A Friend For The Oppressed-Chief Charles Taku Reminisces On A Forty Year Law Career

By Ajong Mbapndah L

Barrister Chief Taku has answered the call of the oppressed with the same verve in a law career that recently clocked 40 years.

From court rooms in Buea, Cameroon, to the Hague in Holland, Barrister Chief Taku has answered the call of the oppressed with the same verve in a law career that recently clocked 40 years.

From the perilous mission of defending Southern Cameroon’s activists in the 90s, to seeking justice for victims of the Rwandan genocide, and serving as a strong voice at the ICC against scapegoating Africans, Chief Taku has left an indelible mark in the course of his sterling career. In a walk down memory lane, the erudite Lawyer generously shares his experiences and offers his take on seminal developments in across Cameroon, Africa and the world at large.

Thanks for accepting to share with us forty years of legal services, and we would like to start with your career choice, why did Charles Taku decide to become a Barrister?

Barrister Chief Taku: Thanks so much for giving me once more this opportunity to share my experience with your teaming audience on matters about which I have personal knowledge.

My choice to apply to get into legal practice was deliberate and informed by circumstances which may be developed into a book.

A combination of circumstances and experience informed my choice to become a lawyer.  Here are some of them.

Like many Southern Cameroonians of my generation, I lived my childhood formative years in systemic injustice. The transfer of the sovereignty of the Southern Cameroons from one colonial contraption to another had profound cultural, social, political and economic impact on me and my generation. My Bangwa ancestral homeland suffered from German devastating campaign and was neglected by the British colonial administration. The area briefly gained some spotlight during Southern Cameroons government and a short lived democratic space preceding and after October, 1, 1961.

The democratic space and the liberties it brought, were recklessly interrupted and eviscerated. Here is how it happened.  Empowered by Ordinance no 60-20 of 22 February 1960, regulating the organization, administration and service of the National Gendarmerie and Military structure, Sadou Daoudou Minister of Defence under Ahmadou Ahidjo, signed Order No 65 of 13 February 1963 creating a Gendarmerie Company in West Cameroon. This effectively kick-started a reign of terror which was felt in my homeland. The terror intensified, with President Ahmadou Ahidjo signing Decree no 66-DF-133  on March 17, 1966, “extending the state of emergency in certain areas of the Federated State of West Cameroon”, particularly, Mamfe Division, Kumba Division, Victoria Division and Bamenda Division. My Bangwa homeland fell within the Mamfe Division and therefore, under the state of emergency.  During this formative period in my life, I felt the effect of the brutality and abuse of power under the state of emergency.

While in Primary School, I was subjected to political victimization because of the political orientation of my mother.  To remedy the situation, my mother withdraw me from that school and sent me to continue my primary education in CDC Laduma Mukonje Rubber Estate near Kumba where my aunt lived.  On our way to Kumba, my aunt and I were subjected to harassment and humiliation by fierce looking French speaking Gendarmes in several control posts along the road. This occurred despite the fact that my aunt procured two laisser-passers at an exorbitant cost. The pain and shame of the humiliation we suffered endures in my mind.

While in the CDC plantation, I watched and live the injustices of everyday life.  I prayed and asked God to give me an opportunity to come back one day to defend those labourers.  The chances for the realization of my prayers occurred when I enrolled in the Faculty of Law in the University of Yaoundé. 

 I was among a majority of English-Speaking students who were denied scholarship. We decided to organize a strike to press for justice.  I found myself leading the strike whose success changed my life.  From thence, I convinced myself that I had to apply to do pupillage to enable me to become a lawyer.  To answer your question, systemic injustices defined my life, opened my eyes and directed my destiny towards becoming a lawyer.

 At the University, who were some of the prominent names you had as mates and lecturers in those days?

Barrister Chief Taku: I hesitate to characterize some of my lecturers and professors as prominent because of their involvement in the politics of deception, violence, injustice, pain and excruciating pain. Some of my professors and lecturers were Peter Yana Ntamark, Professor Joseph Owona, Stanislaus Melone, Nicole-Claire Ndoko, Aletum, Lekene Donfack Charles Etienne, Emile Mbarga, Charly Ndobede, Sanda Oumarou, etc. The most honourable of all was Professor Kisob.  Several of my classmates are honourable people. They are too many to name. It saddens me that some of my classmates are active in prosecuting the genocide in my own homeland. However, Dr Christopher Fomunyoh and Hon Justice Nkengla are persons of extraordinary character, distinction and honour.  

 Coming from the English speaking of Cameroon, what were some of the challenges you faced?

Barrister Chief Taku: The challenges were many.  We studied in a hostile environment. French Speaking students subjected us to ridicule by shouting and screaming, “Anglo, Anglo””Biafrais”Biafrais” every day we came to the Amphitheatre or University restaurant; indeed, everywhere in the University campus. We were disproportionately denied scholarship.  English speaking lecturers were discriminated against in promotions and humiliated. It was a cultural, linguistic, political and economic warfront for our survival. In short, it was a laboratory for the actualization of the cultural genocide which has manifested itself in its  most violent form on the watch of the free world. We struggled for our survival on a daily basis. Unfortunately, some among us became traitors and agents of the oppressor. In that capacity, they betrayed, persecuted and oppressed us. To this day, they have constituted themselves into so- called fringe power elites, elites associations, political party and intelligence  spy operatives.

We came across a decree signed by President Ahmadou Ahidjo on April 14, 1981 authorizing you to become a Lawyer with the Chambers of Barrister BTB Foretia, was presidential dispensation needed in those days for you to practice?

Barrister Chief Taku: Yes indeed, a Presidential dispensation was required for an authorization to do pupillage to become a lawyer. Once a person was awarded a government scholarship, there was an inherent obligation to work for the government for ten years upon graduation from the university. That policy was enforced mainly for the private law practice which was tightly controlled by the President of the Republic.  The persons I consulted before submitting my application advised me against, stating that earlier applicants had unsuccessfully waited for six years. I had an option to go to ENAM, the School of Magistracy but was apprehensive that the strike I led would stand in my way and I would never have a promotion as a magistrate. Besides the magistracy was very corrupt and used a tool of oppression. I preferred to defend the oppressed rather than become a potential corrupt tool of oppression. 

Chief Taku pictured on the right at the ICC. He thinks the court has a prejudice against Africa

 Barrister BTB Foretia was a household name in the world of legal practice, how was the experience like learning and working with him?

Barrister Chief Taku: Hon Foretia was a very brilliant lawyer. People who knew him will testify that he was corruption free. He was disciplined, strategic and deliberate in every action he took.

There was no waiting or learning period under Hon. B.T.B Foretia. He prepared cases with me and provided me crucial advice on how to present cases in court. The first tool of great advocacy he told me, was demeanor towards the court, your colleagues and the participants in the case.  He told me that as counsel, I should maintain my composure as natural and as calm as possible and must avoid trying to adopt the composure of someone else. While rendition was important, the organization of the presentation was the driving force for rendition to be effective.  He was courteous to all participants in a court process and did not ever take advantage of the inexperience of young counsel to attempt to ridicule them.

My first case with him in the Court of Appeal, was before a panel of judges led by Chief Justice SML Endeley (as he then was).  We were counsel for the respondent in a criminal appeals case.  When the turn for counsel for the respondent to make submissions, he asked me to rise and respond to the submissions of the Prosecutor.  I stood up, summon courage and began making my submissions, using appropriate language, demeanor and composure he has told me.  I was calm, deliberate, organized and responded point by point to the Prosecutor, each of my points supported by authorities.  Occasionally, I stop to invite questions from the panel.  We won the appeal. From that moment when that Hon. B. T. B Foretia put me on feet in the Court of Appeal in Buea, I have never sat down or looked back.

One of the immediate causes of the current phase of the Anglophone crisis was a strike by Lawyers, in what way did the issues raised by Agbor Balla and others mirror the experiences or changes you noticed over your decades of practice in Cameroon?

Barrister Chief Taku:The issues which Barrister Agbor Balla and my English Speaking colleagues raised were not new. Learned senior lawyers from Gorgi Dinka, F.W Atabong, M.N , Weledji, B.T.B Foretia, Luke Sendze,  Chief E.E Ebai, Ben Muna, N.T Tabe and thereafter our generation fought the same battle but were ignored. When Cameroon applied to join the Commonwealth, B.T.B Foretia submitted a petition to Chief Emeka Ayaokwu Secretary-General of the Commonwealth on behalf of the South West Lawyers in which the lawyers complained inter alia: “As a matter of government policy, there are persistent attempts to wipe out the common law system. At unification, we envisaged a system where the two legal systems will co-exist side by side……Under this system, there is the independence of the judiciary, guarantee of human rights, the courts play the rule of unbiased umpires between individuals and the state and regulate inter-state relationship especially in matters of international trade.”  N.T Tabe writing on behalf of the Common Law Lawyers Association also complained inter alia: “There has been a systematic and deliberate erosion of the Common Law system, its ideals, principles, practices and procedures as obtained and intended to continue in the territory of the former West Cameroon. Agbor Balla and our colleagues were  highlighting  a systemic injustice which has defined the reckless impunity with which a once free people have been subjected to systemic abuse and persecution despite six decades of protests.

 Can you situate the role that Taku chambers played in the first All Anglophone Conference of 1993?

Barrister Chief Taku: The records will show that the idea of AAC1 was first initiated by George Ngwane, Bate Besong, Francis Wache, Vincent Anu, Verwesse and my humble self. I had resources to move the idea ahead in two areas. I had my law office which would be used as the secretariat and the ability to obtain a permit directly from Governor Etame Massoma for the conference to hold. George Ngwane, the ultimate diplomat had the mandate to convince political party representatives for the Tripartite Conference to accept to host the conference as conveners purposively to obtain the collective views of our people for the conference.  The AAC1 was a lost opportunity to avert the war several years after and a peaceful solution to the ongoing carnage and genocide.

 May we know some of the high-profile cases you handled in Cameroon?

Barrister Chief Taku: I give equal prominence to all my cases. The most prominent cases which I handled are hundreds I did for the poor, the weak and vulnerable such as the pro bono cases I did for exploited CDC cases.  CDC General Manager John Ngu preferred out of court settlements rather than face me in court. The CDC knew that, with me the labourers had a strong advocate on whom they could rely on to seek justice for the abuses they were subjected to. I defended   Ebenezar Akwanga and about 83 Southern Cameroonians who were abducted from their homes and court-martialed in Yaoundé for alleged attacks against Gendarmerie Camps in parts of the North West. That case was a forewarning of the current crisis in many respects.  This was not an isolated case. The Military Tribunal and court-martial of civilians has been around as a tool of oppression since 1962.

At what point and why did you decide to take on international practice?

Barrister Chief Taku: The Court martial of Southern Cameroons civilians in the Military Tribunal in Yaoundé was intermittently reported by VOA with the news of the trials in Arusha.  The confrontation between me and the President of the Court-martial Col. Manga who became very partisan was reported on the VOA.  Col. Manga attempted to stop me from raising objections to the jurisdiction of the Court-martial over abducted civilian Southern Cameroonians from their homes out of jurisdiction for trial in a language they did not understand and without the possibility of calling witnesses. In error, he thought he could bully me. I reminded him it was not possible. In anger, he suspended the case and gave a long adjournment.  The next day, I was at the Supreme Court where I filed a motion for conflict of jurisdiction on December 10, 1997 and left for Tanzania to enroll on the roaster of lawyers at the ICTR. I returned and left for Washington DC where I was interviewed several times over the VOA by Scot Steanne.  I exposed the sham to the world.  One day, a phone call was received in my Chamber in Buea asking me to report to ICTR, Arusha Tanzania  I arrived  on October 23, 1999,  a week after Mwalimu Julius Kambarage Nyerere on October 14, 1999 to begin my international practice that has continued till date.

You handled cases on the Rwandan genocide in Arusha, what were some of the lessons you came back from that stint with and how useful could there be in contemporary Africa?

Barrister Chief Taku: The lesson from the trials in Arusha and the Special Court for Sierra Leone are that war is bad for everyone and that the sanctity of human life must be the preoccupation for all.  Africa must have a robust mechanism for the early detection and prevention of conflicts on the continent. When conflicts occur, it must take prompt and transparent action to address their root causes.  Finally, Africa needs to establish a transitional justice mechanism to fight impunity and atrocity crimes in the continent. Such a mechanism must target all perpetrators no matter their status. The sad reality is that the ghost of colonialism very much alive in Africa. Africa is in need of genuine freedom, economic sovereignty, democracy and visionary leadership.

 The last few years for you have been at the ICC, is the court a friend or foe for Africa in the face of criticisms Africans are selectively targeted?

Barrister Chief Taku: I am one of the first persons to make the charge that the ICC was selectively targeting Africa. I repeatedly made the charge during international conferences.  I was invited by Professor Richard Steinberg of the University of California Los Angeles to write a chapter on this matter in book he edited on the ICC with a forward by Fatou Bensouda the Chief Prosecutor of the ICC.  The ICC is not a foe of Africa. There is no doubt that there are atrocity crimes are committed in Africa which warrant ICC intervention. My concern was the politicization of some of the cases such as the interventions in Cote D’Ivoire, Kenya and Libya. I was concerned about foreign influences and the manipulation ICC interventions to target and resolve political problems. When a court targets only the vanquish in a conflict, that becomes victor’s justice. I was also concerned that in its two decades of existence, the Court was still very much an African Court. It did not represent the face of our diverse universe that it was established to serve.  I underscored the fact that even in African conflicts, the perpetrators of atrocity crimes are not all Africans. I cited the example of arms for minerals merchants who are the driving forces behind some African conflicts in which atrocity crimes are committed. Many of them are not Africans. They too must be prosecuted.

 What is your reading of the current situation of the Anglophone crisis in Cameroon, and what proposals for a lasting solution?

Barrister Chief Taku: I avoided using the name Anglophone since it became a derogatory name used to stigmatize and ridicule us in the University of Yaoundé.  My involvement in the search for solutions to the conflict and the genocide is well known. There are no realistic internal solutions to a conflict which is international in nature.  The Government of Cameroon should submit to an international conflict resolution mechanism that is consistent with article 33 of the UN Charter for the resolution of this conflict such as the Swiss Mediation or any other credible international mechanism. There is no military solution to this conflict. Cameroon must accept an internationally endorsed mediation to address the root causes of this conflict. The war declared and prosecuted by Cameroon in which atrocity crimes are committed in a large scale shocking the conscience of humanity, is unjustified and unwarranted. Some persons have reduced the debate about the conflict into support of federalism and support of the actualization of the independence of the Southern Cameroons. Whether federalism or independence, the Republic of Cameroon has not accepted any of them.  It has not even accepted a peaceful option to war and the ongoing genocide. So far, the historical basis of the case no matter what, is not yet acceptable to the Republic of Cameroon. Cameroon is under the illusion that it can impose a military solution to the conflict.  Cameroon cannot and will never win in battle, in a mediation or an international court. Cameroon believes it is playing for time, but time is not on its side.  Time will only crystalize and galvanize international opinion to seek accountability for the crimes committed in the war while the territory becomes ungovernable. Only an international mediation process to address the root causes may resolve the crisis and bring about peace.

Only an international mediation process to address the root causes may resolve the crisis in Cameroon and bring about peace, says Chief Taku

To sum up the rich career that you have had, what gives you satisfaction and where do you think you fell short?

Barrister Chief Taku: I will first address where I fell short.  I have dedicated so much time and energy working for peace in my homeland and in all African conflicts. The slow pace of international intervention in the crisis and genocide in my ancestral home in particular, is disturbing.  The devastation of war is unwarranted. The crimes must stop, and perpetrators held accountable. It is disturbing for me to see massacres, genocide, butchery of innocent civilians in my homeland.  I see young Africans fleeing Africa and dying in the Sahara, Mediterranean Sea and South America escaping dictatorship, mass murder and harsh economic conditions, in the midst of plenty, while their peers in other continents are being trained to become agents of development for better living conditions for themselves, their communities and their countries. I have spent a considerable amount of time fighting these injustices, but they are persisting.

 I was elected by my peers from all parts of the world as President of the International Criminal Court Bar Association. I was also elected as a member for life of the Governing Council of the African Bar Association.  I was the vice President when Karim Khan QC, the new Prosecutor of the ICC signed the very first cooperation agreement between the ICCBA and African Bar Association.  I presented a historic address to the Assembly of State Parties Conference of the ICC on the 20th anniversary of the Rome Statute and also the Plenary of the opening of the judicial year of the ICC. I was invited by the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons to make a submission on a discrete issue on the UK multilateral treaty regime.  During my eventful professional journey, I was invited to address the annual conference of the Federal Administrative Judges of the United States.  I have adviced and represented governments in international and national courts with respectable outcomes. My greatest satisfaction resides with my interaction and assistance to the poor, helpless people whom I found in conflicts in several parts of Africa.  In Nyange Parish and Nyangasambu hill in Rwanda, with amputees in Sierra Leone, with refugees, who fled the scourge of war all over Africa and are in Europe, the human condition in Africa is not good at all.

What next for Barrister Chief Taku and to the young Lawyers out there who may want to emulate you, any words of wisdom?

Barrister Chief Taku: I will remind them what B.T.B Foretia told me when I embarked on this journey. I will advise them that honesty and hard work are the keys to success. That corruption kills the spirit and soul of humans. That character matters. And that although justice is administered by humans, true justice belongs to God and that with God, they will succeed. They must know that the frontiers of the world have expanded well beyond their town or country of origin. And that technology has brought the world into their bedrooms, their palms and their suitcases. They need to get out to the world and network with their peers in other continents.  They must free themselves from the shackles of ignorance and break the asphyxiating chains of tyranny which have held a majority of people hostage. 

**Courtesy of May Issue of PAV Magazine

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