By Boris Esono Nwenfor
Maximilienne Ngo Mbe has been with the REDHAC for the past ten years as Executive Director, championing and promoting human rights across the Central African sub-region. Her relentless pursuit of human rights has seen her win multiple awards across the world and with the mantra “NEVER GIVE UP” she has shown no sign of slowing down.
Maximilienne Ngo Mbe has won multiple awards in her fight for Human Rights with the biggest one being the U.S State Department’s 2021 Women of Courage Awards. Before this recent award, Maximilienne was in 2020 awarded “The Prize of Empowerment of African Communities” by the BBF and Heal The World Africa, an organization based in the USA.
In 2019 Maximilienne won the “Defend Defenders: Prize of Resilience and recognition for her exceptional impact for her works on Human Rights in Central Africa.”
Pan African Visions caught up with this vibrant Human Rights defender in her office in Douala this March 31, 2021, and began by asking her what she made of the recent award given to her in her fight for human rights.
Pan African Visions: May we know how Maximilienne Ngo Mbe received news of her selection amongst the 2021 Women of Courage Awards?
Maximilienne Ngo Mbe: It is not possible to know how the selection comes about. I was surprised by the US Embassy who told me that I am one of the Women who have been selected for the award but the first amongst the twelve women that were to be selected. I had the information at the same time as you when the US Government made the selection. I saw the information on Friday after the announcement was made on Thursday in the night that I am one of the Women of Courage 2021.
Pan African Visions: What does this award mean for you and your fight for human rights in Cameroon?
Maximilienne Ngo Mbe: First of all I was very happy when you fight against violations of human rights, fight for peace and reconciliation and when you receive the award you are happy. The award is not only for the work in Cameroon but the work in Central Africa to improve human rights and promote peace and reconciliation in Central Africa. It is a lot of responsibility and what now can I do to ensure that all these people who are suffering can do something? I do not have a lot of power to improve all these charges that have been given to me.
Can I have the power to finish all this work? I am not sure because you need a lot of things; financial (sometimes people do not know that you carry out activities without money); democratically challenged (we do not have democratically institutions. We do not have separation of power in the countries). We have a lot of injustices specifically in Cameroon now and we have a lot of arbitrary arrests. The terrorism law is in place that leads to activists being charged. It is difficult and the situation in North West and South West is not easy. We have a lot of threats and people who do not have security in their life. It is not easy for me; I am happy but afraid.
Pan African Visions: Can you shed light on the Central Africa Human Rights Defenders Network in Central Africa-REDHAC that you lead?
Maximilienne Ngo Mbe: It is difficult to talk about the Human Rights Defenders Network in Central Africa because it is a long road. For ten years now I have been the Executive Director and we make sure to protect, promote and advocate for the human rights defenders status and make sure that the government undertakes their role about the regional and international engagement and to make sure that the fundamental freedoms are respected. We make sure that peace and security can be improved which will lead to people having justice and living a good life.
All these things have been very difficult to achieve because it is the civil and political rights; when you fight for their respect it is not easy especially in countries that have not had democratically institutions. Some of our victims understand nothing that sometimes turns to attack us. But REDHAC status that is out to fight against human rights especially for CSOs turns to create an atmosphere of peace between the victims. For example, every six months, we report on the violation of the human right and also the protection and security of lawyers who defend these victims. This is because if you want CSOs to continue in this light you need to reinforce them with security assistance. For example, we have laws that govern lawyers at the Regional, National and International level. Lawyers who defend victims of human rights violation and fight for peace and reconciliation
We at REDHAC have proposed concrete solutions at the level of Cameroon and Africa in general for the respect of human rights. This is a vast area for us to handle in the protection of human rights. We also have manual functions and challenges like our laws in the country cannot surpass international laws. Analysis and recommendations have been done as well as publications on fundamental liberation and also following up defenders of human rights; aiding them protection and financially. For example, Mancho Bibixy was aided financially (REDHAC supported him by relocating his wife from Bamenda to Yaounde so she can easily pay him visits in prison) and May Ali who was relocated. We also give people the opportunity to air out their problems to the international community especially victims in the North West and South West. We have also produced documentaries on behalf of the victims.
Pan African Visions: What are some of the challenges the REDHAC network has faced in the field while doing its work?
Maximilienne Ngo Mbe: Some of our challenges are infrastructural and financial challenges. This is because sometimes we need to help our victims who are not financially stable to shelter them and also the majority of our financial partners are state-owned that sometimes delay the assistance. Also, the government system is another problem we faced coupled with the fact that in Central Africa all the Presidents are of age weakening the system as they try to maintain their positions leading to poor leadership.
States that do not practice democracy is another problem we faced resulting in poor decision-making. In Cameroon especially in the judiciary decisions cannot influence justice; same with the legislative decisions hindering sanctions on the government for wrong decisions taken. This also goes to the executive. This can be seen especially in the Ngarbuh massacre that to date government decisions have not been implemented on the perpetrators of the act. Meantime, we also have the case of Wazizi where to date his corpse has not been found. Despite our complaints, nothing has been done in all these instances. Sometimes, sanctions are levied on us when publications on such situations are made public. Our challenges to sum up rest on financial, undemocratic institutions, but all these can be solved.
Pan African Visions: Can you give us your perspectives on the situation of human rights in Cameroon, where have you seen progress and where have things been bad?
Maximilienne Ngo Mbe: The fact that REDHAC’s doors have not been shut down despite these challenges shows a level of respect for human rights. People are allowed to talk freely on TV stations without being arrested shows some positivity on the respect of human rights. We also have laws that have been respected in the country and it is good we encourage the government for such a move which will give them the ability to keep respect for human rights.
However, laws that are made by the legislative are not always being respected by the other bodies such as the executive and judiciary. There is some collaboration even though formal such as that of the Ministry of Justice and some human rights organizations including REDHAC. These small collaborations give us a supportive hand to continue our work.
Pan African Visions: Could you share some of the recommendations that REDHAC has in mind to improve human rights in Cameroon?
Maximilienne Ngo Mbe: In Cameroon, we have recommended the revision of so many laws and not its abolition such as the anti-terrorism law of 2014 against Journalists, civilians, politicians, activists and others. For example, the military court is not supposed to judge civilians or journalists and for this reason, we have recommended that the law be revised and we hope one day it will be considering that Cameroon is one of the members of the Commonwealth, Human Rights Commission in Africa and the UN. We are not saying that the law be abolished but revised concerning the rate of terrorism in central Africa.
The second recommendation we have made is that if you observed Western African countries, there is a law to protect the right of journalists especially in Mali, Ivory Coast which was voted for and this law should be adopted in the Cameroon National Assembly and the President signing it into law.
Our recommendations are not only on human rights violations but in a situation that we find ourselves in. Cameroon is facing various challenges, and we have been recommended that no war can be solved with the use of arms but negotiations should be the solution between the two parties. A commission should be created such as the Truth and Justice Reconciliation Commission should be created. With this being our best recommendation as human rights preachers it will be a better means to reconcile ourselves. A proposal for that commission had been written and sent to the appropriate quarters which will only hope for a positive reply.
Also, on the socio-political crisis ongoing in the North West and South West Regions, we have recommended for the liberation of all Anglophone detainees especially those who have not appeared before the court since they were arrested but are in prison. For this reason, if Cameroon wants to portray that she is out to protect the rights of its citizens, then persons like Mancho Bibixy have to be released and stop the arrest of journalists and lawyers who defend human rights violations. The conduction of transparent elections has to be effective which will minimize the rigging of the election, reducing violence and threats during elections in Cameroon.
Pan African Visions: A new leadership and new members were recently appointed by President Biya to the National Human Rights Commission, what is your take on that, and do you think they can make a difference?
Maximilienne Ngo Mbe: Yes I think so.In the past years, we were working with the Commission headed by its former President Chemuta Banda and we did a lot of things, be it in the North West, Central Region and everywhere in Cameroon. We fought for the promotion and protection of Human Rights. On the contrary, since we did the last nomination and with his hatred, he disposes of daily it has nothing to do with human rights. It is feared that this Commission is only an empty vessel. How can you think that Mrs Elangue née Eva Etongue Mayer who has served more than seventeen years in the Commission and a defender of Human Rights was removed at a time when we needed a Commission like never before? For us, there has not been a consensus concerning the National Human Rights Commission today. At the moment, all those present at the Commission represent their head and shadow and so we have nothing to do with the Commission.
Pan African Visions: What do you make of accusations of bias and opposition sympathies that are often linked to groups like REDHAC, Amnesty International, Human Rights Work and others?
Maximilienne Ngo Mbe: All over the world, human rights commissions are usually accused and so there is no exception when it comes to Cameroon especially on those Commissions who do their work effectively. The truth is that they (government) deform and lie against such commissions meanwhile in other countries such a thing cannot happen. In Cameroon, they deform, lie and corrupt and when they get to a level that they cannot corrupt they go to the extent of levying threats. Human Rights organizations are only doing what we are expected to do and nothing else.
During the Ngarbuh massacre, the Minister of Territorial Administration Paul Atangi Nji held a press conference saying that Human rights Commissions had taken five million to destabilize the country which was not true to the point of sending us a warrant of arrest. This went far in tarnishing our image both nationally and internationally and to this day an investigation is still open. This was a strong allegation from such a personality who did not have strong evidence.
This is what I have been talking about in countries that do not practice democracy. Such countries are characterised by deformation and even those who count on human right commissions like REDHAC, Human Rights Watch. REDHAC’s office is in Cameroon and all that the government does is criticise and deform. But this is very different from other Human rights Commissions like Amnesty International that has its Headquarters in Senegal; you can never hear the government criticise to this extent, same as Human Rights Watch in the USA, posing a threat to other human rights organizations coming up. It is a dictatorial system and a system that does not respect human rights.
Pan African Visions: What next for you and REDHAC after this award, what are some of the projects that you have in mind going forward?
Maximilienne Ngo Mbe: What I can say never gives up despite the huge challenge we face in our country. We have to continue to work for peace and protect human rights. We are continuing without any stoppage in preaching and protecting the human rights commission, the implementation of a democratic state with no fear despite all the threats by implementing all the mechanisms to promote peace for all and protect human rights defenders. It should be noted that these are areas giving less concern and our small shoulders are ready for the fight.
Pan African Visions: We understand that you were in Congo during the recent Presidential election, could you share with us what you saw, were there free and fair from your perspective?
Maximilienne Ngo Mbe: The situation in Congo is our preoccupation now but yesterday we were told that some protesters were arrested, showing no difference with Cameroon. You will see that when Sassou Nguesou discovered that his mandate will soon end he amended the constitution, changing it into a referendum favouring him during the election which provided him with a new mandate. Can you imagine that we were in Congo and were denied accreditation to observe how the elections were conducted? This is very dissatisfactory as during the election we carried out some teaching on the protection of human rights.
We were going to look at those rights that were violated and not who won. This same scenario also happened to the Human Rights Commission in Congo. This is just to show you that when a Human Rights Commission works for the people it is very possible to have problems with the government. It will surprise you that the next day ghost town was declared making some voters walk long distances to vote, violating the right of circulation in and out of the country. Even we had to walk from up to 5km just to look for food to eat. When ghost towns are declared, how do you expect people to vote including handicaps?
It should be noted that before the ghost town was declared the forces of law and order had voted two days before and these same military forces already had voting stations, showing some level of fraud. On that same night, the internet was seized even to the 27 that we returned and the internet had still not been regularized. The only excuse given was that the person that was working on it died of COVID-19.
Again, we were told that some of our members were arrested but we are working on it though worried and the only thing we can do is hope for a calm situation considering that Congo had once had a civil war and also pray that the population remain calm because it is a provocation.
Pan African Visions: Thank you for granting this interview, any last word you wish to make?
Maximilienne Ngo Mbe: NEVER GIVE UP. I want to thank everyone that has supported REDHAC and my staff who has been there in our difficult moments and that we have passed through it. I want to thank the American State Department as it is an award that comes to protect REDHAC and myself. I want to assure all Human Rights Organizations, journalists and the African community to continue to strengthen the fight in protecting and promoting Human Rights, and maintaining peace.
(Translation was done with the help of Sonita Ngunyi)