Barrister Nkongho Felix Agbor alias Agbor Balla, President of the outlawed Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium (CACSC) says the government has not really done anything to say they are showing good faith in finding solutions to the Anglophone crisis.
The founder of the Center for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa blames the government for being unable to protect the population, especially schoolchildren. In this interview with Mimi Mefo Takambou, Agbor Balla slams separatists for inflicting pain on the same population they claim to want to liberate and protect. He calls on the government to declare October 1 a national holiday and urges the international community to do more towards ending the crisis. Excerpts:-
What do you make of the current state of the Anglophone crisis which started exactly five years ago? We see separatists imposing measures that deprive children of education and it is crippling the economy as well because of so many lockdowns plunging the most vulnerable in poverty. On the other hand, there is also the government side that has never cared or does not even seem to care but yet claims to be protecting the population and the country’s territorial integrity. What do you make of the current state of affairs in the Anglophone regions?
Well, the current state of affairs in the Anglophone regions is very sad, it is very vulnerable. It is very frustrating. The government owes a duty to protect civilian populations, meaning that even when it fails to protect the civilian population, then they are held responsible. In cases where they cannot protect the civilian population by kids going to school, the government is still responsible.
But also, equally, we have to look at what the separatists, the non-state armed groups are doing when it concerns education. You cannot be destroying schools. You cannot be preventing the kids from going to school. These are kids that you are supposed to protect. The whole idea of a liberation struggle is to uplift the people from the sufferings that they are going through. But if at the same time you are only perpetuating these sufferings or increasing it, then you are not helping the population. Education used to be one of our strong points as Anglophones.
In terms of a booster to the economy of the North West and South West regions, education used to be the thing because these francophone kids used to come, they would pay tuition, they would buy food, we would have schools giving contracts to our mothers to be able to supply food.
When you destroy the schools when you prevent the kids from going to school, at the same time you are ensuring that our kids are not going to school, meaning that the underprivileged kid will not be able to have an education. And in case you have a state tomorrow, it will be these privileged kids who are living out of the North West and South West Regions or who are living abroad, who will come and lord it over these kids who did not go to school.
And equally also, from a political perspective, our education was used to anglophonize francophones because when they came into their numbers, by the time they left to go back to the francophone regions, they had imbibed some of our customs and our values. But now, it is the reverse. Our kids are now leaving the North West and South West Regions to go to school in the francophone areas. So, our kids are being francophonized. So, in the long run, we will have more francophone-Anglophone kids than what we had prior to the crisis.
In terms of also the economy, we are destroying the economy. The vulnerable people, the underprivileged, our buyam-sellams cannot really go to the market because we have some senseless lockdowns. Yes, the lockdowns are senseless in the sense that it is not really helping. They have to strategize. How do you think that crippling the economy of the North West and South West Regions would deter Yaoundé from doing what it is doing? If you know the history of the government in place, you would understand that it is a government that is deaf, dumb, and insensitive to the wishes and aspirations of the people of the North West and South West Regions.
So, you cannot be punishing your own people and think that the government would react. This is a government, for example, as they normally say in English or in pidgin that “somebody cannot have a headache and you’re drinking Panadol on their behalf”. It is high time that they re-strategized. The struggle can still continue but crippling the economy and worst of all of preventing kids from going to school is a no-brainer. Nobody can justify or understand why we are destroying schools and preventing our kids from going to school.
Okay, right. You have talked about the wellbeing of the people which is one of the reasons why the consortium that you created, which is now outlawed, came into existence when this crisis began in 2016. When you actually led the civil society consortium asking for these changes that you are talking about, did you see things taking this violent twist that we are seeing today?
Well, nobody really had a crystal ball that could see the future. But they were some tendencies in some of the meetings we had that some people were articulating very different positions. But by and large, we did not foresee violence. What we saw, we knew that there were people who wanted us to go to the streets more often. They were people who were ready to stand against the military might of the country. But at the end of the day, what we had in common was the love of the people. We were trying to see how we could ensure that things were better for our people. And that has always been the position.
The educational sector, the legal sector, the civil society and the economy. Someone will say we started the school boycott. Yes! We did it. But it was just to draw attention to the international community of what is going through as a people. It was not supposed to be a final measure. It was just something that was temporal and we had to. We were even planning to call off the school boycott before the consortium was outlawed.
And now, Barrister, there seems to be a lot of intransigence on both sides with the population caught in the middle. They are the most affected in this conflict. What do you think both sides need to do to show that they have the well-being of the Anglophones, the English-speaking populations at heart?
When we follow other conflicts in other parts of the world, especially the separatist movements, there is always this intransigence between the government and the separatists which is understandable. But also, in between the government and the separatist intransigence, there is a need to have a middle position that has to articulate issues to both parties.
If you think you are speaking for the people if you think you really like the people, both of them need to come down from their high horses. But also, it is the duty of the government to make the first step. It is for the government to try to win the hearts and minds of the population of the North West and South West Regions and the separatist leaders to try also to do certain things that they can see.
As we speak, the government has not really done anything to say they are showing good faith. Whatever they are doing today is what was provided in the constitution. I mean, it is simple. You were supposed to give me something in 1996, you did not give it to me. In 2016/2017, I started protesting. People have been killed. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced, more than a thousand are in jail and you give me the same things that you were supposed to give me 20+ years ago. You were supposed to give me these things before I went on the streets. So what have they really given us that was not provided in the constitution? So, they have to go beyond that because the problem we are effacing in this country is that the government is trying to use a pre-crisis situation to solve a crisis situation.
The government has not done anything tangible to show that they are really willing to find a solution. Tell me one thing that they have done. We expected that the government will show its good faith by telling Anglophones for example that you know what, we are going to amend the constitution. We will institute federalism. We will ensure the separation of powers. We will ensure that English and French are not only cosmetic. You will be able to elect your governor. There will be devolution of power. That you can manage some of your resources.
These are things that we expect them to do because these are things that they have never done. But they have not done it. When you do such a thing, you put the measures in place, you can now show to the world that those who are against these wonderful measures you have put in place are people who just want to destroy Cameroon. And I think that moderate Anglophones will buy into the measures that they would have put in place. But I have seen people who do not necessarily support the separatist movement but are also not happy with what the government is doing. It means that the government has not done a lot.
But equally, also, our brothers who are part of the separatist movement, if they love the people also, there is a time that they have to sit down and take the people’s interest at heart.
So now, what is your take on October 1 celebrations? Should it not be a celebration for the whole of Cameroon? This has really been long overdue. We have always seen the tensions that characterize the commemoration of this historic day in Cameroon. Shouldn’t it be a national holiday given that it is a day that the two Cameroons came together as one?
I think it is the height of political hypocrisy. Why are we celebrating February 11 when we cannot celebrate October 1? This is just because these people, the institution running us do not want the people to know their history. Something symbolic happened on October 1 that touched the fabric of this nation. Why are we not celebrating it why are we trying to banalize it, to make it as if 1st October is not an important day, or that those who celebrate 1st October are supposed to be outlaws or terrorists. It is high time, and this is part of winning the hearts and minds of the people, the government declares 1st October a national holiday.
These are the kinds of things that they can do to show that they are at least ready to make some major and fundamental changes. But as we speak, the people who will want to celebrate 1st October will not be allowed by the government to celebrate. It is a day that has to be celebrated by everyone in this country. And I think also that the francophone politicians and those who are influential should tell the Head of State that you can take all of us by an ambush by declaring 1st October a national holiday in Cameroon.
Barrister, what realistically can the international community do to bring an end to this conflict?
We want a concrete action on their part because we have been seeing more of lip service than real action. They do more lip service than real action. They do not take action, they do not use the strongest words. We have them using the same words like inclusive dialogue and you know.
What can be done to really put an end to the conflict?
The first thing is that we expect a lot from the international community. The world is state-centric. In the UN and all its organizations, they are the states which have power. And the whole thing about territorial integrity and respecting the sovereignty of nations still play a lot in international politics. It is true that one can argue that when Human Rights Watch denounces human rights violations, crimes that are committed, then this whole sovereign veil is pierced. The international community should put more pressure on the government of Cameroon to have a veritable discussion with those who are taking up arms against the government. If they think that the government is intransigent, they should not only be travel bans, they should freeze the assets of especially those found to be perpetrating crimes against humanity in the country. They could also extend it to their families also. I do not see why somebody whose kids are benefiting from the spoils of war or are perpetrating violence should be enjoying things while other people don’t have that privilege. So, if they can travel-ban some of them, they might say they are not even interested in traveling out of the country. If they can freeze their assets also, it could deter them.
But equally, also, they have to also put pressure on some of the non-state armed actors. If you notice, I did not talk of economic sanctions on us because having an economic sanction is like a school boycott. It is the common man that suffers. Most of the people who are in government, who are making decisions, if you put an economic embargo or ban on Cameron, they would still live their lives.
Also, the non-state armed actors who are living abroad should also be made to understand that if you commit or incite violence and crimes, you should be held accountable by the justice system. It is not only about government. It is also about those who have taken up arms against the country. You cannot be living in a foreign country and you’re enjoying liberty but at the same time encouraging violence that they should attack and kill people you do not agree with.
We can still have the conflict/crisis and but try to respect human dignity. So, I think that these measures could help. But the government should be put more pressure on to try to make sure that they get into a veritable dialogue or discussion. Friends of Cameroon in the international community should be honest with Mr. Biya also, to tell him that he cannot win the war. They should tell him that there cannot be a military solution. I know the Americans have said that repeatedly but they have to go beyond that. The French also, and the EU should have a heart-to-heart discussion with Mr. Biya and tell him that he cannot win a war against his people and that they are ready to support Cameroon if we can commence a veritable process of dialogue with the Anglophones and put in place veritable institutions and equally to amend the constitution and make Anglophones feel that what they are saying or doing is genuine.
Okay, barrister. Thank you so much for the insights.