Property Stories

From Edward Bechard-Torres

We had arrived at Minkoaméyos, a small town straddling a main road just beyond the outskirts of Yaoundé, when a colleague of mine recited that worn fetish: “Work in the field is always more complicated: you learn how all those laws you’ve been reading about translate into practice”.

My colleagues were making rounds in the village to houses that had been designated by a UK-based NGO to be demolished and re-built according to a model designed to curb the incidence of malaria in children. I was to piggyback onto these visits to interview residents on the methods by which they came to access their plots of land.

There was always going to be more to property law than what was provided for in the medley of inherited laws and local ordinances. Our visit that day underscored the role property law may play in the construction of identities and of perceived communities.  More precisely, in Minkoaméyos, property rules almost certainly help cement perceived differences between the locals – les autochtones – and the non-locals – les allogènes. To explain, not every Cameroonian possesses a right to title any bit of land. The right to undergo the titling process on a specific plot of land flows from a certificate of traditional occupancy, a document that, in essence, certifies that one’s “ancestors” occupied a given plot of land. It is hard to imagine any world where one’s ancestors continually occupied a single plot of land, but that is the only story these certificates permit.

If a “foreigner” intends to acquire titled property, he would have to either purchase that certificate of occupancy and undertake the titling process himself, or he would otherwise have to wait for a “local” to title the plot and then purchase the titled land. In Cameroon’s urban centres, I have been told, most of the land occupied has been purchased, even if in an informal sense; few plots are still held by the original occupying family. The widespread absence of original occupants signals an aggregate shift of property holdings away from a less-efficient allocation, based on a families’ historic occupancy, to a more efficient one that privileges those who stand to benefit most from close proximity to urban markets.

In Yaoundé’s satellite villages, however, the property holders’ composition is mixed. In some villages, the difference between the autochtones and the allogènes is stark. In these places, the allogènes may be wealthier, mostly holding employment in Yaoundé, and take advantage of the relatively inexpensive cost of land to build gated dwarf mansions, which stand in stark contrast to the mud-based housing of the indigenous. In Minkoaméyos, the separation is invisible; the “foreigners” are residents drawn from the surrounding region who mostly hope to gain employment at the budding water treatment facility within the town’s limits. The “foreigners” do not appear to be any wealthier. They are culturally similar and occupy by and large similar houses to their “indigenous” neighbours.

And yet those differences, traceable to property law, may have generated a sense of group identity, with an accompanying sense of solidarity between imagined kin. The end of my day had me sitting under a large aluminium sheet that shelters a family’s supply of wood. The family’s eldest sister they are allogène – informed me that les indigènes often “sell” the same piece of land to multiple buyers. To avoid being defrauded, incoming families often have to signal to other prospective buyers that that portion of the property has been “purchased”. I have seen walls of houses, for instance, that have been inscribed with the forbidding “DO NOT BE MISTAKEN, THIS HOUSE AND LOT HAVE ALREADY BEEN SOLD”. Her family had bought a virgin plot, and to evidence their occupation they decided to immediately erect an improvised residence. That need to construct has imposed a double cost – the family lives in an unstable house that imperils the health of its residence, while its construction diverted needed savings away from the mother’s project to build a more durable, adequate familial home. The vendors have stumbled with handing over the certificate needed for her family to title the land – a “he has it, no she has it” kind of affair – and her working family is simply too busy to put the kind of pressure needed to get things moving. Throughout her story, the family are referred to merely as “les autochtones”. At the end, the eldest sister points to a small plot across the path, recently acquired by another family of allogènes. She tells me that she watches out for this family as well, to make sure that les autochtones do not try and pull a fast one on her apparent comrades.

The community could have been studied exclusively through its property norms. We repeatedly found wives busying themselves alone in their home, where they spend the lion share of their waking minutes. In spite of their reliance on their husband’s living quarters, they were ignorant on their property status. The most basic questions went notably unanswered. Nearby, a large family’s property is held communally in a collective title, kept at the home of the communal matriarch. This sub-community prefers to manage their property relations amongst themselves, perhaps according to custom, and eschew the application of State law. The entirety of the property is titled only so as to preclude forced eviction at the State’s hands.

Most importantly, the day underscored the how common property-related insecurities were. So few plots have been titled. Many occupants not only lack that basic legal protection, they also lack the tools and capacity to obtain it. One man tells us that he had purchased a future morsel from a man who had purchased the customary right to title the lot in its entirety. The vendor has since died, and this occupant is now clueless as to the location of the documents he would need to title his morsel.

Others have begun the titling process. The process, even after recent reforms, remains cumbersome and expensive. One resident, lured into hope by his neighbour’s success story, has taken the first steps and expects the process to take six months (as per the government’s half serious promise). Down the way, one family had invested its hopes in a sponsor, an individual who undergoes the titling process on behalf of another in exchange for a portion of the resulting securitized property. Three years have passed and no title has yet been received. The sponsor has been happy to live and farm his share of the land and to blame bureaucratic hurdles for his own lack of follow-through.

A kind of property anxiety is thus widespread – as it should be in a State where the threat of forced eviction looms large – and while it may encourage residents to undertake the titling marathon, it risks over-simplifying the life of property norms to the question of “is this property securitized, or not?” Although, it is interesting that, of all the criteria on which the UK-based NGO selects the recipients of its model houses, that is not one of them.

CONGEH’s Chairwoman Appointed to the Supreme Court

I hoped she would enjoy her gift, a traditional bowl of bowls made from local woods that I had picked out with the assistance of one of her close relatives. The occasion was significant and celebratory: Julienne Ayissi, the Court of Appeal justice who, on a parallel career track, acts as figurehead and chairperson of the CONGEH, was to be sworn in as a Councilor of the Supreme Court of Cameroon.

In broad strokes, the Supreme Court of Cameroon acts as the final appellate court in penal, administrative and civil matters. It also provides the final say for disputes governed by the state-recognized customary law.  The Supreme Court has also assumed jurisdiction over constitutional matters while President Biya and accomplices lag to establish the Constitutional Court envisioned in the Constitution.

Her house was hard to find. Towards the back end of a messy web of warped and deep-ridged mud roads – the kind that evidence the “informality” of the local housing – we would finally find a gated cement lot. Lawn chairs were being unloaded by the dozen, groups of women worked around mountains of fresh vegetables, while Mme Ayissi herself rushes to and fro, preparing herself for a meeting. “Everybody has taken this so seriously, I find it overwhelming,” she tells me, “It is not that big of a deal”. Her exasperation might have been expected. It is rumored that she has had to take out a loan to pay for all the gas consumed in traveling between preparatory meetings, where members of the judiciary, State officials, family members and even some village authorities have stressed the importance of her new position and of the values she should embody in her work at the country’s highest tribunal.

And, in spite of her humility, the appointment is significant. Ayissi is attentive to the needs and concerns of the landless and the vulnerable, particularly women infected or affected by HIV/AIDS. That kind of alignment is useful in a Court that has been known to have its way with the law, so to speak. In matters of family property and succession law, for instance, the Supreme Court has been known to ignore core, explicit Codal articles and to fabricate new rules or regimes un-tethered to either the Code’s provisions or to its evident philosophy. This assumed judicial liberty might well be rooted in a dissatisfaction with the Civil Code, which is, for most intents and purposes, the French Code Civile as it existed in 1960. It was originally adopted as a temporary, “gap filling” measure to hold the country over until the competent government bodies could enact a law proper to Cameroon. Some speculate that, in light of persistent legislative inaction, the Cameroonian judiciary has taken upon itself the task of adapting inherited foreign legal notions to local realities and philosophies. In any event, this assumed liberty makes the identity of the members of the Supreme Court all the more important.

After an official State ceremony oversaw the swearing in of all sitting magistrates, Ayissi was treated to two receptions, one for members of the legal community and another for family, neighbours and residents of Bana, her native community. Residents of Bana would impress upon her how she now represents Bana, and the Bamileke more generally, at the national stage. Her family would celebrate the success of one of their own, evidently satisfied with the kind of family status that will follow her appointment. Members of the CONGEH, also present, have reason to be excited as well. “She could one day become Minister of Justice!” says an elated colleague. For now, CONGEH stands to look more credible with a member of the Supreme Court at its helm, and can look to Ayissi’s appointment as a vindication of its philosophy and approach to development.

Her appointment does speak volumes of the relationship CONGEH has fostered with the Cameroonian government. Paul Biya would certainly not have seen a critic appointed to the country’s highest judicial body. But the CONGEH that I have been exposed to seeks more to assist the Government, and considers many elected representatives and government missives as partners. Colleagues of mine are proud that government officials have expressed a certain reliance on the contributions made by the CONGEH. Liaisons with government ministries in turn lend the organization some credibility. Moreover, having the attention of certain politically significant individuals allows the CONGEH to engage in more effective – and therefore more fund-worthy – advocacy work. No doubt, there are pervasive costs associated with aligning an NGO with a central African government. So it is a strange kind of accomplishment that, while some of the other human rights interns have served advocates that have been targeted by anxious governments, loathing dissent, CONGEH’s leading advocate was just promoted.

University Libraries as Fieldwork?

From Edward Béchard-Torres

It will take a long time to adapt to Cameroon. Everything is so different. I know that other interns have felt the same way, and often resort to metaphors to relay their experiences. Here’s another: it has been a bit like jumping into a very cold lake for the first time. At first there’s a sense of being totally overwhelmed. Reacting to that sense of boulversement, one may feel a strong urge to return to what is familiar – back into the canoe, in the case of the cold lake. But after one’s body begins to adapt, the world appears less intimidating. The different-ness ceases to be overpowering, and the sense of being overwhelmed is replaced by an appetite to explore a new and exciting environment.

Now at that last stage of the now familiar emotional arc, I find myself confronted by a problem other interns are surely facing as well. Cameroon is a very interesting place for someone interested in law, human rights and development. But attempts to probe deeper into issues that might intrigue a foreign law student are thwarted by a dearth of available and reliable information.

Yesterday, for instance, I was told that bar exams are held irregularly in Cameroon, such that a recent law graduate can wait up to five years or more before being given the opportunity to join the legal profession. “Is the bar trying to limit the supply of practicing lawyers – maybe to keep the costs of legal services artificially high?” No one had any idea. “The Ministry of Justice has a lot of influence with the Bar. There may be some political considerations that trickle down”, says one of the lawyers with us. She had no idea what those political considerations might be, though.

Many of the conversations I have had with local community activists, students, lawyers, professors and other local residents have only spawned questions. What do you mean a person found squatting on private property could be imprisoned for a three-year term? Is that what happens in practice? An illegally occupying family has to pay for the bulldozers that raze their settlement and evict them from occupied property? Where can I find that in writing? How is that enforced? These go unanswered.

I had to be at two local university libraries for other reasons, but part of me hoped that I could find troves of local Cameroonian publications that could distill, frame and explore the questions and issues that work “in the field” had left unanswered. The irony that I had come to Cameroon for “fieldwork” in a “grassroots” organization and yet was secretly thrilled at the prospect of spending the day reading in a library had not escaped me.

And the libraries did not disappoint. On the way there, while plundering down one of Yaoundé’s busy market streets – driving against the traffic to avoid the field of car-sized potholes – the taxi driver informed me that a walled community for the handicapped lay just down the road. Curious, I pressed him for more information, but, of course, he had little more to say about it.

Having arrived, I was greeted by a warm librarian at the “bourgeois” Université Catholique de l’Afrique Centrale, located on a campus dominated by a central cathedral and so meticulously groomed I could have forgotten I was still in the messy and spontaneously settled Yaoundé. He led me into the small private library, where fifteen students, spaced out across an open seating area, poured over political writings and legal treatises of European origin. It is packed, I am told; students will begin writing exams next week. He was grateful that I had come, and hurried to bring me to the materials that I needed. I will have to go back though; students are not allowed to leave with any items from the library, not even to use the photocopying machines across the path!

A Single Hair Above the Grass’ Roots – An Introduction to La CONGEH

by Edward Béchard-Torres

After a two-week introduction, I know enough about my host organization to draw a sketch. La CONGEH – whose acronym roughly translates to “the Coalition of Non-Governmental and Community-Based Organizations working in the domain of Human Establishments” – acts as general coordinator, network, research center and occasional spokesperson for its member organizations, rumoured to amount to some thirty in total.

The Coalition has as its lodestar the attainment of secure and adequate housing for all Cameroonian residents. Its approach is holistic, multi-disciplinary and multi-layered, and is particularly oriented towards the most vulnerable segments of the population. That said, much of its work consists in providing local residents with information – particularly legal information – and advocacy, directed towards both community members, traditional leaders, and political stakeholders.

The organization, in other guises, also conducts research on property and housing-related issues. The organization has examined, for instance, the channels by which low-income families come to possess land, the formal and customary law of succession and its impact on married women as well as a study on the quantification of the psychological, social and pecuniary loss suffered by families following a forced eviction.  Lastly, the organization works as broader spokesperson, both to potential sources of funding and to a larger development-oriented community.

Human Rights as an End, Not Necessarily as a Means

While some imagined human right to housing and property may act as an ultimate objective, a clarion call, and even a marketing pitch, there does not appear to be much workable or useful human rights law or mechanism for the Coalition to make use of. Secure property and adequate housing remain to be achieved by other means: influencing government policy, transforming community attitudes, providing health-related services or spreading commercially useful practices. Because poverty acts as one of the most important barriers to adequate housing, some of the Coalition’s member organizations devote themselves to simply raising household incomes.

Les Cases Sociales

At the center of la CONGEH’s operation sit seven Cases Sociales, a term which translates (poorly) to “Social Spaces”. We might know them as community centers. The notion of the Case Sociale, I have been told, is a modern iteration of the institution of the Baobab tree, a tree whose base and shadow served as a center of debate, dispute resolution and community gathering in traditional villages. In its modern iteration, they are small offices rooted in different neighbourhoods in Yaoundé and in the surrounding rural area.

The offices serve as the principal distributors of la CONGEH’s informational services and advocacy. I have had the chance to visit only one – la Organisation Nationale des Promoteurs du Progrès (“ONPP”). The office is holed at the backend of a dirt road in Messa Carrière, a dense neighbourhood of mostly informal settlements, bordered by a communally-managed cornfield that grows from the remains of an evicted neighbourhood. That day, the ONPP had organized an HIV screening campaign – children line up to be tested while the event organizers try to rope in passers-by. Next week the ONPP will host a session on micro-credit; the week after it will host a session on dying and sowing material for sale; the week after that it will hold a session on interior decorating.

Human Rights Advocacy as Missionary’s Work

 The Coalition does offer some traditional legal services, most notably legal information related to property and housing rights. It has accompanied community members to Court and does, on occasion, offer references to lawyers better positioned to handle litigious matters. But much of the Coalition’s focus remains centered around reformulating attitudes around land and housing, and around HIV/AIDS and women’s welfare in particular.

This campaign hopes to bring a human rights worldview to bear on actions of community leaders and community members. And the human rights discourse is not the only source of arguments tapped. A small stack of unfolded pamphlets lined up against a wall had been intended for distribution in low-income communities. The pamphlets are intended to inform community members of the discrimination and housing-related vulnerability faced by women in Cameroon.

On the pamphlets, one slide sketches a local community leader informing women – both married and un-married – that they will possess no rights to their own houses until their name is entered on the formal title to property. Another features a husband ejecting his wife from their shared home – she is HIV-positive, the slide informs, and her new homelessness will be a burden, added to her need to find work, food, control her illness and take care of her children. One last slide features a woman arguing with her partner, who similarly intends to eject her from their home. Surely, the wife argues, the effort and affection with which she cared for the home, making it a livable space, should give her some right to it. Much of the Coalition’s work is of this nature: modern, human welfare and human rights-oriented proselytizing.

These have been some of my first – and perhaps mistaken – impressions, and these will be the spaces that I will continue to watch.

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