Interviewed By Kini Nsom & Daniel Gwarbarah
Retired Colonel James Chi Ngafor who suffered over two years of pre-trial detention at the Kondengui Central Prison in Yaounde says the place is hell on earth. The erstwhile military officer who was arrested alongside 22 SDF militants following the death of Grégoire Diboulé on May 26, 2006, describes the prison as a cauldron of the trafficking of cocaine, marijuana and other drugs and a place where homosexuality and lesbianism reign supreme. In this interview with The Post, Chi Ngafor recounts the saga of his arrest and his experiences at Kondengui. Excerpts:
The Post: Colonel, you were arrested alongside 22 SDF and taken to Kondengui in connection with the murder of Gregoire Diboule. Can you tell how you were arrested?
Colonel James Chi Ngafor: It was around 10 am when I was preparing to go to Bamenda for the SDF convention when gendarmes came to me and told me they were doing findings about the fight that took place at the SDF headquarters in Yaounde. I took my car and accompanied them. When we reached the gendarmerie, the Colonel in charge asked me to sit and wait. I waited till evening when he asked me to go home and come back the next morning.
From that May 26 to 31, 2006, it was only a day to when we were taken to court that I was asked some questions on what happened. The colonel said he is obliged to send us to court because there is so much pressure on him and he does not want to carry out any investigations under pressure. So, he sent us to the State Counsel.
While at the State Counsel's office, we sat there for the whole day and nothing was said to us. In the evening, we were taken to the central police station where we were detained. Throughout the 48 days we spent in the cells, nobody interrogated us nor told us anything. After five days, I decided that we are going to go on strike because there were no toilets where we were detained and keeping 23 people under such inhumane conditions was unacceptable.
We were later moved to the gendarmerie where we stayed a month and I decided again to go on strike with my people. Then the colonel who was there got frightened and said if we go on strike and somebody dies, they will be accused of killing an SDF militant in the gendarmerie. So, Kwangue Kwangue, the State Counsel, took us to court and back to the gendarmerie. After about eight days we were taken to court and then transferred us to Kondengui without disclosing our charges.
We hear that Kondengui is a different world. Could you tell us some of your experiences in prison?
Kondengui is hell on earth. You can imagine a prison that was made for 800 people and at one time it harbours some 4500 inmates. I was sleeping on a little bed of 40cm wide and 180cm long in a room of 4mx4. They could say we were in the VIP quarters because we could afford our food and could arrange for our quarter to be cleaned. But, what about the others? If you go to Kondengui you would hear of Kosovo.
Here, you find about 1300 people in a little quarter. A room that is supposed to take a maximum of 20 people is packed with 80 inmates, with three people lying on a little bed of 40cm wide. Sometimes, inmates are designated to rooms merely for identification as they will spend years around the veranda and outside under the shed because there is no space to step in. You can imagine what is happening in a quarter of 1300 people with three toilets. These same toilets serve as bathrooms. The trafficking there is just terribly, it's not worth describing.
The trafficking of what?
Trafficking of everything; trafficking of cocaine and marijuana. At times, it is done with the knowledge of the warders. There, you find homosexuality at its peak. Those that have money go to those that do not have anything and arrange sex deals with them. The money can be only FCFA 100. The inmates are fed only once a day around 11 a.m. or midday and with nothing but palm full maize painted in palm oil.
In Kondengui, if you haven't got anybody, you will die. There is not even a stretcher to carry the sick to hospital or the dead. They are carried on benches to a dispensary which has no drugs. You find moving skeletons in the name of people. Fortunately, the Catholic mission and an organisation that caters for prisoners have been of enormous help. They select those who are sick and give them special meals about once in three or four days.
How many people did you see die in front of you?
I saw a minimum of four or five a week. If an inmate dies and does not have parents or relatives somewhere close, after 24 hours, the corpse is transferred to Soa. I think they have a dumping ground, a public cemetery where they bury the dead inmates. This is because there is no mortuary.
Did you have any contact with some ministers who were arrested and brought to Kondengui?
Yes, I had contact with some of them. We stayed together. Atangana Mebara, Abah Abah and Desiré Engo were my next door neighbours. Engo is an old man who has been there for about 11 years. He has integrated himself with the whole lot. We sit together on the same table; share the same things such as books. Atangana Mebara is a very good fellow.
Mounchipou Seidou was not staying with us but he stayed in a quarter reserved for ministers. But when they came, Mebara was very receptive and I told him immediately that I had learnt to play tennis in prison. The next day we were playing tennis together.
Polycarpe Abah Abah was at first, a bit lukewarm but less than a week, he opened up and we were making sports together.
Olanguena, who is very religious, was just next door to me but was later removed and sent to Quarter Seven. He was still reserved and would not come out for sports like the others with who we spent together. We also went to church together. If you come to Kondengui as an unbeliever, you are likely to leave as a believer. Some people even leave the place as pastors.
What about Titus Edzoa?
He is in the gendarmerie till today. He was in Kondengui briefly and was removed. Ondong Ndong and Roger Belinga are all in the gendarmerie. They have never been brought to Kondengui. They are better at the gendarmerie because each of them has a room and a toilet unlike the common toilets we have in Kondengui.
Did they tell you why they were arrested?
No. That is one peculiarity in Kondengui. You hardly talk of what brought you to the prison because everyone feels that people already know what happened. Never ask anybody what brought him/her to prison because people will hardly talk about it. We only talk of ordinary things, discuss about life and try to console each other.
What was your day like in Kondengui?
Since the Chief Prison Superintendent is a relative to one of my wives, by the time I arrived, everything was arranged for me. I had practically no problem. In the morning I took my bath, got a cup of coffee and went for sports. At mid-day food is brought, one eats and keeps some for the evening. Then, I watch television. We were free to make all types of sports. I learnt how to play tennis while in Kondengui.
Surely, after your prison experience, you must be regretting having joined the SDF.
No. There are things that happen in life and I cannot say I regret because what I have come to know while in Kondengui has completed my experience in life. If I had not been there, there are so many things that I would not have known. I do not regret at all.
Are you bouncing back as the SDF Caretaker Committee Chair for the Centre Region?
No. For the moment, I am taking no decision since we are still in court. However, I doubt very much whether I can still bounce back.
Does it mean you are not going to hold any executive post in the party again?
I will wish to wait until the end of our court case to decide. It also depends on circumstances. Even if at all I have to do it, it might not be in the Centre Region because I am intending to leave Yaounde.