By Asonganyi Tazoacha*
Most Cameroonians seem to be like Paul Biya – always thinking that a job they leave undone today can be discovered tomorrow to have been mysteriously done! In this, they always have only their mouths to ask rhetorical questions and complain about the reality of their choice, and their eyes to cry about the consequences. They have only themselves to blame for choosing to just live instead of seeking to live better – to live the good life. While neglecting the tasks that cry out to be done, they seek to manipulate the past, the present and the impending future, but they always discover that the three are never linked in an arbitrary manner. The past is not malleable, so it cannot be manipulated at will; the future is open, so it cannot be produced at will.
Whether it is civil liberties, criminal justice, equality, governance or any other aspect of human life, society has always been aware that any struggle started and left halfway, is always left unfinished until it receives a last, determined push. You just have to check the lives of Mahatma Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Luther King, Mandela, and others to know what it takes. You have to check the consequences of the unfinished tasks of the likes of Um Nyobe or John Ngu Foncha to know how costly an unfinished task of struggle could be.
Yet the openness of the future points to the unpredictability of how such tasks are usually hauled to their final destination. The consequences of single, “banal” acts like those of Rosa Parks in the USA and of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia are warnings that sooner or later in society, man is compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life, and his relation to his kind, as Karl Marx would put it.
Ahidjo was no democrat, and made it known by avoiding the word “democracy” in the nomenclature of his party – CNU; further, he used to say that he was a non-French Gaullist, perhaps in recognition of the role de Gaulle played in manipulating him to power in Cameroun.
In the same vein, in symbolic pretense of distancing himself from Ahidjo while remaining a Gaullist, Biya went to French history and dug up de Gaulle’s 1947 RPF (Rassemblement du Peuple Français), dusted it and used it to provide a name for his own party in 1985 - RDPC (Rassemblement Démocratique du Peuples Camerounaise)! With that master stroke, he hoped that he would still be considered a “Gaullist” while appearing to be different from Ahidjo since his party would be “democratic” while Ahidjo’s was not.
When the UPC was banned in 1955 to create a boulevard for Ahidjo to come to power in the “independent” Cameroun, all its members went underground, went on exile, or continued to live in the society in compromise or cowardice, unlike members of the banned ANC in South Africa who refused compromise or cowardice. While living in their communities and participating anonymously in the sabotage actions of Umkhonto we Sizwe, members of the banned ANC openly formed hundreds of community organisations, civic associations, youth groups, women’s gatherings and all types of black common interest groups that eventually coalesced into the visible face of the ANC called the UDF (United Democratic Front) that rendered the black townships ungovernable, thus moving their struggle against apartheid a giant step forward. On the contrary, in Cameroun, members of the banned UPC fizzled out, and some engaged in symbolic acts of throwing tracts of protest from time to time.
That was not all. Some waged a guerrilla war. The success of the guerrilla war had to depend on the revulsion of the people against the past, represented by slavery and colonialism, and the injustices Camerounians were actually suffering in the hands of the French occupiers. This moral/ideological revulsion was captured in the slogan “independence and reunification” - a political form which they hoped would break with the compromised pre-independence Cameroun. The prosecution of the war had to depend on the individuals in society, believed to share in the revulsion; it had to count on the same society that had permitted, if not accepted, the imposition of slavery and colonialism in the first place.
Of course, waging of the guerrilla war was an act of politics; it entailed strategy and tactics – knowing where to attack, when to retreat and when to enter legitimate compromises. These depended on the responsibility of each member of society, each member of the banned party, for their actions, inactions, or compromises. Since the Cameroun society, probably because of failure in strategy and tactics, seemed to behave like a mere spectator of what Um Nyobe and his colleagues were engaged in, Um’s task was left unfinished, and Ahidjo moved his own task forward by muzzling the then “reunited” society completely.
Ahidjo’s greatest weapon was his Ordinance no. 062/OF/18 of 19 March 1962 on subversion which allowed administrators and security forces to act with impunity, to arrest, torture and send dissenting citizens to prison. Indeed, the ordinance allowed him to set an example by arresting and imprisoning four influential members of the political class for their opinion. Thus, immediately after “independence and reunification,” Ahidjo used the 1962 ordinance to force the people to choose the easier option of abandoning halfway their struggle for rights and freedoms.
Interestingly, this struggle for rights and freedoms was reignited by the wind of change that blew around the world, and created a momentum in Cameroon that peaked in 1990. To stem the momentum, Biya promulgated what came to be known as “Rights and Freedom” laws – all repressive, unjust laws that were not meant to work in the interest of the citizen. As expected, the laws have failed to deliver rights and freedoms since they were just a pack of tricks hatched out to ambush citizens engaged in the struggle. Indeed, the laws have turned out to be more obnoxious than the 1962 Ordinance of Ahidjo!
Law no 90/055 on public meetings has vague clauses like “public place,” “places open to the public,” “receipt of declaration”, etc. The Administrator - District Officer (D.O) - interprets the “places” to mean any place where “opposition parties” or civil society groupings want to meet, and the “receipt” to mean the discretionary acceptance or refusal of such gatherings. In an overwhelming majority of cases, the D.O. has always refused to “permit” the holding of the gatherings!
Law no 90/054 on the maintenance of law and order uses vague words like “banditry,” “requisition persons,” “control movement,” whose meanings depend on the whims and caprices of the administrative officials. Most of the time, the bandit has been a citizen that engaged in any “opposition” activity! The law gave birth to fifteen-days-renewable, and many other abuses by administrative officials.
There were many other such laws to control the exercise of rights and freedoms in other domains of society; and some clauses of Ahidjo”s 1962 ordinance were moved into the penal code. The ethical question today is, what have we done about all these violations by administrative officials since 1991? We have permitted them in the hope that they will go away on their own. We have behaved as if politics is charity or the expression of compassion, although the foundation of politics is solidarity. Solidarity can only exist among individuals who are equal in their individuality, and able to take responsibility for themselves, and define themselves as important and respected components of society. The treatment of rights and freedoms by administrative officials as if they belong to the realm of charity and compassion and subjectivity has killed the spirit of solidarity on which the strength, progress, creativity, innovation and patriotism of every country depend.
Politics is concerned with specific actions and choices of individuals and groupings, which serve to legitimate, concretise, or alter the actions and choices of other individuals and groups in society. The peaceful marches recently declared by Ngouo Woungly-Massaga and banned by a D.O. in Yaounde, and a projected meeting of civil society, declared to a D.O. in Garoua about which governor Otto Wilson of the North Region is making some curious noises, are symbolic democratic acts. However, although there is need for symbolism in politics, it is unwise to reduce politics to such theatrical acts, to borrow Norbert Kostede’s words. We have seen since 1991 that however numerous the banning decisions on marches and meetings by administrative officials, our intentions to stage protest marches, or hold public/private meetings, on their own, cannot bring about change, or advance the struggle. Only active opposition to such self-interested breaches against our rights and freedoms can.
At this stage of our history, each of these marches and meetings should serve to broaden the conjugated efforts of active political parties and civil society groupings, not serve to replace institutional politics. The activities should be used to reignite activism in political and civil society domains. In doing so, we should always remember that it is in compliance with natural law that Um Nyobe, Ouandié and others fulfilled the mission of their generation by rebelling against a regime that refused them their natural rights and freedoms. It is foolhardy for us to continue to allow a regime destructive of our own rights and freedoms to endure, by always obeying the discretionary decisions of ENAM’s brainwashed administrators.
We need to rethink the mission of the present generation in the “reunited” Cameroon. Police truncheons, batons, tear gas and water cannons exist in all countries in the world, but there is daily evidence that other peoples brave these and still go out and fight for their rights and freedoms. We need courageous Cameroonians who would dare to fight today and win the fight so that our children will not need to return to the same tasks in future. Each time we embark on any aspect of the struggle, it should represent an ideal which we cherish to the extent that, like Mandela, we are prepared to die for it.
* Asonganyi Tazoacha is a Cameroonian university don and socio-political critic