Paul Atanga Nji, Minister in Charge of Special Duties at the Presidency, talks about the protests in Douala and why he thinks the constitution should be amended.
The night of Saturday February 23, breaking Sunday February 24, was turbulent in Douala as administrative authorities had to contain a protest on the Douala-Yaounde highway. What is your reaction to this incident?
It is a regrettable situation. I strongly believe that all these things are being orchestrated by the Social Democratic Front, SDF. Why I say so is because the SDF knows very well that political rallies have been banned in the Littoral Province until further notice. Yet, they insist on organising these rallies to expose the lives of innocent citizens. This is a wilful intention to create disorder in the province. The Governor of the Littoral Province said that until further notice, all political rallies have been banned. I believe that he arrived at this decision because people have made it a habit of not respecting the law. In the Cameroon People's Democratic Movement, CPDM, we always take an authorisation before any meeting. So, if the ruling party can obey such laws, what more of the opposition? I think the leaders of these political parties, which want to create disorder, should realise that we have been living in a peaceful situation in Cameroon and the President has fought for 25 years to consolidate this peace, unity and stability. They should know that no one will accept any more of these irresponsible activities organised just to push the government to the wall. So, it should be clear that if they want to operate legally, they have to respect the rules of the land. On the contrary, if they do not respect the rules in force, they will be considered as vandals and treated as such.
Apparently, no political party was visibly present or has claimed responsibility for the disorder on the Yaounde-Douala highway. The population was actually demonstrating for some other reason
There is instigation. And once again, I put the responsibility on those who have been trying to organise political rallies and have not been successful. But what is clear is that the political parties will never claim responsibility when there is disorder. But they indirectly instigate people to come out on the streets so that they will be in a position to face the forces of law and order. In cases like that, you know there is provocation. And in case of provocation, people loose their tempers. And the situation might degenerate.
But the SDF leader, Ni John Fru Ndi, says he is bent on organising rallies despite the ban?
This has been the habit of SDF since the party was launched in 1990. But people should understand that the SDF is inconsistent and has lost its base. The SDF started with 65 parliamentarians. Now they have only 14 parliamentarians after a lot of difficulties; it could have been less. This means the population has realised that the SDF is a party which is not constructive. They are only out to destroy all the achievements that the New Deal has put in place for the past 25 years. We cannot accept and we shall not accept. We will not even give them the opportunity to create disorder. As other political leaders have said, peace and stability are a great achievement that we have had in the country thanks to Paul Biya. We will not allow any person to jeopardise the peaceful situation in which we are living.
You index the SDF, but other political leaders like Mboa Massock are also organising demonstrations on the streets against the revision of the constitution. How can we then reduce this to an SDF affair?
I think Mboa Massock and the SDF are fighting under the same umbrella. They have put up the "Front unis" against the modification of the constitution. In this "Front unis" you have Mboa Massock and all the parliamentarians of the SDF. They are the same people who have decided never to respect the laws of the land. In any case, we have tried to bring these people to reason so that they can respect the laws. But if they cannot, the government will be obliged to use other means to bring order to Douala, same as in any other localities where peace is threatened.
It appears that the on-going debate on the revision of the constitution is at the base of all these civil disobedience?
The modification of the constitution is a popular debate. And the sovereign people of Cameroon have asked the Head of State to modify their constitution; amend some articles which are no more realistic for now. The Head of State had said in his speech on France 24 that it is an open debate. Militants of the party started writing that we should amend the constitution. People should, however, know that it is not a CPDM affair because religious authorities, the civil society and even business men also wrote calling for the constitution to be amended. Anyway, the CPDM occupies and controls about 85 per cent of the political network nation-wide. Besides, we have other leaders like Issa Tchiroma and Antar Gassagay who have also come out strong in favour of the modification of the constitution. Other political leaders should do the same thing. It is a debate and everyone should bring his or her own idea. We should not go to the streets. And it is also important to know that the Head of State defines the policies of the nation. He who defines the policy, also has the prerogative to ask for a constitutional amendment. Cameroonians should also know that Mboa Massock has no political party. By implication, he has no legal platform that he can use to push Cameroonians to react. If he wants to be a political leader, let him create a political party.
But Mr Fru Ndi has not said that he is against the revision of the constitution. Rather, he has called for a constitutional conference. Do you see this as being against the revision?
The constitution has clearly specified the forum under which it can be revised. We have the National Assembly, the referendum and the Head of State who incarnates the institutions of the country. There is no text indicting that we can use a constitutional Conference to modify the constitution. So, those political leaders who are asking for a Constitutional conference are ill-informed. It is important for Cameroonians to know that the SDF Chairman has never accepted Cameroon's constitution. During the tripartite meeting, when Fru Ndi was called, he came and said that he cannot be a member and cannot accept what was going on. In 1996, when Mr Achidi Achu was Prime Minister, Fru Ndi was called again to give his opinion for the constitutional debate. He said he could not come. So, how can he pretend to defend something today that he did not defend in 1996? Anyway, the government knows what has to be done. The political parties, in their majority, have officially expressed the wish for a constitutional amendment. I can say it is an irreversible process. And in any democratic process, the majority carries the vote and the minority has the obligation to respect the will of the majority.
So, as a politician, why do you think the constitution of Cameroon should be revised now?
I think the sovereign people of Cameroon are saying that the present context does not permit us to accept the present constitution. It was a constitution of consensus. And a consensus is usually being made to satisfy certain conditions. And that was what was done during the tripartite talks. Now, Cameroonians are saying that it is anti democratic to limit the presidential term of office. This is because the will of the people at one given time will be hushed because the President will not be allowed to go beyond his term of office even if Cameroonians want him to continue. And that is why all Cameroonians have been calling and writing that we want the Head of State to stand as President beyond 2011. The will of the people must be accepted and respected. The President has even gone further because in his end of year address to the nation on December 31, 2007, he said that other aspects of the constitution which he thinks could be readjusted would be taken care of. We need to have confidence in our president. He is not only the president of the CPDM, but the president of all Cameroonians. I think, as Head of State, he is a very responsible person and will take into consideration all the remarks which have been made on the constitution.
Some people think the present constitutional amendment is simply to enable the President to extend his mandate. What have you to say?
The modification is for general interest. The President has always said that we have to be patriotic because people will go and the nation and its institutions will remain. The Head of State has reiterated this in most of his speeches since he came to power in 1982. We are talking here about amending a constitution which has some shortcomings which in the long run could create other problems. That is why things have to be looked into today. It is not a problem of President Biya. I expect Cameroonians to put general interest above partisan politics. And that is what the CPDM is doing and trying to explain after the seminar which was organised for section presidents. The Secretary General of the Central Committee of the party told us that the debate on the constitutional amendment is open and that we are supporting the modification of the constitution because we are defending national interest. We are expected to chart the way forward for Cameroonians and I think that is the aim of the on-going debate.
But sceptics say our attention now should rather be focused on seeking ways of improving the living conditions of Cameroonians
We cannot talk about living standards now because those are issues which will always come up in the life of a nation. But a constitutional debate is something very important as it is above personal interest. And as for the timing, the President of the Republic, who defines the policy of the nation, knows the timing. The debate is on. The President, who incarnates our institutions, will tell us when it is convenient for him to do it. But one thing is certain; the majority of Cameroonians have accepted the idea to amend the constitution. As for us in the CPDM, the amendment should be done now.
With the prevailing spirit of discontent against the high cost of living, don't you think those who are against the revision of the constitution can exploit the situation?
I don't think there is general feeling of discontent.
The price hikes, transporters wanting to go on strike
The inflation is worldwide. It should not be seen as a Cameroonian affair. For instance, when you import goods, you resell them in the local market with regards to the price at which they were bought. I don't think we should use this aspect to put aside something which has to do with the general interest of all. If people are buying a bag of cement which used to cost FCFA 5000 now for FCFA 7000, it is not the fault of the government. On the contrary, the government is doing all at its reach to fight this inflation. However, some people who want to create confusion are doing everything to ensure that there is inflation. This notwithstanding, inflation and constitutional change are two different things. Even if we were not talking about the constitutional debate or amendment, the government will still work for the good of the common man.
What concretely is the message you want Cameroonians to take home?
The message is that the President of the Republic wants what is good for Cameroonians. And when he takes a stance, Cameroonians should follow him. For the past 25 years, he has always taken good decisions for the interest of Cameroonians. Fru Ndi is calling for a Constitutional Conference today. In 1990, he called for the Sovereign National Conference. Today, do you know that all the countries which organised that Sovereign National Conference are crying that they were misled? I think these are examples that we should take into consideration. The Head of State knows what is good for Cameroonians and when he takes a decision, we should respect the point of view because he has the experience; he has expertise and has been working for general interest. We of the CPDM, we who have a good leader, will also defend national interest.