By Boris Esono Nwenfor
The current war in the South West and North West Regions is not winnable from a military perspective, says Barrister Felix Nkongho Agbor “Balla,” a former leader of the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium. Speaking in an exclusive interview with PAV, The renowned human rights lawyer who heads the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa, CHRDA, says only by winning the minds and hearts of people and meeting their demands can peace begin to be restored.
“It is not just burning their villages or buying people over or locking them in jail but by opening a veritable dialogue and negotiations with the leaders and the people,” says Balla,a leading actor in the current political dispensation in Cameroon, on the way forward.
While he does not regret participating at the National Dialogue last year, Barrister Agbor Balla believes the sustained pattern of deceit, and characteristic bad faith on the path of the Cameroon is not helping at all. Citing the example of the Special Status agreed upon at the Dialogue, Balla says it is despicable that even on such a proposition which fell way below what most Anglophones expect, the government has not been able to deliver.
Consistent with his believe in a two states federation as a solution to the crisis in Cameroon, Barrister frowned on the name calling and attempts to bully others into positions that are not necessarily theirs. Before going to prison, in prison, and after prison, I was for a two states Federation and I stand by that says Barrister Agbor Balla.
“We do not need to be friends to the government or the separatists but we are friends to the truth, justice, and respect of human rights,” says Barrister Agbor Balla in touting the ground breaking work of the CHRDA that he leads.
“The carnage, bloodbath, destruction of our economy at times done by us against us is something we have to address – because the government cannot be killing our people and we too are killing our people. There is a need for an intra-Anglophone dialogue to try and address some of the issues we face and to look at our grievances and try to be realistic – this is what we can achieve for the time being and then move on as a people,” says Barrister Balla in the interview .
PAV: Barrister Balla, thanks for granting this interview, may we know your reading of the political; situation in Cameroon and especially the English-speaking regions of the country?
Barrister Balla: With regards to the political situation in Anglophone Cameroon, for the time being, one cannot read what is going on. There are times that you think the conflict is going down but after a while, you see what has happened within the last months shows that the conflict is only increasing. They have announced the Regional election which ideally is something the people will be happy but within the current dispensation, nobody is excited because the ruling party is the dominant party, on paper they will win the entire regions.
If you look at the special status that came with a lot of euphorias after the Grand National Dialogue, which at the end of the day there is nothing special in the special status because it is like an empty shell; nothing fundamentally changing. They talked about that we will have a house of chiefs as if that is something new.
Most people are focused on us to have an end to this conflict. Politics and politicking, electioneering will only come after we have found a solution. You do not expect people who are living in the forest, people who cannot have a decent meal because the economy has been strangulated as a result of the strike, for them to bother about politics. So for the time being politics is a non-issue in the North West and South West Regions.
PAV: CHRDA recently published a report detailing gruesome atrocities from the Cameroon military on citizens in the North West and South West, are their actions not pushing people to see the wisdom of those who say only a new country or nothing?
Barrister Balla: CHRDA previously published a report that documented the atrocities by the non-state actors. As a CSO organization that is independent, very objective, we document and report. We do not invent, fabricate and at CHRDA we document, monitor and report. If we have to call perpetrators or violators to order then we have to do it. If it means pushing those who believe in separation to clamour for more separation so be it. You might also say the report we published documenting separatist atrocities will also push those who do not want independence to have a stronger case to show the atrocities committed by the separatist.
By and large, we want to say no to impunity, and there should be a need for accountability because if you look at these gross violations they are widespread and systematic. We have had instances that villages have been burnt, people have been unlawfully detained, and people have been extra-judicially killed, tortured, cruel and degrading treatment perpetrated by both parties to the conflict. The whole idea of our report is for documentation purposes and this conflict will have to come to an end. Someday, posterity will hold accountable those who committed mayhem in the South West and North West Regions. At the end of this report, we end up antagonizing both parties to the conflict but like what one clergy told me that the fact that the non-state armed actors and the government are complaining about you means that you are doing a good job. We do not need to be friends to the government or the separatist but we are friends to the truth, justice, and respect of human rights.
PAV: It will soon be a year since the major National dialogue took place, where are we with the implementation of its resolutions?
Barrister Balla: I do not think we have made any inroad since the Grand National Dialogue. I know they have been talking about reconstruction in the NW/SWRs, I know UNDP is involved and that is a good step in the right direction – to try to rebuild some of the property that was destroyed, compensate some people, social cohesion is very important. But you cannot be talking about reconstruction without talking about peace, reconciliation, and justice.
The whole idea of the Grand National Dialogue was to bring people on the table – yes it is the step in the right direction, I’m not saying it was a wasted effort. I didn’t expect that after a conflict of four years,in five days we will have a solution. I expect that we will have a series of dialogue going on. I appreciate the fact that government started speaking with Ayuk Tabe and Co. which is good, the Swiss process has been suspended for the time being but there is a need for us to have a combined process – the Swiss process, the National process. As a result of the infighting when you talk to those advocating for the Swiss process it seems you are legitimizing the IG of Sako and Anu; when you talk to Ayuk it seems you are legitimizing the IG of Ayuk and Yerima. So bring all of them together and talk about an international process.
PAV: One of the major resolutions from the National Dialogue was the creation of a special status for English speaking regions, a year after,is there any seriousness, sincerity, and political will on the part of the Cameroon government in resolving the crisis in the NW and SW regions?
Barrister Balla: I don’t think there is any seriousness on the part of the government. You can see that the special status as an afterthought. They were not ready for it or to lose power. It is a government that is adamant to change and I would say they are deaf, dumb, mute and extremely arrogant and stubborn. If you have a special status and the Governor is still appointed it does not make any sense. If you read the law on decentralization you will realize that the President of the Regional Council is still just a ceremonial head, the Governor will be the first in the region. They say they were going to give us a house of chiefs but it is not the house of chiefs we knew in the days of Southern Cameroon. It is just kind of a cosmetic house of chiefs that will not have independent-minded people that can help the people in the NW/SWRs.
The special status is something I believe initially that we came out of the Dialogue with something but if you look at areas where the special status is practised such as Catalan, Quebec it is different. Unfortunately, the people in power are not ready to relinquish any of their authority. So we will talk about it till next year but nothing fundamental has taken place.
PAV: When you look at the way things have unfolded after the dialogue, do you think it was worth it, was it a missed opportunity and do you have any regrets taking part in it?
Barrister Balla: It was worth it in the sense that for the first time it brought a myriad of people together. That was the first time I and others exchange ideas with the government. If you want to find a solution it is a gradual process which you first start by building confidence. Unfortunately, some of us clamoured for a return to a two-state federation which was not part of the agenda which we thought would have been a panacea to the situation. I don’t regret taking part – if they call another I will still go because if you are preaching for peace, reconciliation, dialogue, you cannot not be advocating for these things and at the same time boycotting it. I think we have taken the first step and it is now incumbent on the government to show their good faith and goodwill by continuing the journey.
PAV: What do you think of the Bilingualism Commission, is there any role it is playing to address some of the concerns of NW and SW Regions?
Barrister Balla: I think it was a tool just to bamboozle the population. That is not the problem that the people have been complaining about. Yes, it is an institution that can help in entrenching bilingualism in Cameroon but it is not that will solve the problem. The constitution talks about Cameroon as a bilingual country and so I still do not understand how something is provided by the constitution, you need to create another commission to see how to implement it. I don’t see the power they have as they only make recommendations to the President and at the end of the day, it has no powers.
PAV: How are the Disarmament, Demobilization and Re-integration centres working, are there serving the intended purpose?
Barrister Balla: Ideally DDR will come at the end of the conflict where people would have put down their weapons, and they will have to rehabilitate some of them. To me, it is just like the Bilingualism commission which is just a fire brigade measure. I don’t think the government was ready, you can see the disaster called the DDR. I don’t think the thought was taken before it was created. It was one of those things to show the world that we are doing something but to me it was more cosmetic than real.
PAV: There is also a committee for reconstruction that recently launched its activities; do you think in the present circumstances it is feasible to do any reconstruction in the NW and SW Regions?
Barrister Balla: I supported the reconstruction process because we don’t know when the conflict will come to an end, and people are suffering. We have documented these houses that have been burnt. As of today, we have about 235 houses or villages that were burnt. So if they want to reconstruct these villages or houses that we have been complaining about, how can we be complaining? I don’t look at it only as reconstruction but construction and reconstruction. It should be done whilst we are finding a solution to the crisis. We cannot be doing it forgetting that we have a crisis as there are still gunshots, lockdowns, and arrests still going on.
PAV: Before the National dialogue you were making efforts for a forum for people from the NW and SW regions, a sort of AAC 3; do you think such a forum still has its place in the present context?
Barrister Balla: I don’t know why the separatists and government didn’t want the Anglophone General Conference to hold. It might not have a place but what I think is needed is an intra-Anglophone dialogue. The carnage, bloodbath, destruction of our economy at times done by us against us is something we have to address – because the government cannot be killing our people and we too are killing our people. There is a need for an intra-Anglophone dialogue to try and address some of the issues we face and to look at our grievances and try to be realistic – this is what we can achieve for the time being and then move on as a people.
PAV: What is your reaction to the growing sentiment by restive Anglophones that the Clergy may be playing a dubious role in the crisis with increasing closeness to government positions?
Barrister Balla: This PhD (Pull Him Down) syndrome we have in Anglophone Cameroon. Everybody we have condemned; we condemn the church, the CSOs, Teachers, and Lawyers, everybody who say something we don’t like we condemn. These clergies are people who have been drawing attention to the problems faced by people in the NW/SWRs. For me, just to put them in one box and lampoon them is not fair. They have a role to play and they must not only say what you want them to say because that is a dictatorship and we are not in North Korea. There might be some of the Clergy who might not be good but it is not the entire Clergy that is bad or that is on the payroll of the government.
PAV: Some critics say the Agbor Balla who led the initial stages of the struggle and the Agbor Balla of today is day and night in positions, the insinuation been that after your stint in prison, your tone became a little more subdued and you have viewpoints closer to the government, can we have your response to that?
Barrister Balla: If you follow me before the crisis, my declarations, I have always been a person for the two states federation, and I will religiously defend my position – I said it before jail, in jail and after jail. The problem with most people is that they expected me to join the separatist movement but I have my philosophy, and conviction – I don’t believe in a bloodbath, I don’t believe in war. I have friends who are in the separatist movement and I tell them that I am not a warmonger and I will not support warmongering, killing of innocent persons.
Even those who criticize us, the most reputable document on atrocities in this country is done by us – so they criticize us but even if they go in the international forum they use but our document for advocacy. The one we published in Canada in July 2019 is a groundbreaking document, the one we published about military and separatist atrocities nobody can fault us. We were one of the first to comment about Ngarbur and we were threatened by the government but we were proven right. Unfortunately, emotions have taken over reason. Most people have gotten too deep that they cannot even reason again. If you don’t say what they want to hear then they say you are a blackleg or you’ve been bought. The people who are shouting on social media are not the majority but the people who thank us give us the impetus to do what we are doing.
They will rewrite the history of this country and we will have a page, a chapter or something on the role that we played. No matter what they say they will acknowledge the fact that we played a role and some of us also paid the price by going to jail. Upon our release we have continuously advocated for those who are detained, some of the leaders in jail know the role we have played, and they know we still advocate for them, try to use our network for the betterment of our people. I don’t have time for detractors. Those who spend their time ranting, and insulting people, to be honest, I don’t have any time or place for them.
PAV: What is your take on the leadership of the struggle, especially those in the diaspora?
Barrister Balla: We cannot put the Diaspora in one box and say they are bad people. Some of the leaders there are cut off from reality; they are living in their world. A lot of them are misleading the people in Cameroon. We have good people who can lead but some of them are frustrated; some of them because of the violence, the insults, and hate speech have withdrawn from the struggle. I think if those back home and the genuine leaders in the Diaspora can come together and forged a good team it will help to articulate the struggle better. The leadership cannot be in the Diaspora; you cannot be left in the Diaspora and you are telling people here not to go to schools. What the struggle needs to do is to find a leader back home who can lead the struggle. They should not try to delegitimize everyone who is back home. When you call this one traitor, blackleg and so on, at the end of the day we get the leaders that we have; those who are good in scheming, blackmailing, and those good at inciting violence, and hatred.
PAV: It has been four years now with schools in many parts of the NW and SW, as another school year approaches, any suggestions on what should be done?
Barrister Balla: We started the no school boycott as it was a stop-gap measure. It was a temporal measure, and I have spoken to all the separatist leaders I know about school boycott like two years ago. You cannot claim you want to liberate your people and still keeping them in darkness. Education is very important. The struggle has to continue but also they should not jeopardize the education of our kids or children.
PAV: As someone who played a leading role at the onset of the ongoing phase of the struggle with your leadership of Lawyers and the Consortium we will like to end this interview with an opportunity to address different components and actors in the struggle, -First a word to the Cameroon government.
Barrister Balla: I will urge them to try to find a solution and they should not toy on people’s lives. They should not think they will win this war as it is not a winnable one from a military perspective – you have to win this war by winning the minds and hearts of the people and meet at least the minimum demand from the people. It is not just burning their villages or buying them over or locking them in jail but by opening a veritable dialogue and negotiations with the leaders and the people.
PAV: A word to fighters in the North West and South West Regions
Barrister Balla: They need to respect the Geneva protocols. Civilians who are not taking any part in hostilities should not be a war target. Respect human rights. You can still pursue the war without beheading people, without raping, kidnapping, as these are all war crimes and crimes against humanity, and someday some people will face the wrath of the law.
PAV: A message to the diaspora
Barrister Balla: They need to show respect to those at home. This infighting is not necessary. If we want to succeed in the struggle we have to come together and think about the people on the ground – let us have their interests. It seems they are more interested in their interests than the interest of the people.