This paper is an adaptation of an earlier one I delivered on the Cameroon National Radio Station on the 16th of June 2005. The paper was delivered during the end of year examination period, when a relatively large number of Cameroonian students traveled to the neighbouring Republic of Chad in order to sit for the Chadian Baccalauréat examination, in preference to the Cameroonian one. 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.
Of all the African countries south of the Sahara, Cameroon is probably the one that stands out most prominently. If one were to do a random sampling with a view to obtaining the reason, one would no doubt find that Cameroonian football would be named repeatedly, the country having written its name several times in the annals of world football, through a national squad that nearly humiliated England at the quarter finals of a world cup competition, then of course through two individual Cameroonian footballers who shook the world with their sports talent. They are Roger Milla, today retired from professional football and currently Roving Ambassador appointed by Cameroon’s President Paul Biya, and the young and dynamic Samuel Eto’o Fils who has several international football awards to his credit.
However, there is surely more to Cameroon than just football. Firstly, nature from the very beginning endowed the country with a geographical location that places it in the very heart of the African continent. Cameroon is more or less equidistant between north and south on the one hand and east and west on the other. Cameroon enjoys all the vegetation and climatic types found elsewhere on the continent. As such it has the desert, semi-desert, tundra/savanna, grassfields, the forest and furthest south, the dense equatorial rain forest varieties. In terms of religion, Cameroon has Muslims and Christians as well as animists, all of them cohabiting side by side without the usual clashes one hears between similar groups in other countries such as neighbouring Nigeria. Besides, Cameroon is the only country on the continent using French and English as official languages.
One aspect that probably deserves special attention is that of education, one reason being that for decades, Cameroon’s educational system has forged ahead progressively to the extent that today, it has one of the best schooling and literacy rates in Black Africa. Furthermore, unlike some neighbouring countries where education has suffered setbacks caused by civil war, civil unrest, persecution and military coups like in Chad, Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea and the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire), Cameroon has enjoyed peace and stability, factors which have, no doubt enhanced the evolution of the education sector.
Cameroon operates an enviable system of education, thanks partly to the role played by its two official languages, French and English. Increasingly, ‘bilingual’ (French and English) nursery and primary schools are springing up throughout the country. Some are opened and run by the state while others are the initiative of the private sector which includes the lay private non confessional and the lay private confessional. At the secondary level, the country also has bilingual secondary and high schools. In State Universities which include the professional schools, lecturers can deliver lectures and set examinations in any of the two languages, just as students can answer the questions in any of the two languages. When there was only one university in the country, the University of Yaounde, Anglophone students who attended it with little or no knowledge of French usually became bilingual at the time they completed their courses. Today, with the country having seven state universities, Francophones who attend the Anglo-Saxon university of Buea find that at the end of their courses, they too have become fluent in English.
Although it would be easy to conclude that all is well with Cameroon’s educational system, such a view is in reality would be misleading. For instance, at the time this article was written four years ago, some university students had just gone on strike to demand better working conditions and upper sixth students of the Francophone sub system of education had moved to the nearby Republic of Chad to sit for the Baccalauréat examination which incidentally was and is still also offered in Cameroon, a country whose educational system is believed to be more developed and advanced than that of Chad.
Although the government quelled the student demonstrations by taking measures that were far reaching and in the case of the exodus to Chad, succeeded more or less in stemming the tide, there is need to unearth the root causes of the incidents and find ways of nipping them in the bud before they ever raise their ugly head again. The government must therefore guard itself against simply papering over the cracks. As far as the university strike is concerned, it must be said that some of the reasons advanced for it are simply mind-boggling and beg the question as to whether the authorities needed a student strike before realizing that student working conditions are sub standard and consequently need improvement.
When this article was first written in 2005, it was impossible and unrealistic to discuss the problems of higher education in state universities without mentioning the Annex of the Advanced Teachers’ Training College (Ecole Normale Supérieure) in Bambili, a village in the predominantly Anglophone region of the North West currently undergoing urbanization mainly on account of the numerous educational institutions it hosts. The reason is that although the institution was created decades ago, it had never really been given an infrastructure befitting its status. This inevitably led to some politically minded observers concluding that the government which was made up of mainly Francophones, who to be fair constitute 80 per cent of the country’s population, were deliberately retarding the take off of the college because it was in the Anglophone zone. Nonetheless, that was four years ago. Since then a lot of water has passed under the bridge. The government has put up new buildings on the campus, refurbished some old ones and reconstructed the road leading into the campus. These serious moves began during the reign of Dr Mrs. Dorothy Njeuma as Rector of the University of Yaounde I, the parent University of the Bambili College. The latest dramatic step was the surprise announcement some months ago by the Minister of Higher Education, Jacques Fame Ndongo some months ago, that Bambili which had been only a first cycle institution, training teachers for the first cycle of secondary school (Forms One to Five), would have its second cycle from this October 2009. The minister went further and provided the icing on the cake by stating that the first and second cycles of an Advanced Technical Teachers Training College were also to take off at the same time. Understandably, the Anglophone populations were euphoric, although some in the South West, the other Anglophone administrative region in addition to the North West where Bambili is located, felt the new institutions should now have been opened in their own region. Their claims have some legitimacy because a closer critical look indicates that North Westerners have often dominated South Westerners in many areas, among which are the number of students and lecturers in institutions of higher education, and of course, appointments to posts of responsibility.
Although the Chadian tide may be ebbing, it is nevertheless essential for the Cameroon government to give the matter serious thought. One obvious reason is that by opting to travel to a different country in order to write an examination that is offered in their own country, these young Cameroonians seem to be undermining the educational system of Cameroon, or at least ringing the alarm bells that there is something not right about it. Furthermore, there are obvious dangers involved in young persons, especially females undertaking such journeys and even having to spend days in a foreign land. Searching questions about this thorny include those that have to do with whether all the seven thousand or so candidates who traveled to Chad in that year returned home in the end? Are we sure some of the girls were not made to trade sex for marks? Can we confirm that Did some did not come back pregnant? Worse still, some such students have traveled to Chad only to find that their names were not on the list of candidates authorized to sit for the examination.
The point is that the Cameroonian educational system needs some shaking up. A case in point is the fact that although the Probatoire, the exam which precedes the Baccalauréat, has been scrapped in Chad with only the Baccalauréat left in place, in Cameroon the Probatoire is still demanded. Yet despite the discrepancies, the Chadian Baccalauréat is widely accepted by the Cameroon government. Another concern is that higher education in Cameroon is too bogged down and not forward looking enough. Courses offered are too academic in nature and therefore leave little room for technical and commercial education which is more likely to lead to job creation and the realization of wealth. Cameroonian political and educational authorities need to learn from those countries which recognize work experience. In Britain this is done trough what they call the mature student system of admission, which means that a candidate who is an adult can be admitted to a degree course without the necessary paper qualifications. In recent years, France has gone a step further and adopted a law that allows people who have years of work experience to convert them into degrees, with such degrees having the same strength and validity as those earned in the conventional manner of sitting in a classroom and studying. However, things may change in Cameroon for the better, with the adoption of the worldwide system of grading and degree award known as the BMD (Bachelor, Master and Doctorate) system introduced in the country about three or four years ago. The BMD is flexible and more job market oriented, a factor which makes it quite appropriate for a country grappling with poverty alleviation and job creation.
All told, the Cameroonian educational system is not fairing too badly. But it could be a lot better. For the desired change to come, all the stakeholders must put their hand to the plough. Nonetheless, the onus is on the government to take the lead. And that time is now. A stitch in time saves nine.