Cameroon: Michèle Ndoki, a symbol of political hope, faces death penalty

Michèle Ndoki
Opposition activist Michèle Ndoki has been imprisoned in Yaoundé’s main prison since February 2019. Screenshot/YouTube/France24

Sentenced to six months in prison for taking part in a banned demonstration, lawyer and activist Michèle Ndoki of the opposition Mouvement pour la Renaissance du Cameroun (MRC) faces the death penalty in other cases.

Aboard the black Toyota Prado, which is driving her to the Nigerian border on February 26, Michèle Ndoki is taking every precaution to leave the country in complete discretion. Her companion, who remains her only intermediary with the rest of the world, does the same by turning off his phone, after briefly answering a few phone calls.

The lawyer has felt in danger since she was shot three times in the thigh on the sidelines of an MRC demonstration. For nearly a month, she lived as a recluse in her residence in Limbe. Tired of this situation, she is counting on this journey to make herself safe.

But the journey will be short. Although wearing a long loincloth dress and a large scarf almost covering her face, the officials at the Ekok border crossing have no difficulty in recognizing the person who has just distinguished herself, through her advocacy, as the star of the post-election hearings.

The arresting officer does not have an arrest warrant, he presents her with a “list of political activists banned from leaving the territory” on which her name appears. The lawyer protests, even though she knows she won’t be able to make him see reason.

On the same day, she was transferred to Yaoundé and then incarcerated some time later in the main prison of Kondengui.

The news of Michèle Ndoki’s arrest caused a shock wave across the public sphere.

Condemnation and support arrive from all sides. Civil society organizations denounce an “arbitrary arrest”, the national bar association calls for her “immediate release”, the economist Célestin Monga salutes her “courage”… An improbable fate for the woman who was unknown in Cameroon’s political sphere two years ago – despite years of activism.

Beginnings in the business community

Far from the political arena, it was to the business community that the young lawyer turned when she returned to Cameroon in 1997.

Michèle Ndoki had just graduated in law with a specialization in business law from the University of Reims. In the same year, she joined the law firm Ngwe & Associés of the famous lawyer Marie-Andrée Ngwe, as a lawyer in consulting and corporate law.

Her former colleagues describe a “hard worker”, “passionate about law”. She left Ngwe & Associés five years after joining it, to embark on a career as an independent consultant.

This choice led her to work in several multinationals as a legal manager. From 2006 to 2012, her journey takes her through telecoms giant Orange, the Diageo Group (owner of the Guinness brand), Sanofi Laboratories and Gicam respectively.

Her career is dazzling, but the call of the bar is even more so. “She always wanted to be a lawyer. But when she returned to Cameroon, she felt that the judicial system was very inefficient and that it was difficult to defend clients in such a context,” confided one of her relatives.

In 2014, Michèle Ndoki is working to return to the law by successfully passing the internship access exam. The following year, she won the French-speaking advocacy contest against the death penalty, organized by the collective Ensemble contre la peine de mort (ECPM).

From homosexual rights to human rights

During this competition, the trainee lawyer recounts the murder committed by Jacques Dubuisson of his wife Marie-Thérèse Ngo Badjeck, ‘adopting’ the guise of their 11-year-old son, a witness to the facts.

The case, which dates back to 2011, had made a lot of noise in Cameroon. Michèle Ndoki’s work does not go unnoticed. Alice Kom, the first woman admitted to the Cameroonian Bar and a pioneer in the defence of homosexual rights, is impressed.

She contacted her and offered to put her talent at the service of civil society. Michèle Ndoki is “thirsty for the challenge”, she doesn’t ask for anything.

She is seen alongside Alice Kom in the activities of the Association for the Defence of Homosexual Rights (Adefho), or even in the interior of the country on behalf of Freedom Generation, an association for the defence of freedoms and human rights of which she is the co-founder.

Her ideals bring her closer to lawyers Emmanuel Simh, Christopher Ndong and Désiré Sikati, who wish to bring her into the ranks of the MRC. They are not the first to do so. In July 2013, the opponent Maurice Kamto, leader of the party, offered her a job.

Political commitment

At that time, the MRC was accused of being a party composed solely of the Bamilékés (the ethnic group of Maurice Kamto) and it wanted to diversify the sociological composition of its cadres.

With a brief stint at Garga Haman Adji’s Alliance for Democracy and Development (ADD), and two years of activism in Edith Kah Walla’s Cameroon’s people party (CPP), Michèle Ndoki’s profile is compelling.

The daughter of the former deputy mayor CPDM of Douala 1st district, Michèle Ndoki, wants to get involved at the local level, and seeks to have her project supported by a credible political party.

The political calculation is done, the marriage with the MRC takes place in December 2016. “The passion with which he[Maurice Kamto] spoke about his vision for our beautiful country touched my heart,” she explained on that occasion.

But beyond the speech, Michèle Ndoki mainly obtains the assurance of being invested by the MRC as a candidate to be a member of parliament.

Maurice Kamto trusted her. Michèle Ndoki is now everywhere: She became the departmental head of the MRC in the Douala 1st constituency, then first national vice-president of women of the party.

For the presidential election of October 2018, the MRC candidate appoints her to the pool in charge of his communication. Ndoki initiated the merger between Maurice Kamto and Akere Muna, who were to form a coalition on the eve of the election.

She is also the one who defends the request for partial annulment of the election during the historical post-electoral litigation hearing.

On that day, Michèle Ndoki carried out an exegesis of the electoral code and concluded that the results held by the Constitutional Council were not reliable.

The audience is broadcast live on all local television channels. And even if neither her arguments, nor those of her colleagues in Maurice Kamto’s defence, succeed in convincing the eleven members of the council, Cameroonians on all sides are won over and welcome this commitment, which is rarely seen among the country’s women politicians.

Almost five months after her incarceration, Michèle Ndoki still bears the traces of her political struggles. The scars of the bullets received on 26 January, and the baton blows received during the march of 27 October 2018 in Douala.

From the cell she shares with eight other detainees, the one who had previously refused French nationality is considering contributing to the resolution of the conflict in the English-speaking area.

“It is time to fight to make our nation shine again,” she announced on social networks through her collaborators.

Also accused of “group rebellion”, “hostility against the homeland”, “illegal immigration” and “incitement to insurrection”, she now faces the death penalty.

This article first appeared in Jeune Afrique.

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