Will Dr. Christopher Fomunyoh Be Cameroon’s Saviour In 2011?
March 1, 2010

The electoral calendar may be known only to him but what Cameroonians are certain about is that the current mandate of President Paul Biya will expire in October 2011. Following the controversial abolition of constitutional term limits in 2007, it is more or less an open secret that Mr. Biya may have no desires yet of quitting power after some 28 years as president when his current term expires in 2011.

To weigh in on the stakes of the 2011 presidential elections, Pan African Visions, a media outfit caught up with Dr. Christopher Fomunyoh, a presidential aspirant described as ‘a fresh face untainted by the fatigue and scandals of the ruling party or frangmented politics of the opposition’.

Dr. Fomunyoh is one of the most respectable voices when it comes to matters of democracy in Africa. As Senior Associate for Africa and Regional Director at the Washington DC-based National Democratic Institute, Dr. Fomunyoh has seen the best and worst of democratic experiments in Africa. The most recent of these were in Kenya in December 2007 when «recklessly» rigged elections brought the country to the brink of civil war. He also witnessed first hand the Ghanaian elections of 2008 which represented a beacon of hope that democracy and peaceful transitions of power will someday take firm root in Africa. Both scenarios could play out in the next elections in Cameroon. In the interview that follows, Dr. Fomunyoh discusses how to beat candidate Biya, the state of the opposition, the ideal profile of Cameroon’s next leader, the challenges facing Biya’s successor and his presidential ambitions. The interview was conducted by Pan African Visions Managing Editor Ajong Mbapndah.

PAV: A year into the expiration of the current mandate for President Biya how high are the stakes for Cameroonians in the choice of their next leader?

Dr. Chris Fomunyoh: The stakes are extremely high for Cameroon and Cameroonians. If the choice of the next president is conducted through a credible electoral process, then the leadership that emerges would be respected and viewed as legitimate within the country and internationally too; on the other hand, if we have flawed or fraudulent elections, our country will continue to slumber and limp along even as other African countries make progress as we enter the second decade of the 21st century. Imagine for one minute: most of the current leaders of our country will be 80 years old soon, and have been in government since the 1960s, which is over 50 years running. According to World Fact statistics, 95 percent of Cameroonians are below 60 years old, among whom approximately 50 percent are 20 years of age or younger. How can we expect these individuals in their 80s to be efficient and competitive in today’s fast-paced world? How can these leaders speak to the rest of the world on behalf of a population whose demands and priorities they do not comprehend? Can we honestly expect them to engage at the same level with world leaders such as US President Barack Obama and French President Nicholas Sarkozy who are in their 40s and early 50s?

The next two years present an opportunity for us as Cameroonians to pause, and ask ourselves where our country stands today, where it is headed, and what kind of leadership we need to place our resource-rich country and its hardworking, but poorly-served citizens squarely on the world stage. There is no doubt in my mind that the time for a generational revolution in Cameroon is long overdue. The urgency is now, because millions of Cameroonians cannot understand, nor can they explain, why these individuals in their 80s are sitting comfortably in leadership positions when the generation of their children and grand children are roaming the streets unemployed with little or no sense of how to chart a better course for the future. That for me captures the stakes for 2011 and the driving force for all Cameroonians who love and wish well for our country.

PAV: What would you describe as some of the major challenges that would face any future leader of the country?

Dr. Chris Fomunyoh: We have to be honest in recognizing that the first major challenge for Cameroon is the very weak nature of our constitutional framework and governance institutions. For the past two decades, we have been trying to construct the edifice of democracy in Cameroon on very sandy soil and shaky grounds, with an Executive branch of government that has centralized too much power and that has not demonstrated the political will to put in place viable institutions of checks and balances. Many Cameroonians are in pain when they compare our country with its high quality talent and enormous natural resources with what transpires in other African countries that are making progress both in terms of economic and political development, even though they are less endowed than we are.

Our legislative branch is very weak, and is going to get even weaker with handpicked senators appointed by the head of the executive. When was the last time that the National Assembly of Cameroon initiated, debated and passed legislation on a matter of national interest without waiting for matching orders from Etoudi? In many African countries, legislators have proven that they can be members of the ruling party and still take a stance on matters of national interest. Why haven’t we seen that in Cameroon? When incumbent presidents tried to arrogate more powers to themselves by amending the constitutions of their countries to perpetuate themselves in power — Cote d’Ivoire under President Bedie, Nigeria under President Obasanjo, Zambia under President Chiluba; and Malawi under President Muluzi —legislators of the ruling party in each of these countries were the first to cry foul and to jump to the rescue of those countries’ nascent democracies. Even in South Africa, when President Mbeki tried to extend his term, the ANC said no, and that further strengthens South Africa’s democracy and raises the standards for subsequent leaders. Why can’t our legislators have the courage to speak out and to say no to these self-centered measures that jeopardize seriously the future of our country? Worse still, the few courageous members of the ruling party such as Hon. Paul Ayah of the South West Region, Hon. Adama Modi of the Extreme North and others who dare to speak out occasionally are hushed and ostracised, as if we were in the old Soviet Union where everybody needed to match in log step. Look at our judiciary, and who controls the structures that manage the careers of magistrates and judges. Every member of the judiciary – from the President of the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court (whenever it will be installed) down to the 1st grade magistrates and bailiffs, court clerks, etc everyone of them is appointed and promoted by the Executive with no oversight or even a confirmation process by the legislature. Every time I hear or read that the Minister of Justice has consulted directly with the Head of State before charges are brought or arrests made in the fight against corruption, I shake my head in disbelief because of the inherent conflict of interest and the perception that is created in people’s minds that we may be dealing with a question of selective justice — if he nods you are arrested, and if he doesn’t nod then you are at liberty to walk around freely. Many Cameroonians are fearful that the Justice system could be instrumentalized, and could further weaken other tenets of democracy. Look at the frequent harassment of journalists and the heavy fines and prison terms imposed on some of our young Cameroonian journalists. That has a terrible chilling effect on the media! We can have the brightest and most fair minded jurists and magistrates in the sub region but we must, as a country, create an environment in which the Judiciary becomes the last best hope and home of refuge for all.

Even our security sector would have to be a priority for the next president. Should we continue to have all of our police services under one unified command that covers all aspects from public security to intelligence, immigration and law enforcement, etc, or would the nation be better served with specialized agencies under distinct lines of authority so as to guarantee greater efficiency and professionalism. The current force structure of our military depends largely on a defense and security architecture that was defined by the external and internal threats of the 1960s and the cold war era, even if there were a few reforms about a decade ago. Today, new threats have emerged while some of the old threats no longer exist. We need to ask ourselves as a nation whether our current architecture is the most adapted. If external threats to our wellbeing are no longer determined by the posture of neighboring countries as was the case before, but rather by non-state actors such as renegade movements from across maritime borders, should we beef up our naval defense forces, and if yes, how would that balance out with the army, the air force and the Gendarmerie each of which needs huge resources to function? If mobile intervention battalions (BIR) first created to combat high way robbery in Northern regions of the country have become a linchpin of our security architecture, how do they fit and relate with other more traditional defense forces? Even more critical is the management of the careers of our officers. Today we have a situation where many Colonels and Lieutenant Colonels are being retired whereas much older officers that recruited them into the service are still on active duty and in uniform. The next leader is going to have to address those kinds of issues, and find ways to create a win-win environment where senior officers that have served the country well can enjoy their retirement peacefully while younger officers have new and higher career opportunities opened to them.

How do we reinvigorate our public service, and provide incentives to those civil servants that are hardworking and honest while weeding out those for whom public service has become the source of self enrichment? How would the next generation of leaders create a more hospitable environment for the private sector so as to entice investors, both domestic and international, and create jobs that provide new opportunities to our young people and growing numbers of University graduates?

Besides the weak institutions, we must acknowledge that beneath the surface, our country is quite polarized. In my daily interactions with fellow Cameroonians, I observe a lot of cleavages and latent divisions, some of which are exacerbated by the manner in which the country is governed and very divisive declarations by some of the current leaders, in public as well as behind closed doors. The next president of Cameroon would have to challenge all Cameroonians to view each other as fellow compatriots, and he or she must be ready to lead by example in terms of bringing people together and redefining a common purpose with a shared vision and greater consensus about the path forward. The next president would have to revive our sense of patriotism not just so Cameroonians can match on May 20th or support the Indomitable Lions, which we already do, but so we can treat each other with more dignity and our leaders better manage the public trust of over 18 million citizens. The effective use of our human capital, and a more transparent and accountable management of our material resources should be on the list of major challenges for the next president. These issues and many more are serious impediments to democratic governance, and so the next president is going to have to address them squarely.

PAV: You witnessed, elections in Kenya, with its unfortunate outcome in Dec 2007 and in Ghana in December 2009 where democracy was at its brightest in Africa, what needs to be done in Cameroon to avert the former and emulate the later?

Dr. Chris Fomunyoh: You pose a very interesting question because during the Ghanaian elections, we heard many Ghanaians say that they did not want their country to go down the sad path of Kenya. So, there was enormous political will by all of the principal actors to make sure the Ghanaian elections were successful. President John Kuffour had served his two, four year terms, and did not seek to perpetuate himself in power. In 16 years, Ghana has organized five credible presidential elections with power changing hands three times between ruling and oppositions parties and candidates, and so the culture of successful elections is growing stronger with every passing year.

The Ghanaian Electoral Commission is one of the most independent and transparent on the continent and around the world. Its chairman, Dr. Afari Djan has visited Cameroon on several occasions and would be the first to tell you that he has not see the same level of political will or interest in credible elections in our own country. I have said so myself consistently for the past two decades. The Ghanaian Electoral Commission accredited civil society organizations that trained and deployed thousands of observers to monitor all aspects of the electoral process across the entire country, to include voter registration, distribution of voter cards, publication of voter rolls for verification, the campaign period and election day activities.

The Ghanaian Electoral Commission was also very supportive of civil society organizations conducting parallel vote tabulation (PVT) which allowed them to gather results from a sample of polling sites and to use the random sample with modern technological tools to project the outcome of the elections. I remember the chairman of the Electoral Commission of Ghana telling me that “they had nothing to hide” and therefore would encourage civil society organizations and domestic observers to monitor and report on all aspects of the process as well as conduct the PVT. These measures enhanced citizen confidence and raised voter participation and turn out in the elections.

Also, in Ghana, the candidates, political parties and their supporters believed in the independence and fairness of the judiciary and so took their grievances to the courts every time they needed to seek redress; whereas in Kenya, the judiciary was viewed as so corrupt and biased that voters and political parties that were aggrieved had no incentives going through the courts and so vented their frustrations through violent acts against each other. These are some of the elements that contributed to successful elections in Ghana. Many of these factors were absent in Kenya, and so it did not surprise many observers that the outcome in Kenya would be controversial even though many people may not have predicted that level of violence and loss of life.

PAV: If you were asked to opine on the ideal profile of a leader capable of making Cameroon meet aspirations of the 21st century, what will that be?

Dr. Chris Fomunyoh: Our country Cameroon needs a fresh face: someone that has not been tarnished either by the fatigue and multiple scandals of the ruling party nor the strident and fragmented politics of some of our opposition parties. We also need someone that understands the country’s politics and is in sink with the political sensitivities of our very heterogeneous society with all of its diversity. Someone that can be a source of inspiration, especially to the younger generation, who can reconcile, reunify and begin to rebuild the country on the domestic front while lifting it up internationally so as to regain Cameroon’s reputation with regional bodies such as the African Union, and with major world players of the day. Our country needs someone who has a vision and a world view of life, and who has accomplished more in their professional life than simply being a government appointee. And I am talking about real life experiences, not just academic qualifications. These would be my criteria, and I know that Cameroonians are wise enough to make their preferences heard, when the right opportunity opens up.

PAV: Dr. Fomunyoh is known to have held dialogues with Cameroonians in Canada, and several parts of the USA. May we know the raison d’etre of this, the mood of Cameroonians in the diaspora and what you see as possible fallouts from such dialogue?

Dr. Chris Fomunyoh: First, I want to acknowledge and thank, very profusely, the organizations of Cameroonians that have invited and hosted me at these events. The credit really goes to them for taking the initiative to create open forums where we can congregate as Cameroonians and discuss the positive contributions that we can make to the economic and political development of our country. I also want to thank my fellow compatriots for taking the time off their busy schedules, and traveling long distances, some coming from different states, to participate and to share freely of their thoughts and aspirations for our country. So far, I have participated in public meetings with the Cameroonian communities in Ottawa, Montreal, Washington DC, Atlanta, Raleigh, and Denver. I have also received invitations from our communities in Houston and Dallas, Texas, as well Toronto, Canada. Similar gatherings are being planned for European and African cities too. In the last few years, the number of Cameroonians living abroad has increased exponentially, and I am extremely moved by how much they have stayed attached to the fatherland.

These public meetings have provided a unique opportunity to listen to, learn from, and share ideas and experiences with fellow compatriots. I have been very impressed with the huge turn outs and the very courteous and substantive nature of the discussions. Participants are very forthcoming in terms of their concerns, their evaluation of the challenges that our country faces, and the specific ways in which they could contribute to peaceful and meaningful change. From what I have witnessed so far, the mood within the Cameroonian community in the diaspora seems to be changing for the better. Cameroonians are seeing a glimmer of hope, and many of them are beginning to ask not just why our country is in the present state of affairs, but rather what they can do to get it on track. How they can work with fellow compatriots back home to bring about the reforms and societal transformation that our country needs in order to improve significantly the wellbeing of its citizens. You can imagine how many phone calls and emails come in after everyone of those meetings with people saying…’how can we help, and what can we do to be involved?’ One of the immediate results of these town hall-type meetings is that, increasingly, Cameroonians are sensitized to the fact that unless we take collective steps to lift our country to what we want as the ideal state, no one else will do it for us. That positive understanding and the collective reawakening that comes with it are powerful accomplishments for which all Cameroonians, both at home and abroad, should be proud.

PAV: In what way do you think Cameroonians in the diaspora could be of help to the democratization process in Cameroon?

Dr. Chris Fomunyoh: Cameroonians in the diaspora have a very important role to play in the democratization process in our country, even if at this time, they do not have the right to vote. First, there is the technical know-how, the expertise that the diaspora has developed in various fields, including in the area of democratic governance. Each Cameroonian in the diaspora can use that expertise to facilitate and enhance the work of civil society organizations, political parties, even ELECAM and various other institutions whose vitality can help expand democratic space in Cameroon. Moreover, every Cameroonian in the diaspora has a constituency in the country — schoolmates, contacts at the highest levels of state, in the region, division, sub division or even village and family — with whom they communicate all the time. It is important that these constituencies hear from their relatives, friends and schoolmates abroad about what is needed for genuine democracy to be exercised in our country. The diaspora can also leverage the relationships that we have all created around the world to sensitize international opinion and policy makers on what future Cameroonians expect for themselves. In countries such as Mali, Senegal, Benin and Ghana in Africa, or Israel, Mexico and the Philippines, the diaspora plays a prominent role; there is no reason why the same should not apply to the case of Cameroon. In summary, the diaspora brings much needed technical expertise, international networks and resources; and ultimately, meaningful change in our country will require powerful synergies from a collective combined effort with the diaspora and democratic elements back home working hand in hand for the common good.

PAV: How will you assess 27 years of President Paul Biya at the helm of Cameroon?

Dr. Chris Fomunyoh: I worked in Douala in 1982, and saw Cameroonians of all walks of life take to the streets in Bonanjo, New Bell, Camp Yabassi and in other parts of the country to celebrate Biya’s ascension to power after 22 years of Ahidjo’s rule. Twenty seven years later, it is difficult to see the same euphoria, enthusiasm and high hopes that had been raised. It appears that our generation is going to have so much to fix about the Cameroon of tomorrow than was the case 27 years ago.

PAV: From the message commemorating his 27 years in power, and the utterances of ruling CPDM cadres, it is almost an open secret that President Biya will be running again for office. With the administration at his beck and call, the public treasury in his hands, the military rooting for him, a hapless electoral commission and a disoriented opposition, is stopping Biya impossibility?

Dr. Chris Fomunyoh: Perhaps we will finally have a credible and open presidential election in Cameroon. If all of those elements that you describe are in Biya’s favor, then I call on President Biya to create conditions for the most transparent presidential election that Cameroon has ever organized. Let everyone that is of voting age have the opportunity to register to vote and to receive their voter card at the registration centers at the same time as they register. Have the voter registry published months in advance of election day so everyone can verify that they are properly registered. Allow counting and the publication of results at polling sites, and encourage and facilitate civil society organizations including the media monitoring and reporting on all aspects of the electoral process. Millions of Cameroonians are asking for free and fair elections because, as true democrats, they believe that a clean electoral process would lead to a legitimate outcome, whoever wins.

PAV: With a credible electoral body the reality may be different, but the prospects of electoral reforms are very deem, in the face of the present system, how beatable is incumbent candidate Biya from your assessment?

Dr. Chris Fomunyoh: In electoral politics, you beat somebody with some body. More entrenched regimes have fallen before. Even apartheid in South Africa collapsed before our eyes, just as did communist regimes in former Soviet Union, so why would someone think that meaningful peaceful change couldn’t come about in our country? So, in democratic societies, no one can claim to be unbeatable, especially when they have 27 years of a track record with lots of missed opportunities and pent up disappointment with their performance. It is even in Biya’s interest that he loose in a credible process and be heralded for moving on as President Diouf did in Senegal or Presidents Soglo and Kerekou at various times in Benin. History will judge Biya more kindly that way, than if he went into sunset as the alleged winner of a flawed or fraudulent election.

PAV:The country appears to be in a worse shape than it was at the dawn of the 90s with the advent of multi-party politics, is there anything that could be done to generate the massive participation of the people in the democratization process as was the case in the early 90s?

Dr. Chris Fomunyoh: Cameroonians are an intelligent and dynamic people. I believe they would rise up any time they are presented with viable alternatives and a platform that reflects visionary leadership anchored in programs that can impact positively on their wellbeing. In today’s Cameroon, the desire for meaningful change is palpable; it is across the board, even among many who carry ruling party banners. There is no doubt that 50 years after independence, everyone recognizes the need for a renewal of the political leadership of the country.

PAV: Does the opposition in Cameroon as it stands today present a very viable alternative to President Paul Biya and the ruling CPDM?

Dr. Chris Fomunyoh: Although some of the opposition parties have lost some of the charm of yesteryears, there is no doubt in my mind that future historians will devote several pages to their courageous contribution when the history of the democratic struggle in Cameroon is written. Of course, the difficult political environment does not facilitate genuine political mobilization and recruitment of members by opposition parties, and therefore parties tend to hibernate only to resurface around elections. Also, the excessive fragmented nature of these parties and internecine positioning do not help, as we have over 100 political parties and associations registered as such at the Ministry of Territory Administration. In its present configuration, a lot remains to be done to revive citizen confidence and believe in the opposition’s capacity to serve as a source of alternative leadership. However, we must also keep in mind that as in many other countries, meaningful change is usually brought about by a much broader movement that encompasses not just the traditional opposition parties, but also organizations that stand for the basic tenets of democracy such as the Bar Association, women’s organizations, labor unions, human rights groups, students and youth, media and community-based organizations, etc. One cannot discount out right, the possibility that such a movement can emerge, and with catalytic positive ramifications for the future wellbeing of our country. In many cases, even reform-minded members of the ruling party are apt to lend their support if they are convinced that the opposition has a forward looking message and a reasonable platform for the country as a whole.

PAV: We have not seen President Biya face the kind of criticisms that Robert Mugabe faces for instance, we did not see the international community press for dialogue in 1992 the way it did in Kenya after elections with strikingly similar results and actions, double standards at work? Is the international community a friend or foe for the democratization process in Cameroon?

Dr. Chris Fomunyoh: Your question has some merit, but we must remember that the international community is pretty diverse. So, even if some of its members may seem to be indifferent to what transpires in Cameroon, I believe that, on balance, the international community is a friend rather than a foe of the democratization efforts of Cameroonians. Cameroonian democrats have to cultivate that constituency more and better. The global context of today is more sensitive to issues of democracy, human rights, credible elections and the overall question of legitimacy, than was the case in the 1990s. Today, former President Charles Taylor of Liberia is facing trial at The Hague and current President Bashir of Sudan has an indictment hanging over his head by the International Criminal Court. Captain Dadis Camara of Guinea is relinquishing power and aligning himself to support a transition to civilian democratic rule, even if that had not been his initial plan. President Tandja of Niger is trying to extend his stay in power and he and his regime will pay a heavy price for it. There are many warning signs out there for autocratic regimes on the continent, and they had better think twice.

PAV: You will soon be testifying before the Africa subcommittee of the US Congress on the state of democracy, what will you tell the US Congress that could be of help to the democratization process in Cameroon and Africa?

Dr. Chris Fomunyoh: I am deeply honored to have been invited to be a panelist at the Congressional hearings. Many Africans, including all of us working on political development issues, do hope that under the leadership of Congressman Berman, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Congressman Donald Payne subcommittee chairman and Congressman Smith Ranking member, the US Congress would pay more attention to the challenges of democratization in Africa. I believe the testimony will be available for public consumption once the Hearing has taken place.

PAV: Dr. Fomunyoh, you are one of the most respectable voices when it comes to matters of democracy in Africa and in the world, but paradoxically your own country is no model for democracy, if your compatriots saw in you someone who could lead the country, would you place yourself at their service?

Dr. Chris Fomunyoh: thanks for your compliments. I am truly humbled. In any case, I have always said that improving lives and democratic governance in Cameroon must be a collective undertaking, and each one of us should find ways to contribute his or her share to the effort, however modest such a contribution may be.

PAV: To be clear about this last question Prof., would you consider a run for the Presidency of Cameroon if your country saw in you someone with the pedigree to offer them the kind of inspirational leadership they have been deprived of for so long?

Dr. Chris Fomunyoh: You do well to place emphasis on “inspirational leadership” because for me, that matters more than who the single individual is that drives the process. As Cameroonians that love our country, we know that with visionary and inspirational leadership, the country’s success would be boundless. In reality, this should not be about me; it is about the present condition and possible future of over 18 million Cameroonians.