When Advocates of Minority Rights are Being Abused: the case of Anglophone lawyers in Cameroon.

While the world focuses on the US elections, hundreds of Anglophone lawyers in Cameroon are being harassed by security forces. This is taking place in the Anglophone towns of Bamenda in the North West Region of the country in addition to Buea and Muyuka in the South West Region.

As of now no official statement has been released by authorities of the state. Even the Minister of Communication, Issa Tchiroma Bakary who is always quick to organize press conferences on anything that brings the reputation of the government into disrepute. The lawyers have been venting their frustration over this use of force on them even though their protests have been largely peaceful. According to the representative of the Cameroon Bar President to one of the two Anglophone Regions in Cameroon, the lawyers have been beaten and their gowns and wigs seized by security officers. The entire town is militarized and even at court premises, they have stationed water cannons and anti riot gears, he explained. Barrister Harmony Bobga also wondered why in America, people are protesting against the election of Donald Trump as President but they are not being chased. But in Cameroon, lawyers who go down to the streets peacefully are beaten and teargassed.
For about a month now court proceedings in the two Anglophone regions of the North West and South West have been grounded because lawyers have been staging a sit down strike action. These Anglophone lawyers are protesting against policies by the government to eradicate the Common Law system in Cameroon in favor of the French inspired Civil Law. Last year, the lawyers met to explain some points to the government which the government did not even acknowledge reception of the documents. Some diplomatic missions were also served. The lawyers asked the government to stop sending Francophone magistrates to Anglophone jurisdictions which do not master neither the language nor the legal system in practice to create a section for Common Law in the school that trains magistrates in Cameroon, to stop sending Francophone teachers to teach Anglophones and to review the terms of the 1961 federal system which was abolished in 1972 among other points. After waiting for more than a year without a word from the government, these men in black resorted to a sit down strike. With continuous silence from the government, they have now taken to the streets to express  their frustrations peacefully. This is how they were met by contingents of security officers who teargassed them, beat them and briefly detained some of them. Some of the lawyers were taken out of their hotel rooms by security officers while others were even whisked from their cars so that they do not make it to the protest grounds. For the few who made it to the protest grounds, they were met by violence. Even till then the government has not offered a word. This has pushed the lawyers to the creation of what they now call the “Cameroon Common Law Bar Association” crippling the Cameroon Bar Association which brought together lawyers of both linguistic divides.

The Anglophone regions of Cameroon were formerly administered by the British in the colonial days and were called British Southern Cameroons, while francophone regions where under the French. In 1961, both former British Southern Cameroons and the already independent French Cameroon (la Republique du Cameroun gained independence in 1960) reunited under a federation. But since then the minority in the federation, Anglophones have been complaining of gross marginalization and eradication of their culture. In 1972, the then President, Ahmadou Ahidjo, a Francophone abolished the federation and instituted a unitary state in violation of the constitution and in 1984, his predecessor, Paul Biya, still a Francophone renamed the country La Republique du Cameroun which was the name of French Cameroon upon independence—meaning Anglophones were totally disregarded. Anglophone regions are the least developed even though crude oil that supports the country’s economy is found there. They have never occupied strategic ministerial positions in Defense, Foreign Affairs or Finance. Presently, out of about 65 members of government, just 3 are Anglophones. This marginalization has also been seen at the level of education as we said above and the legal practice is also experiencing the brunt of it.

In Africa and elsewhere, most issues of minority rights have led to bloody exchanges especially when the government goes mute in the face of such situations and instead uses force. South Sudan fought one of the bloodiest wars in Africa with mainland Sudan for two decades. It was the same case with Ethiopia and Eritrea. While the former UN scribe called for the government to dialogue with Anglophones, the government has preferred force which may push radical Anglophone elements to consider the use of force. There is no way out apart from constructive dialogue which has been requested not just by the Anglophones but the African Court of Human and People’s Rights. This is not the first manifestation of Anglophone grievances; the legendary Southern Cameroons National Council (SCNC) and its sister groups have been championing this course and with some radical elements, especially in exile considering the use of force, Cameroon may just be standing on a time bomb. And when lawyers, who have been defending the rights of Anglophones (the minority) who are being arrested from time-to-time, are also being harassed, it means the government may have just reached the limit of its provocative moves. When minority rights advocates are being abused, it means the very shield of protection in society has been removed and the people are vulnerable and exposed. And if protection cannot come from the defenders (lawyers), the people tend to use any crude and rudimentary means to defend their case. Cameroon may just be lying on a time bomb.