Cameroon: Pardoned lawyer urges Anglophone groups to hold talks and reconcile diverging views
The various Anglophone groups in north west and south west need to come together and talk, setting aside their differences over self-declared independence, federalism or self-determination, according to a leading Anglophone lawyer. Nkongho Felix Agbor Balla, who spent 8 months in prison for organising Anglophone protests, has told Spotlight on Africa that infighting between the differing groups needs to stop. The crisis in Anglophone regions has worsened over recent months with allegations of Cameroonian security ransacking towns and villages, while armed separatist groups have continued to carry out reprisal attacks. Some groups support independence and in October 2017 declared Ambazonia as a breakaway state. Spotlight on Africa spoke to Agbor Balla, president of the Fako Lawyers Association and vice president for the central Africa region at the African Bar Association…
The latest is that there’s no latest in the sense that we don’t have any information. Nobody has seen them, nobody has spoken to them - their lawyers and family, nobody that I know. I’ve been there with a couple of lawyers twice and we were not allowed to see them.
Q&A: Nkongho Felix Agbor Balla
Besides from those transferred from Nigeria, do you know how many Anglophones in total are currently in custody?
There are close to 1,000 that are in custody between 2 maximum prisons in Yaoundé – Kondengui principale, where I spent 8 months, and there is Kondengui centrale where Mancho Bibixy, Penn Terence and the others are. There are also some detained at the Sed [Secrétaire d'Etat à la Défense], the gendarmerie headquarters, in Yaoundé. Some are also supposed to be at the judicial police at Elig Essono. Then there are close to 409 at the central prison in Buea, others in Bamenda and scattered all over the country. These are those that we can identify. Some of them have already been convicted – Penn Terence was given 12 years, others had 11, Mancho Bibixy and Tsi Conrad were found guilty on terrorism, secession and group rebellion. So the matter has been adjourned until 8th [May] for the sentencing.
Why do you think you were released from jail last year?
To be sincere and honest with you, we don’t really know. I don’t know what was the reason that they used in deciding to release myself, Dr [Neba] Fontem, Justice [Paul] Ayah and 51 others.
Do you support the violence carried out by some separatist groups? They say they’re defending the people against crimes carried out by the Cameroonian security forces.
It's a very tricky one. I believe in self-defence, I believe in the right for people to protect themselves, protect their people. I think it's a fundamental right – the right to self-defence. But I don’t agree when you go beyond self-defence when you start doing things that are outside of the law. That’s what I have a problem with. I also think the whole thing about self-defence stems from the fact that most of the people I’ve spoken to believe in an armed struggle. Their argument is that, the government arrests people and because they cannot protect themselves, they just kidnap some of them, take them to Yaoundé, and try them - so they’re trying to protect the people. So it's a tricky balance between self-defence and committing offences also.
The violence is quite close to home for you, in fact your family house in Mamfé was attacked. How did this make you feel?
I felt a bit sad and a bit disappointed because I believe that for most of my adulthood I have, in one way or another, contributed or fought for our people. I’ve been involved - the struggle did not start in 2016, it’s just that I came to the limelight in the struggle in 2016. But I have been in the struggle from the days of the All Anglophone Conference when I was a young boy. So for me to then go to jail, my dad was buried in my absence, then to see what happened, but it’s not the majority of the people. So what’s why I don’t get dejected because I still believe that in any struggle you have people who disagree with you. You have people who don’t think like you. But I caution violence and I’m urging all the groupings that we can still disagree without being disagreeable. If we have a common goal, to fight to protect the self-determination of our people, we need to understand that not everybody will think alike.
You talked about diverging views there. The Anglophone movement has somewhat splintered into a number of different groups. Is it important to reconcile this?
It’s very important for us. It’s true that it’s not easy to speak with one voice. But I think it’s very important for us as a people to try as much as possible not to be seen, the perception, that we’re fighting each other. There are times when the leaders, the other groupings and their followers, they spend a lot of time criticising and attacking each other. Rather than focusing on the target, which is the self-determination of the people. If I had my way I would advise, I would urge, I would organise with the other leaders, let them sit down and have an Anglophone leadership forum. Where the leaders can sit and dialogue and try to agree on the things that all of them have a common interest in.
Was the self-declaration of Ambazonia a bad idea?
The time that it was done, I think it was precipitated, enough groundwork had not been done for the declaration. But I wasn’t involved so perhaps they had more information, perhaps they had information that I didn’t have.
You’re saying it was a bad idea?
No. I would not say it was a bad or a good idea because I don’t have the facts that they have. I don’t know the background to which they decided to declare independence. But the situation on the ground – declaring independence – does it change anything? How can we effectively, if you have independence, how can you effectively protect it? How can you effectively live as an independent state? What are the recognitions you have from other states? So it’s not just about the declaration of independence.
What role have France and the UK played since the start of the crisis?
I think they’re doing behind-the-scenes diplomacy. I met a couple of diplomats, officially and unofficially, from both the French and the British. I personally think that they could do a lot, they could do more. They could engage, not only engage in government, but engage with both parties to try to see and find a solution. How we can get a truce from what is going on. Also to address the problems that the Anglophones have been raising. It’s very important for us to look at these problems and try to find a long-lasting solution. The British and the French they should know better because this problem, in a way they’re connected to the problem, in a way they’re responsible for what is happening. So they cannot just claim that it’s an independent state, we cannot intervene. When do you want to intervene? Do you want to intervene when there’s a peacekeeping mission? I don’t think it’s proper. Yes they’re doing something, which I appreciate, but I think that they can do more. I urge them to engage the government, to engage the other groupings also in trying to see how we can find a solution. Because the current situation on the ground, it’s not helpful for anybody, it’s not helpful for the country, it’s not helpful for the citizens. So the earlier we find a solution where we can live in peace and harmony as we used to live prior to the uprising. Genuine peace, genuine justice, genuine harmony, not the situation where one group of persons feel they’re second class. In a society that there is equality, that there is fairness for each and every one, no matter what part of the country you come from. I think it will be better.
Can change for Anglophones come about through the ballot box do you think? With the forthcoming elections?
There are diverging schools of thought. Some believe that an election could help the situation. It’s difficult to defeat the current leadership because of everything they have, they created the constitutional council, everything, they have the money, they have the resources. The elections can never be free and fair. Electioneering is an entire process, not just voting. It starts with the entire process, from registration, access to media, campaign financing, everything, not just the voting. I don’t think that they will be able to defeat the current head of state. I wish that there was a possibility that those who were vying for the highest office could come together and have a veritable candidate. So that they can give the ruling party a run for its money. But when you talk to most of them you don’t have the feeling that they would come together.
So the elections for you are irrelevant?
I think they won’t help the situation. Going for an election when a part of the country is having this kind of armed conflict - because it's a war in the south west and north west regions - I don’t think it's the best solution. I think we should try and see how we can find a solution, address these issues, because elections won’t solve the problem. This problem has been created by the current government, I don’t think it has the ability and the capacity to solve the problem. So him [President Paul Biya] being in power – this problem will not be solved. I think the problem will be solved when he leaves power.