Barrister Caroline Mbinkar giving a talk on the anglophone conflict in Cameroon, University College, Oxford

Copyright Roxana Willis

The anglophone crisis in Cameroon is rich with stories of high-level government corruption, of brutal military tactics to stifle peaceful protests, and of escalating radicalisation. It ticks all the boxes for a country that requires immediate international attention. Yet, strangely, the conflict remains unmapped and unknown to many. It was no surprise that hearing Barrister Caroline Mbinkar expose the reality of Cameroon at an event in University College, Oxford sent shockwaves throughout those who attended.

Caroline Mbinkar co-founded ‘ALL for Cameroon’, a pro bono law chambers, in 2009. Its aim is to offer free legal advice and representation to the marginalised and vulnerable in Cameroon. By 2009, this task was already a formidable one. The marginalisation of anglophones in Cameroon had been deeply ingrained, with its roots in the country’s colonisation by Britain and France in 1916. The colonisers had divided the country in two, imposing their own systems onto their respective autonomous states. Yet, following the independence of the French-speaking territory in 1960, the English speakers in the British territory joined the newly independent French state the next year, out of limited choice. Anglophones being the minority, and holding minimal government positions, were agitated at the outset of this fusion due to the strong likelihood of being marginalised and targeted by the Francophone majority. This agitation proved to be justified. When the predominantly French-speaking government sent French magistrates, trained in the civil law system, to preside over English common law courts in 2016, Caroline Mbinkar rose to the frontline of the resistance movement. She joined other lawyers who donned their wigs and gowns, and took to the streets to peacefully protest this form of blatant and harsh assimilation.

Caroline’s role as a barrister and human rights activist has given her a glaring exposure to the rapid deterioration of the events that followed. When frustrated civilians joined the protests, they were confronted with a brutal military response. Caroline herself offered first-hand accounts of deaths at the hands of the military – of children, of pregnant women. Although Cameroon might be described as on the brink of a war, there are undoubtedly war-like impacts felt at every level within society: destroyed schools and hospitals, the military’s indiscriminate killings, the displacement of thousands. As it stands today, Cameroon is experiencing the violence of war and greater recognition of the plight of civilians is urgently needed. 

In light of this, what truly stunned many members of the audience was the silence of the international community. Futile efforts to resolve the conflict perpetuate its escalating dangers. It is disappointing, but not surprising, to see the conditions in Cameroon worsening as a result. Caroline stressed that civilians are becoming progressively radicalised in response to increasingly aggressive military tactics: “if you ask [a radical] why they have become radicalised, they will say that their parents have been killed, or their house has been burnt down, or they have been arrested and tortured.” Thus, with no international body offering any productive and effective intervention, this cycle of conflict remains unbroken and inescapable.

Within the context of worsening conditions in Cameroon, it was admirable and refreshing to see Caroline Mbinkar’s unrelenting compassion and drive to encourage change. When asked how she maintained this, she replied with a simple but profound answer: lead with the heart. It was refreshing to see Caroline champion emotions such as sympathy, compassion and love, and to bolster the underestimated significance of emotional intelligence. Caroline spoke about her mentor, Albert Mukong, who would march alone in the streets against the Francophone government when no one else would join him. He, like Caroline, was powered by his sympathy for the suffering. To them, it does not matter if the world is not on their side – whether it is against them, sitting on the fence, or silent. They will march the streets on their own if that means that they can sing the unsung stories of the vulnerable. Thinking about this image of Albert Mukong protesting alone, I took away a key lesson: success as a human rights activist is not just measured against the scale of change you personally ignite, but it is also measured by the strength and consistency of your compassion and determination.

Barrister Caroline Mbinkar together with Law student, Suzanne Azim, after the talk

Copyright Roxana Willis

When hearing about a conflict on this scale, not many people take the extra steps that Caroline took by qualifying as a lawyer and then establishing her own law chambers. Caroline’s journey is uniquely remarkable. So for University students, like me, I asked Caroline what we can do. She gave a simple answer: talk to people about Cameroon. This could just be informing friends about the conflict. Or it could be writing to politicians. It could be asking the right questions to the right people – Caroline gave a few starting points: “ask Britain why they have not come back to Cameroon to decolonise us from slavery. Ask France why they are sponsoring an army to kill us.”

In short, if you care about the damage this conflict is causing, then start manifesting that by shedding light on the reality of Cameroon to others. And if you don’t care, then start caring. As Caroline Mbinkar taught us at the event, when you are silent, you too are responsible.

The full talk delivered by Caroline can be viewed below: