Clifford Akonteh’s devotion to political justice is evident throughout his life and career. His experience as a barrister in Cameroon allows him to utilize his legal knowledge for peace and human rights advocacy. In addition, his push for democratic transparency has influenced over 40 academic institutions across Africa. Following in his father’s footsteps of civic engagement, Clifford is streamlining Not Too Young to Vote, a campaign that has motivated over 2 million Cameroonian youth in light of political activism via nonviolent tactics. As an active supporter of youth empowerment, Clifford is determined to reach as many young people as he can to help change the face of Africa as a whole. “With the help of YALI, we [desire] to brand this project and maximize its strength across the continent,” he says.
Listen to this YALI Voices podcast to learn more about how Clifford is hoping to encourage free, fair, and safe elections and good governance in Cameroon.
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE
YALI Voices Podcast: CLIFFORD AKONTEH
CLIFFORD AKONTEH: My name is Clifford Niba Akonteh.
♪ Yes we can ♪ ♪ Sure we can ♪ ♪ Change the world ♪
VOICEOVER: Welcome to the YALI Voices Podcast, your home for sharing the best stories from the Young African Leaders Initiative Network. Be sure to subscribe to the YALI Voices podcast and visit yali.state.gov to stay up to date on all things YALI.
Our conversation today is with Clifford Niba Akonteh, a Cameroonian lawyer with over 10 years’ experience advocating for peace and human rights.
Clifford learned about democracy, transparency, and governance at a very young age. The son of a former leader of the National Assembly in Cameroon who was also a proponent of human rights, peace and democracy across Africa, Clifford knows what it means to work and sacrifice for one’s beliefs.
Clifford is now the Central Africa director of the Youth Alliance for Leadership and Development, the national coordinator for the Movement for Democracy, Development and Transparency, and the founder of Cameroon’s Not Too Young to Vote campaign, aimed at mobilizing 2 million young voters in the country.
As we begin, Clifford shares how he found himself as a lawyer and activist.
AKONTEH: I attended the University of Buea, and actually lived my life all around there until now that I have a family. Actually engaged first of all in business, contrary to the views that my parents had for me, because they always wanted me to become a lawyer. But I didn’t think it was the right time, and seeing that my father was a political activist and what he had gone through and all of that, I was a little bit … not by certain happenings, because he got locked up all the time. He was one of those who were fighting for multipartisme in Cameroon through the SDF in the 1990s. He’s actually one of the founders and pushers of the SDF.
And finally so I decided to stay away from the law, to stay away from politics for some while. But business wasn’t going too well. And unfortunately it didn’t go so well for me at the end of the day because of some given injustices that aroused when my employment and certain experiences that really touched my ego and made me to think about the rule of law and think about human rights abuses. And so I saw that my dad was right, and I couldn’t run away from what I think was destiny. So I became pushed by that fact to see that there was a need to really fight for marginalized people.
There are a lot of people that could be marginalized, that could get troubled with the salaries and wouldn’t know the labor code, wouldn’t know how to function in society. And so I got to decide to become a lawyer. After practicing for about three years, but before that I had gone to my dad. My dad actually was a former questor of the National Assembly in Cameroon, and he had this NGO movement with democratic development and transparency, but unfortunately he got a little bit sick and couldn’t continue with it. So I now went to him right before I became a lawyer and told him that it’s now time for me to take over this initiative. I think it’s fabulous. And I think I’m going to rebrand it because we’re not going to concentrate more on older persons. I want to concentrate on the youths. And he was like, “Son, take it along and do what you want to do with it, and just make sure that the dreams that I had, you can make sure that you achieve them for me.”
AKONTEH: So currently I represent the Youth Alliance in Central Africa. Youth Alliance actually exists in 40 African universities and about 26 African countries. And it’s an initiative that was created by ex-Harvard African students, and we have biennial conferences. I was able to host one in Cameroon in 2016, where I brought over 150 young African leaders from all over the world. Some came from Harvard, some came from Oxford. And then we had the rest from all over Africa trying to fit the lines between borders. It was about them harnessing youth potential across borders. So in political spaces, in economic spaces and entrepreneurship, and I love that.
VOICE OVER: Clifford convinced his father to let him take on the Movement for Democracy, Development and Transparency, or MDDT, and rebrand it as a vehicle for engaging with youth and mobilizing young people to peacefully exercise their right to vote. Here he explains why that is so important in the current political climate in Cameroon.
AKONTEH: Especially during this Anglophone crisis, we’re trying to mobilize young people to still be seen, to be patient and actually looking for means to get to change mindsets. So they’re not too young to vote. It’s actually going to be a journey to 2023 and 2025 when we can use this journey to change the mindsets of young people in Cameroon. Young people in Cameroon distrust the political system. They distrust the electoral system, so we have to undertake this journey to change their mindsets, to refrain from violence and engage in democratic processes to drive change. We also promote peaceful coexistence between both sides because Anglophones are made of just of two regions. They need to work with the Francophones — they are made of the eight regions — and coexist, build synergies between them that — so they’re not too young to vote, just get to us, building a platform of more than 2 million young Cameroonians all over the 10 regions of Cameroon and use this platform to be able to mobilize young people. And that’s basically what Not Too Young To Vote is. We have it very close to where I’m actually convinced that it’s actually a route to change for Cameroon. It’s very difficult at this time because we have to create safe spaces to be able to engage young people, or else you wouldn’t have young people come out to be able to risk their lives to run for office. But we have to create safe spaces. With the safe spaces, we can mobilize.
So we are now trying to become innovative. We are trying to brand this project all across Africa, and we are also looking at YALI’s strength, and we’re trying to maximize that strength by trying to brand projects across the continent.
AKONTEH: Voting age in Cameroon is 20. It’s actually 20 years old. And I would think, for example, with the research that we have done, it’s trying to look at the trend of voting over the years, and we discovered that there is a 20 percent gap between registered voters and actual voters. So we are trying to answer the question, why the 20 percent, why the 20 percent? And through our research on the ground, we have found a couple of reasons. The first reason is about voters cards that are being piled up at ELECAM, and young people don’t go to collect them because of change of environment probably. For example, in Buea where I live, people come for university and maybe elections are coming up, for example, in October. And they had already started, let’s say in June, let’s say in January, the cards come out in June, and they’re leaving for their homes. So they abandon their cards.
So we are trying to look for strategies to work with ELECAM to be able to disseminate these electoral cards, because there are thousands and thousands of cards piled up in ELECAM offices. That is one reason for that gap. Another reason for that gap is that there’s lack of awareness. With the Anglophone crisis, for example, it’s obvious that there’s going to be a widened gap. It’s going to be more than the 20 percent, I’m pretty sure about that, because of the 200,000 displaced internally, 50,000 in Nigeria and more. And that was like three months ago. We don’t know the statistics now. So when you displace to the next division or even the next polling station, you cannot vote because your voter’s card is tied to one polling station. So you need to understand that if you’re going on vacation, if you’re going for a weekend, you have to know that you have to plan that beforehand and change your polling station. If you don’t change your polling station and you displace yourself, there’s no way you can vote, and that is just one. And then there’s the other one is just disinterest in the status. People report distrust and they are disinterested in voting, and then you have people also get old, and they don’t want to move. And since there are no vehicles on that day, and they just can’t move, so they stay put. Maybe the polling stations are a little bit far apart. So they really can’t walk to that polling station. So there are a couple of reasons why we have this gap. The majority of the reason is that young people are not interested in voting.
AKONTEH: For the Not Too Young To Vote, which is the main instrument for promoting democracy in Cameroon and engaging young people, we want to see Parliament in  asking at least even if we do worse, we want to see at least 40 percent of Parliament be youth. And so we have to go to — and also make sure 40 percent of the mayors after municipal elections are youth, and also want to see the young people rally together to form their own political party, to have their own political space to interact, because representatives of political party for presidential elections, we don’t have anyone which is maybe below 40 years. So want to encourage young people to get that project. So our messaging, like recent messaging, we want people like Macron, who have, maybe we’ll go back to the past when good presidents took power much younger than those who are going in at 50 years. We try to message it that way. So that is what the Not Too Young To Vote is trying to do.
Also, we also want to change mindsets on violence, because we know that Cameroon is actually a fertile ground for violence in the next future and the warning signals are very clear on the wall. So that’s something that needs to be done. Something needs to be done about electoral violence in Cameroon, especially in the upcoming elections, because the upcoming elections come up just six days or seven days after the separatists and the federalists are going to be wanting to celebrate 1st of October, which is like their independence day.
VOICE OVER: Empowering youth and steering them away from violence is a vital mission of Clifford and the Not Too Young to Vote initiative. We asked him how he communicates with youth in his community about participating peacefully in elections and engaging with their government.
AKONTEH: It is but right for them to be part of decision-making and to create safe spaces that see them as a priority, because they flood the streets without jobs. You know, that’s a call for violence. So you need to make sure that you innovate every day for youths to be engaged even if you can’t offer them jobs. You have to create the safe spaces for them to function easily.
And so you have to bring them in to be able to express themselves and their plight, right from the local level. So it is very important to have the youths nurtured. That is why you have to engage the youth in party politics and democratic processes, to be part of the system. You have to nurture the next generation.
It’s true that maybe some bad practices can be passed over by nurturing, but it’s also very important for us to give them the experience that they need, because most often than not when you’re seeking for jobs, the first thing is that they need experience. So if you don’t get the youth to engage in decision-making, they are not in Parliament. They are not in the Senate by virtue of age. They are not mayors. They are nothing. How do you groom them? They are not ministers. How do you groom them, how do you groom them for the future? It’s very difficult.
It is about the youth, and it’s about bringing in the youth. It is but true that you have to bring energy and wisdom, so you need, you need to create some openings so they will have had a lot of experience to groom them, but also you need quite a lot of young people in decision-making in these places because they have the energy, and you can groom the energy to the right direction. And that is going to be in agreeing them to refrain from violence. Those in the communities can easily communicate, can easily communicate, because communication is a vital issue.
So Not Too Young To Vote and the messaging, we try to coin it around the harm, that violence actually has a cost, because there’s a lot of harm to families, wounds that have been opened with violence, and the perpetrators of such violence actually are living well. Those that instigate this violence are living well, and those that you’re fighting against, like the government, they’re living well, but it’s still the poor people dying every day. Those in the bushes are still the poor people. The refugees are still the poor people, and the 1st of October is coming. So you have to give a message that is sensitive to life and that touches on life and to show them how they’re risking their life and that they’re risking not only their own life. They are risking the life of the poor, and they can die poor without trying to get better. So I mean, that is how we try to coin our messages around. That is why we have a strong message that will say your vote is louder than the gun. So you should concentrate on trying to groom yourselves and form coalitions. We have a strong message that will also tell them that it’s not only about the presidency, it is also about your council and your community. You can come up with a good young leader that can take over your council as mayor and is going to impact you directly because he has his own budget. He can take care of market needs. He can take care of community needs directly. They don’t need the government to do that. All you need is to come together and identify a leader that can do that at the local level. Again, you have a chance to send somebody to Parliament. You can send your own. So you have to come together and choose somebody that you want. So the strategy is to encourage — trust your leaders and encourage them to go to run for election so that they can build confidence within their communities.
And then it’s obvious that time conquers all. Time heals. So you also have to know that change does not come in one day. Change is a journey, and that is why we started the Not Too Young To Vote early enough because we call it a journey to 2023 and 2025, because we know there’s a lot that comes with changing mindsets and convincing young people. And we hope that by that time we’re able to have done better messaging and communicated with all the communities. And also to create youth networks in universities, high schools, communities and human rights organizations, civic education organizations, in high schools and in universities, through which they can mobilize themselves and encourage people to refrain from violence and concentrate on voting. So the number of this organization is that we create that vibrant, also, we can also see them as an indicator to change and mobilizing young people to vote.
Also we always work with ELECAM. Elections Cameroon is our partner. Because within this last election we actually already start 3,000 young people in Buea from communities and universities. Only the Buea University has about 35,000, 25 to 35,000, depending on the year, students, and we can use that arena to get them registered. You can mobilize them so having those groups, those networks and that is a lot. The Youth Alliance for Leadership is doing a lot of work in that regard, creating networks in universities all across Cameroon. Right now we have five branches in Cameroon: University of Buea, University of Bamenda, University of Yaoundé II, Pan African University and Catholic University. So we are trying to expand the network so that it can be a center to mobilize.
AKONTEH: YALI has brought me to a space that has freed, opened up my mind and actually giving me the courage to go on with this project. YALI is such a blessing, and I have a drive to know that we need to stick together as YALI and also to make the changes and opportunity for us to make change across borders.
VOICE OVER: Clifford is committed to bringing more young Cameroonians into the political process. He believes that youth have great ideas and are well positioned to make positive differences in their communities, as long as they reject violence and work to build coalitions committed to free, fair, and peaceful elections.
Be sure to come back for more inspiring stories from young African leaders on the YALI Voices podcast.
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