CAMEROON: National Symbols, the State and the Nation
November 11, 2014

We shall never be tired of reminding ourselves 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.

By Prof. Tazocha Asonganyi