hearings stop?
  • What are the challenges to the effective administration of Criminal justice in Cameroon?
  • What policy recommendations can be made?

1.4 Objectives of the study

1.4.1 General Research Objective

To examine the administration of Criminal justice in Cameroon

1.4.2 Specific Research Objectives

This study has the following specific objectives:

  • To explore the legal mechanisms regulating the administration of justice in Cameroon
  • To investigate whether the rights of defendants are protected during criminal hearings
  • To look at the challenges to the administration of Criminal justice in Cameroon
  • To make policy recommendations


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