Cameroonian Minister Arrested, Then Released 24 Hours Later

Cameroon’s Minister of Secondary Education Louis Bapes Bapes was taken into custody on Monday, March 31, 2014 on charges of embezzlement, after he had been summoned to the country's Special Criminal Court for what was supposed to be a routine investigation into corruption in his ministry.

While the public was still trying to make sense of the unprecedented arrest of a sitting minister, the arrest warrant was withdrawn barely 24 hours later and the minister released. Initially, many assumed that news of his release was an April Fools prank until TV stations began showing images of a frail-looking Bapes back home with family and friends.

Some reports claimed that President Paul Biya was taken unawares by the arrest and that he ordered his immediate release [fr] as soon as he was informed. The news portal put forth another theory, arguing [fr] that Bapes Bapes’ arrest was meant to be a warning to other government ministers:

De l’avis de certains analystes, M. Paul Biya a voulu lancer un message à ses ministres. De la sorte, il a créé une panique générale et un malaise entre le pouvoir judiciaire et l’exécutif. Les ministres camerounais, même en fonction, ne sont plus des intouchable.

According to some analysts, Mr. Paul Biya wanted to send a message to his ministers. In this way, he creates general panic and unease between the judicial and executive branches. Cameroonian ministers, even those in office, are no longer untouchable.

In a press briefing held later that evening, Minister of Communication Issa Tchiroma officially explained [fr] why his colleague had been jailed and then released in the span of 24 hours:

Dans la journée du 31 mars 2014, Monsieur Louis Bapès Bapès, Ministre des Enseignements Secondaires, a été placé en détention provisoire par le juge d’instruction du Tribunal criminel spécial. Dans le cadre d’une procédure suivie contre lui pour détournement de deniers publics. Le 1er avril 2014, en application du pouvoir que lui confère les dispositions de l’article 222 alinéa 1er du code de procédure pénale, ce juge a donné main levée d’office du mandat de détention provisoire décerné à l’encontre du sus nommé. En effet, d’après cet article je cite: «le juge d’instruction peut à tout moment, jusqu’à la clôture de l’information judiciaire, d’office, donner main levée de mandat de détention provisoire» fin de citation. En la matière, le juge n’obéit qu’à sa conscience et n’a de comptes à rendre à personne. Il y a lieu de rappeler que d’une part, d’après l’article 1er du code pénal, la loi pénale s’impose à tous. Et que d’autre part, la procédure d’information judiciaire suivie contre lui, suit son cours normalement. Voici la communication que je voulais porter à votre connaissance. En raison du fait que l’affaire se trouve entre les mains de la justice, un pouvoir indépendant, jaloux de son indépendance et de ses prérogatives, il ne m’est pas permis de répondre à une quelconque question qui tarauderait l’esprit des journaliste.

On March 31, 2014, Mr. Louis Bapes Bapes, Minister of Secondary Education, was remanded into custody by the examining magistrate of the Special Criminal Court. This was within the framework of a procedure initiated against him for embezzling public funds. On April 1, 2014, the magistrate withdrew the remand warrant on the basis of powers granted him by Section 222 (1) of the criminal procedure code. According to this section, “The examining magistrate may at any time before the close of the preliminary inquiry and of his own motion withdraw the remand warrant.” In such matters, the magistrate obeys only his conscience and does not have to explain himself to anyone. It is worth noting, on the one hand, that article 1 of the penal code stipulates that the law applies to everybody. On the other hand, judicial proceedings against him continue normally. This is the information that I wanted to bring to your attention. Due to the fact that the matter is in the hands of the justice system, an independent power which is protective of its independence and prerogatives, I am not allowed to respond to any question that is gnawing away at the minds of journalists.

Tchiroma’s explanations failed to sway many who instead saw the saga as proof of a government in disarray:

The arrest and release of Minister BAPES shows us that we are a country of jokers in which disorder reigns

In the same vein, Mantango Club blog bemoaned [fr] what it termed the desecration of the ministerial office:

A la suite de cette rocambolesque arrestation, je suis tout de même confus par cette facilité et cette manie que nous avons, dans ce pays, de la désacralisation de la fonction ministérielle, de l’autorité de l’Etat, de la banalisation institutionnelle à défaut de parler de crime… un ministre qui est soupçonné de vol ou de prévarication doit rendre sa démission ou être déposé par respect institutionnel avant son arrestation. Arrêter un ministre en fonction sans décret de destitution préalable est une barbarie d’autocrate contre les institutions de la République qu’il confond à sa cuisine et de terreur à l’égard des ministres membres du gouvernement de la République.

Following the extraordinary arrest, I am embarrassed by the ease and manner in which we desecrate the ministerial office and authority of the state, and trivialize institutions, short of talking of a crime, in this country… A minister who is suspected of theft must tender his resignation or be fired prior to his arrest, out of respect for his office. To arrest a sitting minister without first signing a dismissal decree is an act of barbarism by an autocrat against state institutions, which he confuses for his kitchen, and an act of terror against government ministers.

Many could not get past the notion that Bapes Bapes was actually sent to the notorious Kondengui prison (where other high ranking government officials such as former Prime Minister Ephraim Inoni are locked up), but successfully walked out a free man the next day. @PierreChrist_ joked:

Louis Bapes Bapes officially has the most competent witch doctor on planet earth. Please, I want the same magic portion!

As Cameroonians pondered the bizarre events of the last few days, online news portal Cameroon Info raised an issue [fr] that is on the minds of many:

On se pose la question de savoir si la libération provisoire de Bapès Bapès ne lui offre pas une occasion en or de prendre la poudre escampette? Il faut faire vite, avant qu’il ne soit trop tard…

We wonder whether the withdrawal of Bapes Bapes’ remand warrant does not offer him a golden opportunity to go on the run. He should act fast before it is too late…

Thumbnail image is a screenshot of an Equinoxe TV report.

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