By Yerima Kini Nsom
The former Minister of Water Resources and Energy, Basile Atangana Kouna, who has been in pre-trial detention at the Kondengui prison in Yaounde for over four years, has been released. The Special Criminal Court released the erstwhile Minister on July 29 after he had paid back the FCFA 1.265 billion he was accused of having embezzled.
It was shortly after 4pm last Friday that the President of the Special Criminal Court, Justice Annie Noelle Bahounoui Batende, pronounced the release of Atanagana Kouna.
Although the Minister had reportedly reimbursed the money, the court ordered for his release only after pressure from the Presidency of the Republic. His release came barely four days after the Secretary General at the Presidency of the Republic, Ferdinand Ngoh Ngoh, sent a correspondence to the Minister of Justice and Keeper of the Seals, urging him to order for the former Minister’s release.
The correspondence is said to have emanated from presidential instructions. It was the second time that the Secretary General at the Presidency made such a request on Atangana Kouna. Last year, Ngoh Ngoh sent a similar correspondence, which the Minister of Justice, Laurent Esso, reportedly ignored.
Despite this extra-judicial pressure, legal minds hold that the nolle prosequai that halted judicial proceedings against the former Minister was predicated on presidential decree of the 2013 that adds corpus to the law, establishing the organisation and functioning of the Special Criminal Court.
Atanagana Kouna was arrested and shoved into detention in March 2018 for embezzling FCFA 1.265 billion of state funds during his tenure as General Manager of Cameroon Water Utilities Corporation, CAMWATER, between 2002 and 2011.
Cameroonian security operatives arrested the former Minister in Nigeria and aborted his desperate bid to flee from the scrutiny of the law. The former Minister’s release has provoked an avalanche of criticisms in the media.
Observers are wondering why Atangana Kouna has enjoyed the warm glow of presidential attention, while many other detainees who have reimbursed the amount they were accused of having embezzled are still in prison. Following the release of the Minister, supporters of some officials who are detained at the Kondengui prison on account of the embezzlement of public funds, organised a demonstration in the streets of Garoua, thanking the President of the Republic for taking such a decision.
They equally called on the Head of State to do the same favour to the former Minister of Territorial Administration and Decentralisation, Marafa Hamidou Yaya, the former FECAFOOT President cum General Manager of SODECOTTON, Iya Mohamed, and the erstwhile General Manager of CRTV, Amadou Vamoulke, who are elite of the North and Far North Regions detained at the Kondengui prison.
The situation is likely to set a precedence wherein people of other regions will clamour for the release of their elite who are detained in prison. It is worth noting that the former Minister of Basic Education, Haman Adama, was released from prison after she pleaded guilty and reimbursed the amount she embezzled.
According to the law, once a suspect pleads guilty of embezzlement and reimburses the money, he or she is released. Yet, legal minds are picking holes with this provision, saying it does not provide a level playing field for all the detainees. For instance, Marafa Hamidou Yaya was slammed a prison term for intellectual complicity to the embezzlement of public funds. Thus, observers are wondering why people who have effectively embezzled state funds are freed from prison, while those who did not embezzle a dime are left to rot in prison.
They wonder whether it is complicity to embezzlement or the effective embezzlement of public funds that is a grave offence. It is on account of these controversies that political observers are casting aspersion on the sparrow hawk operation that is intended to stem the tides of corruption in Cameroon. They see it as a hoax to victimise political enemies of the regime and get them out of the way. Many have doubted the independence of the judiciary in Cameroon.