Felix Agbor Nkongho, a human rights lawyer in Cameroon, takes FORBES AFRICA through the award-winning work he has done in Africa and beyond.
Felix Agbor Nkongho, a human rights lawyer in Cameroon, didn’t apply for the Robert F Kennedy Human Rights Award. But his efforts towards access to justice, promotion of democracy, and path of non-violence were recognized in June, when he won the award alongside fellow Cameroonian Maximilienne C. Ngo Mbe.
This year’s recipients were activists who embody the civil society’s efforts from both the Anglophone and Francophone regions of the country.
Activism is in Nkongho’s genes. His father was part of a trade union movement in Cameroon and was locally known as a ‘pocket lawyer’; someone who did not go to law school, but knew enough to speak for others’ rights. And his dad would buy him newspapers that he would diligently read.
The society Nkongho was exposed to pushed him towards law because he felt it was the best course to help him articulate the problems people faced.
“As a minority, I grew up in an underprivileged part of Buea. So when I saw suffering, and I saw violations, a lot of them pushed me into reading law, but not only reading law, but also in developing an interest in human rights, because my father used to recount details of lawyers who defended people, not for money, but for [their] beliefs.”
His time as a legal officer at the International Criminal Court in Sierra Leone made him look at life differently.
A self-confirmed pacifist, he insisted on non-violent and peaceful means of bringing change because he had seen the horrors of conflict.
After working in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where he was with the UN police as a legal officer, he built working relationships across the board. As a legal officer for the UN in Afghanistan, he saw what extremism could do to people, and that experience furthered his knowledge of the workability of international organizations.
Being seen as a leader by some of the Anglophone cause, they don’t understand why he speaks out against any violation, regardless of the perpetrator.
“So we need to differentiate the partisan person who is leader of a movement, and a human rights leader. And when you have friends or colleagues all over the world who look upon you, how would they react when you are encouraging human rights violations for one party, and at the same time condemning it for another?”
“And it is not just about my country. If we say we’re living in a global village, then the standards are supposed to be in a way, kind of universal,” he adds.
When Nkhongo and other African students were doing their graduate program in human rights law at the University of Notre Dame in the United States, they felt the need for a continental organization that could promote human rights.
As a result, Nkongho founded the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa (CHRDA) in Cameroon, while working in Sierra Leone.
“It was difficult because between 2004 and 2017, we didn’t have any funding. We had $500…So it was hard. I had a paycheck, so I was using it to run the office.”
He would come to Cameroon to train interns and volunteers. When the crisis began in Cameroon in 2017, the office had to shut down for a while as the employees were scared of reprisal.
The biggest challenge the CHRDA faces, he says, is the rising numbers of disabled citizens, and criticism by both sides of the conflict as they publish impartial human rights reports, condemning government and non-state actors.
He taught students human rights law before being fired from the University of Buea. Now, former students work for him.
In 2017, Nkongho was arrested. He was blindfolded, cuffed and taken to Kondengui Prison in Yaoundé, Cameroon. He was charged with serious offenses, punishable by death.
“I am mentally someone who is very strong. That’s why I could go to Afghanistan, to the DRC, and go back,” he says of how he handled incarceration. “I could cope because I believed that I was fighting for my people.”
He vowed to never let his jailers see him suffer. He would always smile, wear his suit, play football, and crack jokes.
After nine months in jail, Nkongho continued to advocate for non-violent change. Through CHRDA, he has proposed humanitarian and political solutions to the Anglophone crisis, to avoid civil war.
The British High Commission (BHC) in Yaoundé worked with CHRDA on multiple projects. Recently, Nkongho’s team completed a six-month project which “cast considerable light on the human rights situation, focused on the two English speaking regions of Cameroon”, says Dr Christian Dennys-McClure, British High Commissioner to the Republic of Cameroon.
Additionally, BHC along with CHRDA have co-implemented a human rights defender training project with participants from across the country. During 2021, CHRDA led a capacity building program on Women, Peace and Security in Cameroon with the objective of improving the meaningful participation of women peace builders in the peace-building process.
“Felix is an important member of a vibrant civil society here in Cameroon. His legal background, and his role at the start of the Anglophone crisis gives him a unique insight into the conflict and into the state of human rights in Cameroon. He is among the foremost defenders of human rights in Cameroon,” Dennys-McClure adds.
“I feel good that the work I’ve been doing with my organization has been recognized, it gives hope to others also, that when you are resilient, when you believe in what you’re doing, in spite of all the trials and tribulations… it gives hope to others, when you are balanced, when you are impartial, when you look at human rights for all the parties in a conflict – someday you might get recognition.”
He says winning the award has emboldened him to do more, to continue doing what he thinks is right and to always stand up against injustice, irrespective of who is being oppressed.
“When I got news of the award, I was staring at portraits of my late parents and crying tears of joy. This is the best gift I could ever offer them, and I am sure they will be celebrating in heaven,” said Nkongho in a press release.
“I am truly honored, and I sincerely thank Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights for considering me worthy of this award. It is dedicated to all those who advocate for the promotion and protection of human rights, to all the human rights defenders who continue to put their lives and liberty on the line to fight against injustice.”