Tim Lince

The African Intellectual Property Organisation (OAPI) has suspended two IP attorneys in Cameroon, and in turn prohibited parties from using their law firm for any IP services in proceedings before it, in what one of the lawyers contends to be a continuation of a bitter battle between the organisation and a group of agents who claim that its accession to the Madrid Protocol was implemented illegally.

OAPI confirmed on its website that, as of January 21, two IP attorneys at Yaoundé-based firm Cabinet ISIS, founding partners and IP attorneys Christian Dudieu Djomga and Judith Samantha Tchimmoe Fezeu, had been temporarily suspended from being representatives before the organisation (a requirement to conduct IP services across its 17 member states). Furthermore, the OAPI stated that “interested parties are prohibited from making any representation service” at the firm, a move that severely restricts the work that the eight staff at the IP firm can conduct. Following further enquiries, Maurice Batanga, OAPI’s director of legal affairs and cooperation, stated that the reason for the suspension of the firm was due to its “violation of rules” and “a lot of other disciplinary mistakes”, adding: “The partners of this firm have been in litigation for many years. OAPI helped them to avoid suspension or the revocation of the approval granted to them, but they refused all arrangements.”

This latest suspension of IP attorneys by OAPI closely mirrors last year’s dismissal of IP lawyer Constantin Ondoa, who was fired from his firm following alleged pressure from OAPI executives. Ondoa was a spokesperson for a group, the Collectif des Conseils en propriété industrielle (Collective of Industrial Property Counsel), who were, at the time, in a very public war of words with OAPI over the organisation’s recent accession to the Madrid Protocol - a move that the Collective claims was implemented illegally and should be reversed. Batanga confirmed at that time that OAPI would suspend any firm “where there are members of the campaign against accession to the Madrid Protocol”. But this month’s suspensions are not related to this dispute, Batanga claims: “Both suspended agents said they were not against the accession of OAPI to this treaty and no provisional action had been taken against them.” However, he warned: “If it happens that they are behind the Collective to go on fighting against the accession of OAPI to the Madrid Protocol, the suspension will be definitive.”

But one of the suspended attorneys, Christian Dudieu Djomga, dismisses this assertion. Talking to World Trademark Review, he explains the ‘official reason’ given by OAPI for the suspensions was due to the number of offices owned by Cabinet ISIS, explaining: “Their disciplinary record is that we have two offices in Yaoundé. There are other law firms which have more than one office in Yaoundé, but they have never been disturbed.” However, he is convinced the real reason for the suspension was because the two “are supposed to be the leaders of the group who set up the campaign against accession to the Madrid Protocol”. He says he was “not surprised” to receive a suspension because “a few months ago, Mr Batanga invited us into his office to tell us that if we don’t withdraw our letter about the illegality of OAPI joining Madrid, we will be suspended”.

Djomba, who says he is still able to practice as a corporate lawyer (but not an IP lawyer), claims that this latest development is proof that OAPI’s director general, Paulin Edou Edou, is “continuing to harass agents linked to the Collective”. Expanding on this alleged targeting of the Collective, he added: “Mr Edou Edou Paulin has said that he can behave as he wants and suspend anyone he wants because nothing can happen to them as OAPI is an international organisation that is protected by United Nations regulations (so no local or international court can challenge him). That is how Africa is - dictators are everywhere. Someone cannot argue against a violation of law because ‘King’ Edou Edou Paulin will sack them. It is a real shame for Africa and OAPI because freedom of expression and opinion is recognised by national and international laws.”

Whatever the true reason for the suspension, eight months on, it is clear the tension between OAPI and the group of agents who are against the organisation’s accession to the Madrid Protocol remains. The schism is based on legal nuances that suggest that a mediating force should decide whether the Madrid Protocol was implemented in OAPI legally or not (a role that Madrid administrator WIPO has refused). Without such a move, it seems that one side may ultimately come out victorious - with Djomba confirming that “the other members of the Collective have abandoned us because they are afraid of Mr Edou Edou”. If true, and fear has prevailed over reasoned debate, then the legal uncertainties still remain - and that is bad for the entire international trademark community.

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