Cameroon: Consider Yaounde Gathering a Step Not a Solution - Christopher Fomunyoh

Christopher Fomunyoh
25 October 2019

Niamey — AllAfrica's Michael Tantoh attended the Constitutional Term Limits Summit in Niamey, Niger, and spoke with the National Democratic Institute's Africa and Regional Director for International Affairs, Dr. Christopher Fomunyoh.

Don't you think it's time to focus more on the electoral process than the term limits? Because the reason many leaders change the constitution is because the process has been tailored to favour them.

Elections are a process and not just a technical exercise and elections take place within a particular context and some times elections are won and lost even before election day. So if you don't fix the overall environment in which elections are being conducted, focusing solely on elections might not fix the problem. That's why its better to have a broader framework that is healthy enough for democratic practices.

Once you create an environment that a leader doesn't feel that they will be in power for ever, that leader will have an incentive to put in place institutions that can guarantee constitutional governance for a sustainable period of time. That's why it is important to first deal with something that touches on that overall environment before you even get to elections. If we get this right then governments will be more inclined to strengthen the institutions like the judiciary and the legislation as the overall environment will make sure that they do not perpetuate themselves in power.

Among the younger generation there is this feeling that French-speaking African countries are still under the control of France and if we don't fix that problem it's very unlikely anything will change.

I think its a very legitimate question because if you look at what has transpired on this continent since the 1990s, since the third wave of democratization, we see that on balance English speaking countries have fared better in regular elections, the renewal of political leadership without violence, the lack of contestation of electoral outcomes in new parliaments that have been established and they continue to exercise legislative control over the executive branch.

You begin to wonder whether there is a difference in the way political institutions are set up in French speaking Africa that makes it difficult for democracy to take root ... if it's the constitutional model that have been adopted, for example excessive presidentialism in Francophone Africa, then we must deal with it. I remember in 2001 writing an article ... in which I highlighted that fact that in Francophone Africa, even when new institutions emerge, because they are not thoroughly implanted in the structural environment in which they are created, they might not last very long. And that's the reason we see that the enthusiasm that came out in the 1990s with national conferences in a number of countries have withered down.

Even some of those countries that were leading because, the environment, the societal fundamentals are not there. Whereas in English speaking countries, because they were under indirect rule by the British, they allowed citizens in those colonies to make decisions about their own institutions at the local level that they grew up with a sense of empowerment and making their own decisions. I think that something that the new generation of Africans are still working on. Interestingly, the new generation of francophones are no longer striving to study only in Paris. They are striving to study in Britain and U.S. Canada and even in Germany because they too are aspiring for new ideas to take home.

When we were growing up we had this thing called Self Reliance Development that the Organization of African Unity came up with to decolonize Africans. With the new generation, do you think it's time the AU also has programs that tackle these governance issues at the school level? So we can catch them young and in that way build stronger institutions in the next 20 to 30 years?

That's a very important point and I'm actually gratified that the AU sent very high-level representation to this conference. In the last plenary session, the representative of the African Union spoke about the efforts that the AU is putting in place to sensitize on the benefits of the African Charter on Democracy Elections and Governance, and they are talking to ministries of education around the continent to see how this charter can be incorporated into school curriculum so that kids right from young ages begin to imbibe with the values of democratic governance. I think the AU should be commended for that idea and also needs to be encouraged to internationalize that as soon as possible because the younger generation needs to have these values imbibed in them as they go on.

Let's go to Cameroon now. What is your take on the dialogue to bring an end to the Anglophone crisis?

Well, I'm just very saddened by what has happened in Cameroon and the lives that have been lost in the past three years and tens of thousands of people that are now refugees in other countries, the hundred of thousands of people now internally displaced, the amount of property that has been destroyed, and even just the trauma to which the population is now exposed. That's going to take us years to try to heal and I think a lot of serious issues have now come to the fore with regards to the conditions of Anglophones in Cameroon.

I think the Anglophones issue is something that will have to be dealt with. Many of us have been saying for decades that there was an Anglophone issue and needed to be dealt with and now it has become a full blown crisis that has been described in some cases as a civil war or an armed conflict. I think that its going to take some hard work to resolved this crisis. Now that the dialogue is beyond us, it has now happened, I hope the people in Yaounde don't see that as the end of the issue. I think its only one step and we will have to wait for the conclusions of the Yaounde gathering to be made public to know what other steps needs to be taken in search of a solution. While the gathering was going on there were still a number of incidents in the North West and South West regions of Cameroon which shows that not everyone at the grassroots believe the gathering in Yaounde is an opportunity to tackle this crisis. For me its one small piece and we need to take more steps to tackle the problem from the origin.

What do you could resolve this situation as there are talks of decentralization, federalism and some mention all out separation? Opinions are divided.

Opinions are really divided. One of those solutions that they put on the table has a lot of problems. We have to put those options on the table, weigh the pros and cons and come up with a conclusion on the way forward. As for decentralization, no body takes that seriously anymore because the government itself wrote decentralization in the constitution 23 years ago. So people look and say if this government could not implement its own decentralization in 23 years, what will make Cameroonians believe that it will all of a sudden.

It was the same government that dismantled a constitution that was working and broke the federal system that was put in place by the constitution, and banned the use of the word federalism on public media. What makes Cameroonians think that they can implement it well when they don't believe in it, when they dismantled the original federation.

Then you talk about cessation and people will tell you that's not even an option because Africa is trying to build bigger regional associations. So we have to be level headed about it, but all the options on the table have to be carefully assessed to determine the best way forward. My fear is that anything imposed on the people from above will probably not work and maybe rejected by the population.

From what you are saying it seems you don't think the present government is up to the task...

Do you even have to think it? Just look at where we are, If they were competent enough we will not be where we are today. I wrote a book on The Cameroon of Tomorrow, in which I said in 2013, let's watch out because the country is not on the right path. Look at where we are today. If the government were competent it would have resolved this crisis. In fact in some ways, its because of the poor management of the crisis that what started up in 2016 as a petition by lawyers and teachers has now degenerated into an armed conflict. Its obvious, I don't even have to say it. Cameroonians can see where we are today and ask themselves whether the Cameroon we see today is better than what we had 20 or 30 years ago and if the response is no, the conclusion is evident for everyone.

Do you think that if we didn't have the constitutional change that has kept Biya in power till now things would have been different in some way?

Maybe it would have been different because one of the main advantages of the renewal of political leadership is that ... new leaders always want to introduce innovative ideas to show that they are different from their predecessors and new leaders open up other opportunities for engagement with citizens that may not have existed in the past. In that new one, we have opportunities to then put things on the table, try new ideas and find solutions to problems that in the past they might have been unable to resolve.

So if you had to make some recommendations on the way forward what will they be?

Well I will remind you that as recently as in November 2018, I came up with a 10 point write-up on how I thought the present crisis in Cameroon could be resolved and I still believe that publication ... is as relevant today as it was then. I feel that we have to recognize that we have a serious national crisis in our hand. A crisis that is viewed as existential by a substantial population of our country and then on the basis of that, think very clearly on how we can safeguard the country and not just the power of a few individuals.

I think that if people are approaching the question and trying in every way to preserve the power of a few individuals, we are going to end up losing the entire country. If we approach this as a way to to salvage the country and rebuild ... we may be able to put up a plan that the vast majority of Cameroonians might adhere to and that will help us to rebuild from the destruction that has been caused within the past three years.

There are those who believe that for anything meaningful to come out of this dialogue, armed groups would have to take part. This didn't happen. Do you think there's a way forward with these groups absent?

I would say what I said before, that the gathering in Yaounde should be seen as a step and not be seen as the final solution. It must be seen as one step towards finding a final solution. I think that there could still be ways to engage with the armed groups that were not present, to be sure that their input is collected in a way that will lead to propositions that they will adhere to. I think it would be a big mistake if the Yaounde gathering is considered as the final solution to this crisis. If we see that as one step then we will all be encouraged to take subsequent steps to try to bring into the conversation the voices that might not have been heard.

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