Cameroon: “The Form Of The State Would Have Been Groundbreaking” – Barrister Agbor Balla on Major National Dialogue
By Boris Esono Nwenfor
From September 30 to October 4, 2019, delegates from all works of life participated in the Major National Dialogue, an initiative that was aimed at addressing the issues raised by lawyers and teachers amongst others.
It is now two years since the Dialogue took place and despite several measures that have since been taken by the government to implement the recommendations, Barrister Felix Nkongho Agbor Balla has said nothing groundbreaking has since emerged since then and the form of the state would have been the groundbreaking thing.
Renowned Human Rights Lawyer and activist Barrister Felix Nkongho Agbor “Balla” was one of the attendees of the Dialogue and says he does not regret taking part in the Major National Dialogue and has called on both warring parties to ensure children effectively go back to school, a course that he says he can give his life for.
Pan African Visions: What assessment do you make of the Grand National Dialogue two years after?
Barrister Agbor Balla: The Major National Dialogue was necessary. There had been a clamour for a Major National Dialogue from the clergy, civil society, politicians and non-state armed groups but the government took some time to call for the Dialogue. It was necessary to sit together as sons/ daughters of this country despite our differences to address burning issues that touch and concerns us as a people. It was equally necessary for us to revisit the form of the state which unfortunately was not discussed. Yes, it was good we had the Dialogue; the outline of the deliberation may not have been what we expected but there was the need to have the dialogue.
Pan African Visions: Looking at Resolutions Taken and what has been implemented two years after, do you think it served the purpose?
Barrister Agbor Balla: The Major National Dialogue was supposed to be a means to an end and not an end in itself. I don’t think anybody expected that after close to four years of conflict people will sit for a few days and have a resolution that would solve all the problems that we were facing. Some of the resolutions were good but the problem is not about the resolution, the problem is about the implementation. The core issue of the Dialogue was to talk about the form of the state; all the other things that were being discussed were not as important as putting the form of the state on the table. Unfortunately, the government was not willing and ready for us to talk about the form of the state, so, the special status came out from the Dialogue.
Let me say that the special status does not affect the form of the state. But in a situation where the government had good faith and the government was willing to implement (put the special status in place) it would have helped for the time being pending when they will be ready for us to look at the form of the state. There is nothing special about the special status because there is a whole lot of confusion in the implementation or application of the special status. The governor is still the one that controls everything; the minister of decentralization is still the boss of the regions, so it does not make a lot of sense.
At the end of the day, nothing groundbreaking has been done. I think that something groundbreaking that would have come up from the Dialogue was the form, of the state. As we speak reconstruction, yes, but there is nothing groundbreaking because it is a reconstruction as a result of the conflict; bilingualism is part of our constitution. What we have here, to be honest, is just decentralization where Yaounde still pull the strings.
Pan African Visions: Looking back, do you regret participating in the dialogue?
Barrister Agbor Balla: I will not regret taking part in the Major National Dialogue; let us not forget that you cannot be preaching for peace, and preaching that we should sit down and talk and they call you to talk and you do not go there to talk. Whether we like it or not, bringing some people who had not to have to sit eye-to-eye to talk helped to calm down the situation. A peace process is never done in a day. The Major National Dialogue is a step in the right direction; it is a means to an end and not an end in itself.
Pan African Visions: What do you make of the tour of the Prime Minister to the North West and South West?
Barrister Agbor Balla: It was a good thing that he went to both regions because both regions are currently in a conflict situation. I think the whole purpose is to try to win the minds and hearts of the people of both regions; to explain what the government is doing but also to listen to the people. I hope that it was not some kind of people who were invited to talk to the Prime Minister and to tell him what he wants to hear.
I hope that they had people who were honest enough to tell him that this conflict cannot be won through military confrontation, that it will be resolved politically. I hope there were people in the South West and North West who told him what was on the ground. I was not in the country when he came to the South West Region but they know my position; I have said and tweeted it that they should tell the president that it is only a political solution; you cannot win the minds and hearts of people by killing them or by bringing tanks or artillery to their region.
Pan African Visions: In the NW the Prime Minister was welcome under scary circumstances, what message should the regime get from that?
Barrister Agbor Balla: It shows that the non-state armed groups have become embolden; that they are very daring now. We have seen not just the gunshots when the Prime Minister came but we have seen for the last couple of months the killing of elite military officers and the destruction of tanks and weapons. It shows that they are serious and the conflict is taking a different dimension and that there is a need for Yaounde to sit up and realize that it is not business as usual; that they are also against a formidable group of boys who are ready to fight and defend their lives.
Pan African Visions: You have also been a forceful voice in calling for school resumption, with the situation still so volatile in some parts, where do you situate the responsibility of safety for school goings?
Barrister Agbor Balla: The thing about school resumption or kids going to school is no brainer; it is nothing that some has to have a contrary view. I don’t understand the logic of why people are preventing kids from going to school and that is something I have with some of the non-state actors who think there should be a perpetual boycott. It does not work, and I would put my life on the line to defend those kids who have to go to school because no matter the outcome of this crisis we still need our kids to be educated. If these kids are not educated, how are they going to fit in in this world where education is very important. We cannot condemn our kids to perpetual poverty, ignorance, and illiteracy.
The argument about safety; yes, some places are not safe but there are safe areas. Let us encourage kids to go back to school and it will not be done overnight. It will be a gradual process; I am impressed with what is happening this year. We have to be careful as Anglophones or Southern Cameroonians about this boycott. A couple of years ago, we used to Anglophonise Francophones through our schools but now is reversed. When we talk about the boycott, show me one person that is financially comfortable, whose kids are not going to school; they have either left the region or are in the towns and cities in the NW/SW where it is safe. At the end of the day, we have the kids of those who cannot displace them to French Cameroon or the safe areas cannot go to school. So, the conflict could still be going on but then everybody who has us at heart has to support kids to go back to school.
Pan African Visions: As a way forward, what concrete proposals do you have at the moment?
Barrister Agbor Balla: The first thing is to talk to those in control of the non-state armed groups to tell them that they should allow kids to go back to school, while CSOs also continue with the advocacy and also that there should be a safe passage for children to go back to school. In Afghanistan where there has been conflicting, kids have always been going to school. In Sierra Leone where they had the civil war, kids went to school. So, I don’t see why Cameroon is exceptional that kids should not be able to go to school.
Pan African Visions: We see a strong focus on human rights from you with CHRDA, how is that helping in the resolution of the conflict?
Barrister Agbor Balla: Advocacy grinds slowly but crises always happen because there has been a culture of impunity. By documenting you are reminding the stakeholders, the belligerent parties that someday they will be held accountable and also for institutional memories; history should remember that in Cameroon X number of people were killed and this number of people were in jail. It deters some people, not everybody and the documentation might hold if someday there is accountability at the tribunal or court for the atrocities that have been committed.
Even if there is no tribunal, when there is truth and reconciliation, some of this evidence will come up and people will have to apologise and seek forgiveness from the victims’ families. It is very important for accountability; in a society where there is no accountability, impunity runs riot.
Pan African Visions: You have recently been nominated for the 2021 Human Rights Tulip, what do you make of that?
Barrister Agbor Balla: It is encouraging when some selfless work is recognized. You will remember that in 2019 I won the prize for the Best Human Rights defender in Central Africa, and I have had the opportunity because of the work I do to speak at the Oslo Freedom Forum and also to address the Canadian parliament; the UK House of Lords and the Human Rights Council. The Tulip nomination is a good thing; it encourages others that despite the difficulties and challenges we should just be resilient and continue with advocacy.
It is testimony that when you rise above partisan documentation and reporting when you try a much as possible to be neutral and be objective despite all the insults and negativity, some people will recognize it. It is an encouragement also to other CSOs and advocates in the country and all over the world.
Pan African Visions: What is your response to critics of yours who have resorted to name-calling and accusing you of abandoning a struggle you started?
Barrister Agbor Balla: Some of them make me a better person; they make me stronger, and they make me correct some of the errors that I might have made. There is nobody that is infallible but those are people who constructively criticize. For those who are just the insults, I do not take that at heart.
I have not abandoned the struggle; I think my role has morphed into something else. Not everybody can be the head of a movement; and in a movement or revolution, there are roles for everyone. In our role as Human Rights Organization, we are documenting and monitoring the situation and doing advocacy. I do not think there is any better organization that has done the kind of documentation we have done; there are very few people that have done the kind of advocacy that I have done; from the Human Rights Council, African Commission, US Congress, the Canadian House of Commons, the African Bar Association, all the major international organizations. I have had meetings with the AU, EU, so I don’t think if I had abandoned the struggle I would not have been involved.
People perhaps wanted to see me defending the separatist agenda, but we need to respect people’s opinions; the fact is we led a revolution; it was not necessarily a revolution to break away from the country and I still maintain the position that I have maintained. If you read my LLM Thesis in 1998/99 in Belgium where I argued that “Do the Anglophone Southern Cameroonians have a right to self-determination in international law” and I concluded yes, we have a right to self-determination. My conclusion was that there was a need for us to have internal self-determination which was a federation. This is the same position I held in the days of the Consortium; the same position I held during the Grand Dialogue and this is a position I am holding today. I still believe that this country whether people like it or not would one day be a federal country. It will be important for the form of the state to be debated because it can never be business as usual. So, if in that light it means I have abandoned the struggle, then the people are not reading the signals very well and are not following me.
I respect the onus of those who clamor for separation; you will not see me attack any leader who is for the separatist movement because I also believe that in our divergency we have things that we agree on; we agree that there is a catastrophe in our regions; we agree that the humanitarian situation is bad; we agree that our people should leave jail; we agree that human rights of our people should be respected and that there should be equality and the need for justice. These are fundamental issues we agree on and if we disagree on the end game of separation or federation, it should not tear us apart as brothers. The insults are not helping anybody because insults have never given people independence.
Pan African Visions: We have also noticed the passing of a generation of statesmen, Nfon Mukete, Cardinal Tumi, Sultan Mbombo Njoya, and others, any incidence their absence could have on the quest of a lasting solution to the crisis?
Barrister Agbor Balla: You always need your patriarch. Especially from an African perspective, we need our fathers, grandfathers to be able to bring some kind of peace and harmony. Yes, losing them especially emblematic and iconic Cardinal Tumi, who was at the forefront is something that we miss. Losing Chief Mukete and Sultan Mbombo Njoya; these are people one expected them to get themselves involved but also it might be an opportunity for those who are alive especially the younger generation to seize the mantle and try to see how they can work towards having a solution.
Pan African Visions: What role do you think the international community should play at this point?
Barrister Agbor Balla: The international community is state-centric; the state is the focal point of the international community and there are lots of problems happening in the world presently. I believe that as children of the same country, we can internally find a solution but that depends on the goodwill of both parties especially the goodwill of the president and his cabinet. Yes, the international community can put some pressure but there is a lot that we have to do.
The international community should go beyond just urging that they should drop their guns; it has to start putting concrete measures in place, threatening travel bans, and freezing accounts. They could also threaten those who are committing atrocities from both sides that they will be tried and held accountable someday because this impunity should not last forever.
Pan African Visions: Some have called for another All-Anglophone conference; do you still see its necessity?
Barrister Agbor Balla: I remember an interview I had with France24 in 2016 in which I called for an Anglophone Conference; other people picked it up and we almost had the AAGC that the government sabotaged and also some separatists who were not for it. For once, the government and the separatists were in the same position; that was intriguing. So yes, there is a need for us to still meet; there is a need for discussions to take place. In ending October CDN is supposed to hold a dialogue in Canada and some of the stakeholders will be there to see how we can agree on certain things.
What we have observed is that the violence between Anglophones is a lot and is rising and so we should not pretend. As a result of that, there is a lot of division between the South West and North West Regions. So, I think such meetings are very important.
Pan African Visions: If there is another national dialogue to resolve the crisis, what do you think should be done differently from the first one to hope for better results?
Barrister Agbor Balla: If there is another dialogue what should be done differently is that the agenda should be determined by a bi-partisan Committee; a committee made up of CSOs, religious leaders, government and the non-state armed groups. They should sit and determine the agenda; who presides should be something determined by that committee and it should be manned by an independent person; somebody in the clergy and two vice presidents from CSOs. There should be no perception that it is tailored and controlled by the government.
They should focus on the crisis in the South West and North West; let them not devalue it by bringing other issues. This is a specific conflict because of our history that has to be solved; they should not mix it with the other problems. And the international community should guarantee that those abroad can come without any arrest but to do that government will have to show good faith by releasing the people they have detained and those who are black-listed who are abroad; there should be a general clemency/amnesty for everyone so that it will win the hearts and minds of the people and those who will not be able to come should be authorized to send their representatives who can speak on their behalf.
Pan African Visions: Any Last word or message to the main actors in the crisis as we wrap up this interview?
Barrister Agbor Balla: My message to the main actors is that they should think about the people and the population. They are there to protect the civilian population; be it the government or non-state armed groups, that whatever they are doing they should at least consider the sufferings of the people. They should their ego in front of the interest of the people and that if they are working for the interest of the people, then they should by now be finding ways to talk to each other and find a solution so that life gets back to normalcy.
*Culled from October Issue of PAV Magazine