Cameroon: The Case for Federalism 1

Over the last two months, Cameroon has been going through a political crisis which, if not well attended to, could lead to the erosion of the country’s social cohesion. The Anglophone minority has been calling for a federal system that will give greater political and economic powers to the regions. Some have been calling for a two-state federal system;with others clearly holding that a multi-region federation could help reduce corruption that results from central planning. There is however a third factor that is calling for outright secession based on the fact that an independent Southern Cameroons could put an end to the marginalization that Anglophones have witnessed over the last five decades. The government, for its part, holds that the centralized unitary system is a perfect system for the country as it has stood the test of time. While there is a flurry of political options, federalism – be it two-state or multi-region – seems to be attractive to many Cameroonians, including Francophones who, for a long time, have not understood the rationale behind the Anglophone call for a federal system. This therefore requires federalists to explain their stance so as to win hearts and minds in this battle of wills that is clearly tearing the country apart.

Looking at what exists in other parts of the world, there are various ways to justify a preference for federalism. This system of government empowers the population while fostering national cohesion. There are many examples around the world and the United States and Canada are shiny examples of federal systems that have not only stood the test of time, but have also generated wealth for their citizens. They have brought the various peoples in the various states under the same flag and national anthem. There are no people more nationalistic than Americans and while they enjoy extensive federalism, the love for their country can never be questioned. Canadians, for their part, have succeeded to weave a multilingual society where French and English are considered as the country’s official languages of equal importance. This has not only promoted national unity, it has helped to give Canada the solid image of a bilingual and prosperous country where people from various parts of the world can live together in peace and harmony. Canada surely has a few lessons for Cameroon which also uses French and English as the country’s official languages; languages inherited from the country’s colonial past. However, it must be pointed that the political drama playing out in Cameroon goes well beyond language. It borders on marginalization and discrimination as many protesters have been seeking to prove over the last three months.

In Cameroon’s case where a unitary system has been in place for more than fifty-five years, there is a gradual decline in the population’s confidence in the feasibility of rational central planning of an increasingly diverse and complex society. Today, many Cameroonians, especially Anglophones, who have different legal and educational systems, are overly optimistic about the ability of a federal government to find appropriate solutions to the social and economic problems that have been blighting the people’s lives. The unitary state, according to many Cameroonians, has shown its limits. It has not lived up to the people’s glorious expectations. Tribalism, nepotism and corruption have eaten deep into the society’s fabric. Under the country’s unitary system, while huge segments of the population have been wallowing in economic hardship, a few sycophants have been robbing the country blind. Though there have been loud cries for the government to check the financial hemorrhage that has left the country financially anemic, the government seems to be tone deaf, turning a blind eye to the people’s sorry plight.

The call for a federal system does not seem to win hearts and minds among members of the ruling party, many of whom have made huge fortunes out of the chaos that has become the country’s hallmark. This therefore leaves proponents of federalism with the messy task of packaging their message objectively and professionally so as to make it marketable. They need to start by letting the public understand that they are not opposed to all government programmes or policies, but to the inefficient and unaccountable Yaounde-led government bureaucracy that has not only reduced the ordinary Cameroonian to a sorry spectator of events in his country, but also marginalized huge segments of the Cameroonian polity, especially Anglophones. They also have the difficult task of explaining to the populace, especially Francophones and self-proclaimed extremists that their objective is not to destroygovernment, but to return government to the people in a system that will empower the taxpayer and enhance accountability and transparency in the management of state affairs. Instead of just accusing the current government of all the crimes and sins that have been committed over the years, they have to persuade a vast majority of Cameroonians that they need a system of governance that holds out more hope and promise for them, and that that system will grant them the possibility of taking charge of their own destiny. And the ideal system, at least for now,is federalism.

While federalism may not be a commonly understood or appreciated concept in Cameroon today, it has been proven in many parts of the world that it is the only effective and theoretically consistent governance method that can bring about the systemic change of government that Cameroonians in their overwhelming majority have been hankering after.Most Cameroonians care about choice, options, flexibility and freedom. These ingredients are unfortunately lacking in a unitary state and those are the things that federalism offers to a people with an unquenchable thirst for pluralistic democracy. Federalism is, of course, not a panacea, but its benefits are unquestionable. It should not be confused with secession, as in many well established democracies, it is a fundamental vision for transparent and accountable governance. If Cameroon needs to make giant strides forward towards greater national cohesion and sustainable economic development, it needs to embrace federalism as the ideal framework that checks corruption, government excesses and monolithic thinking.

Federalism need not be a partisan issue. It is an idea that should be embraced by the country’s political parties and elite. Sceptics need to understand that a federal system does not necessarily imply the absence of a central authority.  It simply means bringing government closer to the people. It also means less concentration of power, and the right of local governments to grow or shrink according to the desires of the population living in thoseregions.

Similarly, opponents of federalism need to also understand that the majority of Cameroonians are gradually falling in love with the notion of federalism and are gradually understanding that a unitary system does not only disempower them, but shrinks their ability to be in control of their own affairs. There are millions of Cameroonians who do not want a robust public sector which will seek to take control of their lives through unorthodox means. They strongly hold that federalism will create greater freedom and opportunities for them and their children; as it will result in transparent and futuristic management of state affairs. This is not about eroding the country’s cohesion. This is about better governance, greater citizen participation in the running of state affairs and increased accountability to the people who should be the custodians of power. This is also about greater policy choices and flexibility. It is also about breaking up big, inefficient, unresponsive government and returning power to the people.

But advocates of federalism should not be deceived. Yaounde will not give up power voluntarily. Cameroonians will have to take this power through pressure or elections if they want their country to be counted among the prosperous nations of this century. They will need to elect leaders who will be willing to depart from the old and corrupt way of governing; leaders who are determined to leave Yaounde less powerful than it has been over the last fifty-five years. Cameroonians are fed up with the current structure, and rightfully so. The current unitary system concentrates power in a few hands and generates corruption which leads to the loss of taxpayers’ money. The majority of Cameroonians want real and meaningful change, not speeches, promises, policies and decrees that hardly get implemented.

Federalism is not new in Cameroon. It has been tried in Southern Cameroons in the 1960s and its benefits have left many Southern Cameroonians nostalgic of that epoch wherein everybody was equal before the law. Federalism simply underscores that decision-making should be local because it simply works better. It enables local people to make decisions because they can be far more effective given that they know the issues more than people who are many miles away from their region. Regional and local leaders know their communities better than a bunch of detached bureaucrats in Yaounde. It has been proven time and time again that when citizens have the required flexibility and freedom, they can innovate and improve lives better than detached bureaucrats who are more consumed by their desire for the spotlight and the need to develop their personal careers and egos.

By Joachim Arrey

About the Author: The author of this letter has served as a translator, technical writer, journalist and editor for several international organizations and corporations across the globe. He studied communication at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom and technical writing in George Brown College in Toronto, Canada. He is also a trained translator and holds a Ph.D.