The Anglophone Problem and the imperative for a National Conference 1

The government needs not see a national conference as a threat; but as a great political opportunity to make Cameroon great again for all Cameroonians.

There is little doubt that Cameroon is presently in an unhealthy state that needs urgent redress. And having regard to the country’s complexities – in terms of population, multiple ethnic nationalities, languages, diverse culture, interests, and various natural resources located in different places – a most acceptable way to bring about the redress is to engage in a discussion that will involve all stakeholders. Democratic governance has not delivered the desired dividends. Cameroonians remain largely poor; in fact, among the poorest people in the world. At a time like this when the country is facing frightening prognostications and the drums of war are sounding in the horizon, any forum grouping Cameroon’s ethnic nationalities obviously provides a platform for all component groups, to search for an ideal system for a country that has been stuck in political quagmire since independence and re-unification in 1961. Indeed, the Anglophone demonstrations for system change, is a function of disillusionment with the status quo. Against this background should be situated the urgent need for the President to organize a national conference to discuss issues that currently cause friction in the country.

Amid the current clamor for independence by disgruntled Anglophones protesting marginalization, President Biya told the US Ambassador to Cameroon, Michael Hoza, that he is disposed to dialogue to resolve these issues. The fact that the President himself has reportedly underscored the need for dialogue is a welcome and laudable development. Cameroonians should hold the President to his word. But whatever form such a dialogue will take and whether or not it will be a national conference, the high hope and expectation of many Cameroonians is that such a forum will provide all Cameroonians a vent to reflect on the health of the nation. Of great importance and a cause for concern to the public is the time framework of such a dialogue. Whatever the permutation, the dialogue must hold before the 2018 presidential election and the number of participants should not be too large as to make it unwieldy. And its report should not be subjected to a nauseating bureaucratic process of a further review by another committee, a pattern that has earned the administration the label of a “government by committees.”

 Against this backdrop, it may be useful for the forum to consider the following issues. First; the political system. In considering a way out of the quagmire of abuse of the political system, the forum/conference should not lose sight of the fact that the problem is not so much about the absence of prescriptions for overcoming the socio-economic and political inertia of the country, as the absence of political will by those in authority positions to do what is right for Cameroon. It is clear that Cameroon’s problems center on the primary issue of co-existence among its component nationalities; the institutionalization of the political foundation of governance, the super-structural framework and system of government; democracy deficit within political parties, effective fight against corruption; high cost of governance; and the thorny issue of marginalization and under-development of natural resource-endowed regions.

To which end, any useful reform should begin with a review of the current semi-presidential system of government because of its inherent financial burden and vulnerability to corruption. This necessarily engenders some questions: Has Cameroon a constitutional problem or human integrity problem? In point of fact, the overriding objective for adopting the semi-presidential system was the desire to build a strong center in order to avert the centrifugal strains from the nation’s diversity and consolidate national unity. An additional reason was probably to allow whoever would lead the country, the opportunity to solicit votes and win a measure of national legitimacy. This however, has not healed the many contradictions of the nation. Cries of marginalization have persisted along with hegemonic politicking. Some have argued that the problem is not with the system of government, insisting that Cameroon has a human integrity problem. The point is driven home that Cameroonians are corrupt and the human deficits are transferred unto the political institutions to create an institutional integrity crisis for the country.

Next is the governance structure. There is near consensus that the current governance structure is doomed. The existing 10 regions constitute a drainpipe on national coffers as the nation continues to fund moribund and unproductive regional bureaucracies, which together with the central administration consume over 70% of the budget. It is imperative that the cost of governance is whittled down to the barest minimum to unleash resources for priority development projects in the country. Therefore, as it should by now be clear to all, the envisaged federalism should not become the obsession of rent-seeking elite, to accentuate ethnic and other primordial fault-lines across the country. In addition, slashing the jumbo pay of lawmakers and even introducing part-time legislators as practiced in some countries will be invaluable to cutting the cost of governance.

Equally, the structure of a government is a reflection of the structure of the economy and unless there is change in the relations of production which currently rewards indolence and allows for all forms of conspicuous consumption and primitive accumulation of state resources outside genuine production processes, whatever system adopted will fail. After independence, agriculture fueled the venality of public officials. Today, the vice has quadrupled. It has produced a bizarre practice in which government machinery is in the hands of a vampire elite of octogenarians who have captured and taken the country hostage. Rather than be seen as the logical conclusion of service to the country, retirement is now seen as punishment; and nobody wants to go on retirement. The situation in the military is even worse, as Generals don’t go on retirement. The national dialogue must address this anomaly, which is by far the most fundamental contradiction of our democratic system since the return to multiparty.

The dialogue must also, as a matter of urgency address the worrisome democracy deficit within existing political parties. Political parties, the engine room of modern democracy, have been emasculated by the founding fathers. There have been no changes in the leadership of political parties as the founders see the parties as their personal property, and run them like their private kitchens. Officials elected on political party platforms must show “gratitude” to the founder by paying “royalties” to the party leader as obtains in the SDF, where MPs contribute FCFA 100,000 monthly for “the upkeep of the chairman”.  In the ruling CPDM, the situation is even more pathetic; underlined by arbitrariness and imposition of candidates qualified as “consensus.” Internal democracy bothers on legitimacy, which inheres in the principle of consent. Therefore, it should be operationalized and consolidated to create space for free political competition within legitimate rules and institutions. Cameroon is replete with instances of contempt and absolute disregard for the rule of law by politicians, which accounts a great deal for the poor governance output and do-or-die politics.

Above all, the dialogue must also address the vexing issue of revenue allocation which has been a source of tension in the country, given that the Anglophone region produces over 60%, yet does not get back even 5% in terms of development projects and appointments into high public office. The main contention is resource control. An unencumbered federation should allow federating States to control their resources based on the principle of 100% derivation with taxes paid to the central government. Available statistics show that there is hardly any part of Cameroon without any natural endowment. States should have full control of whatever natural resources that they are endowed with by providence. This will obviate the overt no-man’s-land mentality with which the national patrimony is viewed and engender a new form of production relations in the country. Finally, the national dialogue must face the issue of corruption and the entrenched waywardness of politicians and public officials, who have conspired to bleed Cameroon into bankruptcy.

 Lastly, it is simultaneously imperative that whatever new reforms emanate from the national dialogue be subjected to popular affirmation through a referendum. After many false starts, dashed hopes, and perennially low expectation, there is now need for Cameroon at 55, to seek a change of direction. The national dialogue must reset the agenda for the country to correct the contradictions in the polity; infuse hope and renewed sense of purpose in the citizens. A government is best remembered by the fundamental policies it enunciates, not by how long that government lasts. In theory and practice, it has been sufficiently demonstrated that sovereignty resides in the people and the very idea of a dialogue meets the expectation of Cameroonians. Cameroon can come out of such a forum a galvanized country, moving in a totally new direction, with emphasis on the interest of the Cameroonian people, not the temporary occupants of high offices.

By Valerian Ekinneh Agbaw-Ebai