Friday, June 16, 2017

Cameroon: Lawyer Sama wrong on "justice component" in Anglophone crisis

A lot has been written about the "Anglophone problem" in Cameroon and the 34-year-old government's heavy-handed attempt to silence those raising the problem and pushing for change. Since November 2016 many English-speaking Cameroonians have been brutalized, arrested and killed in relation to the struggle for political change in Cameroon. Notwithstanding, some people in the English-speaking regions are ready to call it a day if their professional interests are met.

For eight months English-speaking regions of Cameroon have been paralyzed by strikes and mass civil disobedience on grounds of marginalization by the largely French-speaking government of Cameroon. In the forefront of the struggle are teachers and lawyers who have not gone to work for more than half a year as a result of strike action. The movement, which was sparked by a strike by lawyers, quickly spread to include teachers, students and people from many walks of life including youths who make up majority of the country's unemployed population. Barrister Sama Francis, former president of the Cameroon Bar Association, thinks its time for lawyers to stop the strike and return to work.  In an interview widely viewed and shared on Facebook the prominent Anglophone lawyer addressed the "justice component" of the crisis and encouraged his colleagues to return to work. In the interview the Barrister said, among other things, that the government has shown "unconditional determination" in commencing the implementation of promises made with regard to lawyers' grievances. To support his claim he cited "massive promotions, transfers and redeployment of magistrates".

Screenshot of Facebook video
"Every objective onlooker would discern therefrom that there has been a massive redeployment of Common Law magistrates, most of them, to the Common Law jurisdictions, and a commencement of redeployment of a massive redeployment (sic) of Civil Law magistrates to the Civil Law jurisdictions", he said. He cited the government's promise to create a Common Law bench at the Supreme Court and in the National School of Administration and Magistracy (ENAM) and in various state universities, and he expressed satisfaction over the appointment of a senior Common Law magistrate as president of the judicial bench of the Supreme Court - for the first time in the country's history. He urged his colleagues to "break the ice" and re-evaluate the position of the justice sector in order to encourage the government of continue the implementation of promises made to the justice. He congratulated the Minister of Justice for the "massive groundwork", and stated that the government has massively demonstrated "commencement of goodwill" that promises made shall be fulfilled. He stated that he's on the side of the people's interests. He encouraged his colleagues to go to return to work. The Barrister made it clear that he reserves the right to change his position on the matter if he doesn't see continuity in the demonstration of goodwill by the state.

My Take

The interview granted by Barrister Sama Francis may have been well-intentioned but it came across as self-serving. In the 7-minute and 53-seconds video interview as posted on Facebook the Barrister used the word "I" a staggering forty three (43) times or more, and showered praises on the state and the Minister of Justice for baby steps -- at a time when Anglophone protesters and civil society leaders are languishing in detention on trumped up charges, including terrorism and treason in relation to the Anglophone crisis.

In addition, the Barrister limited both the scope of the Anglophone crisis and Cameroon's "justice sector". Unlawful killings, degrading treatment of protesters, unlawful and politically motivated arrests and trumped up charges brought against political activists and civil society leaders like Nkongho Felix Agbor-Balla, Mancho Bibixy, Fontem Neba and Ayah Paul Abine, to name but a few are a "justice component" which should not be ignored. Mindful of the fact that arrested individuals include members of the legal profession - unconditional release of all arrested should be a pre-condition for lawyers to return to work. Returning to work as proposed by Barrister Sama would mean Common Law lawyers effectively abandoning their own in the proverbial frontlines.

Cameroon's justice sector is broken hence now is not the time to praise Minister of Justice Laurent Esso who oversees the compromised judiciary. Barrister Sama - or lawyer Sama - as he is widely known and commonly called in Bamenda - knows better.

Common Law lawyers in English-speaking parts of Cameroon sparked the struggle for equality by English-speaking Cameroonians but the struggle now encompasses all walks of life in affected regions. Lawyers returning to work could jeopardize the struggle and embolden the regime. It is true that steps have been taken by the government to appease lawyers but the steps do not go far enough. For example, Barrister Sama citied the appointment of the first Anglophone as president of the judicial bench of the Supreme Court. He is right. According to state media CRTV the nomination of Epuli Mathias Aloh to the judicial chamber of the Supreme Court is historic. However, Barrister Sama failed to mention the imprisonment and (forced) retirement of another senior Common Law magistrate - Ayah Paul Abine - in relation to the crisis. In essence, a symbolic appointment was counteracted by a dismissal. One step forward and one step backward. It is questionable that Barrister Sama's lavishes praise on the state and the Minister of Justice - with repeated use of the word "massive" - at a time when his learned colleagues: Ayah Paul Abine, a political leader and now former Advocate General of the Supreme Court and Barrister Nkongho Agbor-Balla are in detention in relation to the ongoing Anglophone crisis. The baby steps taken by the state all came partly as a result of political activism of those in prison. Their contribution to ensure what Barrister Sama Francis referred to in his interview as "massive groundwork" by the Minister of Justice must not be forgotten.

In conclusion, Barrister Sama - like everyone else - has a right to his point of view. He should not be attacked or threatened with bodily harm or property damage by those who disagree with him. His appearance in the Court of First Instance and the Military Tribunal to defend religious leaders and Anglophone civil society leaders and others charged in relation to the Anglophone crisis is commendable. However, the barrister's decision to praise the Minister of Justice and narrow the Anglophone crisis to a "justice component" is misguided. His interview might have been well-intended but it sounds like a job application cover letter or a motivation letter for political appointment addressed to the Minister of Justice. Since the struggle started commissions have been created by the government and Anglophones have been appointed to certain positions, including positions never before occupied by an Anglophone such as the position of president of the judicial chamber of the Supreme Court. It appears the former president of Cameroon Bar Association smells opportunity -- hence he announced his "determination and availability to engage in effective and meaningful dialogue".

If the barrister is truly "on the side of the people's interests" as stated in the interview he won't do anything that would jeopardize the people's struggle against marginalization.

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