Nso culture and Human Rights.

A paper presented by Shey Kosho Donatus (a second Year Masters Student in Human Rights and Humanitarian Action at the Catholic University of Central Africa- Ekounou Campus-Yaounde) during the Ngonnso 2011 at the symposium on governance with traditional rulers and Nso core values held in Ntoh Nso on Friday Ngoylum December 30th 2011.

Theme: Nso culture and Human Rights.


Human rights are "commonly understood as inalienable fundamental rights to which a person is inherently entitled to simply because she or he is a human being." Human rights are thus conceived as universal (applicable everywhere) and egalitarian (the same for everyone). These rights may exist as natural rights or as legal rights, in both national and international law. The doctrine of human rights in international practice, within international law, global and regional institutions, in the policies of states and in the activities of non-governmental organizations, has been a cornerstone of public policy around the world. In The idea of human rights it says: "if the public discourse of peacetime global society can be said to have a common moral language, it is that of human rights." Despite this, the strong claims made by the doctrine of human rights continue to provoke considerable skepticism and debates about the content, nature and justifications of human rights to this day. Indeed, the question of what is meant by a "right" is itself controversial and the subject of continued philosophical debate.

Many of the basic ideas that animated the movement developed in the aftermath of the Second World War and the atrocities of The Holocaust, culminating in the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Paris by the United Nations General Assembly on the 10th of December 1948. The ancient world did not possess the concept of universal human rights.
Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty

It rests on the assumption that international human rights norms should indeed become part of the legal culture of any given society, and to do so, they must strike responsive chords in the general human public consciousness. This paper argues that a defensible way in which this challenge may be met is to acknowledge that universality and specificity are not necessarily intrinsically oppositional forces, or, if you wish, they are not mutually exclusive, either conceptually or practically.

Ancient societies had "elaborate systems of duties... conceptions of justice, political legitimacy, and human flourishing that sought to realize human dignity, flourishing, or well-being entirely independent of human rights". The modern concept of human rights developed during the early Modern period, alongside the European secularization of Judeo-Christian ethics. The true forerunner of human rights discourse was the concept of natural rights which appeared as part of the medieval Natural law tradition, became prominent during the Enlightenment with such philosophers as John Locke, Francis Hutcheson, and Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui, and featured prominently in the political discourse of the American Revolution and the French Revolution.

Can we therefore say that the Nso culture is still looming in the spirit of the ancient world in which there are no human rights?? If this question is answered in the affirmative, then there will be absolutely no reason for us to be here celebrating our cultural week. Of course, this cannot be answered in the affirmative because Nso is and has never, and will never be on the wrong side of history. The argument for the fact that Nso cannot find herself on the wrong side of history is embedded in the stated principle that Nso culture is founded on core human values and dignity, where the right of each and every other person are respected to the highest degree. Examples can be traced right to the dispositions of the various cults we have in Nso. At the level of the palace, there are a series of dos and don’ts. My fellow member in the wanmabu cult is under a strict obligation not to hurt me, talk ill about me, steal from me or snatch my wife.

These are preventive measures that have been laid down in the various cults to uphold the dignity of a Nso man and woman. A human rights discourse containing universal principles which are culturally meaningful depends on inter- and intracultural dialogues; the topic of women's human rights in Nso and Africa in general encapsulates many of the contentious issues swirling around international human rights, prominently among them, the relationship between the individual and society. Since the theme of our cultural week is :Nso women, pillars of Nso culture, unity and development, it will be but fair to look at human rights respect and instances of violations especially with regard to women.
I. Examples of Issues in Human Rights Today
In the world today, there are a plethora of human rights issues, varying from simple and clear cut offenses such as arbitrary imprisonment, torture, and outright discrimination, to cases where the distinction between two sides is more subjective. This includes issues such as female genital mutilation (FGM), child labor, forced/early marriages, and treatment of women especially widows.

A. Female Genital Mutilation. FGM
Female Genital Mutilation is the practice of removing the clitoris, labia minora and labia majora, and then in some cases, stitching together the vaginal walls to insure fidelity to the husband. It is practiced in some nations in Africa, and is estimated to affect up to 100 million women. It is performed on little girls, and is considered to be a coming of age ceremony, when girls differentiate themselves from boys by removing their "male parts". Aside from the immediate physical dangers, there is a psychological shock, as well as greatly increased chance of infection and death in the future.

Many people see it as a ceremony that is a way for women to be put into clearly defined subservient roles in society. Article 5 of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination states that governments must strive for "the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes". In 1995, the UN Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action condemns FGM as a form of violent discrimination against women. However, defendants of the practice believe that it is a fundamental part of the culture. Surprisingly, it is usually the women who are the most ardent defenders, as it is a woman that performs the procedure, and later on there is a feeling of sisterhood between those that have undergone the operation. Religion also plays a role, because many of the people believe that it is a part of Islam, despite the fact that there is no mention of it in the Koran. The practice probably stems from an ancient tribal ceremony that has evolved over the ages, and now has both social and religious meaning. It is an issue that cannot be solved by force and immediate outlawing because it is so ingrained in the culture in many parts of Africa. The people affected by it should be educated on its dangers, and then they must be allowed to reach a decision on whether to continue it, and in what form.

B. Child Labor
However the problem that arises is that the children that are most affected by it have no voice in the matter, until it is much too late. Many children around the world face a similar scenario when they are forced to work and provide for their family instead of going to school. The issue of child labor demonstrates that ideals such as the innocent and carefree life that children in most industrialized nations are able to enjoy do not exist in the poorer parts of the world. These ideals clash against the necessity of a poor family to earn money and feed all of its members. While such an experience can be positive for children, such as helping out on the family farm, or small chores around the house, there is a darker side. The practice of selling children into slavery to pay off a family debt, while outlawed in the 1956 U.N. Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery, still is popular, and an ongoing problem. Children work under abhorrent conditions; those that work in looms become "disabled with eye damage, lung disease, stunted growth, and a susceptibility to arthritis as they grow older". Typically they are never able to repay off the debt, and must work for the remainder of their lives as bondage workers. The financial stability of the family is weighed against the child's liberty. However, the children usually do not earn enough to pay off their family's debt; those that profit are their employers that are able to exploit cheap labor.

C. Treatment of women
In contemporary sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), women are facing human rights abuses are unparalleled elsewhere in the world. Despite the region’s diversity, its female inhabitants largely share experiences of sexual discrimination and abuse, intimate violence, political marginalization, and economic deprivation. Consider the following: A woman in South Africa has a greater chance of being raped than she does of learning how to read (BBC 2003);Seventy percent of women in Niger report being beaten or raped by their husband, father or brother (UNOCHA 2007); Maternal mortality rates in SSA are the highest in the world. SSA is home to 20 percent of the world’s births but contributes 40 percent of the world’s maternal deaths (UNFPA2008); In SSA, about half of the population lives below the poverty line; over 80 percent of the poor are women (UNFPA 2008). A major obstacle to checking these abuses is women’s marginalization and under-representation within the nation-states responsible for implementing human rights standards: women in SSA represent only 6 percent of seats in national legislatures, 10 percent at the local level and a scanty 2 percent in national cabinets (UNFPA 2008). Additionally, weak, male-dominated governments, a colonial legacy, and economic underdevelopment plague SSA nations and complicate efforts to redress violations of women’s human rights.

D. Early marriage. A brutal custom

The term “early marriage” is used to refer to both formal marriages and informal unions in
which a girl lives with a partner as if married before age of 18 (UNICEF 2005; Forum on Marriage and the rights of women and girls 2001). For UNIFPA (2006) Early marriage, also known as Child marriage, is defined as “any marriage carried out below the age of 18 years, before the girl is physically, physiologically, and psychologically ready to shoulder the responsibilities of marriage and childbearing.” Child marriage, on the other hand, involves either one or both spouses being children and may take place with or without formal registration, and under civil, religious or customary laws. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the most comprehensive international bill of rights for women, states that any betrothal or marriage of a child should not have any legal status. The Committee that monitors this convention states further in General Recommendation 21 (Article 16(2)) that the minimum age for marriage for both male and female should be 18 years, the age when “they have attained full maturity and capacity to act”. Most early marriages are arranged and based on the consent of parents and often fail to ensure the best interests of the girl child. Early marriages often include some elements of force, (Otoo-Oyortey and Pobi 2003)

II. Where the Nso man is guilty

We, the Nso people cannot totally pride ourselves as a civilized tribe with perfect customs void of correction. We cannot say with full conviction that there are no sections of our culture that do not call for some perfection surgery to be applied on them. Such an assertive conviction will be looking at the wrong direction. A blatant refusal to accept the truth. Nso culture like many other African cultures has her own limitations. Some are glaringly promoted and promulgated by the society, while some are forced into practice by the unbridled craving for worldly power and resources. It is to an extent true that we are not guilty of the abuses cited above like FGM, child labour and forced marriages, but recent events in the Fondom have gone a long way to inculpate us. I sampled the opinion of my colleagues who hail from our ancestral origin, since one cannot have a mastery of the whole culture and came out with the following instances where they feel that our culture is “repugnant to natural justice, equity and good conscience”.

A. Women and funeral. Mourning (cry-die) period

Women have been subjected to inhuman treatment during funeral periods especially during royal funerals. We are all aware of the forceful ban on total body coverage and removal of shoes by women during mourning periods when some high ranking members of the royal family and family heads (Shuufais) of some compounds die. Any right thinking person knows that this treatment is inhuman because it is always implemented by force, and those who practice it are women. If it were good, it should have been good for all. In these modern times, nobody seems to offer a good justification for this practice. We all know that our women sit on hard floor with the biting cold in Nso during funerals while men sit on soft cushion chairs, sharing a drink, or celebrating the life of the departed person.

Another inhuman behavior that was never part of us, but have unfortunately taken hold of our society is the victimization of the widow by falsely accusing her of being responsible for the man’s death (eating him up) and then chasing her from the family house and claiming ownership of the man’s property when the children are still minors. This unhealthy behavior is not part of our culture per se, but unfortunately this practice that has been copied from regional globalization is implanting itself into our culture. The earlier we stamp it out, the better for us.

B. The weaknesses of Nso legal system (Traditional Councils) and the overbearing authority of the voice of Nwerong.

Our traditional councils are still staffed by traditional rulers who have no knowledge of the legal profession and whose personal integrity can be out rightly challenged. Some judgments passed in these local courts have remained wanting and questionable and the application of the judgment termed as ruthless. That is why some of the decisions passed at the local courts have been quashed at the law courts when dissatisfied litigants go further to seek legal redress in these courts. These local courts succeeded in the past because people still stood by the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. It is possible for local authorities to be corrupt considering their level of poverty and the fact that these “judges” are not always financially remunerated. It suffices for a guilty litigant to work for the reversal of court decision by a simple exchange of an envelope. If some of these vices are found in our law courts where magistrates and judges are remunerated, what more of our own local traditional rulers who are not on any payroll. People with legal backgrounds can be solicited to act as either advisers or judges in these courts. So as to mitigate the limitations of the traditional authority that sit at the helm of the local courts.

Nwerong’s Authority. The only voice of reason
The overbearing authority of the Nwerong in Nso land is something that has to be examined with the recent globalization and the cosmopolitan nature of our town. From every indication, Nwerong’s authority cannot be challenged, and so when Nwerong speaks, all other voices are silenced. This can be too much for a society that is fast growing in a globalized world. Without compromising the supreme authority of Nwerong, we can always recourse to a second voice of reason, when some decisions are taken by this body. The case file at the Bui High Court that can be tagged as “Nso-Jeng affair is a pointer to some wanton decisions that have been taken by this body. The scars of the Nso-ndzeendzev affair cannot be completely wiped out. (I hope I’m not waking up a sleeping dog)

C. Our reaction to civil correspondences

Somebody asked the question as to why Nkambe Division now (Donga Mantung Division) became a Division before Nsaw now Bui Division became one? I got a very interesting response. When those who were charged with educating the masses on the civil and administrative demarcation of the land brought this news to the people, that somebody will be sent by the government to represent the head of state and all authorities will be under him, a Nso man could not understand how there can be an authority that surpasses that of the Fon. The first re-action was out right refusal, but continuous education helped solve the problem and the authority of D.O was accepted.

I saw a catalogue of re-actions from many people following the prefectoral order (Citation needed) banning the display of jujus at the commercial roundabout (squares) below the cathedral. Reactions stemmed from Nwerong being the land lord who could not share his supreme authority over the land with an individual. There is need to let the people know that the traditional authority (Fon, chief, chef de quartier) is just a member of the Land Consultative Board where the SDO is the head. (cf section 14 of ordinance no 74/01 of 1974 and Article 12 of decree no 76/166 of 1976-Composition of the LCB).

The holdup at this roundabout during juju display especially during a festive period like Ngonso which we are celebrating now, can have some devastating effects especially to patients who have to be rushed to our two prestigious hospitals for proper medical attention. The cardiac center in Shisong is a tacit example where life threatening patients are rushed to. Imagine somebody dying in a car because s/he had to wait for 2 hours for jujus to liberate the way leading to the hospital. Let us give it a thought, without compromising our ownership of traditional title deeds to this land.


The list of human rights violations and their remedies cannot be exhausted in one paper presented during a festival like Ngonso. We have a long way to go and the most important thing to note is the fact that change is difficult but not impossible. Rome was not built in a day. Let us remember that our town is becoming cosmopolitan, and we must move along with globalization, but still maintaining our integrity as Nso people.

On a global note, despite the potential of various international conventions and conferences and the full body of human rights law, the lives of many African girls remain embroiled in violence. One reason is that UN treaties and conventions have not been locally interpreted in a way that is responsive to African women’s experiences of injustice. But robust human rights remain elusive for most SSA women primarily because neither the international community nor national leaders have given primacy to the voices of African women themselves. Transcending the rhetoric of rights starts with recognizing the agency of SSA women and following the agenda they set. Listening to their priorities for the future of human rights work in the region can ensure that international human rights norms have sufficient legitimacy within particular cultures and traditions to prove effective.

If the existence of rights is a necessary but insufficient condition for greater gender parity in SSA, then the ability to harness state protection is also crucial. Given the inherent overlap of human rights, their abuse necessitates a comprehensive response that must partly come from the state. Victims of domestic abuse, for example, experience not only a violation of their right to health but are generally intellectually, economically, and politically victimized as well. This interrelated nature of human rights is evident in many western African states including Cameroon and Nso community. Women throughout the SSA region who manage to escape abuse in the private sphere usually encounter an unresponsive criminal law system that is unwilling to intervene in private matters of the family.

Celebrating Ngonso Festival with the theme:Nso women, pillars of Nso culture, Unity and Development is a call for us to reflect on our treatment of women, without which our theme will be nothing short of window dressing, and all the fanfare in this palace court yard will only reduce us to the Biblical St. Paul’s clanging cymbals making empty noise.

God bless you all
God bless Nso culture.

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