Clifford Akonteh is an Anglophone human rights lawyer and activist from Cameroon who is dedicated to pursuing democratic change and respect for the rule of law by providing access to justice for vulnerable peoples and supporting youth engagement in the democratic process. Currently the National Coordinator of the Movement for Democracy, Development, and Transparency (MDDT), Akonteh shares with us his journey to becoming a human rights lawyer, his work, the role of lawyers in Cameroon, and how he continues to develop professionally.
What inspired you to become a human rights lawyer? What part of your work has been most impactful?
My drive to pursue my career was inspired by my dad who was a former questor of the Cameroon National Assembly, prominent political activist and one of the founding fathers of the Social Democratic Front (SDF), one of Cameroon’s opposition parties. While serving as Regional Chairperson for the Northwest Region, he made enormous sacrifices advocating for a multi-party democracy built on the cornerstones of accountability, fairness, and transparency.
I watched him get arrested for speaking out for his people. Although he was not a lawyer, he went against the odds to pursue democratic change and respect of the rule of law. He was arrested on several occasions for his commitment towards justice and real democracy. I therefore nurtured the ambition of pursuing a professional career in either law or journalism, as those would provide me with the tools to stand up and speak for the oppressed. It is in this light that I fully embraced the legal profession in 2014, working as a partner and human rights consultant at the Poubom and Partners Law firm. I have always been in love with civil society advocacy so I also serve as the National Coordinator for the Movement for Democracy, Development and Transparency (MDDT) Cameroon a human rights, democracy and peace-building non-governmental organization.
As a passionate civil society activist, I contributed immensely to mitigating the consequences of the ongoing Anglophone crisis in 2017 when it began. Against all odds, I invested my efforts in fighting against arbitrary arrests within the context of a challenging judicial system. The rampant arbitrary arrests and wrongful detention of youths because of their names, how they looked and non- possession of Identity cards gave me a reason to intervene as much as I could. Two suits in which defendants were charged with non-possession of National Identity cards gave me a new path to promote justice and gave birth to MDDT’s advocacy program on the decriminalization of petty offences that trigger corrupt practices as a form of merchandise within the criminal justice system. It motivated me to champion a greater vision to advocate and lobby within the ranks of legislators for amendment of Decree No. 2007/254 of 4 September 2007 regulating Cameroon's national identity cards. Both cases came at a time when government employed terror, instilling fear in communities as a means to prevent protests against the celebration of national independence days or 1st October which marks Southern Cameroons Independence Day from the British.
You are also the National Coordinator for the Movement for Democracy, Development and Transparency (MDDT). Can you talk more about this NGO and its purpose?
MDDT Cameroon runs a legal clinic that advocates for decriminalization of petty offences such as non-possession of national identity card, non-payment of house rents etc. The legal clinic aims at guaranteeing easy access to justice to vulnerable persons such as minors, youths and women who cannot afford legal services. It builds synergies with law firms to render pro bono services to defend human rights activists arrested in course of protecting or promoting human rights. Suspects and accused persons are transferred to different cities without trace. Going for weeks and months without access to family members or lawyers. Lack of an effective book-keeping system make it difficult for lawyers to trace accused persons. Access to justice is hindered by the limited number of court rooms and common law judges thus, there are bound to be frequent adjournments and ineffective review of cases, especially in cases where a civil law judge sits in a common law court. The Legal clinic fosters the principles of fair trial, “audi alteram partem” meaning "listen to the other side" and “Nemo iudex in causa sua” meaning no-one should be a judge in his own case. Arbitrarily arrested persons, suspects, accused persons and defendants remain innocent until proven guilty beyond doubt. The judiciary have such persons enjoy all rights that come with having a fair trail such as the right to a lawyer, the right to be heard, the right to bail, the right to due legal procedures etc. No one should also take the laws into his or her hands not the state, not the judge, not an executive, not the community and not the accused person.
What is the “Not Too Young To Vote Campaign?” How are you involved with that and why is it so important?
Youths constitute more that 60% of Africa’s demographic strata and if not properly harnessed will diffuse into creating impoverished societies torn apart by conflict and political instability. The Not Too Young To Vote campaign is geared towards creating a platform of over 2 million Cameroonians through which youths from 15 to 35 years old would be mobilized to vote, run for office, advocate for electoral integrity and non-violence. There is an urgent need to create safe spaces for youth engagement in party politics and democratic processes and the Not Too Young To Vote is undertaking this journey to the 2023 Municipal and legislative elections and 2025 Presidential Elections. 2023 is an opportunity for the next generation leaders to run as candidates for mayor and members of parliament. In 2025 we hope to see a youth political party and candidate running for presidency.
What is the role of a lawyer and how may that differ?
There is a thin line between Law and Politics. The rule of law is a major component in Democracy and Politics. Politics has a direct impact on the rights and welfare of citizens and the lawyer is the custodian of the law and the voice of the people. A majority will give the dictionary definition to a lawyer as someone certified and trained in the theory and practice of law, and licensed to give legal advice and represent others in litigation within a particular jurisdiction. I rather hold that the role of a lawyer goes beyond this definition, the lawyer is a guarantor of true democracy, upholding human rights be it social, economic and political. Reasons why many lawyers have succeeded in winning the hearts of their people and risen to the rank of presidents. Lawyers must engage in protecting civil and political rights of their people. Lawyers must advocate for a society that goes beyond the rule by law assuring the rule of law where governments can be held accountable by their people. Lawyers must advocate for the most relevant principle of democracy, “The Principle of Separation of Powers”. This principle over the years has been more prominent on paper and remains a myth. The independence of the Judiciary is a must for democracy to live on.
The role of a lawyer is universal but the respect and recognition of the role of the lawyer differs by location. The Anglophone crisis began by the call of common law lawyers for a judicial review for improved access to justice such as transfer of Civil Law trained judges from common law courts, translation of the OHADA Law from French to English, and a need to revisit the 1961 Federal Constitution that protected laws and customs of Anglophone Cameroon. This call degenerated to a protest by lawyers on the streets where lawyers were arrested, many tortured and many currently on exile. The hostile, unsafe and shrinking democratic space is silencing the role of the Cameroonian Lawyer.
How has your view of your role as a lawyer changed (or not changed) throughout your career development?
The political environment in Cameroon has had a major impact on my development as a lawyer. The Anglophone crisis is a constant reminder of my role to speak out for thousands of families currently living in anarchy. My role now goes beyond litigation. I have become more passionate about civil society and driving economic and political development of young Cameroonians through human rights based approach. I dream of building national and international networks of lawyers that work endlessly for human security and peace through fostering access to justice and civil and political rights. In this light I am constantly seeking avenues for continuous self development and valuable networks which will reinforce my knowledge skills and abilities through the exchange of best practices.
I have also realized the need to advocate for legal literacy and empowerment of communities through effective partnership with paralegals. This will expand the scope and effectiveness of my actions to the communities we serve.