Cameroon: Politics in an era of contradictions
KANGSEN FEKA WAKAI: Cameroon’s former minister of Territorial Administration and Decentralization, currently under detention for corruption related charges, has recently published a series of letters, which continue to animate the public sphere. Professor Asonganyi, you were Secretary General of the SDF (Cameroon’s largest opposition party) during most of Marafa Hamidou Yaya’s tenure as head of the ministry that ran the country’s elections. What are your impressions of these letters; does it represent Mr. Marafa’s about-turn, from presidential insider to whistleblower?
PROF ASONGANYI: Yes, I was Secretary General of the SDF, and interacted with Marafa Hamidou Yaya as Minister of Territorial Administration (and Decentralisation), which made him the Chief Electoral Officer in Cameroon. Of course, in that position, he was the chief organizer of electoral fraud in Cameroon. But I am not one of those who would want to use the past misdeeds of Marafa to detract from what he is saying in his letters. In his letters he has raised many important issues, including corruption related to compensation for the victims of the 1995 Camair plane crash and the incompetence of some of those appointed as government ministers. The letters have once more exposed corruption in Cameroon as so commonplace and so acceptable to the regime that Parliament refused to take seriously the revelation that 32.5 billion FCFA was paid to victims of the Camair accident, but the money disappeared into embezzlers’ pockets! And when Paul Biya was recently asked to comment on Marafa’s letters, he responded that he could not comment on comments! In other words, Marafa’s revelations, to Paul Biya, represent just comments! It would be remembered that in the past, when everybody was seeing corruption in our society, Paul Biya was asking for proof! This other statement about comments is only comparable to such debasing lack of leadership in the treatment of serious societal issues. As for Marafa’s about-turn, I think that is the only type of action that will bring change to our country. See who is president of Senegal today; he was once Wade’s [full name] man but they fell out. There is nothing wrong with what Marafa has become.
KANGSEN FEKA WAKAI: Prof, how would you sum up the last twenty-two years of Cameroon’s political history in the context of the evolving world around it? What have been some of the highlights and setbacks?
PROF ASONGANYI: Well, I think that the Cameroon society is made up of human beings like all other societies. But you know the type of institutions in a country influences the political culture of the country, and the political culture influences the national character. These influences in Cameroon have been negative, mainly because the institutions were weak and the future of the country depended too much on the character of the person in charge. The manipulations of the post-independence dictatorial regimes established a culture of fear and intolerance that bred tensions that made it impossible for people of different backgrounds to live together happily in Cameroon. Ending such a culture required working towards changing the politicians and the institutions they controlled. With the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the ensuing pressure for democratization across the world, the various aspirations across the board in Cameroon were revived, which resulted in the launching of the Social Democratic Front (SDF) in 1990. The SDF was therefore created, as stated in its Manifesto, in answer to the call of Conscience, History, and Destiny to bring true democracy and a bright and humane future for Cameroon. This is why the party declared her determination to change for good the unwholesome situation that prevailed and usher in a new, healthy, bright, and democratic era in Cameroon.
But all the promises represented just intentions expressed by the SDF to bring change to Cameroon. They needed to be transformed into reality by politicians. Good intentions have never been a safeguard; as stated by John Steinbeck, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” This transformation had to be the work of politicians. Yet, many in the leadership of the SDF who were supposed to transform intentions to reality seemed to see politics more in the context of demagoguery, petty rivalry, and time-wasting. Politics was never taken for what it is: an art that provides an alternative to violence and bloodshed; an art that provides formulae that allow people to overcome past failures and provide solutions to seemingly insoluble problems.
Overall, Cameroon has been part of the world but has not kept pace with the world. There has been electoral fraud that blocked the advent of change in Cameroon through the ballot box, but it is electoral fraud that brought the Aquino revolution in the Philippines that overthrew the entrenched power of Ferdinand Marcos, using “people power.” We have not had the leadership that mobilized the people appropriately to understand their power and use it to remove all obstacles on their path towards democracy.
KANGSEN FEKA WAKAI: Saharareporters.com columnist, Rudolf Okonkwo has divided Nigerians into three groups: “those who are embezzling the commonwealth; those who cannot wait for their chance to embezzle what is left; and those on the side, with their tails behind their legs, complaining.” If we substitute Nigeria with Cameroon, does this assessment of Nigeria apply to the Cameroon, and if not, what in your opinion are some of the differences?
PROF ASONGANYI: We live today in Cameroon in the incredible contradiction of a society where wealth comes more from how best individuals can manipulate the system rather than from honesty and hard work. Corruption and embezzlement in Cameroon are played out by actors made up of mainly civil servants; most of them build expensive houses and ride expensive cars; if they saved all their salaries for 30 years, they could not build the houses or buy the cars. Corruption has become so commonplace and so acceptable to the regime that only cosmetic institutions to fight corruption make noises everyday. Of course, this makes our society not different from all other societies where corruption is prevalent. Therefore, in Cameroon we have those who are already at the table “embezzling the commonwealth,” those who are singing praises of the regime and gesticulating so that they can be invited to the table to have their “chance to embezzle what is left,” and those who are in the “opposition” and “civil society,” mainly ineffective structures packed full of complaining members “with their tails behind their legs.”
KANGSEN FEKA WAKAI: Franco-Cameroonian investigative journalist, Charles Onana’s, Côte d’Ivoire: Le coup d’Etat (editions Duboiris, 2011), in which he argues—with convincing evidence—that the post-election standoff was nothing short of a coup meant to topple outgoing President Laurent Gbagbo. What do you think the Ivorian crisis revealed about elections in our part of the world, the susceptibility of the institutions of ‘small’ nations and to the role of international institutions and foreign powers in brokering internal political disputes?
PROF ASONGANYI: Let me start by stating clearly that Gbagbo is a great friend; when I was still in the SDF, our parties, the FPI and the SDF, were in the Socialist International, and the two parties developed quite some friendship. However, I did not like the equivocation of the FPI on the issue of “ivoirité.” I also did not agree with Gbagbo’s effort to prolong his stay in power. In a way, he tried to meet a common saying that in Africa, once the cuckoo forces itself into the nest, it stays there and is not to be moved! This is why I wrote the following after the electoral debacle in Côte d’Ivoire: “Not to worry: elections are being held left and right, with varying outcomes. That in Côte d’Ivoire left the people Mugabe’ed or Kibakied, whichever you like. Do not mind the motions of support trickling there from ‘social democratic’ and ‘leftwing’ groupings. The Biyas, Wades and others of the same feathers are chuckling in amusement at the fact that they are usually confronted by noises about commitment to values like social justice, democracy, liberty, mutual obligation, opportunity for all, responsibility… The ‘left-wingers’ may retort that it is precisely because of these values that they refuse to hand-over power on a platter of gold to the other side, whatever the decision of the people. Pity for those who thought that ‘leftwing’ politics could bring progress to Africa; pity for Africa and the prospect for continental peace and tranquility…”
You know, following the independence of our countries in the ‘60s, constitutionalism was adopted as the form of government for the management of society. Although we opted for constitutionalism and made sure our constitutions opened with “We the People,” the constitutions were just rules and procedures to regulate the affairs of those who already had power. Once you opt for constitutionalism, it is believed that you have also opted for universal values like liberalism, human rights, equality, liberty, the rule of law, democracy, free markets, the separation of church and state, etc. These “universal” values are considered to be “Western values” which Africa has to learn and integrate in their systems in order to be “civilised.” Elections are one of the “values.” Like so many of the values, it is usually enough to drum them into “Western” ears; what is actually practiced does not matter a lot, like the constitutions in which the president is virtually a constitutional monarch, and elections that suffer from many shortcomings, and many others…
If our institutions are not working and we are not clever enough to reform or change them, that is our problem. After all, following the independence and the assuming of power by Americans themselves, they quickly discovered that their new political world suffered from instability, inequity, and interest-domination; their elected representatives turned out to be as dangerous as the colonists they had defeated in war. Their analysis showed that the problem was with human nature; therefore the constitution of 1787, based on “the people,” maintained the plurality of the people that ensured that no group, no institution, and no branch of government could claim to act in the name of “the” people. In short, they instituted the separation of powers and checks and balances. I am not usually one of the Africans that indulge in blame games against “the West” because we need change, but they think that somebody else can come and effect the change for us.
KANGSEN FEKA WAKAI: What lessons can the next generation of players in the political sphere learn from your generation, which spearheaded what I like to think of as the ‘second liberation struggle’ of the nineteen-nineties?
PROF ASONGANYI: We made many promises and expressed many intentions. All of them needed to be transformed into reality by politicians. I have already said that politics is an art which, if well practiced, can provide an alternative to violence and bloodshed; an art that provides formulae that allow people to overcome past failures and provide solutions to seemingly insoluble problems. Practicing politics effectively emanates from strong human interactions. Successful human interaction depends on the full grasp of the complexities of human nature, familiarity with the virtues and infirmities of politics, and the understanding that ambition is a strong human passion and a universal feeling. Successful human interaction depends on how strong human egos, divergent views, and the general feelings, motives and desires of others are handled, how injured feelings are repaired. Successful human interaction depends on several qualities of decency and morality – kindness, sensitivity, compassion, honesty, and empathy; on the ability to overcome personal vendetta, petty-jealousies, humiliation, or bitterness. It is because our generation did not master these that we were unable to mount a formidable political force to change our society. The next generation should take these virtues seriously. Successful human interaction cannot be helped by a personality cult that slowly breeds vocal sycophants.
The next generation should also know that leadership is critical in all struggles: it is critical to harnessing free elements to produce results; to uniting and conjugating human forces to achieve desired ends; to achieving successful human interactions. Strong leadership must work for the general interest as opposed to personal enrichment. Leadership should create durable democratic institutions that could operate independent of charismatic leadership.
Tazoacha Asonganyi is a lecturer at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Yaounde in Cameroon. He served as Secretary General of the Social Democratic Front (SDF), the country’s leading opposition party, from 1994-2005.