27, May 2020
The dismissal of a university law lecturer and human rights defender who set an examination question considered by the Cameroon government to be ‘seditious’ has been widely criticised by a number of the country’s academics.
Dr Nkongho Felix Agbor Balla, formerly a lecturer in the faculty of law at the University of Buea, an English-speaking university in a predominantly French-speaking region, was suspended by his university following a complaint by the Minister of Higher Education Professor Jacques Fame Ndongo to the university’s vice-chancellor, Professor Ngomo Horace Manga, about a question he set in a law paper.
The examination question causing the offence was: “The Anglophone Crisis since 2016 was caused by the lawyers’ and teachers’ strike. Assess the validity of this statement.”
Agbor Balla, who is also head of the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa, was given 24 hours to appear before a university panel on 5 May to explain why disciplinary action should not be taken against him for including such a question in the paper and breaching the university’s code of ethics.
Agbor Balla told the university he was ready to appear before the panel despite the short notice on condition he first appeared before a preliminary sub-committee – in accordance with the laws of the university. However, that request was rejected and he was summarily dismissed the following day for ‘insubordination’.
According to Human Rights Watch, Agbor Balla was arrested in January 2017 for leading peaceful protests in Buea along with other Anglophone activists. Charged by a military court under the anti-terrorism law, he was released in August 2017 and the charges were dropped.
In an exclusive interview with University World News, Agbor Balla said he was determined to make use of legal options to obtain redress for what he called the illegal termination of his appointment.
University World News can report that a question similar to that posed by Agbor Balla was set by a professor of law at the University of Yaoundé II – a Francophone university – in an examination conducted by the faculty of laws and political science in January. A copy of the paper has been seen by University World News. The question was: “The Anglophone problem in its new development since 2016: Is it nationalism or ethnicity? Discuss.”
Despite the similarity of the questions, no action was taken against the Yaoundé II lecturer, leading many university teachers and observers of university affairs to claim a case of double standards on the part of the minister of higher education who was himself once a lecturer in a Cameroonian university.
According to commentator John Menkefor, based in Bamenda, the incident has “all the hallmarks of the Anglophone-Francophone divide in Cameroon”.
In an interview on Zenger, Menkefor said the minister’s failure to take action in similar cases suggests that “the two parts are held to two different standards, defined by unspecified political considerations. These considerations can be partly conceived and used as instruments of political control of Anglophones.”
According to a Human Rights Watch report, a Ministry of Higher Education representative told Radio France Internationale that Agbor Balla had “turned a classroom into a political space”.
Interviewed by Zenger, Registrar of the University of Buea Professor Ernest Lytia Molua is reported to have said that Agbor Balla’s “invitation” to a disciplinary panel “was a privilege Buea University accorded him on humanitarian grounds, since he had run out of contract”.
“The University of Buea extended to him a verbal gentlemanly collaboration, which he has finally abused by intoxicating 17- and 18-year-old students on his political showmanship,” Molua is reported to have said.
In an exclusive interview with University World News, Willy Nze Ngwa, a professor in the Institute of Peace and Conflict Resolution at the University of Yaoundé I, said the incident exposed the “hidden hand of political intimidation, another manifestation of Anglophone marginalisation in Cameroon”.
He said there was nothing offensive in the set question. “The topic set by Agbor Balla is topical and should be encouraged to open debates aimed at rolling back the conflict. If the question is offensive, then all those other lecturers should be sanctioned,” he said.
On the prospects for a peaceful resolution of the current conflict in Anglophone Cameroon, he said: “Peace is an empty slogan if not weaved around social justice. Peace is the consequence of concrete actions aimed at rolling back conflict. The Anglophone Crisis could be resolved by publicly acknowledging the existence of marginalisation and by tackling the root causes of the crisis, engaging in frank dialogue, free from emotions and obsessions… [It requires the country] to genuinely correct future marginalisation through legislative dispositions and, of course, conduct a referendum to determine what the people really want.”
The dismissal of Agbor Balla has drawn widespread criticism. By 15 May, 65 national, regional and international civil society organisations had reportedly added their names to a petition to have him reinstated.
And even Francophone intellectuals have come out to openly condemn the actions of the minister and the university.
In a widely circulated open letter titled “Affaire Agbor Balla”, addressed to the minister, Professor Ambroise Kom, internationally renowned post-independence literary critic and former teacher of African literature at the University of Yaoundé I, accused the minister, once a university colleague, of not doing enough to protect the country’s university system from external interference in the domestic affairs of tertiary institutions.
Kom, also a co-founder of a private Francophone university, Universite des Montagnes, reminded the minister of what he described as his unjustified harassment by security agencies when his examination questions were sent by university authorities for scrutiny to the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
He recalled that Dr Issidor Noumba, a member of the economics department at the University of Yaoundé I, had also been dismissed from the university because one of the examination questions he set was interpreted as a question which could threaten the peace and security of Cameroon.
“Thus the dismissal of Dr Agbor Balla is an integral part of a tradition of academic repression undertaken by the government via university authorities,” he wrote.
In another open letter to the minister, Dr Ludovic Lado, a former senior lecturer in the faculty of social sciences and management at the Catholic University of Central Africa, Yaoundé, criticised the method used to terminate the appointment of Agbor Balla.
“You did not allow due process to follow its full course before forcing the hands of the vice-chancellor to get rid of him,” he wrote.
Ludovic Lado took issue with the reasons given by the vice-chancellor in an interview with a local tabloid, The Sun, in which he accused Agbor Balla of setting an examination question which was biased and partisan in nature.
Reminding the minister and the vice-chancellor to allow for the full implementation of academic freedom, Ludovic Lado urged the university authorities to reinstate Agbor Balla to his post.
Culled from University World News