CONGEH’s Chairwoman Appointed to the Supreme Court

I hoped she would enjoy her gift, a traditional bowl of bowls made from local woods that I had picked out with the assistance of one of her close relatives. The occasion was significant and celebratory: Julienne Ayissi, the Court of Appeal justice who, on a parallel career track, acts as figurehead and chairperson of the CONGEH, was to be sworn in as a Councilor of the Supreme Court of Cameroon.

In broad strokes, the Supreme Court of Cameroon acts as the final appellate court in penal, administrative and civil matters. It also provides the final say for disputes governed by the state-recognized customary law.  The Supreme Court has also assumed jurisdiction over constitutional matters while President Biya and accomplices lag to establish the Constitutional Court envisioned in the Constitution.

Her house was hard to find. Towards the back end of a messy web of warped and deep-ridged mud roads – the kind that evidence the “informality” of the local housing – we would finally find a gated cement lot. Lawn chairs were being unloaded by the dozen, groups of women worked around mountains of fresh vegetables, while Mme Ayissi herself rushes to and fro, preparing herself for a meeting. “Everybody has taken this so seriously, I find it overwhelming,” she tells me, “It is not that big of a deal”. Her exasperation might have been expected. It is rumored that she has had to take out a loan to pay for all the gas consumed in traveling between preparatory meetings, where members of the judiciary, State officials, family members and even some village authorities have stressed the importance of her new position and of the values she should embody in her work at the country’s highest tribunal.

And, in spite of her humility, the appointment is significant. Ayissi is attentive to the needs and concerns of the landless and the vulnerable, particularly women infected or affected by HIV/AIDS. That kind of alignment is useful in a Court that has been known to have its way with the law, so to speak. In matters of family property and succession law, for instance, the Supreme Court has been known to ignore core, explicit Codal articles and to fabricate new rules or regimes un-tethered to either the Code’s provisions or to its evident philosophy. This assumed judicial liberty might well be rooted in a dissatisfaction with the Civil Code, which is, for most intents and purposes, the French Code Civile as it existed in 1960. It was originally adopted as a temporary, “gap filling” measure to hold the country over until the competent government bodies could enact a law proper to Cameroon. Some speculate that, in light of persistent legislative inaction, the Cameroonian judiciary has taken upon itself the task of adapting inherited foreign legal notions to local realities and philosophies. In any event, this assumed liberty makes the identity of the members of the Supreme Court all the more important.

After an official State ceremony oversaw the swearing in of all sitting magistrates, Ayissi was treated to two receptions, one for members of the legal community and another for family, neighbours and residents of Bana, her native community. Residents of Bana would impress upon her how she now represents Bana, and the Bamileke more generally, at the national stage. Her family would celebrate the success of one of their own, evidently satisfied with the kind of family status that will follow her appointment. Members of the CONGEH, also present, have reason to be excited as well. “She could one day become Minister of Justice!” says an elated colleague. For now, CONGEH stands to look more credible with a member of the Supreme Court at its helm, and can look to Ayissi’s appointment as a vindication of its philosophy and approach to development.

Her appointment does speak volumes of the relationship CONGEH has fostered with the Cameroonian government. Paul Biya would certainly not have seen a critic appointed to the country’s highest judicial body. But the CONGEH that I have been exposed to seeks more to assist the Government, and considers many elected representatives and government missives as partners. Colleagues of mine are proud that government officials have expressed a certain reliance on the contributions made by the CONGEH. Liaisons with government ministries in turn lend the organization some credibility. Moreover, having the attention of certain politically significant individuals allows the CONGEH to engage in more effective – and therefore more fund-worthy – advocacy work. No doubt, there are pervasive costs associated with aligning an NGO with a central African government. So it is a strange kind of accomplishment that, while some of the other human rights interns have served advocates that have been targeted by anxious governments, loathing dissent, CONGEH’s leading advocate was just promoted.

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