Recent elections in Cameroon have exacerbated longstanding unrest in the country. Decades of tensions fueled by the Francophone minority’s political dominance of the marginalized Anglophone population (about 20 percent of the total population) reached a head in 2016, with open calls for secession and cries for accountability for human rights abuses and corruption. This ongoing strife, labeled the “Anglophone Crisis,” is placing increased demands on lawyers not only to protect legal rights, but also to exercise political leadership as well.
The original Constitution of Cameroon explicitly recognized and secured the rights of the Francophone and Anglophone populations to retain their cultural autonomy. Subsequent constitutions and political leaders, however, eliminated such provisions, recognizing only Francophone prerogatives.
The current conflict began in 2016, when teachers and lawyers protested the lack of autonomy and support for Anglophone schools and common law courts. These grievances led to renewed calls for secession and the establishment of the nation of Ambazonia, to which the government responded with an increased military presence in Anglophone areas, charging protesters and advocates with terrorism-related crimes and carrying out measures to silence the media. Clashes between separatist groups and the government escalated as the October 8 presidential election neared, resulting in violence that left more than 300,000 people displaced and many Anglophones either too scared or physically unable to vote. President Biya’s reelection is therefore deemed illegitimate by the Anglophone population.
In monitoring the situation in Cameroon, the ABA Center for Human Rights has remained in contact with Cameroonian lawyers on the ground. Among them, Clifford Akonteh, a human rights lawyer from Anglophone Cameroon, has been dedicated to pursuing democratic change and respect for the rule of law by seeking access to justice for vulnerable peoples and supporting youth engagement in the democratic process. In an interview, he discussed his role as a lawyer in Cameroon, particularly in the context of the Anglophone crisis.
Here, at the Center we support those who advocate for the protection and promotion of human rights and work to hold governments and individuals accountable for its abuses. The Anglophone Crisis provides a clear example of the unique and varied roles that lawyers can play as “custodians of the law and the voice of the people” and the connection between politics and law. “The role of a lawyer is universal but the respect and recognition of the role of the lawyer differs by location,” and in Cameroon, “the hostile, unsafe, and shrinking democratic space is silencing” that role. From advocating for equal rights to protecting those who are being arbitrarily arrested or detained, lawyers have played and continue to play a key role in the resolution of the Anglophone Crisis.
To learn more about how Akonteh works to reverse this environment, please read his entire interview here.