When the recent crisis in the English-Speaking Regions of Cameroon began in 2016, Human Rights Barrister, Agbor Nkongho (Balla) was one of those at the forefront. It came as no surprise that he became the first president of the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium, which became the unified civil society organisation championing the demands of teachers, lawyers and trade unions.
When the Biya regime banned the Consortium in January 2017 and arrested Agbor Balla and others, it was assumed the quest for freedom will die. Things have unfortunately spiralled out of control. After several months in Cameroon’s maximum security prison in Yaounde, Balla was released.
He came out to a completely changed struggle for freedom. The Consortium was no more, and in its place, were several groups, all claiming to be fighting for independence, yet not united in purpose, in any shape or form. Balla soon became a victim of the derailled struggle, as he was branded a ‘sellout’ for daring to continue advocating for the same things he had stood for, before going to jail.
Undaunted and unfazed, Balla forged ahead, working in his capacity as a Human Rights Barrister and under the auspices of The Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa, to continue to challenge the gross violations of human rights perpertuated against the people of Anglophone Cameroon by the Biya regime.
It therefore did not come as a surprise that on receiving the prestigious Mandela Memorial award, Balla dedicated it to the Southern Cameroons struggle. Below is his full acceptance speech.
Your Excellencies, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a source of great pride to be present at this event and to receive the Nelson Mandela Memorial Award from Nkafu Policy Institute. We are deeply honoured to receive an award which incarnates the values that President Nelson Mandela stood for.
We accept this award at a moment when 8 million Southern Cameroonians are engaged in a struggle to end the long years of marginalisation, oppression, human rights abuses and assimilation. We accept this award on behalf of a movement to establish freedoms, rule of law, good governance and recognition of a people with a unique culture, history and system within the diversity of a bicultural, bilingual and bijural nation.
I am mindful that only yesterday civil disobedience swept over South West and North West, and as of yesterday we have 50,000 Southern Cameroonian refugees in Nigeria, 200,000 internally displaced people living in the rainforests of Meme, Ndian, Momo and other divisions, we have 1500 Southern Cameroonians in maximum security prisons in Yaounde, Buea, Bamenda and Douala. I am mindful that 78 villages have been burnt down, over 50 schools burnt down, dozens of administrative buildings burnt or destroyed, more than 3000 civilians have died, over 150 soldiers have been killed, several chiefs and civilians kidnapped and daily fighting between armed groups and government soldiers.
Therefore, I must ask myself why this prize is awarded to a movement of people who were called terrorists, to a struggle that has not won the freedoms, justice and recognition it is fighting for.
After much reflection, I conclude that this award I receive on behalf of the Southern Cameroons struggle is a sincere recognition that nonviolent resistance is the answer to fight against marginalisation, violence and oppression. I reject the notion that a nation must spiral down towards yearlong armed conflict with human and material casualties before leaders sit down to talk to each other.
Accepting this award is accepting a pledge to continue till we overcome and in the words of Mandela, “We pledge ourselves to liberate all our people from the continuing bondage of poverty, deprivation, suffering, gender and other discrimination.”
I will like to dedicate this award to the people of Southern Cameroons, the girls and women living in refugee camps, shelters and forests, children prevented from pursuing education, the unjustly detained, hundreds in exile hiding from persecution and the amazing lawyers who have dedicated their legal services in defending the rights of those affected.
While we continue resisting oppression, fighting against marginalisation, assimilation and bad governance, the answer doesn’t reside in kidnapping chiefs, civilians or people we disagree with.
The solution is not tribalism or ethnic division. Attacking Anglophone Bamilekes, Bassas, Ewondos or Francophones, goes against the very model of freedoms which we seek. We must end hate speech against North westerners or South westerners for we are one people. To our Francophone brothers, the Southern Cameroons struggle has never been Anglophones versus Francophones, rather it is Southern Cameroonians against the current system of government and institutions which have provided little opportunities for the Anglophones while eroding our culture, system, language and rights. You are not our enemy, you are our ally.
1 Corinthians 16:14 tells us, “Let all that you do be done in love.” Like the grandmother who gave me 2000 FCFA in court while I was facing trial for terrorism at the Yaounde Military Court. Following the example of the young boy who met me in a restaurant, took my phone number and surprisingly sent me 2000 FCFA airtime. That is love without boundaries and if we love each other hate will have no place in our society.
I congratulate my fellow nominees for the work you have done to impact our society and your sense of leadership. May we continue working together for the journey ahead is still long and we will need each other during our various obstacles and successes.
I will like to thank the Fako Lawyers Association for their sacrifices, all Common Law Lawyers for the dedication to defend justice, all Cameroonians from both sides of Mungo including the diaspora who supported the movement and fight against marginalisation and oppression, we recognize your sacrifices and support as we ask you to continue for us to arrive the finish line. To all organisations, supporters and citizens of the world who continue advocating for us, we are very grateful for your voices. Thank you, to my family, friends and to the brilliant staff of Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa, you sacrificed your time, families and lives to advance the work we have done so far. To all with views different from ours, we hear you and we hope to work together on issues of common interest to advance democracy and peaceful coexistence.
The Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa has provided a clear view of the human rights, socio-political and economic implications of the Anglophone crisis during consultations and recommendations to our local, regional and international partners, diplomats, world superpowers and belligerents of the crisis. It is in our best interest to see a quick end to the conflict through meaningful negotiations and for this to happen we need a ceasefire and measures in place for confidence building on both sides. As Mandela said, “Negotiation and discussion are the greatest weapons we have for promoting peace and development.” I think Madiba will know what I mean when I say that in the spirit of humanity, justice and peace, I accept this award. In the spirit of peace emulated by our people who protested with peace plants despite confrontations with armed soldiers, I humbly accept this award. I believe that we shall overcome.