Crossing frontiers, effecting change

Philip Forsang Ndikum describes how his training at the Bar of England and Wales equipped him for the challenges of practising law in Cameroon

Africa in miniature

Tourist literature describes Cameroon – located in Central West Africa – as “Africa in miniature”, because it exhibits all the major climates and vegetation of the continent. Prior to independence in 1960, jurisdiction over Cameroon was shared between the UK and France under a League of Nations mandate issued in 1919. Since its independence, the country has known only two leaders; President Ahmadou Ahidjo between 1960 and 1982, and the current President Paul Biya, who has ruled since 1982.

As a consequence of its colonial past, the country has inherited a dual legal system which includes the Napoleonic Code and English common law. In addition, traditional courts still play a significant role in applying the country’s customary law in the areas of domestic, property and probate law. The Supreme Court of the Cameroon, located in the country’s capital, Yaoundé, is the highest court in the country. The country currently boasts more than 2,000 lawyers and almost 1,500 pupil lawyers.

Cameroon has been viewed for decades as being rife with corruption at all levels of government and the judiciary. This led to Transparency International placing the country at number 136 out of 176 of its 2014 Corruption Perception Index. With the aim of tackling this problem, President Biya initiated an anti-corruption drive in 2006, under the direction of the National Anti-Corruption Observatory.  

My journey

I am not from a privileged background, nor born into affluence. I left Cameroon at the age of 37 with my wife, three sons and an ardent desire to pursue a legal education in the UK, the US and France. Despite the numerous drawbacks and obstacles I encountered, I have been fortunate to have been educated in some of the finest legal institutions around the globe. I studied at the Inns of Court School of Law, University of Minnesota Law School, William Mitchell College of Law, University of Bedfordshire Law School and the London School of Economics and Political Science. After being called to the Bar of England and Wales by Lincoln’s Inn in 2004, I returned to my native Cameroon to practise law.

Surprisingly, the strong relationships that I had formed prior to entering the legal profession played a pivotal role in “kick-starting” my legal practice in Cameroon. Alongside being a flight attendant for Cameroon Airlines and for the Cameroon Presidential Crew from 1980 to 1995, I also worked as a music producer, editor and promoter between 1984 and 1995. Many friends and colleagues later became clients of mine, highlighting the importance of broad and varied professional experience, coupled with strong interpersonal relationships.

Building a law practice

Having been duly convinced by a book from the American Bar Association – “How to start & build a law practice” – that a law firm was a powerful channel through which I could serve my country, I laid the firm’s foundations in its earliest years by working up to 20 hours a day, in an office without basic furniture. I was my own secretary, office boy, mailman, doorman and cook and did not own a car, journeying to important appointments by taxi. When I finally did purchase a car, it was an almost 30-year old Toyota, which I still drive. In retrospect, I could not have endured the challenges ahead, without the versatile training provided at the Bar and the universities I attended. 

Combating corruption

To work effectively within a developing nation like Cameroon, I had to understand its judicial system, abound with corruption and the maladies we all decry. My training at the Bar instilled within me an unshakeable “legal integrity”, and to this day, I refuse to compromise the noble values of a barrister-at-law. My first experience of corruption was a judge who topped up his income by pilfering from the bank accounts of the deceased. He had prepared a judgment to collect almost £100,000 and I was hired by the bank in which the accounts were held to advise them on the next steps to stop this corrupt practice.

I lost count of the numerous arrest warrants served on me by the judge and for some time I was also the victim of death threats. To say this experience was frightening is an understatement. I maintained enough composure, however, to appeal to a higher court. Still fearing for my safety, I reported the matter to the relevant Commonwealth department which swiftly queried the matter with the Cameroonian government. In the midst of the investigation, the accused judge passed away.

The environment at times tests my patience and poise, but my courteous manner in the court, which was ingrained in me at the Inns, has served me well. I continue to work up to 20 hours a day, and have asserted several times that I am ready to go to jail in the pursuit of justice. I do feel overwhelmed at times, but find guidance and solace in studying the lives of former members of the Inns of Court, such as Gandhi, who persevered in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Many readers will be wondering if I am able to earn my bread through my law practice in Cameroon. Earning a lot of money, however, was never my ambition when I decided to return to work in Africa. I still put in 20 hours daily because I strongly believe that I am using my education at the Bar in the service of my nation. I also take on international cases and was recently involved in a $70m fraud case in the US. 

To remain competent I continue to publish books, read avariciously and contribute many articles to international journals; my method of continuous legal education from the heart of Africa.

Many will say I have been lucky. Having been blessed with good health, as well as a sound mind, in many ways, I have. My strategy was to position myself as a key player in the development of the African continent. Now more aware than ever of the gargantuan task ahead of me – which I know I cannot accomplish alone – I make a clarion call to my fellow Africans presently residing in Western countries, to return to Africa so that together we may tap the vast resources of this rich continent, to assist in making Africa an increasingly competitive power on an increasingly competitive global stage. I remain firm in my resolve to accomplish this dream, and know that whatever circumstances I may encounter, and however tough they may be, I shall march on, with all that is invested in me, towards the dream of a new Africa.

Contributor Philip Forsang Ndikum

Author details: 
Philip Forsang Ndikum

Philip is a barrister-at-law in England and Wales and a barrister and solicitor of the Supreme Court of Cameroon, called from the Court of Appeals, Douala, Cameroon, Africa. He is founder and managing partner of Ndikum Law Offices, Cameroon.