This paper is an adaptation of an earlier one I delivered on the Cameroon National Radio Station on the 12th of November 2003. The paper was broadcast when Paul Biya just celebrated 21 years in office as President of Cameroon. The author used that occasion to fast forward the clock of time and look at what Cameroon would look like in another 21 years. The paper was one of the daily political commentaries I delivered on the 6.30 a.m. prime time national and world news on Cameroon Radio Television (CRTV), Yaounde, between 2002 and 2005.
Without any doubt, celebrations are an interesting aspect of everyday life. They give those who are being fêted an opportunity to be the centre of attraction and those joining in the feast, a pretext to wine and dine. Nonetheless, feasting can also be an excellent occasion for carrying out an inventory and assessing progress made so far. The next logical advantage is, of course, the fact that forward planning can also be done. In other words, the way forward can be charted, either as the icing on the cake or as a way of balancing the assessment equation.
Following on from the merriment of Paul Biya’s 21 years in power, let us now take a leap forward and get a snapshot of Cameroon, 21 years from today. That day will mark the twentieth anniversary of the presidential election billed for next year, 2004, if the election takes place as scheduled¹. It is to be noted that if Paul Biya still runs as a candidate for his own succession, then the election will mark the beginning of a second seven-year presidential mandate for him, since he had the constitution amended by the National Assembly, prolonging the presidential term from five to seven years. Although this move was generally widely approved by members of the ruling Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (CPDM) of which Paul Biya is chairman, on the whole, the opposition cried foul, interpreting the measure as an attempt by Paul Biya to “hang on to power at all cost.”
The year 2024 will be just one year before the current millennium, clocks its first quarter century. However, the key question as to who will be the main actors on the stage in Cameroon or elsewhere in Africa remains a difficult one because at this point in time, it is hard to tell, unless one is of course, Madame Soleil, able to read and interpret the future from her famous crystal ball. One thing is clear though: some of us will have departed from this world, just as some more will also have been born, as if sent by the divine will to numerically replace the deceased ones. It would be interesting to know if by that time, Cameroonians will have stopped making death triumph over birth. The point is that for at least a decade now, Cameroonians have glorified death in the sense that daily, the media are awash with death announcements. It is always death announcements one hears over the radio or sees on television, or reads in the newspapers. There are hardly any birth announcements, as if Cameroonians were only dying and not being born.
Things have got to a point where when a man dies, for example, different announcements come from his wife, children, employer, social group leader, former school mates and friends. A closer look at this phenomenon indicates that deaths have actually been transformed into commercial activities. When a man dies, the family deliberately leaves him in the mortuary while paying a fee for keeping him there, until it is felt that enough announcements have reached enough people who will through their contributions in terms of money or food or drink, make the funeral a “good” one. A “good funeral” in the Cameroonian context has become one in which those who come to sympathize with the bereaved go away feeling happy that they have had enough to eat and drink. Otherwise, they go away disgruntled and wondering aloud why this has been such a bad “cry die” that one had only so little to eat and drink. Often, a musician is paid to entertain sympathizers during the night vigil. He plays music, usually in the large and open yard so that people can dance as a way of paying last respects to the dead person. One individual who has raised wake-keeping musical entertainment to an art is Loh Benson, a musician by career. In fact it is said that Loh’s love for music began when he was still in primary school. At the time he used to play to entertain peers, teachers and parents. Today not only does he have his own compositions, but he is being emulated by others who earn a living by entertaining at vigils. In one part of the town of Bamenda, that is the Nkwen Fondom of Bamenda III sub Division, night vigils have been banned by the Fon. The reason given is that when so many people come out at night and congregate, appalling acts are committed. These include promiscuity, theft, witchcraft, abduction and rape.
Opinions are divided over the origin of the commercialization of funerals. One school of thought holds that it all began in the mid nineteen eighties when the economic crunch hit Cameroon very hard and while in the quest for money, people realized they could capitalize on funerals by getting as many people as possible to come bearing “gifts of sympathy”, some of which like money, could then be converted into other needs. Another school of thought affirms that it was a deliberate attempt to highlight deaths in order to show Cameroonians and the world that President Paul Biya was ruling the country so badly that “everybody was dying”. Whatever is the case, there is a third school which posits that all that waste of money on a person who is no more is a mere misplacement of priorities. For that reason, those who hold that view state categorically that it is better to honour people when they are alive so that they can see and appreciate, not when they have turned their back and the corner and are out of view and out of sight.
One aspect of the year 2024 which will certainly interest Cameroonians is their President, Paul Biya. The question is whether or not he will still be on the political scene. The fact is that in 2024, if Biya is still alive, he will be 91 years old. So, can he still be in power? The technical answer is, ‘yes’, if he still has the strength and can hold himself together. But the most likely answer is, ‘no’, because at such an age, one is normally exhausted and deserves a rest. The point is important because there are Cameroonians who would ruthlessly push Biya out of power, if they had their way. He is being held responsible for overstaying his welcome, and thereby virtually turning the republic into a kingdom of his own. He has also been charged with allowing corruption to triumph in an unbridled manner and then attempting vainly and at the eleventh hour, to curb it.
Nonetheless, the problem of Paul Biya, if the truth be told, is not just he alone. It is also Cameroonians and the opposition, but perhaps the opposition more than just Cameroonians. Cameroonian’s opposition is greatly divided, first of all because with over two hundred political parties, they are bound to speak with different and deferring voices which are difficult for the electorate to understand. The best option would have been for the opposition to merge and form one or two strong parties which could then counter Biya more strongly and meaningfully. However, when it comes to that, especially on the point of choosing a single presidential candidate to represent the opposition against Biya, no opposition leader is willing to yield an inch to the other. This hide and seek game reminds me of the tale about the mice race that was decimated by the cat. When during a meeting of the mice it was unanimously agreed that a bell should be tied round the neck of the cat so that once it was approaching, the mice would be warned and take cover, nobody was willing to go and tie the bell around the cat’s neck. In other words, no one was wiling to be the one to “bell the cat”.
Whatever is the case, it is certain that the year 2024 will come. But then since time is a very tricky phenomenon, that year will be here so quickly that it will take many unawares. When that time comes, our Cameroon is likely to be still firmly in place, despite the changing roles of the people that make it up: age, retirement, death and birth. This occurrence of permanence on the one hand and change on the other confirms clearly the dictum that “people come and go, but the nation remains.” This nation, twenty one years on, will be dominated by today’s youths who will have attained leadership status and will be more or less in positions of power, pulling one or two strings in the governing of the country. In fact, according to the United Nations Population Fund, these ‘new adults’, so to speak, will constitute the largest such transitional segment, numbering some one billion two million souls. Nevertheless, the UN body warns that the way forward is littered with political, social and economic hurdles. To stem the tide, everyone is therefore urged to strive to attain the millennium goals which were outlined by world leaders to be attained by the year 2015.
The road to 2024 is both long and bumpy. But what does that mean specifically for Cameroon? Right now, despite what some Cameroonians may think, the country has made some progress. The country is increasingly being made to host international events, economic indicators are generally on the upward trend and social amenities are being improved. Nonetheless, the country is still sometimes perceived as being adrift, rudderless and unmanned. The civil service remains unduly bureaucratic and corruption is still endemic and blatant. Although President Paul Biya has had some senior officials, including cabinet ministers put in jail, general public opinion is that it is too little, too late, and by the way, how about the many other known hardened embezzlers who are still walking free? And in any case, why have those flung in jail not been made to restore to the State what they are said to have stolen?
The only way to make the year 2024 a resounding victory for Cameroon in particular and Africa in general is for each citizen to work ceaselessly and devotedly. That is what will make the difference between a positive balance sheet and a negative one.
¹ The presidential election eventually took place as scheduled and Paul Biya won.