In one of his most celebrated quotes, the English poet John Donne writes, “Everyman’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind”. Without taking away anything from the sense behind this quotation, I’ll borrow from George Orwell and rephrase it to read “Everyman’s death diminishes me but some diminish me more than others”. Yes, the passing on of Barrister Bernard Acho Muna, a multi-dimensional colossus diminishes me to great dept because he was a great man. Great men, when they bow out, leave behind a legacy of strong, transformative and positive impact, not only on the lives of their loved ones but equally on their community at large. Today I pay homage to a departing great man, a legal icon, a legal leviathan, and a father who by his deeds and works has left positive imprints in my life and the Cameroon legal fraternity in general.
I first met Pa Ben at the premises of Saker Baptist College sometime in the early 1990s. Like me, he was there to attend the crowd-pulling annual Saker graduation ceremony of yesteryears. To meet this legal giant in person was simply awesome. One or two years earlier, he had captured the imagination of the nation by harnessing the Cameroon lawyer community towards the defense of one of theirs- Yondo Mandengue Black. Pa Ben as incumbent Batonier personally set the tone for what would become the greatest show of solidarity by the Cameroon Bar by convening an extraordinary General Assembly of the Bar Association in Douala on the 27th of February 1990. The sole agenda of that gathering was the impending trial of Yondo Black’. Exhibiting admirable oratory Pa Ben galvanized the assembly of lawyers in these words:
“I am convinced that the time has come for lawyers to take a stance…we are not behind bars but we are prisoners of our fear…Barrister Yondo may be behind bars, but here we are, the real prisoners, tiptoeing in other not to awaken our conscience…I call on the Cameroonian bar to express in one clear voice, the problems of human rights in our country…”.
As a law student at the then University of Yaounde, I followed the Yondo Black trial as it ran its course with Pa Ben as the leader of the defense team. I was not alone in this regard. Amazed by the solidarity and show of force by the bar, many of my law classmates instantly made up their minds to join the wig and gown profession when the time came.
Pa Ben would rekindle memories of the Yondo Black trial in the wake of the ongoing Anglophone crisis when he was seen at the vanguard of the defense team of members of the Cameroon Civil Society Consortium leaders at the Yaoundé military tribunal. For that trial, Pa Ben led a pro-bono defense team that included over six past Batonniers and the incumbent. This was unprecedented. Never before in the history of the Cameroon Bar had so many former Batonniers jointly held brief. There is no gainsaying that this communion of great legal minds was thanks to Pa Ben’s networking, rallying, and leadership skills and abilities. Added all to these, he was a good team player.
I know senior colleagues who proudly say that “you were their Batonnier”. I will go further to say you were the Batonnier of Batonniers! The Peoples’ Batonnier! In the words of the renowned President of the International Criminal Law Bar Association; Chief Charles Taku, you were a legal Colossus.
Yes, Pa Ben was a true crusader for justice and human rights. He stood for the truth and served genuinely and selflessly whenever fundamental human rights were threatened. He was and will remain a source of inspiration to the Cameroon legal family, to politicians, and to freedom fighters. He defended the rule of law against tyranny with passion. Abhorring violations of the right to freedom of expression and association, he defended civil liberties with all his might. I consider the life of Pa Ben as a powerful lesson for young men and women within the community of legal practitioners. I encourage them to follow his footsteps so as to bring out the best in legal practice. The passing to glory of Pa Ben is a great loss to many lawyers and freedom fighters within the national and international community.
Yes, Pa Ben’s fight against injustice, arbitrary and illegal detention and for the respect of human rights and rule of law puts him in the pantheon of the all-time greats of African lawyers, a rare group, which includes the venerated Nigerian advocate of the Masses, Chief Gani Fawehinmi and his “successor-in-title”, Femi Falana.
I am pleased to have known him in the early phase of my career. Pa Ben inspired me throughout my career as a lawyer, a human rights activist and a freedom fighter. The impact of Pa Ben is of great importance to my career. Over time we developed a relationship of mutual respect and admiration. This relationship took a different turn around 2015 when we started the Common Law Lawyers Conference. I remember how we used to have meetings in my office with Pa Ben and other Civil Society Organization leaders. I equally remember how I pleaded with members of the Common Law Lawyers Conference to allow him to speak. Some of the members were very hesitant but when Pa Ben spoke during the conference, there was no need for anybody to speak again. He was a great public speaker and communicator.
Our relationship got intimate with the creation of the now-banned Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium. The mandate of this consortium was to fight for freedom, justice and an end to the marginalization of Southern Cameroonians by the government.
Pa Ben was very respectful and committed to serving humanity and fighting against injustice. Pa Ben was always around me to make sure that I am on the right track. Whenever Pa Ben was in Buea, he always called me to advise me. I remember the times you came to Buea and invited me for prayers.
When I was arrested, I called the Muna and Muna Chambers and unfortunately, Pa Ben was not there. Batonnier Akere Muna called back and told me to wait for Pa Ben who later played a supportive role during my travails in Yaounde. During my stay in prison, you were there all the way from the Secrétariat d’État à la Defense (SED) to the Yaounde Principal Prison in Kondengui and from the Military Tribunal to Kondengui, to ensure my freedom from the Maximum Security Prison.
You comforted me for the close to eight and a half months that I spent in Kondengui. You visited me almost on a daily basis and made sure I had food for my first four months in prison. In prison, you would visit me and discuss all strategies with me and even at odd hours just to help me build up my morale. He was a very selfless man. I remember the efforts you made for me to be able to attend my father’s funeral although it was still not possible for me to go.
I will always treasure the moments’ Barristers Claude Asira, Simh Emmanuel, Yoland Ngo, Dorcas Ngongme and myself spent with you at your Bastos residence. The stories, jokes, and advice; it was truly enriching and also fun to visit and share a drink with you.
Yes, Pa Ben, your life vividly reflected the words of the Nobel prize-winning Nigerian writer, Wole Soyinka who states in his prison notes that: “the man dies in all who keep silent in the face of tyranny”.
Yes, Pa Ben, you never kept quiet in the face of tyranny and dictatorship against the people. You always spoke your mind with a glaring example in your statement during aforementioned Bar Assembly in Douala to discuss the arrest and detention of Batonnier Yondo.
“Let us suppose that the 10 detainees actually held clandestine meetings, distributed tracts criticizing the government, etc., etc. Then the question one must ask is why should they have to resort to holding their meetings in a clandestine fashion and to criticize the government with anonymous tracts when the right to hold meetings and to form associations is guaranteed in our constitution, as well as in the international Charter of Human Rights and in the African Charter…..The response to this question is simple: in Cameroon during the last 25 years, citizens who have dared to exercise their rights have been arrested, tortured and detained.”
This statement 20 years ago, still holds true in 2019 in Cameroon wherein peaceful protesters are tortured, arrested and detained.
Unfortunately, your time ordained by Divinity on earth is up and you have to quit the stage. This brings to mind this quotation from Shakespeare says in his drama piece, “As you like it”, “The world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players, they have their exits and their entrances; one man in his time plays many parts”.
Yes, Pa Ben, as a multi-dimensional colossus, you played many parts in the drama of life, a father, lawyer, activist, human rights crusader and voice of the oppressed, marginalized and suppressed. Rest assured, you are quitting the stage as a hero. You stood tall, not only in your height but also in your deeds.
Pa Ben, your passing to glory is a great loss to me, lawyers and freedom fighters within the national and international community. You left your footprints on the sands of time. You will forever remain in our hearts.
May you Rest in Peace
Adieu, Pa Ben.