On April 20, 2020, the University of Buea suspended and launched disciplinary proceedings against law professor Felix Agbor Nkongho (also known as “Agbor-Balla”), in apparent connection with an exam question related to an ongoing crisis in the country’s Anglophone region. By May 6, the university dismissed Agbor-Balla.
Agbor-Balla, who has taught at the University of Buea since 2015, is also a human rights defender, the founder of the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa, and the president of the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium.
The university’s disciplinary measures appear to be in response to a March 3, 2020 exam that Agbor-Balla and two co-teaching faculty administered for a course titled the Political and Constitutional History of Cameroon. The exam allegedly included a question asking students to assess the following statement: “The Anglophone crisis since 2016 was caused by the lawyers’ and teachers’ strike. Assess the validity of this statement.”
The Anglophone crisis refers to years of ongoing conflict prompted by demonstrations and strikes that began in 2016 and called for, among other things, an end to the use of the French language in educational institutions and courts in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions. Cameroonian state security forces frequently engaged in violent crackdowns on the protests and detained many of the protesters, including Agbor-Balla, a leader in the movement, who was jailed for seven months starting in January 2017. Armed separatists would eventually engage in combat with state military forces. To date, more than three thousand people have reportedly been killed as a result of the crackdown on protests and clashes between separatists and state military forces.
Nearly seven weeks after the exam, on April 20, the university reportedly received a letter from Cameroon’s Minister of Higher Education, who called on the administration to take disciplinary actions against Agbor-Balla for allegedly violating the university’s “code of ethics and conduct.” According to a report by Radio France Internationale, the Minister further stated that Agbor-Balla had “transgressed the closed and apolitical nature of the university.”
The university reportedly responded to the Minister’s letter by suspending Agbor-Balla’s courses and initiating disciplinary proceedings. The university would later summon Agbor-Balla to appear before a disciplinary panel on May 6; however, Agbor-Balla declined to appear, claiming that he was not given adequate time to prepare (reportedly, he was only given twenty-four hours), was not involved in the investigative process leading up to the panel, and was not provided access to the file that the administration had compiled. On May 6, university officials attending the scheduled disciplinary panel ordered Agbor-Balla’s dismissal.
Scholars at Risk is concerned by the suspension and dismissal of a scholar in apparent retaliation for the peaceful exercise of academic freedom — conduct that is protected by international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Cameroon is a party. State and university authorities should refrain from retaliating against academic activity, so long as it is undertaken peacefully and responsibly. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, suspensions and dismissals aimed at restricting or retaliating against academic activity undermine academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and democratic society generally.