By Ngoko Monyadowa
For the umpteenth time, a commission of inquiry has come into being from the desk of President of the Republic; this time on the heels of regrettable, even if, avoidable wastage of the lives of no fewer than 34 soldiers and civilians – victims of a tragedy that struck at sea, when a vessel transporting heavy duty equipment and building materials capsized at the outskirts of Limbe, precisely in Debuncha, Idenau Sub-Division.
Ordinarily, there would have been nothing to ride home about such an occurrence, since the area is notorious for such calamities. However, given the necessity to delve deep into the issue and ascertain the exact cause of the mishap to avoid future replication, and in case of negligence, bring culprits to book, a dispassionate examination of these one-too-many sad pages in our history becomes imperative.
As had been expected, the Minister Delegate in the Presidency in charge of Defense in his official communiqué addressed to local and international communities, has begun preparing the minds of the gullible to accept the fact that bad weather alone, was responsible for the capsize of the vessel. While conceding that inclemency of the atmosphere at sea contributed to the calamity, the fact that the trajectory between Isongo, in the outskirts of Limbe, where vessels of the Rapid Intervention Brigade, BIR, take-off and the other bases in the Bakassi peninsula is well known by military and civilian users to be sometimes treacherous, ought to have caused BIR high command to tread with a lot of care.
From the pictures that have been released of the vessel before take-off, it is clear that the element of overload cannot be ruled out. There were at least four heavy duty trucks, a front end loader and, if we factor in the fact that the trucks were not empty as some carried fuel, building materials for military and civilian contracts, we would easily come up with a scenario that had clearly predisposed the vessel to the calamity that occurred on the high sea. An aggravating circumstance was the torrential rain that caused all the soldiers to seek refuge in the cabins of the trucks and the vessel conveying them, thereby reducing the possibility of leaving their hiding places and swimming to safety as the vessel capsized.
Also, the sea′s depth on the Limbe coast that is acclaimed to be second only to Walvis Bay in Namibia, did not help matters as the vessel must have gone beyond 60 metres below the sea. What painful deaths for valiant youths who were poised to serve their fatherland with honour and loyalty! The issue that readily begs the question is; having noticed that the vessel had been overloaded, would it not have occurred to the BIR superior officers that another vessel ought to have been made available to the soldiers to act as escorts to the cargo vessel? It is certain the lack of stability occasioned by overload caused the vehicle that is alleged to have been blown off the boat to succumb to the vagaries of intemperate waves.
Be that as it may, the Head of State has ordered that a Commission of Inquiry be set up with the Secretary of State for Defense in charge of Gendarmerie as Chairperson. While not casting aspersion on the integrity of the Jean Baptiste Bokam, the fact that he is part of the problem – that is, he is in charge of a paramilitary outfit and not part of the solution raises doubts as to the level of dispassion he would bring to bear on his current assignment. A commission of inquiry requires that thorough investigation be carried out by independent minded individuals with no stakes in the matter under investigation. In our case, a civilian judge assisted by some military personnel and maritime expertise from both the civil society and the army, as members of the commission, would have inspired some confidence in the minds of Cameroonian regarding the quality of work to be done.
Which is why, many Cameroonians are becoming wary of commissions of inquiry owing to what they have detected as Government ploy to cover incompetence, insensitivity and snobbishness to the plight of the ordinary Cameroonian. They draw inspiration for such mindset from recent occurrences in the country where, commissions of inquiry have been set up with the avowed mission of calling names and meting out commensurate punishment to guilty parties as deterrent to cavalier approach to national assignments, only for the findings to turn out being insults to the intelligence of the entire nation.
A commission of inquiry is very serious business that must be seen as such from the calibre of persons called to serve on board. Needless to say unassailable integrity must be given high premium in the selection of members. To this effect, the current custom that ascribes preference to civil servants in matters bearing on capacity to operate dispassionately, in times of national grief, certainly, does not endear commissions of enquiry with such colouration to the masses. There is the civil society and members of liberal profession whose input can be very instrumental in coming up with incontrovertible conclusions on final reports.
Furthermore, although Government might have been leaning on the acceptable, even though, tenuous, contention that it is more at ease with people with whom close contact has been established for a long time, such disposition easily crumbles under the scrutiny of public opinion and conventional knowledge that requires commissions to be representative in terms of competence and stakes. This is so because a commission of inquiry with terms of reference that are not clearly defined will lead to outcomes that may be embarrassing to both the party that requisitioned the investigation and victims or their relatives.
Moreover, against the backdrop of the deleterious announcement by the State Prosecutor of the Centre Region Court of Appeal, consigning the cause of death of Bishop Benoit Mbala of Bafia, to the door steps of drowning, this latest commission of inquiry evokes lack of seriousness on the part of Government to prove to Cameroonians that its headship has the memory of the perished souls deep in its heart. Indeed, it cannot be otherwise, given the gravity of the calamity at sea, in terms of human and material loss. If we add to this, the current posturing on the Eseka train accident that has failed to convince in terms of apportioning blames where necessary and adequately compensating the actual victims and relatives of the deceased, we come up with a very somber scenario.
Such levity in the handling of issues of sovereignty, come as insurmountable embarrassment to those who have had the privilege of either living the experience or hearing about the Commissions of inquiry into POWERCAM and its General Manager, Mr. Mbiwan, or the West Cameroon Development Agency and Muyuka Sawmill and its Manager, Bob Ngante.
Without leaning on the preposterous and nauseating conjecture that commissions of inquiry must always end up with indictment of those being probed, the fact that our system is used to informing those under scrutiny in advance of their impending visit, raises the spectre of impossibility to come up with impartial conclusions.
The Endely Commission and its now notorious verdict of verdict of ″Zero mort” or no deaths, readily, comes to mind. The conclusions of the commission of inquiry into the Eseka train disaster are being washed away with promises of compensation to victims tainted by shortfalls in the amounts, to be paid out. The deleterious position of the Minister of Transport Edgar Alain Mebe Ngo′o, in the matter is being modulated or totally ignored to pamper some untouchables. How then do they expect Cameroonians to repose confidence in the findings of this latest commission of inquiry commandeered by the Head of State?
The commissions will remain unending as long as President Biya does not realize that it is not the number of times that an erroneous path is used that will eventually cause it to lead to the right destination. What this means is that more seriousness should be brought to bear on commissions of inquiry in terms of their constitution and the terms of references. This way, such outfits will be able to elicit the confidence among Cameroonians as they are ordinarily supposed to radiate.