Posted Under: Africa,GreenFeed,Human Rights,law,Racism/Fascism
Unusa Karimu’s people, the Mbororo, are a marginalised semi-nomadic community of cattle herders in Cameroon. The daily persecution and exploitation they face at the hands of government and wealthy elites inspired Mr Karimu to become a lawyer so he could defend their human rights in court. Karimu talks to Salman Shaheen about his struggle against economic hardship to become the Mbororo’s first and only barrister and the far more difficult struggle to win equality for his people.
Cramped and overheated as it is, Karimu’s London hotel room is a world away from his sweltering, mosquito-infested little place in war-ravaged Sierra Leone where he studied to become a lawyer. He’s in the UK to hone his skills with Derbyshire-based charity Village Aid so he can return to Cameroon to bolster the Mbororo Social and Cultural Development Association (MBOSCUDA), an organisation chaired by him which is dedicated to defending the rights of his people.
When MBOSCUDA was first established, its members were threatened with death and falsely imprisoned, languishing in jails without any charges ever being brought against them in court. But, with Karimu as the Mbororo’s first lawyer, things are beginning to change.
Karimu was born in 1980 in the village of Mentang in the Boyo district of the North West region of Cameroon. His mother died when he was three years old and his absentee father squandered much of the family’s cattle wealth. He had just enough left to fund his way through school.
“I did quite well at school, I cannot remember failing any exams,” says Karimu, who used the last of the cattle to go to university, where he graduated in law.
Witnessing the “day to day abuses” of his people, intimidated by rich landowners and corrupt government officials making a fast buck confiscating Mbororo cattle and exhorting bribes, Karimu set out to become a lawyer to use the law of the land to protect them. Despite the rarity of his academic success among a people whose literacy rate remains as low as 5%, however, Karimu had no money to go to law school.
His career, and his ambition to use his legal expertise to empower the Mbororo, might have reached a dead end there had it not been for Village Aid, a small UK charity concerned by the silent suffering of his people, which entered into a partnership with MBOSCUDA and managed to secure funding from Comic Relief to train him to become a lawyer.
“I was trained as a paralegal, providing legal services based in the community,” says Karimu. “I could advise and say where there had been violations of human rights. But we could not intervene directly and had to take the cases to a barrister.”
Karimu quickly realised, however, that for the Mbororo people to truly realise their rights enshrined, but not actualised, in law, they had to have their own barristers capable of representing them in court.
“I could not address the day to day abuses of my people unless I became a practising lawyer,” says Karimu. “So I took up the task and I went to Freetown. If you see my room where I was living, you can’t believe it. I resigned from my job, I left my house and my family and I went down to Freetown, the capital of a country that had undergone 10 years civil war. But now I have qualified and am in Cameroon, I can talk like a barrister on their behalf.”
Representing the plight of his people before Cameroon’s courts, the greatest problem for Karimu and for the Mbororo people is the billionaire cattle rancher and business magnate, Baba Amadou Danpullo. Darling of the national press, bane of the Mbororo, Danpullo has used his position on the central committee of Cameroon’s ruling party and his ownership of the Danpullo Broadcasting System (DBS) television station to make life for Karimu’s people a living hell.
“He is the main perpetrator of abuses on the Mbororo people,” says Karimu. “Because he needs a lot of land for ranching and his tea plantations he has made many evictions without any due compensation. He has imprisoned a lot of my people. Recently he made a ban on the sale of horses, which are the livelihood of the Mbororo.”
Why is Danpullo on a seemingly personal campaign of hatred against the Mbororo? Perhaps it is nothing more complex than blind prejudice. Perhaps it is because he is a powerful man afraid of groups like MBOSCUDA organising against him. Certainly he has done his best to see their members thrown in jail, while using the courts to block cases against his interests.
“DBS was saying very nasty things about the Mbororo and MBOSCUDA,” says Karimu. “We instigated a defamation action against DBS. We reported it to the state prosecutor and a summons was issued for accused persons to give their statements. As I’m speaking to you, I’ve got information from Cameroon that suggests the case will not go anywhere.”
Where Danpullo has used his considerable government influence to block cases, Karimu has used international partners and social networks to raise awareness about the issues. It’s an uphill struggle for the hitherto voiceless Mbororo, but Karimu’s work has begun to make a difference.
“The work I’m doing has made things better,” says Karimu. “I can write to the state authorities and explain things to them. They can arrest all of the Mbororo people, but they cannot stop me. So at least there is someone out there who can do something.”
One success story Karimu is particularly proud of is his intervention in a case of cattle theft falsely brought against two Mbororo men by a powerful woman.
“I represented them in court and they were acquitted based on the evidence,” says Karimu.
He believes that it was entirely a case of prejudice and if he had not been there to argue the facts, the accused would have gone to prison for at least three years each.
“Sometimes the judges are not bad, but if you are not well represented, other lawyers will make the opposition case look genuine,” Karimu explains. “We need lawyers who know the facts about their case. I was against the most senior barrister in the jurisdiction. A lawyer is always as good as his case.”
Karimu has close to 60 cases on his hands at the moment. With so many daily injustices perpetrated against his people, generating new cases all the time, it’s a big challenge being the only Mbororo lawyer. North West Cameroon has seven districts with high courts. When two of these districts have a case on the same day, even a man as passionate and dedicated as Karimu cannot be in two places at once.
“I can’t deal with all these cases alone,” he says. “We need more Mbororo lawyers. It’s not like we don’t have other law graduates who can do it. The programme is so expensive, they can’t afford to go to the law school.”
Karimu hopes his example will inspire others and attract funding for Village Aid and MBOSCUDA to send more of his people to law school.
Many challenges lie ahead. Human rights defenders in the Mbororo community continue to receive death threats, while a lot of the cases Karimu would like to take up go unreported because the abuses happen in remote areas. The problem is not Cameroon’s laws. On paper, the country’s legal framework guarantees the rights of all its citizens, including its Mbororo minority. However, as is so often the case, theory falls flat in the face of corrupt practice, poor implementation and a lack of legal understanding among the victimised. With Karimu leading the fight in the courtrooms and in the communities, there is hope for the Mbororo. If that hope is to be realised, Cameroon needs more people like him.