Leadership and the law
The 25th Anniversary meeting of the Chevening Almuni of Cameroon*, hosted by the British High Commission in Kribi, Cameroon on Saturday 6 September 2008.
It is a great honour to be invited to address the 25th Anniversary meeting of the Chevening Alumni of Cameroon.
I would suggest the foundation stones of any society are to be found in its laws and legal system. Laws are necessary to regulate and peacefully resolve disputes between citizen and citzen and between state and citizen. To safeguard and protect all that we hold to be right and just.
In principle, the law can provide a fair and level platform where every citizen has the opportunity to fulfil his or her potential in a society without fear or favour.
I have spent most of my working life as a community law centre solicitor in the UK and have seen first hand how the law can be used as powerful force for peace and justice.
A means to protect the vulnerable, the weak and the poor.
A means to right wrongs and improve the health and wellbeing of citizens.
A means to strengthen democracy.
For me access to justice is at the very heart of good governance and leadership in society.
Since coming to your beautiful country, Cameroon, I have been struck by the complexity of your legal system. There are many sources of law: French, English, National Law, and the law of tradition and custom. The latter category is particulary complex as it varies between ethnic groups and with 250 different ethnic groups in Cameroon that is a lot of law!
From the lawyers, judges, NGOs and representatives of civil society groups I have spoken to in Cameroon it is clear that customary law can all too often be used to justify violence, discrimination and human rights violations. Yet such violations are generally unlawfully as they are contrary to the National Law.
The challenge for leadership and the law therefore is to recognise that having progressive and just laws is in itself not enough.
The challenge must be to see those progressive laws implemented in practice; to see them playing an active part in the daily life of all citizens.
In the context of Cameroon I appreciate that this challenge is extremely difficult as most citizens have no knowledge of their rights, have not had the benefit of a good education and may be too poor to afford to access the legal system.
Although I have only been in Cameroon for a short time I have travelled across six** of your country's ten provinces and spoken to many people. I have been struck by the goodwill and passionate desire to see the National Law implemented. The project I have been assisting is an attempt to contribute to that desire. The project proposal is ambitious.
To set up the first pilot community law centre in Cameroon - and indeed the first of its kind in Africa.
A local community law centre could work with law enforcement officers and the judiciary to ensure the National Law was implemented and respected in practice. It could work with local communities to raise awareness of practical legal rights. It could work closely with the National Commission for Human Rights and Freedoms, NGOs and other agencies to deliver grassroots change and help identify procedural and substative areas for Government law reform.
Finally, and importantly, it could provide legal advice and representation to vulnerable and marginalised citizens in society in order to protect their rights and improve their lives and the lives of their families.
On my travels I have been received by the Minister Delegate for External and Commonwealth Affairs, Dr Dione Ngute, and the Chairman of the National Commission for Human Rights and Freedoms, Dr Banda. Both were extremely supportive and welcoming of the pilot community law centre proposal. Clearly much hard work has already been undertaken to deliver a human rights agenda. I am heartened and encouraged by the real desire to implement a human rights framework.
I believe that there is a real consensus for change.
An acceptance that change requires mass sensitisation and education.
An acceptance that real change requires the implementation of National Law at a grassroots level; and a willingness to see this happen in practice.
Leadership through the law has the potential to bring about a seismic shift in the wellbeing and prosperity of the vulnerable and poor in society.
Where there is a will, there is a way. I believe there is a will and so the challenge is to deliver the way. And that way is the way forward.
* The Chevening programme is run by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office across the developing world to identify the best and brightest of potential leaders and decision-makers in countries, to provide Chevening Fellows and Scholars with financial support to undertake vocational and postgraduate training in the UK, to assist good governance and development which can benefit their country and to foster good relations with would be leaders and the UK.
** Centre Province, Littoral Province, West Province, Northwest Province, Southwest Province and South Province; visiting the cities of Younde, Bamenda, Kumbo, Chang, Limbe, and Kribi.