The Republic of Cameroon stands majestically in Central Africa as a country whose political and economic fortunes have shaped not only its citizens, but the peoples of the region and the world. Cameroon remains an envy of many Africans and others who have often posed the question as to why Cameroon continues to enjoy relative peace and stability, while its neighbors remain embroiled in civil and sometimes violent conflict. The simple answer to this question may be that Cameroon is just lucky. But a more in-depth and reflective answer could be that Cameroon possesses attributes that have helped the country to survive 50 years of independence.
My task here today is to attempt to respond to my compatriots who have filled the web with messages such as “Biya MUST GO”. I will not attempt to answer the question whether the President should go or not. But I hope my short essay will persuade them otherwise. Let me make one point clear at the start, and it is that, I am not persuaded by the events in North Africa – Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, etc., that other African States must follow their example, because, if you look critically at the nature of these regimes and societies, you would realize that they are totally different from most African states south of the Sahara.
In this short essay, I will trace Cameroon’s rich and diverse history, to find out what elements of our country have assisted Cameroonians to “converge” as a people and a nation, to move the country towards a truly democratic society. In doing so, I will delve into areas where, Cameroonians, as a people, have continued to “diverge”, just as a true reminder that there is still a lot of work to do, to realize the dream of democratization. To begin this discussion, it is imperative to define a few terms/concepts that will help clarify what I intend to discuss in the later sections of this paper.
The first definition that is relevant to this discussion is that of the concept of democracy. Definitions of this concept abound. But the definition which is most suitable for this paper is as follows: Democracy is a ‘form of government, where a constitution guarantees basic personal and political rights, fair and free elections, and independent courts of law.” Democracy is therefore, a political process through which the socio-economic and political hopes of a country can be realized. Taken broadly, democracy can also refer to the political processes of participation and representation that ensure the peaceful, efficient and effective distribution of resources, without resorting to violence. It is “a means to an end” and not “an end in itself.” It is a process that must evolve from the history and institutions of a particular society, and one that cannot, and should not be imported from other societies. One can learn from other societies, but not at the expense of their own history.
The renowned Professor and Pan-Africanist, Mzee Ali Mazrui stated in one of his writings, “you can teach a people the English language, you can teach them the French language and culture and other attributes of western societies, but what you can never teach them is how to govern themselves, this, they must learn themselves.” This is what we, as Cameroonians, MUST realize and understand. We must approach our task of governance through “trial and error” with the understanding that our style of leadership must be shaped by our history, our traditions and, indeed, what “we as Cameroonian want and not by “foreign” models.
In essence, any true democracy should be anchored in the traditions, institutions and culture of that particular society. As such, there is American democracy, French democracy and also Cameroon democracy. Cameroon’s democratic experience is therefore uniquely patterned after the political experiences of the country. I will in the few pages that follow, assess the advances that Cameroon has made in its efforts towards democratization after 50 years of independence, and especially under the leadership of President Paul Biya for you to be the judge.
An understanding of the concept of democracy – its responsibilities, possibilities and limitations, also begs for the definition of two other concepts which are directly related to Cameroon’s political history – Cameroon’s New Deal Ideology”, that is, the ideological framework that has guided Cameroon’s democratic experiment, and the methodology (process) through which the country has attempted to realize these democratic milestones. The “New Deal” refers to the underlying philosophy of the Biya Presidency in Cameroon. This ideology also marks the advent of President Biya’s political career and power in Cameroon. In advancing this ideology the President stated that:
“We must remain deeply committed to the present requirements of
nation-building while entertaining hopes for the future. Because,
a State can only be loved if it can provide each citizen not only
with the security and the satisfaction of his basic needs, but also
the possibility of total human fulfillment; that is to say, if it is able
to combine order, freedom and ‘progress in a judicious balance
within its territory…’”
The New Deal ideology called on all Cameroonians to search their hearts and minds and develop a new appreciation the new political realities of the country and President Biya’s leadership, moral leadership and political foresight in Cameroon. This New Deal required Cameroonians to develop a new mental and moral construct to understand their rights, responsibilities and obligations vis-à-vis the state, and the country as the nation. The process required a step by step methodology. A method is a “way of doing things”, the process by which events and activities get accomplished. I contend in this discussion that Cameroon’s march towards democratic governance has not only been methodological, but it has also been founded on some of the core principles and values of statehood, that define the Cameroonian character. It is to these principles that I will turn to next.
II. Historical Antecedents
Cameroon presently comprises of a multiplicity of peoples, divided by many characteristics including ethnicity, religion, language, location, etc. History notes that it was the Portuguese who began to explore the coastal area today known as Cameroon in the 1450’s. They were succeeded by the Germans who formally occupied the country from 1884-1917, a period that witnessed World War I. The defeat of the Germans in the war, led to the formal occupation of Cameroon by France and Britain, under the United Nations framework known as the League of Nations. France and England occupied the country and formed and governed it initially as an “Anglo-French Condominium” which lasted from 1918-1939, the beginning of World War II. The period between 1945 and 1960 witnessed the introduction of modern political institutions in the country by the French and British respectively. Cameroon later became a trusteeship territory of the United nations after World War II. It was under this framework that the country gained independence in 1960, under its first President Ahmadou Ahidjo. Ahidjo’s presidency ended in 1982 with the accent to power of President Biya. President Biya‘s reign has lasted from 1982 to the present day.
What then has been the foundation upon which Cameroon’s political evolution towards the establishment of a truly democratic state and why do I refer to this experience as methodological? To answer these questions it will be necessary to give a brief overview of Cameroon’s pre-independence history. The Ghanaian musicologist, Ephraim Amu re-iterates the importance of history in the life of a nation as follows: “The past has a lot to tell; The past has a lot to teach; We are throwing the past away; On what then can we base the good governance of the country? (Letitia Obeng, 27) Cameroon’s present political evolution has been shaped by its rich historical past which, in many ways, is destined to shape its future.
In my opinion, the four major pillars that have shaped Cameroon’s political history include:
1) The belief in self-government and freedom, manifested historically through the collective spirit of resistance against foreign dominance
2) The will and vision of Cameroonians as a people, to embrace new ideas and to use these ideas to transform the country- the spirit of tolerance
3) The advent independence and re-unification, the consolidation of the newly unified state and the belief in nationhood
4) The march towards a truly democratic society- a legacy of the Biya presidency.
The story of Cameroon is more than a story of individuals; it is a story of a people and their collective will to create a new Cameroonian state, society and identity that would respond to the challenges of the country, and the needs and interests of the African continent and the modern world.
III. The Cameroonian Spirit of Resistance: The Quest for Freedom
Contacts between Cameroon and Europe have been captured in major works by many of Cameroon’s leading historians such as Father Nveng, Lovette Elango and Martin Njeuma, Verjika Fanso, etc. This contact which started from trade, later degenerated into a relationship of slavery, colonization and capitalist exploitation. The harsh realities of this infamous period brought together Cameroonians of all ethnic persuasions to resist foreign domination; in so doing, they sacrificed their lives for the eventual liberation of the country. This achievement was realized at a very high price, in blood, tears and sweat. Captured as slaves, coerced into forced labor (corvee) and/or forced to leave their ancestral lands to work for the colonizers, Cameroonians remained defiant. Despite this onslaught by Europeans, Cameroonian peoples never gave up; they distrusted, disliked and rejected colonial rule from the onset, and put up a strong resistance to the colonial form of domination – the Bakweri, Bali and Beti wars against the Germans, tell just a small part of the story. Resistance against a foreign enemy – Europeans, became a rallying point of “convergence” of all Cameroonians and subsequently a unifying factor in the country.
IV. Modern Politics and the Birth of a Transforming Leadership
The 1940’s ushered in a new period in Cameroon’s history. Because of internal resistance within the country, and partly because of events in Europe and the world, European colonial powers began to give in to some of the demands of Cameroonians, specifically the need to govern them. The French began this process through the creation of representative institutions from 1946-1960 – ARCAM (1946-52), ATCAM (1952-57), ALCAM (1957-60). These so-called benevolent concessions began to expose the new Cameroonian elite to the European style of governance but occupation was still unacceptable to the Cameroonian. The British on their part, began making concessions to British Southern Cameroonians in 1945 by the passage of the Richardson Constitution for Nigeria. This was followed by the Macpherson constitution, the birth of the KNDP and CPNC political parties, the 1959 elections and the UN plebiscite on British trusteeship Cameroons in 1961.
In summary, Cameroon’s pre-independent era was characterized by the reluctance of European colonial rulers to give Cameroonians the power to govern themselves. But Cameroonian local leaders, who had become apprentices, were taking every opportunity to study the ways of the colonizer’s government. The colonizers preferred a moderate approach to self-government but this was unacceptable to the Cameroonians who became increasingly worried and uneasy with their status. By 1955 when the French would not give Cameroonians the right to govern themselves the Cameroonians declared war under the banner of the Union des Populations du Cameroun (UPC). This nationalist war of resistance continued even after the country gained independence from France in 1960. During this time Cameroon elites became divided into two camps one which favored negotiations with the French, and the other that favored taking power by force.
By the time Cameroon gained independence in 1960 (French Cameroon), and after the United Nations had settled on the status of English-speaking Cameroon through a plebiscite (1961), Cameroon became one country. The new Cameroonian elite became the new leaders of the country – but the new form of government that they inherited was in every respect, structure and content, foreign, imposed, restrictive and alien to Cameroonian forms of traditional governance. It was created with the complicity of the colonizers whose major goal at the time, were to maintain their interests in the country. The contradiction between these two heritages has become another point of “divergence” in modern Cameroonian governance, and sometimes antagonistic towards traditional forms and norms of governance. Reconciling the two has indeed become a major objective of the Cameroonian leadership since independence.
V. The Ahidjo Period: Consolidating the Gains of Independence 1960-1982
Ahmadou Ahidjo became the first president of the Republic of Cameroon (1960), the Federal Republic (1961) and the United Republic of Cameroon (1972). Ahidjo, with the support of the French, wasted no time to consolidate his power. By 1961 he had creatively coerced English Cameroon into joining French Cameroon in a Federated Republic, continued the war with the UPC nationalists who disagreed with him on the terms that he had negotiated with the French government for independence, circumscribed the rights and liberties of individuals and institutions that stood on the way of his ambitions. By 1972, a referendum was called and Cameroonians overwhelmingly voted to become a United Republic of Cameroon under the leadership of Ahidjo.
The advent of the “United Republic” led to the disappearance of multi-partism in Cameroon and to the birth of a single national party – the Cameroon National Union (CNU). The rationale Ahidjo gave for these harsh policies, (which sometimes resulted in excesses in the loss of human lives) was the fact that the country was too fragile and would likely break apart if there was no strong leadership to guide it. Commentaries about Ahidjo’s rule in Cameroon vary, but the reality was that he was the leader who began to build the Cameroonian nation-state from a situation which Dr. Bernard Fonlon, in an article titled: “Will We Make or Mar,” referred to at the times as : … a country where three cultural currents meet – the African mainstream – the French and British tributaries and the culture of the westernized few; a country in need of a cultural initiative dominated by the westernized few; the subjugation of the English speaking Cameroonians by their French counterparts; the existence of an African dominant culture, which is dormant and the need to develop a Cameroonian culture which comprises of a blend of the West and of the African” (pp 9-33).
Cameroon survived under the Ahidjo regime because of the willingness of its peoples to work together just as they had done to resist the colonizers, and, due sometimes to the coercive but astute leadership of President Ahidjo. The institutions of state were all under the careful watch of the president and his cronies, and the modes of political expression were suppressed and/or modified under his one party system.
VI. The March Towards Democratic Freedoms and Governance in Cameroon – The Biya Presidency
President Biya took over the mantle of leadership of the state of Cameroon in 1982 and after the initial conflicts with Ahidjo subsided, he was overwhelmed by the support that the people had given him during the crisis. He therefore set out to begin the process of democratization in Cameroon. Biya began his presidency by stating that:
“The new hopes which sprang from the depths of the nation
immediately after the 6th of November 1982… called for the
greater liberalization and democratization of Cameroonian
society. I am therefore leading the country along the
difficult but salutary road to liberty. Liberty that I wish for
and that must be conscious, tolerant, and constructive,
that must take place with orderliness and responsibility,
liberty that I consider as a new guarantee of political health
The key objectives of the “New Deal” policy were: 1) Stringency and probity in the management of the national heritage; 2) Moralization of Behaviors; and 3) Democratization and communal liberalism sustained by free enterprise. This policy agenda is what President Biya has methodologically pursued in the coming years. The question at this point is whether President Biya has kept his pledge or not? Let us look at the record.
VII. The First Phase: of Democratization in Cameroon
The New Deal process comprised of two major stages in the development of democratic institutions in the country – the apprenticeship stage ( the transitional period), and the introduction of a multi-party democracy stage. Major events in the transitional stage included at the political level:
• Pluralistic council elections of 1987
• Pluralistic parliamentary election of 1988, and
• The reorganization of the CPDM party to ensure voting within the party with a plurality of candidates. These reforms led to the Bamenda Congress of the CPDM party on June 28, 1990 where effective multi-partism was introduced in Cameroon
These major political reforms were followed by the passage of key pieces of legislation that constituted the legal guidelines within which these new changes were effectuated. The major pieces of legislation that also passed were: to amend the constitution, to lay down the new requirements for passports, to ensure the freedom of the press, to institute freedom of Association, to lay down regulations to govern public meetings and demonstrations, and to further reorganize political parties to ensure effective participation from the public. All of these reforms marked the first phase of the President’s democratic agenda and they embroiled the country into political activities never before experienced during the reign of President Ahidjo.
At the same time, major legal changes were also made at the economic and social levels of the state. At the economic level, a more liberal investment code was passed into law, industrial free trade zones were established, the banking and agricultural sectors were restructured and an IMF structural adjustment program was instituted. At the social level many reforms were also enacted, prominent of which, was the fight against unemployment, the reform of higher education, the protection of infants and disabled, the adoption of the Beijing platform and a new health policy, to name but a few.
The second wave of democratic reforms came with the enactment into law, the revised constitution, on January 18, 1996. This constitution created avenues for the increased participation of citizens and local communities in public life, it guaranteed the separation of powers and preserved public liberties. Specifically it called for the creation of a Senate, an audit bench, a constitutional council. These reforms constituted the foundation for the successful presidential elections in 2004. Presently, the country is moving forward to translate many of these reforms into reality. Primary among them is the institution of a Senate, and regional assemblies, the election of provincial governors and the other aspects mandated by the 1996 constitution. These political reforms followed by the total administrative decentralization of the administrative institutions, have prepared the way for the next presidential election.
What then can be made of all of these constitutional and political reforms? Firstly, the initial phase of the reforms shocked and surprised the public and resulted in the formation of a multiplicity of political parties such as the Social Democratic Front (SDF) led by John Fru Ndi. the UNDP led by Bouba Bello Maigari, the UDC led by Adamou Ndam Njoya, etc. The birth of the SDF and other political parties opened a new chapter in Cameroon’s political history that would later serve as a major point of “divergence” in the country.
Secondly, President Biya succeeded in these reforms because he had solid credentials and administrative experience. As a consummate public servant with a legal background, he was very methodological in his approach to these reforms. The reforms were well thought out and delivered at the right time. In addition, his personal attributes of tolerance, perseverance were complimented by his characteristically firm and decisive actions as a leader. It is therefore his approach/method which partly accounts for the success of the reforms so far. His vision and strong leadership at the helm of the state, coupled with strong economic measures which guaranteed Cameroon’s economic and financial stability during a turbulent global economic period, facilitated the implementation of the IMF’s SAP conditionalities. All of these factors have strongly contributed to the success of the democratic reforms in Cameroon.
VIII. Homage to Our Heroes
Of course the reforms and changes have not been without strong criticism from within and without. There are those who contend that President Biya has been too long in power and therefore needs to step down. On the other hand, there are those like myself, who argue that for meaningful change to occur in any country, there needs to be stability, continuity and an enabling environment. President Biya has had a vision that needed time, experience and fortitude to implement. He has already done his part and history will be his witness; it is now left for Cameroonians to build on the solid foundation that has been established.
Also, there are those who continue to think that a war is necessary in Cameroon before the country can truly settle down to build its institutions. For such individuals, I do not think they have had frank conversations with our African brothers and neighbors of Tchad, CAR, Congo Brazzaville Democratic Republic of Congo (Zaire). Cote D’Ivoire, Liberia Sierra Leone etc., etc. I suggest they do that and not take Cameroon’s peace and stability for granted. War should be the very last thing that Cameroonians should crave for, because it is likely to take the country several years behind. Cameroon has been lucky to have been spared of these upheavals, and we should never take the peace we enjoy for granted. It has been the hard work and resilience of our leaders like Presidents Ahidjo and Biya that has produced such peace and stability, and never, I repeat should we ever take this for granted We absolutely cannot look at these examples as teachable lessons.
In conclusion, I began this essay by citing the three essential attributes that have characterized Cameroon’s march towards a truly liberal democratic society – the Cameroonian people’s quest for freedom, the Cameroonian willingness to learn and experiment with new ideals and ideas, and the visionary and astute leadership of the country under President Paul Biya
As we as Cameroonians go to the polls to re-elect the leadership for the next years we must reflect on the peace and stability we have enjoyed UP to this point on the continent of Africa, something we have always taken for granted. We must also understand that the leader we elect TOMORROW must be someone who will ensure that the work of all of our great leaders of the past, whose blood and tears, ideas and fortitude brought us this far IS MAINTAINED. What we want is a leadership that guarantees continuity.
As we remember them, we must note that there are also the unknown and unsung heroes of our country whose stories have been buried with them. We also celebrate this day in their honor. In the same vein, we humbly pay homage to the following leaders who are no longer with us: Andre Marie Mbida, Mayi Matip, Ernest Ouandie, Felix Moumie, Reuben Um Nyobe, Ahmadou Ahidjo, Solomon Tandeng Muna, E.M.L Endeley, P.M. Kalle, N.N Mbile, Chief Abel Mukete of Kumba, Chief Victor Ngomo Obie of Ndian, Douala Manga Bell, Charles Atangana, Charles Okala etc., etc. We go to the polls this day in their honor, for, without their sacrifices we will not be standing here today.
On this day also, we must all re-affirm our commitment to the development of Cameroon, the country which we so dearly love, and, to the leadership of Cameroon headed by President Paul Biya whose magnanimity has brought us where we are today. He has been the captain of the ship throughout this period and we owe him an eternal debt of gratitude. He has done a lot for the nation, what then can each of us do to take these democratic gains forward and now?
At this point, I will return to the words of Dr. Fonlon who asked the question that has stood the test of times: “Will we, as Cameroonians Make or Mar?” In my humble opinion we must rally behind the candidacy of President Paul Biya. With his election, history will bear us witness that we do not want to make the mistakes that our neighbors have made, and that we as Cameroonians are willing and committed to the future of our beloved country Cameroon.
Go to the Polls and VOTE for the candidacy of President PAUL BIYA
Dr. Henry Akwo Elonge is an Associate Professor of Public Administration in Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta, Georgia and the author of Cameroon Parliament Volume One (1940-1990).