Understanding the Political Evolution of Cameroon: From Traditional to Liberal Education

Emmanuel KondeAfter a seemingly prolonged hiatus of non-active engagement in discussions of contemporary politics in Cameroon, our native land, your Guru is back. I plan to provide uncommon perspectives to understanding political evolution in Cameroon. Having devoted some time studying the major actors and political parties of Cameroon, I have decided to lend my weight on the side of the ruling Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (CPDM) and its leader, President Paul Biya. I do so at this particular juncture because Cameroon is in the throes of fundamental social change, the 2011 Presidential Election, whose result might either derail the progress that has been registered over the past half century or push us forward to greater achievements especially in the realms of respect for human rights and the fashioning of a democratic political culture.

The numerous opposition parties in Cameroon have proved themselves unruly, disorderly, and disorganized. Given this state of affairs, it is unlikely that any one of these will pose a formidable opposition to the highly organized ruling CPDM. As a point of fact, many of those who aspire to challenge Mr. Paul Biya for the presidency of the republic are neophytes, inexperienced, and often resort to propounding lofty ideas that some would aptly consign to demagoguery. In as much as some may want to deny the obvious, governing a country in which more than 85 per cent of the population has no inkling about what democracy entails—let alone understand the issues at stake, changing course at this juncture will not but plunge Cameroon into a deluge. Slow but steady progress is much better than retrogression. A different kind of change is required in Cameroon, which must come on the heels of a well contrived and executed policy of education designed to transform the populace from tribal subjects to national citizens. There is no other party in Cameroon that is ready to execute this task than the ruling CPDM.

Shift in Educational Emphasis

To attain the national aspirations of a largely tribal people, however, some prerequisites will have to be met, namely: (1) the political education of the masses to an appreciative level of understanding the basic content of the constitution and their rights as citizens so as to circumvent the continued hegemony of the educated elite who have dominated political life in Cameroon since decolonization; (2) the construction of a new nationalist order in which citizenship shall prevail over tribal identity; and (3) the de-regionalization of the national territory.

What I have I outlined above is a project of deconstruction and reconstruction that will involve every Cameroonian native. Both strands will have to be executed simultaneously. This, of course, is a daunting task because it is rooted in change that summons all to give up something, such as abandoning the customary and embracing something new and seemingly alien, among the most difficult of the customary to relinquish being power and tradition. This is the case because all power, like tradition, is conservative. Those who wield power, like those who practice certain traditions, are habituated to conserving them. They tend to conserve power and tradition because habits are easier formed than eradicated. Consequently, that which they know is always more appealing than that which they know nothing about. It is here that a particular kind of education, far-removed from the customary method of passing on knowledge from generation to generation, enters the fray.

I am proposing a liberal form of education, which is not integral to traditional education that consists of parents and elders passing on the knowledge of customary practices to children and the younger generations. As we all know, traditional education is non-revolutionary, limiting, very conservative, and non-expansive of mental horizons. In traditional educational children inherit knowledge from their parents and this can be seen everywhere in the country. Born in mud hut—a bequest of the elders, the young reproduce mud huts, and wear leopard skin and the plantain leaves that their forebears wore for centuries without end. Confining and non-progressive, traditional education truly is!

The Measure of a Liberal Education

What is a liberal education? A liberal education is essentially the opposite of traditional education. It is non-conservative and aspires to newness, innovation, and change—perpetual change. Liberal education is alien to and destructive of tradition. It opposes abuses of power and human rights, whether by the divine chiefs who possesses magical powers or the corrupt bureaucrats who employ their wield power and authority as instruments for exploiting the people they are charged to serve. Symptomatic of liberal education is the knowledge of right and wrong that it imparts as well as the will to oppose wrong at all times, and to do that which is right, even at the expense of one’s own life. But liberal education cannot function properly in a society mired in tradition.

Lest I be misunderstood, it should be borne in mind that I am not advocating the transference of Western liberal education to Cameroon. Yes, I do not wish to make Cameroonians black Europeans. Therefore, the type of liberal education I am calling for should first undergo a serious transformation and only after it has been thoroughly indigenized can it be implemented. Unlike mathematics and the sciences that are universal, the social sciences cannot be transplanted from the west to Cameroon. There should by African psychology, African political sciences, African sociology, etc., because the psychology of the African, the social realities that they confront, and their politics, are totally different from those of Europeans and other non-Africans.

Many who have tried to infuse liberal knowledge in the space occupied by traditional knowledge have suffered a fate that they never imagined possible. Why? Because the disjuncture that obtains in a society where traditional and liberal knowledge co-exist but where traditional knowledge is still preponderant, support for the few who espouse liberal knowledge is always weak and the prospect of liberal allies abandoning each other as well as their avowed cause very strong. In this society, where the human mind has not yet been developed to decipher myth from fact, the public interest from the private, more important than conviction are food, drink, and wealth accumulation. Steeped in spirituality and scornful of reason and science, many derived consolation for everyday living in the power of a super natural forces that can move mountains, hill the sick, and transform the life of an impoverished jobless man overnight.

Whereas a truly liberal education teaches man how to use reason to transform his social circumstances, tradition affirms the limitations of man and makes no allowance for man to understand and control his personal destiny. Where man cannot control his personal destiny, politics, the instrument that the powerful use to affect social change, is made as distant an attainable reality as only God can bring to the reach of man who possesses only traditional knowledge.

Is it any wonder that even among those who have attained a good dose of liberal knowledge, no sooner they are thrust in the realm of traditional knowledge, invariably are co-opted and lose that once burned in the recesses of their minds? This brief discourse is intended to make you think. Politics cannot be discussed fruitfully in the abstract as many have been doing on this forum. The interplay of traditional knowledge and an incipient form of liberal education makes murky and blurry the political picture that some of us pretend to treat with uncommon clarity.

Deconstructing and Reconstructing Corruption

It isn’t enough to define traditional and liberal education. We must move a step further to demonstrate what these actually entail because there are two important dimensions to knowledge: acquisition and application. Our greatest handicap, it has always been apparent to me, lies in the realm of knowledge application, especially liberal education which is theoretical. The translation of theory into practice is not that easy a feat to accomplish for a people acculturated to practical traditional education. Nowhere is this more discernible than in our traditional understanding of corruption, which we invariably assign to the practitioners and the practitioners only: the bribe givers and takers and embezzlers. It is therefore not uncommon to hear a beneficiary of corruption cast aspersions at a practitioner, even though both are corrupt. To demonstrate this novel construction, permit me to deconstruct our traditional conception of corruption by way of reconstructing it from a liberal perspective.

If one is neither a bribe giver/taker nor embezzler but nonetheless accrues some benefit by association with, or affiliation to, a practitioner, then, the beneficiary of corruption is as corrupt as the bribe giver/taker and embezzler. All native Cameroonians are corrupt by virtue of the fact that we issue from a culture of corruption. We, and our relatives, distant and near, are either takers or givers of bribes; we are either embezzlers or beneficiaries of funds or properties acquired through bribe-giving or bribe-taking, or through embezzlement. When we engage in the enjoyment of the fruits of corruption, we automatically become enablers of the culture of corruption. Yes, it is sheer hypocrisy for us to isolate “others” and accuse them of practicing a socially debilitating culture that we are all mired in, and that is part and parcel of our beings as sons and daughters of Cameroon. If the CPDM is accused of corruption, so are the SDF and all other political parties.

Emmanuel Konde
Professor of History
Albany State University

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