A Cameroonian’s journey for justice

Can Canada serve as an example to Cameroon of how to uphold
the rights of minority groups? Human rights lawyer Felix Agbor Nkongho
travelled to Canada recently to find out. 

By: /
18 December, 2018
Felix Agbor Nkongho at his hotel in Toronto. Melissa Tessler / OpenCanada.org
Melissa Tessler
By: Melissa Tessler
Toronto-based lawyer and freelance writer

Sitting before Canada’s House of Commons Subcommittee on International Human Rights on October 30, human rights lawyer Felix Agbor Nkongho had just seven minutes to describe the crisis that has consumed his life and the lives of millions of anglophone Cameroonians for the last two years — and to state why he believes Canada should help to resolve this conflict.

I am here today to plead with this house to try to see how we can find a solution. The gross human rights violations, the crimes against humanity and war crimes taking place in [Cameroon] need to stop,” Nkongho said. “We have a shared humanity. We owe a responsibility to protect.”

Nkongho, the founder and executive director of the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa (CHRDA), has been working towards justice for Cameroon’s anglophone community for nearly three years. But to his government, he is a threat.

“I am not doing this for any personal gain. I am doing it for the people, because I think that when injustice prevails you cannot live in a free society,” he told OpenCanada in an interview. Despite his current celebrity status, he continues to be guided by an obvious humility and sense of duty. 

His appearance before the House was one of his final stops on a 10-day trip to Canada to raise the profile of the conflict between the anglophone population and the Cameroonian government.

A French-English divide

Like Canada, Cameroon is a bilingual and bijural country, but with a French majority of around 80 percent. While British Cameroon was gaining its independence in 1961, its population was given a choice: join French Cameroon or Nigeria. Following a plebiscite, the anglophones decided to join French Cameroon in a federal state with two national languages and cultures. However, that vision didn’t last. Within a few years the majority Francophone government initiated plans to unify the country. Today, anglophone Cameroonians say they have experienced an almost complete erosion of their autonomy and language rights.

“There’s a sense that we do not belong to the country…It [became] clear…that we were second class citizens, that the government didn’t respect the bilingualness and bilculturalness of the country,” Nkongho said, reflecting on Cameroon’s history and what has led to the current state of conflict.

Corruption, lack of autonomy over their lands, and a francophonization of the judicial and education systems are among the issues raised by anglophones. “How can you have a fair trial where your client or counsel doesn’t understand the language of the judge or the court?” asked Nkongho. He explained that legislation in the country is often written in French only. He and his colleagues are required to interpret the law and argue cases in front of French-speaking judges who are not trained in and do not understand English common law.

After several failed attempts at addressing these issues with the government, a group of Cameroon common law lawyers went on strike in October 2016. They were met with silence. The lawyers refused to be ignored and decided to take things a step further by organizing peaceful demonstrations. Joined by students and the teachers’ union, they marched through the streets of Bamenda and Buea, the capital cities of north and southwest Cameroon, in their wigs and gowns. This time, the police were there to meet them. “Lawyers were beaten, dragged into the mud, their wigs and gowns were seized,” said Nkongho. Hundreds were arrested and several wounded.

The attacks only served to fuel the activists’ passion and led to the formation of the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium. With Nkongho as their president, the lawyers and teachers worked together to build a case to once again present to the government. Despite some initial progress, what ultimately ensued was an influx of government security forces and increased violence in the anglophone regions.

Without warning in January 2017, the government cut off internet to the anglophone region, banned the consortium and arrested its leaders, including Nkongho. “We were blindfolded, cuffed and [driven] for 10 hours before we were interrogated and locked in dehumanizing conditions,” he said. The group was charged in front of a military tribunal with eight separate counts including terrorism, secession and incitement of civil war. Nkongho was sent to a maximum security prison alongside members of Boko Haram for a total of eight months, including 45 days in solitary confinement.

“It was a really difficult period. My father was buried and I was not there…the government gave the impression that I was the biggest terrorist in the country and so it was not possible,” Nkongho said. “That’s the only day I ever shed tears, but you cannot shed tears in a cell with 13 other people…but I came out stronger and I don’t regret it. I was fighting for my people.”

With the moderate leaders in prison or having escaped the country, and the region still without access to the internet (which lasted three months), the youth and more aggressive factions of the anglophone movement began to rebel. What started as a peaceful movement for equality and recognition quickly fragmented into groups calling for secession and the creation of a new state of “Ambazonia.”

Nkongho and 54 others were released from prison in August 2017, but Nkhongo says many others remain. By that time the peaceful movement had been derailed. According to Nkongho, the government had declared war on the anglophone community and the secession movement had become more violent. State security forces have reportedly used excessive force, including tear gas and live ammunition, on the ground and from helicopters against unarmed civilians during at least five separate rallies.

‘Gross violations of human rights’

According to the CHRDA, since 2016, 1,000 Southern Cameroonians have been detained, 4,000 killed, countless others abducted, beaten and tortured, and 160 villages burned to the ground. Tens of thousands of children have been out of school since 2017 and 58 schools have been attacked by separatist rebels seeking to enforce a boycott.

The UN puts the number of internally displaced persons from the anglophone regions as a result of this conflict at 437,000, with 26,000 registered refugees in neighbouring Nigeria. The CHRDA estimates a total of 50,000 refugees.

“There have clearly been gross violations of human rights that raise real questions about whether we are dealing with crimes against humanity,” Pearl Eliadis, a Montreal-based human rights lawyer and senior fellow at the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, told OpenCanada, adding that about 75 percent of these crimes are being committed by the state. “There are atrocities being perpetrated on all sides…and the state needs to respond in an appropriate manner,” she said, “but extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention and torture is not the way.”

A damaged shop in the abandoned village of Ekona, near Buea, in Cameroon’s anglophone southwest region. October 4, 2018. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

These findings were presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council this September by a group of organizations including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada, during a review of Cameroon’s human rights record. (In July, the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights was denied access to the anglophone regions of the country to monitor the situation. Nonetheless, Cameroon was elected as a member of council the following month.)

Nkongho hopes that Cameroon’s election to the council will inspire the government to clean up its human rights record. However, the recent and controversial re-election of the country’s 85-year-old president, Paul Biya, for another seven-year term leaves him concerned. As head of state for 36 years, Biya has been a great friend to countries in the region who in turn have not spoken out against him, says Nkongho.

Since Biya’s re-election, a handful of journalists have been arrested based on a number of charges, including the spreading of false information. 

Canada’s role

Nkongho is urging Canadians to speak up against the atrocities taking place in Cameroon before it’s too late. “The ‘never again’ principle will have been dealt a serious blow if Cameroon degenerates into Rwanda,” Nkongho told the House in October.

He reminded the subcommittee about its responsibility to protect under the UN Charter and urged the Canadian government to raise the issue in international fora, or with those interested in investing in Cameroon. He believes that Canada is well-placed to support Cameroon, given its similar makeup.

The Cameroonian diaspora in Canada is small but vocal. Within the group, many anglophones have come together to seek condemnation and assistance from the Canadian government for their families in Cameroon. 

“My father is a mayor, and he has often been threatened by those fighting for separation because they perceive he is working for the government,” said Olivia Leke, who is now based in Montreal. Her family fled from their village to Yaounde, the country’s capital, fearing for their safety as the homes of several local leaders were burned down. They continue to live in a state of limbo as their hometown is now deserted.

Leke is one of several members of the Southern Cameroon Association in Quebec, a group formed to seek legal advice on how to stop the human rights violations taking place in Cameroon. They have written to MPs and Global Affairs Canada (GAC), but are unsatisfied with the basic response received from GAC.  

Another member of this group, Ntebo Ebenezar Awungafac, is a well-known human rights advocate in Southern Cameroon but finds himself unable to leave Canada due to the conflict in his country. As the former executive director of the human rights organization Global Conscious Initiative, Awungafac came to Canada in 2015 for a month-long human rights training program with EQUITAS. Over the course of the program, his offices back in Cameroon were ransacked by government forces. He believes they were seeking to expose him for opposing government policies which violated human rights.

Since arriving in Canada, Awungafac’s hometown of Kumba, the largest city in the southwest region of Cameroon, has been militarized and his family home burned down. Though his wife escaped to Ghana, his 22-year-old step brother was killed, and many family members remain trapped in Cameroon with nowhere to go.

“Every young man from 18 to 40 years, all of them are thinking of running. When the military comes they don’t care if you aren’t carrying arms,” he said. He has been informed by former colleagues that there is a warrant out for his arrest.

In spite of all this, Awungafac has been denied refugee status in Canada, which he applied for in August 2015. The denial is based on his affiliation with an anglophone group, the Southern Cameroon National Council, that has been flagged for its alleged intention to overthrow the government. The decision of the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) refers to a single incident that took place in 1999, when a handful of individuals took over a local radio station and announced their independence from Cameroon. Awungafac explains that this act was not reflective of the entire organization and that since that time, the group has splintered into smaller factions. Awungafac joined the group in 2005 and the faction he belonged to focused solely on education and non-violent advocacy. Nonetheless, the IRB denied his application based on evidence that the leaders of these groups are still interconnected, and its decision was found reasonable by the Canadian Federal Court of Appeal.

“I’m trapped here and I’m not even welcome here,” he said. “When I left my country I was not a terrorist …I had Canadian interns working with my organization on peacebuilding in local communities, how did I become a dangerous man that is a threat to the nation?”

Eliadis describes this situation as absurd: “The Supreme Court has said clearly you can’t lump everyone who has had an affiliation with a group to all of their activity and use that to deny them refugee status. There’s a major Canadian issue here.”

Looming fears of deportation aside, Awungafac believes that Canada should step forward to support Cameroonians in resolving this conflict, as Canada represents the closest example of the harmonious federation sought by the anglophone Cameroonian community. “[Canada is] running a political structure that Cameroon had envisioned during independence. If truly we had a two-state federation, I don’t think there is anybody that would have agitated for anything,” he said.

Both Awungafac and Eliadis believe that Canada’s position as a member of the Commonwealth and the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie leave it well-positioned to gather international support and attention on behalf of Cameroon.

“Canada has an important role at the international level to push for dialogue,” Eliadis said. She believes that for mediation to be successful at this stage in the conflict, it must be taken out of the country and brokered by an international and independent third party. Canada, she believes, can help to see this realized.   

GAC has not been as vocal on the subject as Eliadis would like to see. Despite Nkongho’s words, GAC has not declared the atrocities taking place in Cameroon as crimes against humanity.

According to Eliadis, the evidence strongly suggests otherwise. She cautions that regardless of their classification, there have been “serious violations of human rights by any standard…that Canada and the international community need to be concerned about.”

Eliadis does not see Canada’s limited economic presence in Cameroon as a reason not to take a stand, as some suggest, and she questions why GAC is not implementing the new Magnitsky Act to freeze or seize the assets of Cameroon authorities with property in Canada. “We should be using the Act to deny their visas,” Eliadis said. “By targeting people like [Awungafac] they have the wrong end of the stick.”

After 10 long days, Nkongho left Canada in November having achieved at least one of his goals: Canadians were made aware of the conflict that continues to destroy his country. But whatever optimism he might have felt quickly dissolved as he returned to Cameroon and was met with more reports of violence, kidnappings and arbitrary detentions.

There was hope that an all-anglophone conference organized by the Catholic church to discuss prospects for peace in late November would be a step forward. “We can go back to the drawing table and see how, in a holistic way, we can dialogue and find a long-lasting solution,” he told OpenCanada. But the conference was refused authorization by Biya’s government and cancelled at the last minute.

Despite these setbacks, Nkongho’s will and determination remain strong. Just last week, as he shared recently, 289 people associated with the anglophone crisis were released from prison. “A peace process is not a one-day thing,” he said, his tone solemn but positive. He knows the road ahead is long, but is hopeful that his work in Canada and abroad has not fallen on deaf ears.

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