Golden Anniversary of Independence: Anything to Celebrate?

Prof. Alpaslan Ozerdem*


As is the case for 16 other African countries, this year is the 50 the anniversary of independence for Cameroon. The year of 1960 was a remarkable turning point in the history of those countries(1), as it was the end of colonisation with many hopes and expectations invested for a future in which they could be their own rulers. To celebrate the occasion, H.E. President Paul Biya of Cameroon organized an international conference entitled Africa 21 in Yaoundé, the capital city of the country, on 17-19 May in order to explore contemporary challenges faced by the continent. At- tended by a number of head of states of Central and West African countries; Jean Ping, Chairperson of the Com- mission of the African Union; Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations; Mohamed El Baradei, former Di- rector General of the International Atomic Energy Agency; many academics; and representatives of multinational banks and companies, and civil society organisations, it was a great and colourful occasion; though was slightly chaotic at times, as many of such events which involve head of states and their entourages! However, watching the independence Day parade of  military forces and civilians on 20 the May, the question I had in mind was what there is for Cameroon to celebrate in terms of its achievements over the last 50 years.

In his inaugural ceremony speech of the conference, President Biya asked the same question for all of these 17 African countries, stating that for them building their states had to start ‘from the bottom’ as they lacked the necessary human re- sources, they were ‘confined to subsistence and the informal economy’, and they ‘inherited vast territories, without geographical harmony, without linguistic ethnic homogeneity, without cultural cohesion…And each one of us,…’ he continued ‘…with disparate puzzle pieces, has done what took old nations centuries t o accomplish.’ Therefore, it is also important to remember that Cameroon started its journey as an independent state on 1 January 1960 against such a socio-economic background. With a population less than 20 million and a territory twice bigger than the United Kingdom, Cameroon is bordered by six countries (in clock wise direction, Nigeria, Chad, Central African Republic, the Repub- lic of the Congo, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea) and the Atlantic Ocean. The Portu- guese explorers were the first to set foot on Cameroon (the name Cameroon derives from Rio dos Camarőes – the river of prawns) in the 15 the Century. The Germans arrived in 1884 and eventually were the first to colonise Cameroon. The present territory was divided into two parts by France and Britain as League of Nations mandates after the World War I, bringing the Francophone and Anglophone dimensions to its present day culture, governance and international relations. Moreover, due to its cultural (250 ethnic and linguistic groups and several religions) and geo- graphic diversity, Cameroon is also known as ‘Africa in miniature’. Moreover, with many rivers and lakes, thick forest, large agricultural land, and deposits of cobalt, iron, gold, diamond and oil, the country is rich with natural resources. In other words, the nature has been generous enough to make this country a success story as an independent state but has it really been so far?

Let’s begin with the ‘achievements’: to start with, Cameroon has enjoyed a long period of social and political stability since its independence, which is a rarity for African states, and the way that the power was handed over from its first President, Ahmadou Adijho to Paul Biya in 1982 in a peaceful manner played a significant role in this. In a regional context, apart from some border issues with Nigeria and other small problems with Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon has also been at peace with its neighbours. The country with an over $2,500 GDP per capita (PPP) is relatively richer than many other sub – Saharan African countries and again equipped with relatively good roads, commercial ports, international airports and other infrastructure, its economy has built a substantial manufacturing basis around textile, timber, mining and food processing,

“…due to its cultural (250 ethnic and linguistic groups and several religions) and geographic diversity, Cameroon is also known as ‘Africa in miniature’.”

representing up to 30% of GDP in 2009. Since 1986, state education has consistently received the largest budget share in the government; hence the primary school attendance rate in the country is close to 100%(2). There are six national universities some of which are the best higher education institutions in Central Africa. Finally, one of the, if not the most, proudest achievements of Cameroon is probably its national football teamles lions indomptables. Having qualified for the World Cup finals four times and won African Nations Cup four times, Indomitable Lions have probably become the best ambassador of the country.

All these facts make a relatively positive reading for a country that has been independent for only 50 years, but the question is ‘are they really enough?’ Considering the country’s natural resources and the fact of a consistent political stability since its independence, the answer is probably ‘no, it is not’. In his conference inaugural speech, the President was defiant about the lack of achievements as he urged to consider the challenges they faced in their state building over the last 50 years: ‘We have undoubtedly proceeded by trial and error. But could it have been otherwise? I have mentioned our unpreparedness and inexperience. I could as well have included hunger, pandemics, civil war, external pressure and even corruption to justify our failures. We prefer to accept responsibility and say: “we have done our best”.’

Nevertheless, it could be argued that Cameroon could have been economically richer and infrastructurally much better equipped, if it could have dealt with its two major shortcomings which are the distribution of wealth between elites and population in general, and corruption. Having spent its entire post – i n d e p e n d e n c e period under only two presidents, the country has benefited from the stability this has brought. However, it also seems to have created a stifled political environment in which for example, being within the close circle of the President seems to be considered as the greatest achievement by those who govern the country. There are national and local elections, but it is a very rare occasion for the country’s National Assembly to block or change any legislation proposed by the President. Many people I talked to during my visit complained about the ‘division’ be- tween the President and population, as otherwise, they always referred to him as ‘father’ in an affectionate way. They wanted him to interact with Cameroonians more and see the problems in situ by visiting different parts of the country more often. Even those at high levels of judiciary and bureaucracy have found it difficult to have an access to the President, creating a cer- tain level of vacuum in decision making processes. Such a gap is also the main reason why many of my interviewees be- lieved that the fight against corruption and attempts for a fairer wealth distribution have largely failed so far. They thought the President has always had the best intentions to deal with these problems, and the establishment of the National Anti – Corruption Observatory in 2006 and re- cent imprisonment of several ministers on corruption charges are considered as indicators of this. Nevertheless, these measures seem to be not very effective so far, as according to Transparency Inter- national Corruption Perceptions Index 2009, Cameroon was at the 146 the place out of 180 countries, putting it around the same level with such countries as Russia, Kenya and Zimbabwe. In fact, comparing with the 2007 Index the corruption in Cameroon seems to have relatively worsened since, as in that year Cameroon was at the 138 the place out of 179 countries.

“corruption is clearly the most significant challenge faced by the country today, but having said that another important difficulty may be only in stand-by position: the future of Cameroon after President Biya.”

As identified by all interviewees too, corruption is clearly the most significant challenge faced by the country today, but having said that another important difficulty may be only in stand-by position: the future of Cameroon after President Biya. After the last year’s amendment in the electoral law, 78 year old President will be able to run for the office once again in the next year’s presidential elections. Having participated in

“The division between the Francophone majority and minority Anglophones seems to be considered as the most significant political fault-line that could be exploited for the creation of conflict dynamics in the country.”

them, nobody has any doubts that he would also win them. From a Western – centric liberal democracy perspective this may sound like a doomed and gloom story, as it would mean the extension of his power for another five or possibly more years, which would make him one of the longest serving Heads of State in Africa. However, this was not what most of my interviewees were afraid of and in fact, on the contrary, they thought the most significant danger for the country would be a sudden death of its ‘father’. The argument put forward by most of them was that the country has not been prepared for a smooth hand over from President Biya to the next president, and with a sudden death there would be a huge decision making vacuum which might result in an inter- nal conflict. The division between the Francophone majority and minority Anglo- phones seems to be considered as the most significant political fault -line that could be exploited for the creation of conflict dynamics in the country. Many argued that the Anglophones have resentments towards the Francophone population for being discriminated in accessing to the national decision making processes and resources, though both are the official languages of the country and Cameroon is a member of both the Commonwealth of Nations and La Francophonie.

Overall, my short visit to Cameroon has underlined the urgency of such a risk, and the country should become a key focus for conflict prevention for the international community, as it would be such a big loss for the region and Africa in general, if Cameroon falls apart by an intrastate armed conflict after such a long period of ‘peace’ since its independence. For most Cameroonians I talked to a ‘no-ending’ life for President Biya was the best solution for this problem, which not only reflected their ironic sense of humour with the future of their country but also how helpless they felt with such a conundrum. However, in a more proactive way, if there are any ways of international diplomacy that could be used as a means of conflict prevention, then they should be utilised as soon as possible for Cameroon to extend its political stability.

Notes:

* Alpaslan Ozerdem is a Professor of Peacebuilding at Coventry University.
1) Those countries that gained their inde- pendence in 1960, in a chronological order, are: Cameroon, Togo, Madagas- car, Democratic Republic of Congo, So- malia, Benin, Niger, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Chad, Central African Republic, The Republic of The Congo, Gabon, Sene- gal, Mali, Nigeria and Mauritania.
2) State education budget would comprise the spending for the Ministry of Basic Education, the Ministry of Secondary Education, the Ministry of Higher Educa- tion and the Ministry of Employment and Vocational Training.

 

 

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