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11 DECEMBER 1999
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African focus

Juvenile justice in Cameroon

Dr. Temngah Joseph Nyambo

Dr Temngah Joseph Nyambo, Faculty of Laws and Political Science, University of Yaouade, writing in Article 40

Cameroon has a strange, yet interesting juvenile justice system. It is based on two foreign legal systems inherited from the colonial period, namely the English common law and the French Civil Law. The two systems operate side by side in practice and all attempts to fuse them into a single comprehensive system have so far failed to bear fruit. The failure to harmonise the two systems has made all attempts to enact unified and comprehensive child-focussed legislation unsuccessful. The clear evidence of this failure is the spectacular lack of success of the longstanding Civil Law Reform Commission (which has been in existence since 1964) in producing any tangible child focussed programme.

The juvenile justice system in Cameroon can at best be described as fragmented. The main sources of Cameroon's juvenile justice system are the preamble to the Constitution of the Republic of Cameroon; the Penal Code of 1967, which embodies most of the laws which have some relevance to children; the Civil Status Ordinance of 1981; and international law, particularly the Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified on 11 January 1981.

The Penal Code classifies children into different categories, which carry with them certain legal consequences. For instance, children under the age of 10 are deemed not to have criminal responsibility and those between the ages of 10 and 14 are subject to special measures. There are no intervention programmes aimed at preventing children from entering into the mainstream system, and, as a result thereof, children land up in the adult criminal justice system.

Cameroon, like many other developing countries, is plagued by a problem of homeless children, who come from the rural areas, roam the streets of the big cities and become trapped in squalor and criminal activities. The government has, through the Ministry of Social Welfare, attempted some half-hearted measures aimed at remedying the plight of child offenders. To this end, NGO's, church bodies and volunteers were called in to assist the state to implement a massive repatriation programme of street children from Yaounde, the capital city of Cameroon. The children were then relocated to the rural northern parts of the country.

This initiative has generated a new interest in children's issues. Several NGO's are currently involved in research that is aimed at improving the conditions of child offenders. The results will feed into the on-going debate on improving the position of children in conflict with the law.

It is clear that inconsistent laws applying to children are an impediment to reform. As a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Cameroon is under an obligation to establish separate laws, procedures and authorities aimed at dealing with child offenders. The Convention lays down a foundation for international assistance for those countries that are unable to fulfil their obligations under the Convention. Sadly, Cameroon has neither fulfilled her obligations, nor has she sought international assistance to help her to do so.

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