Dr Chris Fomunyoh "The next four years would be crucial for Cameroon"
ICIcemac, Cameroon
April 2, 2008

Interviewed by Mokun Njouny Nelson


Dr Chris Fomunyoh

Topical happenings in the country have been a brainteaser to many Cameroonians as to what the future holds for this country. Dr Christopher Fomunyoh, is a Cameroonian of international eminence, he is of the view that no leader should drag the country's 18 million inhabitants into chaos just to prove a point. He predicts that the future of this country depends on how urgent the many pending issues of national significance are resolved."Why would we want to be the laughing stock of the world? Cameroon deserves better! If we want a Kingdom or a monarchy, then we should say so. On the other hand, if we want a democracy, then we must live by its standards and principles which are a combination of checks and balances."


Dikalo: Away from home you should not be unaware of recent news breaking events in the country? What are some of the happenings that caught your attention during the past months?

Dr. Christopher Fomunyoh: I may be travelling a lot between Washington and other parts of Africa in the course of my work, but you know home is home, and my heart is here. So I try to stay abreast of developments that impact the lives and wellbeing of our people. Since the last quarter of 2007, I have been deeply troubled by the very violent and deadly demonstrations that paralysed parts of the country including the economic and political capitals of Douala and Yaounde in February, and before then the killing of 21 soldiers in Bakassi, the arrest and detention of other officers allegedly for subversive activities, the demonstrations that occurred in Abong Mbang and the seeming unease in University campuses in Buea, Douala and Yaounde.

Dikalo: How do you feel when you get this? Happy, sad, feeling as to come back home and be part of this experience...?

Dr. CF: First reaction is to feel saddened, especially when lives are lost and enormous property destroyed. We all have high hopes for our country and our fellow countrymen and women. We all want to be able to say Cameroon is Africa in miniature in the best that the continent can offer; so images that rather remind us of Alan Patton's "Cry the Beloved Country" can only bring distress and even doubts about the country's future.
If ever there was a silver lining, it would be that these occurrences strengthen our resolve to contribute to meaningful change in the hopes that we can leave our kids and future generations a Cameroon that is better than that which we'll inherit from our parents.

Dikalo: The observation is that Cameroonians in the Diaspora at times draw conclusions on certain happenings in the country that do not reflect the opinion of a majority at home. Do you see this as a result of being out of torch with national realities and the effects of the comfort they enjoy in the "white man' land"?

Dr. CF: You know, access to credible information enhances one's ability to make the right calls on things that may be happening thousands of miles away. Even some politicians resident in the country also make pronouncements that do not reflect the views of the majority of citizens. The good thing though is that Cameroonians in the Diaspora are generally well intentioned. They mean well; they care about their country and the millions of people they have left behind. They see how other countries with less human capital and fewer material resources than Cameroon are prospering both economically and politically, and they wish their own country could do better. They also have family members back home, and they worry about them all the time. Many Cameroonians in the Diaspora also participate actively in development projects in their villages and provinces of origin. Check the statistics on Western Union or Money gram remittances and you can see what I mean. So I do not believe the Diaspora is out of touch. Some of its members may be more outspoken on certain issues than some people within the country would prefer, but that diversity of viewpoint too is not a bad thing.

Dikalo: How can you advice the Diaspora to effectively participate in the evolution of the country especially in the advancement of democracy?

Dr Chris FomunyohDr. CF: It has to be a two-way street. First, the political and civic leaders back home have to recognize that the Diaspora has a contribution to make. That the Diaspora has ideas, people and resources that can add value to what obtain on the home front. Look back at what happened in many African countries during the pro-independence struggle — many Africans came from the Diaspora to join the struggle. Great men such as Nkwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Nnamdi Azikwe of Nigeria, Tom Boyer of Kenya, were part of the Diaspora before returning to engage in political struggles in their respective countries. Even in Francophone Africa, late presidents Sedar Senghor of Senegal, Houephoet Boigny of Cote d'Ivoire, and Ahmadou Ahidjo, etc were serving in political institutions overseas prior to taking on the mettle of power back home. Also, during the apartheid years in South Africa, today's President Thabo Mbeki was leading ANC efforts outside of his country while others were fighting on the inside. Bringing about meaningful change requires a multifaceted approach and oftentimes the Diaspora can be a very instrumental piece of the effort. Many countries such as Israel, the Philippines, Mexico, find ways to positively engage their Diasporas and that's very beneficial. Other African countries are far ahead of Cameroon in that regard. For example, many African countries such as Benin, Cape Verde, Mali, Niger and Senegal now allow their citizens overseas to participate in national elections, and they organize polling stations at various embassies. This allows their citizens in the Diaspora to stay connected and attached to developments back home. There is wealth of talent, expertise and experience within the Cameroonian Diaspora that must be leveraged to contribute to the country's democratization efforts. We cannot afford to ignore this home born expertise for much longer.

Dikalo: Countrymen abroad have taken the cue from home and have been demonstrating in New York, Washington DC, South Africa, Paris, London, Berlin, Brussels...against rumoured amendment of the Constitution for a non-limitation of the presidential mandate. What is wrong in allowing someone to rule for an indefinite period if he is loved by and has the mandate of the people?

Dr. CF: I am impressed to see Cameroonians speak out both within the country and in western capitals against actions that could stall progress for the country's nascent democracy. You may remember when we discussed this issue in 2005, I already warned against moves that could undermine respect for term limits. The short answer to your question is that we as a people must decide the form of government that we want. If we want a Kingdom or a monarchy, then we should say so. On the other hand, if we want a democracy, then we must live by its standards and principles which are a combination of checks and balances. Term limits and the renewal of political leadership in a country are democratic norms enshrined in the Universal Declaration of human Rights and even in the new African Union charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance adopted by the General Assembly of African Heads of States in 2007. An amendment to the constitution that inhibits the possibility of peaceful change can only set the country on the path of violence and potential conflict because we would sent the message to the vast majority of our country people that whoever is in power will be there forever. In fact, look around the whole world today; there is no president of a democratic country anywhere in the world that has been in power for more than 15 years. Why would we want to be the laughing stock of the world? Cameroon deserves better!

Dikalo: Suppose something happened to the current president before his term expires, can the present Constitutional provision allow for a smooth transition to a new president?

Dr. CF: Why not? Although it is not appropriate to speculate on bad things happening to anyone, should anything occur, the current constitution could still be applied if the political will exists to do the right thing for the interest of the country. At the same time, I can understand if those clauses that are problematic could be improved upon, but we must avoid anybody holding Cameroonians hostage by linking improvements to the constitution with one specific clause that must allow one individual who have been at the helm of the state for close to 30 years to serve in perpetuity. To paraphrase US presidential candidate Barack Obama, you cannot do the same thing over and over, with the same individuals, and expect different results. Cameroonians, old and young, are yearning for change and an improvement in their wellbeing.

Dikalo: If the amendment of the disputed Article 6(2) of the Constitution goes through parliament, (it surely should, given the overwhelming majority the ruling CPDM enjoys therein) and in 2011 incumbent President Paul Biya does not present his candidacy, he would have crushed speculations that he had egoistic intents. If that where to be the case, would you score Mr Biya some plus points for posterity.

Dr. CF: No leader should drag this country and its 18 million inhabitants through an emotional roller coaster and so much uncertainty just to prove a point. Olusegun Obasanjo tried it in Nigeria and failed; Frederick Chiluba attempted to do same in Zambia, and Dr. Muluzi tried it in Malawi, and their people said no. And those countries continue to prosper despite the departure of those instigators of unhelpful constitutional manoeuvres. You also cannot underestimate the very negative impact that such an amendment would have on our country's image and public standing around the world, including among international private investors and development partners. You realize that I try not to personalize the debate, because even if someone else gets elected in 2011, there is no reason to allow that individual to be able to stay in power for ever.

Dikalo: What is your reaction to the approach of Cameroonians during the last strike calling for a total overhaul of the existing social order?

Dr. CF: I was surprised by the breath of discontent and was heartbroken by the loss of human life and excessive destruction of property. I wished whatever legitimate grievances citizens had were expressed and resolved through peaceful means. I hope policy makers see these demonstrations as symptomatic of larger societal fault lines, and take appropriate measures to address those larger issues in a more profound and thorough manner. There seems to be a huge gap of communication and more regular dialogue in our society, especially between the youth and marginalized groups and those that govern?

Dikalo: And government's reaction to this movement and the number of concessions made; crackdown, deaths, imprisonment and then pay rise, reduction in commodity prices....Does it reflect that of a government aware of the desires of its people?

Dr. CF: Perhaps that was a rude awakening for a government that may not have felt the pulse of misery and discontent in our society given the disparities that I see in Cameroonian society every time that I come home. I believe the jury is still out in terms of assessing the overall performance of the government in tackling the crisis during and after that last week in February, and addressing citizens' grievances in the short, medium and long term.

Dikalo: Contradictory declarations from government ministers as to the origin of the strike and the out come have been a near embarrassment to the nation. What in you opinion explains this kind of state of affairs that is becoming recurrent especially when it comes to managing a crisis situation? During last years' crash of a Kenya Airways plane in Douala government officials publicly had varied positions.

Dr. CF: Oftentimes lately, it's very tempting to throw up ones hands in despair at some of the glaring incompetence and lack of coordination of government responses to various crisis situations. That again is another reason why citizens must have the opportunity to judge the performance of their government and to be able to reward or penalize various political leaders through regular and credible elections. Should Cameroonian be locked into an amendment of article 6.2 that would deny them that opportunity for ever? Of course not!

Dikalo: Many observers see the remaining years of Mr Biya's last seven year mandate that ends in 2011 (even if he decides to keep on after then) as very determinant to the future of Cameroon after then. What is your vision of Cameroon after 2011?

Dr. CF: I agree with your assessment. Only when the many pending issues of national significance, including those that have arisen lately, are resolved or clarified can one have a clear vision of what Cameroon would be like post 2011. The next four years will be crucial for the history of our country. Either we move forward as a democratic society and safeguard this delicate national entity that we have struggled to keep together for the last fifty years, or the current political actors make an awful, ill-advised move and plunge Cameroon and all of us into an abyss, which we must avoid. We only have to look around Africa and realize that every armed conflict or war on this continent has originated from the ills of bad governance and a crisis of legitimacy. The clarion call rings, and I hope our political leaders hear it too.

Dikalo: Can you write me a forward to a yet to be published book "President Paul Biya 1982 to..."

Dr. CF: Well, I'll have to see your manuscript first (laugh), but already there are major trends that define Biya's presidency thus far. In a nutshell, I see an individual with considerable intellectual wherewhithal who seemed to have good intentions when he assumed the helm of Cameroon — a country with considerable goodwill towards him at the time — now sitting atop a people with tremendous potential mixed with palbable anxieties, and handicapped by an inexplicable inability to leverage the best that we have for the common good.


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