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Are Cameroonians politically cursed, under a spell or just naive? by Lambert Mbom

Recently, the government of Cameroon published the fifth volume of Paul Biya: The People’s Call, 470 pages of motions of support calling on incumbent Biya to run for elections again as the natural candidate. This is intriguing given that cumulatively Biya has been in power since 1975 when he served as Prime Minister before becoming President in 1982. Biya turned 78 last February and if he stays on, he will be 85 or 92 by the time he leaves office, if ever.

First, the CPDM dominated national assembly, struck out presidential term limits just to pave the way for Biya to stand again for presidential elections; then in act two of the same drama, motions of support from all nooks and crannies of Cameroon “begging” Biya not only to run again for presidential elections but in fact to be president for life. What a brilliant campaign strategy for at the end of the day, Biya will claim that he was ready to have a deserved rest but since the “voice of the ‘people’ is the voice of God,” he will in the days ahead, accept the ‘people’s nomination.

Good enough the catalogue of motions of support will serve as documentary evidence that shall be handy when the moment of reckoning comes. This heinous sycophancy should not go unpunished.In the face of such anomaly, the question becomes what is happening to Cameroon and Cameroonians?

Two years after his ascension to power, the Northerners staged a coup that flopped. To prevent such an attempt from happening again, Biya rewarded the coup botchers, “tribalized” the presidential guards and the military and formally privatized the military affording its members relatively comfortable salaries and benefits.

Then in the 1990s riding on the coattails of the tidal wave a vibrant opposition sprung up from the western part of Cameroon with the North West serving as the epicenter. Huge sacrifices were made as lives were lost, limbs broken all in a desperate attempt to initiate and bring about change. The birth of the Social Democratic Front (SDF) that came with messianic promises and failed to deliver not only on the much desired change but also soon became a poster child of the very practices they decried. SDF’s hierarchy resisted every form of opposition, silenced many, flip-flopped and today the SDF is a mere shadow of itself. Disappointment bred frustration and fueled apathy. The golden feature of Cameroon’s politics is widespread indifference and nonchalance.

What is more, elections have not proven to be the magic formula. Change in Cameroon given the prevailing circumstances cannot come through the ballot box. Elections in Cameroon have proven to be a charade as the government has repeatedly failed to demonstrate good faith and good will. Elections are a classical epitome of the decay inherent in the country’s fabric. The corruption and fraud so endemic in Cameroon is amply borne out in elections. Why participate in elections whose results are so obvious even to the unborn, many are wont to ask. Elections in Cameroon are a waste of time and scarce resources and just a smokescreen.

Then there is the psychological engineering going on now as many claim that even with free and fair elections in Cameroon today, Biya is going to win. The warmth with which the teeming crowd that greeted Biya last year when he traveled to Bamenda is touted as a clear indication of the tempo governing the country. The lion man is truly indomitable. After all, there is no viable challenger to beat Biya.

After the 1992 mafia that deprived the SDF of its victory, the SDF spent too much time brooding over this instead of strategizing on how to avoid the mistakes that led to this broad daylight robbery.

One of Biya’s greatest political machinations is his successful implementation of the divide-and-rule policy. He has exploited to great advantage some geographical accidents as that between the North West and South West regions, Bamis and Sawas/Doualas, Betis and Ewondos, Northerners and the Southerners and the list is on. But even more sinister is his auspicious liberalization that makes it easier to register a political party than get a business license. Today, there are more than 200 political parties and counting in Cameroon many of which are mere satellites of the ruling CPDM.

With their backs to the wall, a good number of Cameroonians have thus resigned to fate and destiny. They pray day in and day out for nature to come to their rescue. Many feel disenchanted, in fact powerless and having borne the brunt of the regime’s brutality, cowardice is a preferred option. Live and let live and time will take care of Biya and his cronies is the dominant mood.

It is easy to lay the blame of the current malaise on the footsteps of the Cameroon’s intellectuals. Two respectable university dons serving in the government namely Jacques fame Ndongo and Elvis Ngole Ngole are the official overseers of the mindless sycophancy that has gripped the entire country.

Yet one must take account of the fact that politics in Cameroon has degenerated to survival – a basic human instinct. One would imagine that in the minds of many current power brokers in Cameroon, it is a great risk to let an outsider take over the reins of power. It suffices to look at the anti-corruption charade that has netted some otherwise high-powered officials hitherto considered untouchables. If this can happen when the wood is green, then what will happen when the wood is dry? The oligarchy of septuagenarian and octogenarians who have taken Cameroon hostage live in perpetual fear of the unknown. If power leaves them and they are made to carry their own feces, it sure will be a disaster of epic proportions.

As usual, Cameroonian exceptionalism is part of the trump card Biya is banking on. The only problem with history is that it keeps repeating itself. Ben Ali went, then Mubarak and while Gaddafi fights his last and holds the fort, the rest of the old guards like Biya of Cameroon, Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Obieng Nguema of Equatorial Guinea are yet to get the message. In Cameroon for example, when the call came for Arab spring like revolution, it was vehemently rejected. Cameroonians at home many of whom depend on their daily bread from the Diaspora, lashed out at the Diaspora saying they cannot from the comfort of their safe havens call on innocent civilians to go out and be crushed by a ruthless regime. It was from Facebook to Tahrir Square in Egypt while in Tunisia it was the self-immolation of a frustrated young businessman that took his own life. Not even Facebook, could provide the magic bullet for the Cameroonian puzzle. Is Cameroon in need of cleansing?

Yet in all these, the political genius of Biya lies in what Mwenda Andrew recounts in his article: The Trouble with Democracy in Africa. Mwenda holds that:
“If President Mwai Kibaki of Kenya wants to win the vote of the Akamba, he does not do so by addressing their existential needs over land, jobs and taxes. He makes a deal with a powerful Akamba politician and a few elites. These mobilize their co-ethnics for him.

This deal making among elites has powerful implications on the evolution of functional states. Because if a politician can win votes by appeasing a few elites, that is certainly a more cost-effective strategy than building strong institutions and implementing sound policies to serve the public good.
Poor people attach great importance to expressions of kindness and generosity. To them a good leader is a man who gives gifts directly in form of money and goods like African chiefs of old.
Therefore what goes for democratic competition in most of Africa is a contest among elites to control power; not to change how it is organized, exercised and reproduced. Instead of representing the wishes of the population at large, democratic governments in Africa actually represent the interests of a few elites.”
Prime Minister Philemon Yang proved this right when according to The Post, he rallied his North West cronies and raised 225 million fcfa towards Biya’s reelection even before Biya declares he is running. Will Yang’s 20 million-fcfa guarantee him his position after the election? And for how long?

May be it is time for Cameroonians to borrow a leaf from U.S. President Obama’s 2008 election mantra: Yes we can. Paying lip service to change and waiting for others to do the hard work will only help consolidate the status quo. A prevailing sense of apathy has never served any relevant end. There is no excuse why one man should hold a nation hostage for this long.

The Rise of the African Caucus in US Politics and the need for a stiff spine. By Lambert Mbom

Of the immigrant population redefining US demographics, Africans constitute the least threatening. They lag behind the Hispanics and Asians. It is important to make the distinction between African born immigrants to the US and the broad category of African Americans considered “sons and daughters of the soil”. I work with an individual a native-born African American who stunned us all last week when he charged at an African immigrant nurse saying it is time for the person to return to Africa for the simple reason that the African failed to identify a bottle of apple juice he had asked to have from the refrigerator. Let us leave this for another reflection.

In the general class of blacks in the US, one would find the native African American descendants of slaves from the colonies; then we have those born in the US of African parentage; when we throw into this mix those from the islands – the Caribbean etc an interesting potpourri emerges. For the sake of this analysis, we are not concerned with any of the foregoing but rather streamline our subject to those born and bred in Africa who by some circumstances beyond their control have the blessing of being in the United States of America. It is those generally referred to as the African Diaspora. This group, small as it is, is sure becoming an important caucus and voting patterns or party leanings are worth paying attention to.

The rising stardom of the African caucus comes out in the fact that DC government has an office on African Affairs that advises the mayor on the needs of African immigrants resident in the district. In May 2009, Governor O Malley of Maryland signed an executive order creating the commission on African affairs. In October 2008, Prince George’s county Maryland, had taken the bold step and created an African Trade Office. It is instructive as it is telling to note that these counties, the state of Maryland and the District of Columbia are all democratic nerve-ganglions.

Of interest too is the fact that for the last two election cycles there has been a Cameroonian gunning for the mayoral seat in DC. Two weeks ago, I got a text inviting me to a meeting between the Governor of Maryland and a council of traditional rulers from Cameroon.  Earlier on in the summer, a friend’s brother who works with the federal government organized an event in his Fort Washington home in honor of Michael Jackson campaigning to be Prince George’s county Chief executive. These and more set me thinking and curiosity got the better side of me as I asked myself if we have the political influence to pull the shots?

Some weeks ago, I randomly worked up to a gentleman working in Rite Aid whom I suspected must be Ethiopian. I asked if he was an American citizen. No was his response. Then I further quizzed that if he were a citizen for which party would he vote? He flatly told me he is apolitical. He has no interest in politics, he confessed adding that he would rather not be involved.

This is definitely not atypical of African immigrants. Ask the average African Joe about the forthcoming elections and you will be shocked at the yawning ignorance. This antipathy is  unexplainable just by the fact that many are not eligible voters but also to a great extent, it is not unconnected with their history of political engagement in the continent. Elections in Africa have generally not made a difference and worse still some have a checkered past. Politics simply tastes sour in the mouths of many.

When I got to work that same day, I managed to continue my unofficial survey. This time I met two colleagues one native African American and the other naturalized American from Sierra Leone. To my question which party would you vote for, both immediately answered – democratic party, of course. This may be the rationale of this anecdote: A Republican and a Democrat were walking down the street when they came to a homeless person. The Republican gave the homeless person his business card and told him to come to his business for a job. He then took twenty dollars out of his pocket and gave it to the homeless person. The Democrat was very impressed, and when they came to another homeless person, he decided to help. He walked over to the homeless person and gave him directions to the welfare office. He then reached into the Republican’s pocket and gave the homeless person fifty dollars.

My African American coworker intimated that any blacks I see in the Republican Party are those whose pay grade is above the average middle class. They belong to the elite class. My friend was shocked to learn that if I could, I would vote Republican anytime.  When he sought to know why an average person like me would commit such political suicide, my answer to him was simple: The Republican party even in its elitist contraptions paradoxically scores superlative grade in my political litmus test namely a healthy pro-life agenda.

Aha! There you go – this one issue guy.  Just as you should fear the man of one book, so too should you fear the man of one issue. It is not just an issue among issues but the issue. After all the true greatness of any civilization is measured by how it treats its weakest members. Bill Federer applies it better when he says, the greatness of America is in how it treats its weakest members: the elderly, the infirm, the handicapped, the underprivileged, and the unborn.
Then the famous pattern comes in again. Republicans! Pro Life? Gimme a break. How about their overt support for the death penalty? Have you forgotten that they are warmongers? Think of Iraq and Afghanistan. The seamless garment argument crops up again. Let us leave this aside for a different paper. While it is myopic to say Republicans are essentially pro life and democrats are pro choice, there is no denying it that many more Republicans are pro life than democrats are.

Pope John Paul II affirmed that of the chest of values the African is blessed with, that which stands out is the fact that “the sons and daughters of Africa love life.” In other words, Africans are essentially pro life. Is a Republican leaning then not logical?

To change the model, even if we were to avail of the liberal vs. conservative model, given the average African’s sworn attachment to the status quo, his umbilical attachment to the traditions and customs of his ancestors, one would not be wrong to find the closest parallel in the Republican Party.  One cannot but wonder why the sentimental attachment to the Democratic Party?

The point here is that African immigrants to the United States generally vote democrats or have sympathies for the Democratic Party. To understand why this is the case, let us focus on the question: what is the number one issue in this election for African immigrants? It sure is the economy.

Cameroonians will for example loudly remind you that when Bill Clinton was in office the exchange rate of a dollar to the cfa was 700fcfa. Fewer dollars translated to more fcfa. The main thrust of the argument democrats are putting forth runs something like this: Clinton handed a surplus to Bush who after a similar eight years handed over a deficit to Obama with an economy in the recession. How do we expect a turnaround in just two years? Any ways this is not another Presidential election year but the democrats set themselves up for this mess. They promised a messianic triumphalism with the coming of Obama. He seemed to possess the magical wand or so they made us believe. Many of us have a short attention span and so attention deficit is not the exclusive preserve of a few psychos. If the Obama administration cannot deliver in the short term, what guarantee is there, that it will in the long term?

If the economy is truly issue number one, consistent with the logic of change, it is time to try the Republicans again. Africans are definitely taking the brunt of the housing crises both in terms of the fact that some unscrupulously had the pride of having homes even though they could not pay for and also the fact that some went into the real estate business as a source of their livelihood. In addition to this housing crisis, I contend that the average African immigrant would complain not of unemployment but rather of underemployment.

Yet one issue that tea party movement has been drumming this season is the fact of the absolute need for small government. The balance seems to be tilting in favor the Republican Party would do a better job with cutting spending and reducing the size and influence of the government. This is no doubt a turnoff to many African immigrants who grew up in a spoon- feeding system as it were. Government had the answers to all problems.

This hullabaloo about Obamacare and its socialist trappings actually makes a lot of sense to the average African immigrant. Even in the best mixed economies, the government is often the greatest shareholder. In addition, if Mbiti is right about the African conception of personhood encapsulated in the saying: “I am because we are and since we are therefore I am” then the more the bla bla bla of socialism is sung, the more attuned to the Democratic Party is the African immigrant. Lest we forget, this is America and not Africa. Let me hasten to say here that it will be wrong to accuse me of painting the Republican Party as an embodiment of the true ideals of capitalism and the Democratic Party socialism.

A related issue of crucial importance to the African immigrant is immigration. On this again, the Democratic Party for some strange reason seems to score very high marks. To the Republicans, immigration is more a national security issue and so lean towards a hard line strict enforcement policy while the Democrats view it as the opportunity to “renew the American community. There is consensus among African immigrants that Democrats have a more open door policy towards foreigners than Republicans do. Without any substantive facts, some claim that more Africans get entry visas to the US  when you have a democratic President in office than when you have a Republican. Did President Bush not fight so hard to ensure that he passes an immigration bill while in office? Paradoxically, the Houston Chronicle reports that Obama administration touts record-setting deportation figures (ICE figures). While there are many qualifications necessary to understand adequately this trend, it is nevertheless significantly revelatory. One must admit that the immigration issue is very dicey especially in the wake of US national security and its borders. Is this not a symptomatic issue from the immigrant’s perspective? What is it pushing us out to the US?

 In my opinion then, aside from these two issues, I will personally think that US foreign policy with respect to Africa is of prime importance. The real problem is with those dictators and gerontocrats frolicking our lands unperturbed. These dictators are part of the reason some of us packed bag and baggage and moved to the US for a kind of voluntary slavery.  

With a simple evaluation tool as carrot and stick, one could simply say that Republicans have a reputation for the stick while Democrats use more carrots. Paul Seingels puts it better when he says for the Republicans the principle is national strength through self – reliance and so rely primarily on superior military. They see no need for treaties and agreements and so work only with those nations that follow US leadership to transform dictatorships into democracies while Democrats subscribe to the ideology of national strength through cooperation and so encourage discussions, treaties and agreements relying primarily on diplomacy. In this domain, Republicans are more robust and proactive and when they mean to they would smoke out these dictators within a twinkle of an eye. Democrats are more “softies” while Republicans are more hardliners. If anything, African immigrants need to vote more Republicans to weed out the club of monsters running the control tower in Africa.`

Be it as it may, many African immigrants would prefer to be back home if conditions were just minimally optimal. The luxury of the American dream comes at such great peril and so huge a price.

 It is significant to know that in 2000, democratic President Clinton passed the AGOA act bilateral trade relations between the US and Africa. The benefits of this notwithstanding one of the central concerns for African growth namely Agriculture is yet to make its mark in AGOA. While in 2003, Republican President Bush passed the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (PEPFAR) holds a place in history as the largest effort by any nation to combat a single disease. One may also point to the fact that two former democratic Presidents namely Carter and Clinton have foundations with enormous commitments among others to Africa; yet there are two past Republican Presidents Bush 41 and Bush 43 do not seem to enjoy a similar popularity. Yet we must not lose sight of the bigger picture. The records speak for themselves.

Yet even if we could, most African immigrants are not eligible to vote. The question then is what if anything could be the role of non-voting African immigrants in US elections? How can they rise to be a political caucus worth its weight?

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