By Barrister Ebah Ntoko Justice
In fragile democracies, it is the mission of the Bar Association to promote and enhance the rule of law and the tenets of good governance. Historically, lawyers have been at the vanguard of every struggle for the freedom and emancipation of their people. From Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, to Nelson Mandela, Fidel Castro, Barack Obama and many others all over the world, these prestigious colleagues have set their footsprints in the sand of time for the fight to preserve equality, human rights, and democratic consolidation.
Throughout human history the road to achieving true and stable democracy is fraught with many intricacies; it is a treacherous slope, a minefield of sorts, to be approached with the greatest caution. The fact that it has taken the sweat, blood and tears of many patriots to reclaim our political freedom from absolute authoritarianism is a testament of our tighfisted democratic experience.
As we roll out the drums to celebrate our long fought freedom of expression and association as lawyers, we must pause to reflect on the quality of our democratic experiment and the role of lawyers and the Cameroon Bar in fostering democracy. However, many have observed that Cameroon occupies ambiguous space between democracy and monocracy. No one can deny the fact that since 1990, we have a multiparty electoral system with significant opposition; a free civil society, and considerable ideological divergence.
That notwithstanding, in recent times individual and associational freedoms have come under so much pressure. There are growing concerns about the fairness of our electoral system, or the arenas of political opposition and competition as so constrained and intimidated by the domineering of the incumbent, that it is difficult to call the systems democratic, even in the minimal sense.
This state of affairs is consistent in nascent democracies and developing countries. Lawyers are duty-bound to exercise their profession within such a difficult context. It is a fair assessment to say that we as lawyers in advanced democracies practice within politically stable and economically viable societies with fairly well developed legal systems, their counterparts in developing countries work in a difficult and increasingly unstable environment surfeited by political instability, depressed economies, ethnic and religious tensions, inefficient legal systems, corrupt judiciaries that have been unable to insulate themselves from partisan and ethnic pressures, and by cynical, even distrustful civil society highly ambivalent about involving lawyers in its affairs.
It is trite universal knowledge that liberty can only be preserved through constant monitoring of any form of abuse by authourities holding power in trust for the people. This exposes the critical role of lawyers and the Bar Association as an authourity or power in the consolidation of democracy in Cameroon or in other fragile democracies all over the world.
In the actual socio-political context of Cameroon were there is a predominant feeling of operation, it is the absolute responsibility of the Bar Association and in collaboration with all the lawyers to defend the powerless, safeguard and guarantee the rights of the people under the law, and boldly denounce and unequivocally condemn all forms of degrading and inhuman treatment. It is the primary vocation of the lawyer as an individual or body of lawyers such as the Bar Association in any nation to stand up for oppressed against the oppressor.
The Bar Association is supposed to be the beacon of light that shines through a nation’s darkness; it should stand out as that loud intelligible voice of the voiceless in a bid to restore justice and equality in the face of repression.
In Cameroon under the tutelage of the Bar Association, the legal profession constitutes the most precious receptacle of our fragile democratic experience. However, we can only gain a place of honour and respect within the comity of nations if we cement our democracy on the rule of law. Therefore, the Bar Association has to ensure that as lawyers, our probity must be exemplary, our moral rectitude unchangeable, and the respect of professional etiquette sacrosanct. We must sifter within our ranks those gentlemen of good fortune and adventurers of other sorts, so that we may use our privileged position in society to restitude discipline and sanity into public life.
As lawyers, we must fight hard for democracy to be consolidated because it is only in such a balanced environment where the rule of law thrives, that lawyers can practice their profession without fear or intimidation. It is when the judiciary framework is free and independent that the lawyers excel. As agent of democratic evolution of our societies, lawyers cannot attain such heights of excellence if our environment is fraud with violence and animosity.
Therefore, it is but obvious that various interest groups in our society look upon lawyers and the Bar Association to be at the forefront of every battle to fight and defend our democratic freedoms and liberties.
Although the Cameroon Bar Association has had a rich history of activism in the defense of democracy, with past Batonniers like Barrister Ben Muna, Barrister Sama Francis, Barrister Eta Bessong, Me Yondo Mandengue Black, Barrister Gorji Dinka just to name a few, who were in the forefront of the titanic battle against the regime during the advent of democracy in the early 1990s; however this rich inheritance has seen its influence dwindle dramatically in more recent years.
Many critics have argued that the Bar Association has derailed from its divine mandate as the foremost defender of our democracy, civil rights, and the rule of law. In light of the socio-political tensions hitting country due to the Anglophone crisis since 2016 and the post electoral conflict since 2018, it has been overtly suggested that the Bar Association has consistently maintained a conspiratorial silence in matters affecting the welfare of the people.
Searing critics have opined the Cameroon Bar Association which had previously played a vital role in the political evolution of our country has become a shadow of itself either because its leadership is deeply steeped into partisan politics or it is clueless on how to leverage its influence to its advantage at the national stage.
However, many scholars unanimously agree that for institutional democracy to be successful in Cameroon, and organized, articulate, and more forceful Bar Association must play a concrete role in upholding and protecting human rights and the welfare of citizens. It is agreed that the legacy of the Bar Association as a foremost defender of civil liberties and the bulwark of our nascent democracy has been both glorious and uncertain.
Therefore unless lawyers and the Bar Association seize the bull by the horns once more to restore the glory days of the Bar as the watchtower of fragile democracy, both risk public opprobrium, and irrelevance. This is a faith we can ill afford.
Conclusively, it takes only a courageous, honest, industrious, vigilant, independent and knowledgeable Bar to safeguard and protect the highly fought and earned human rights, freedom and civil liberties.