Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Cmaeroon National Symbols, the State and the Nation

By Asonganyi Tazoacha
We shall never tire of reminding us that the nation has two components: society and the state. The sovereign people are in society. It is the sovereign people that delegate their power to the state, and government’s role is to regulate the activities of society using what is usually banally described as the authority of the state. The relationship between the citizen and the government is usually conflicting because government always seeks to expand its power by encroaching on the freedoms of the sovereign citizen.

I say all this because I watched a person who was described on Canal 2 International Television as “Maitre Laurent Bondji” say that national symbols like the flag and the national anthem are the preserve of the government (or the state) or something of the sort. In other words, according to him, those who sing the national anthem at their political party meetings or village meetings or other occasions, to express the fact that the effort they are engaged in, is for the good of their country, do so in violation of some sacred code. In fact, during his declarations, pictures of political parties singing the national anthem at their party meetings were shown, probably to send the veiled message that what they were doing was not right.

Just before the World Cup in Brazil, Samuel Eto’o Fils, as Captain of the National Football Team, refused to take the Cameroon Flag from the Prime Minister. At that time, I said that the refusal - in protest - was a supreme act of political expression. This is because the flag is not an expression of state authority; it represents much more than that. Since the declarations of “Maitre Laurent Bondji” appeared to bear the stamp of the law because they were utterances of a “Maitre” (a lawyer), we shall borrow from the legal milieu to make the point that “Maitre Laurent Bondji” was wrong in stating that our national symbols are the preserve of the state and not of the nation.

Gregory Lee Johnson burned the American flag during the 1984 Republican national Convention in Dallas as a sign of his criticism of government and the Republican Convention’s actions. That started what has come to be known as the “flag burning” case in the US. In lower courts, he was convicted of violating a Texas law prohibiting any person from desecrating the American flag in a manner that would greatly offend others.

The conviction was appealed up to the Supreme Court. The Court ruled against the conviction on the ground that the flag (like other national symbols) reflects the principles of freedom and inclusiveness; it is a symbol for certain national ideals. Only treatment of these symbols that sends a message that is contrary to these ideals (of freedom and inclusiveness) is reprehensible.

The Court decision led to outrage especially in Republican circles, and Congress was pushed to enact the “Flag Protection Act of 1989.” The Act was promptly challenged in 1990 through a test case known as United States v Eichman (1990). The Supreme Court ruled that the Flag Protection Act was unconstitutional because it suppressed expression out of concern for the message expressed.  The venerable Justice William J. Brennan Jr. is fondly remembered for these rulings of the Supreme Court.

The protected freedoms include speech, press, religion, assembly, association, and petition for redress of grievances. The US Supreme Court was indeed saying that even burning the flag was a form of protected speech; it was also sending a strong message that although government can regulate the exercise of these freedoms, it has no power to prevent them.  This is because sovereignty is of the citizen, not of the government.

Wikipedia tells us that national anthems are national songs that are patriotic musical compositions that evoke and eulogise the history, traditions and struggles of its people. They are played or sung in various contexts, including during national events. National anthems are among the national symbols of a country. They belong to the nation which is owned by the sovereign people, not to the state or government which is an emanation of the people. Nobody can separate the national symbols from the sovereign people without devaluing the reason for which they exist.

In all societies, the judiciary has authority that surpasses all other levels of power. Even in a banana republic like ours, Ahmadou Ahidjo used to remind Judges of the Supreme Court that: “Yes, I, the President (am) the guarantor of your independence, but that independence belongs to you not to the President…” This is why, as we see for the “flag burning” case and its spin-offs in the US, test cases and other types of lawsuits are usually used to bring about social change in societies where the sovereign citizens are alert and combative. We expect our “Maitres” to help us to achieve such social progress, not try to give ownership of national symbols to anybody other than the sovereign people.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Strongmen in Africa: Burkina Faso and Others

                  By Tazoacha Asonganyi 
Tazoacha  Asonganyi
Africa is weighed down by regimes of “strongmen.” They are virtually all over the continent, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. They are characterized by the centralization of power in the hands of one man who, alone, decides on the fate of all state institutions and activities. In general, such state institutions are weak, and play all types of games in the interest of the strongman. 
           Strongmen use all types of ruses to maintain their power: they organize regular, cosmetic elections; are the guarantors of the “independence” of the judicial power in the place of the constitution; ensure that judiciaries are prone to using technicalities not substance to judge “political” conflicts; have absolute control over the legislature which exists only to rubber stamp laws they propose to protect their power; proclaim themselves guarantors of “peace and stability”; make corruption a strong weapon of control; and organize periodic  meetings/dialogues/tripartite/consultations with the “opposition.”
          Following the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, the tensions that developed between the opposition and the strongmen led to the organization of a tripartite conference in Cameroon in 1991 and of an “Inclusive dialogue” followed later by the meeting of the “college of the wise” in Burkina Faso. In Cameroon, although the tripartite recommended 5-year presidential terms, the constitution that was later adopted had article 6(2) which limited presidential terms to 7 years renewable once. In Faso, presidential terms were limited to five years renewable once. This was virtually the same story for most other countries in Africa. However, the strongmen accepted the changes only as a strategy of survival. As their second terms were running out, the articles of the constitutions started being amended from one country to the other, to allow the strongmen to continue to reign in perpetuity.
        When the strongman in Cameroon announced his intention to amend article 6(2) of the constitution, there were popular, uncoordinated uprisings of protest. The strongman turned his repressive machinery full cycle and used a willing army to pound the angry youths to submission. Once there was calm, he hurried the bill to the national assembly and it was voted “overwhelmingly.” And so he is cruising into his third 7-year term, past his 32 years at the helm of the state.
         The Faso strongman was not that lucky because his opposition and civil society are more organized and focused. As he was toying with the effort to effect the change before his second term runs out in 2015, he invited his opposition for consultations for “political reforms,” which failed because the opposition refused to accept any meddling with article 37 which provided for the term limits. The opposition also opposed the creation of a senate which the strongman wanted to put in place and use for his designs. So he started dabbling with the idea of organizing a referendum for the “sovereign people” to decide. When he discovered that the opposition had worked hard to convince the “sovereign people” about the wisdom of their refusal of the change, he turned to bribery and corruption to get the required proportion of parliamentarians who would support the change. What happened on the day parliament had to meet to adopt the bill is now history!
       Following the “independence” of African countries in the ‘60s, constitutionalism was adopted as the form of government for the management of society. The constitutions created institution that were weak and malleable, and reserved overwhelming power to strongmen who would capture the presidency and barricade themselves in it, using all forms of repression. Constitutionalism as the soul of the modern state was fought for and gained with the blood of millions in struggles that spanned centuries. The English Magna Carta of 1215, the American Revolution of 1776, and the French Revolution of 1789, all culminated in constitutionalism and law with enormous sacrifice of human life and effort. Constitutionalism has therefore become a sacred culture of humanity.  There is no doubt that our failure to acknowledge and share in the historical consciousness that constitutionalism represents, is the principal cause of the serious problems constitutionalism is causing to Africa. Strongmen are allowed to prevent the taking of the bold, giant steps that Africa is supposed to take, to emerge from backwardness and international ridicule.
       Africans have to recognize that a double heritage – a dualism - dwells in their breasts: the pre-colonial and post-colonial heritages; the traditional African cultures and the colonial/neocolonial cultures overlaid on it. Who can count the millions of people Africa has also lost to be where it is today: in slavery, in colonialism, in neocolonialism? The two heritages both belong to Africa, as of right. As aptly stated by Franz Fanon, each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it. Some Africans argue for the establishment of “the African way,” usually comprehending it to be a rejection of our colonial/neocolonial heritage. I argue that this is wrong, and that the mission of the African intellectual of this generation is to synthesis the good in our two heritages, and produce working constitutions that represent our own commitment to the ideal of human dignity protected through law; to produce constitutions that end the habit of concentrating state power in one centre, in one man, that manipulates the sovereign people at his whim.
      It is people who incarnate institutions that are usually weak, not the immaterial walls or immaterial texts on pieces of paper that delimit them. The strongman of Cameroon succeeded because parliamentarians and the opposition are weak and powerless. The strongman of Nigeria failed because parliamentarians and the opposition were strong. The Faso strongman failed because the opposition was strong. There will still be many successes and failures of strongmen in Africa, so long as the culture of strongmen continues to endure.    
      The people of Faso should ensure that another strongman does not climb to the ramp to bring back their revolution to square one, because the same weapons that the disgraced strongman used during the last 27 years, will still be available to any other strongman. We need to end the culture of strongmen in Africa, once and for all!