The Right To Be Wrong: Conversations with Dr Apollin Koagne Zouapet

On a winter evening in July, I had the privilege of chatting with a long-time colleague and friend, Dr Apollin Koagne Zouapet, at a coffee shop on Maputo’s Avenida Vladimir Lenine. Apollin flew in from the Hague, to present at the 7th Maputo Meeting on Corporate Impunity and Human Rights, organised by Justiça Ambiental / Friends of the Earth Mozambique, who I have worked with for over 12 years. Apollin is a lawyer from Cameroon, with a PhD in Law (public international law) from the University of Geneva. He is the editor of the recently published book, ‘Sixty Years After Independence: Africa and International Law, Views From a Generation,’ available online here.

I asked Apollin about the role of Africa and Africans in the world, and what the world can learn from African values and experiences, especially in his field of law, justice and human rights. This article is based on our conversation and is written in his strong captivating voice, transcribed and edited for clarity by me.


Photo by Mauro Pinto, Justiça Ambiental

There is a unique way that Africa and Africans can deal with the ‘polycrisis’ the world is facing, and contribute to the world’s understanding, because of how much suffering our people have faced and are facing. But we don’t only want to be the victims. 

The legacy of colonialism continues to purport the idea of “universality” exclusively from the European or global North perspective. But what about the African conception of justice? In my language in Cameroon, from the bamileke sub-group, the meaning of the word justice translates as ‘to repair something’. When a child does something wrong, that means something in the community around that child is also wrong. So the system of justice should be based on repairing, not punishing.

Traditionally, community discussions unfold under the giant palaver tree. Every village has one palaver tree, which is the central meeting place of the village. This is African democracy at the roots.

But the West and Global North continues to fail to understand how Africans think. In Africa, when a man dies, the widow often marries his brother. I was against it myself, but I needed to understand the purpose. If a woman is widowed, she and her children need support to survive, hence the flawed solution emerged that a widow should marry her husband’s brother. If we understand the reason behind a certain action in an African community, instead of just judging and condemning it, then we can imagine more just remedies. The widow and her children can be supported if she has land or a livelihood of some kind, and is not forced into dependency on a man. So now we can understand how to get the same result without an act of injustice. This is an example of how the West could try to understand Africans better, and it will benefit us all to confront the ‘polycrisis’ because of learning different points of view.

The worst thing to happen to Africa is not what the various colonial powers took away from our countries, but what they left behind. Their idea of progress is what they made us believe. For Africa to bring our values and experiences to the world, we Africans first need to learn who we are, why do we do what we do, to understand and fortify our own culture, our own rules.

For example, we demand the right to health for everyone, but does that only have to mean hospitals? Maybe for me it means having my forest intact with herbs and plants that provide medicinal remedies. If we cut down a forest to build a hospital, with drugs coming from the West, we may have undermined the right to health rather than supported it. 

Another example is that we support the right to healthy food and the responsibility to ensure that everyone can eat every day. But agricultural support in my country goes to crops like coffee or cacao, not cassava which is the staple diet for most people. So they convinced us that the way to develop is to drink coffee, and that we should eat pizza instead of cassava. But the day we realise that we need cassava, that’s when we know there is no need to sell our land for them to make a supermarket where we buy their food. So when we fight for the right to food, or the right to energy, it means also empowering the community to say how that right should be fulfilled in that community, based on their existing health, culture, and traditions.

While researching democratic systems in Africa, I found accountability systems in place. In western Cameroon, the Chief’s house is built lower down than the rest of the village. It is a reminder to the Chief, that he exists because of the others in the village. When it rains, if the people in the village don’t stop and guide the water, then the water will affect the Chief’s house. But when the colonisers arrived, they built the house of the boss on the top, and now our African leaders and Chiefs have followed suit. See the difference in perspective. They have lost that accountability to their people. I think there is nothing you learn to love as fast as power. How sweet it is, the power, unfortunately. But understanding that the love of power is part of human nature, we as Africans know how to build systems and societies to counteract that. We must revive the practices of our ancestors. Our ancestors already had viable solutions.

If I were to write the Universal Declaration of Human Rights now, I would put first the right to be wrong. We should protect peoples’ right to be wrong. Permission to myself and to the other to be wrong. Meaning we have to give people time to realise they are wrong, accepting that people can have a different point of view, and that view can change. It is the right of everyone to be convinced at their own rhythm and in their own time. 

The writer Makau Mutua said that all civilisations talk of good and evil. We are always convinced that we are doing the right thing, our culture and traditions are the best for human beings, and the “other” is evil. This is what is happening between Russia and the western world, between China and the western world. Only when you understand that everyone is convinced about their own values, that you can start the discussion. Meaning, give yourself and others the right to be wrong.

When you have the impression that you have the truth, you want everyone to see that it is the absolute truth. Instead, we need to seek common ground based on common humanity. The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights indicates the relationship between the individual and the community, not just the individual. The concept of Ubuntu coming from the Bantu languages, means ‘I am because you are’. We are all connected. My individual rights are connected to our community rights. Going back to the discussions under the palaver tree, when you do something wrong, there isn’t punishment only for you, because all the members of the community failed somewhere. If you stole a chicken because you’re hungry, then what did the rest of the community do wrong if you can’t even afford food? Where is the problem coming from and how can it be repaired? This is what we spend hours discussing under the palaver tree. 

Interview transcribed and edited for clarity by dipti bhatnagar, Maputo, Mozambique, December 2023