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Leading African Lawyer Wants Human Rights Culture for his Home Continent

One of the most respected legal minds in West Africa has called for human rights to be at the center of African development. Cameroon’s Duga Titanji – a highly respected barrister and solicitor – is a member of the Human Rights Commission of the Cameroon Bar Association. He’s also presently a fellow at one of the world’s leading academic institutions – Yale University in the United States. Titanji has focused international attention upon various legal controversies in Africa, such as the violation of the rights of girls, and securing dignity for the continent’s homosexuals. In the second part of a series on African fellows at Yale, VOA’s Darren Taylor reports on Titanji’s revolutionary human rights work.

Titanji is quick to emphasize that his was a happy childhood, and that he never lacked for anything when growing up at Kumba in Cameroon.

“I would describe my family as a middle-class family. I had a comfortable education; I was educated in one of the best secondary schools in Cameroon…. My childhood wasn’t full of negative events, as such. And I kind of want to think that most of dreams were accomplished,” the lawyer says.

But, in describing his relatively privileged childhood, Titanji maintains: “I’m not saying by that that poverty was not real to me when I was growing up. Poverty is all around you in Cameroon, as it is in most African countries…. and it influenced me deeply.”

He recalls that one of his earliest desires was to “go against the flow” of family history, and to express himself as a non-conformist.

“I come from a family where most of the members are in the science field. I had ideas of not wanting to do what everybody (else) does,” Titanji chuckles.

After completing his schooling, he progressed to the University of Yaounde, where he excelled as a law student.

“I didn’t think of becoming an advocate. My choice of law wasn’t so much a question of practicing law as it was of using it as a stepping stone to some other profession,” he acknowledges.

But then, unbeknownst to him at the time, Titanji’s true calling came knocking…. He received a scholarship to study at the University of London. The opportunity, however, he reflects, “came with a caveat: I had to do a course in either international protection of human rights, or environmental law. And I chose human rights. I was compelled to make this choice.”

Up until this point, Titanji confesses that his main drive had always been to use his law education for one central purpose: “making money.” But, slowly but surely his love for human rights law began to grow.

“The education I got in studying human rights has opened several new horizons for me. And it has changed my world-view: The world is not all about making money for yourself, but you can always make contributions in changing lives, and changing policies,” he says.

These days he’s caught up in a sometimes bitter battle to improve human rights in his homeland. Yet he emphasizes that he doesn’t want to “single out” Cameroon, because human rights abuses occur “almost everywhere. And even in the most civilized of nations, we do have instances of human rights atrocities. I do not want to point fingers at anybody, but it’s regrettable that…. you still find people who think human beings can be treated worse than animals.”

Titanji has in recent years handled numerous cases, but says he remains focused on instances of child abuse and, specifically, violations of the rights of girls.

He points out that many African countries – including Cameroon – have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child - but are failing to implement the treaties’ key recommendations.

“Where there is an opportunity for one child to be educated in a family – because the resources of that family are limited – the priority is given to the male child. So we’re advocating that equal priority should be given to both the male and the female child in terms of education.”

Titanji has been striving to bring before Cameroon’s courts cases where girls have been deprived of their basic right to education. Should he eventually succeed in getting just one case to court, he says he’d help to create a legal precedent - not only in Cameroon, but also in Africa and the world, and that this would have “major repercussions” on education systems and societies throughout Africa.

The lawyer’s clearly not afraid of controversy. Last year he caused an uproar in Cameroon when he defended 11 young men charged with what the authorities described as “homosexual acts.”

“Like many African countries, Cameroon has sodomy laws. The Cameroon penal code has provisions for the punishment of acts of homosexuality. You cannot practice homosexuality in Cameroon, without being under threat of the law,” Titanji explains.

“These 11 persons were arrested and detained for more than 11 months (before they were released without charge). That’s how I got into the case. Initially, it wasn’t for me to defend them on their rights to being homosexuals, but it was a question of due process: You cannot detain people for 11 months without bringing them to trial. So it started off as a suit for habeas corpus. As it went along, the matter had to come up into full hearing….”

Titanji says the case resulted in a lot of “negative fallout,” and the effects are still being felt in West Africa.

“The government still argues that homosexuality is against African culture…. If you take up a case like this, in the eyes of the public, they think you’re encouraging a practice they perceive to be erosive of their culture.”

Titanji says the case taught him a lot about himself, both as a human being and as a lawyer.

“For me to have taken on a case like this, I had to judge between the profession I am doing as a human rights lawyer: do I have to do cases for policy reasons or because of societal conviction? Or (because of) what the society thinks? I had a professional obligation. And as a lawyer, I had decided that I would defend cases to the best of my ability, and in conformity with my professional conscience.”

Following his success in arguing for the young men’s release from detention, Titanji says he’s “happy” that he was able to “make a contribution to humanity, and to the rights of individuals – regardless of their sexual orientations.”

He also recalls fondly his training of independent observers in preparation for Cameroon’s 2004 elections.

“What became of the recommendations we made after the elections is something else, but we did what we had to do, and taught the people how to use independent mechanisms to observe presidential elections,” Titanji says.

Although he doesn’t want to highlight any single event in his life as a major achievement, he says being selected as a 2007 Yale World Fellow is an “amazing” experience. Titanji is now recognized by the institution as one of only 106 visionary leaders in various fields throughout the world.

“I don’t want to think I’d call that an accomplishment as such, because someone had to realize the worth I was doing, and then recommended me, nominated me, for the fellowship. I’m happy it happened, and I’m in an environment which is giving me new horizons which I think I can exploit for the betterment of my professional achievements also,” he explains.

“I am now in an elite group which is in a position to take decisions and work towards the betterment of people in our home countries, and around the world.”

Titanji says a realistic outlook forces him to be pessimistic when he considers modern-day Africa. But he’s confident that he soon won’t have as many reasons for skepticism.

“I am looking at the brighter side of Africa. We are in constant evolution. There’s a lot of talk today about China, Brazil, India, as being the future. But I’m also looking at Africa - in the sense that Africa has the resources.”

Titanji appeals to African leaders to put aside their selfishness, divisions and ethnic rivalries. He maintains that Africa will thrive if the continent’s “human resources can be put together to work for the interests of the continent…. If African nations can actually come together and work as a united continent, I think there’s a lot that will be achieved.”