Cameroon Calling Interview with Christopher Fomunyoh

September 3, 2000


Introduction: Music and announcement of program

Interviewer: Hi there, this is your good old friend Adamu Musa, (AM) heartily welcoming you once again to your favorite program, Cameroon Calling. An old African proverb says a toad does not go about in the daytime for nothing. And so it is with the kind delegation that President Paul Biya has hand picked to accompany him to the Millennium Summit of the General Assembly of the United Nations Organization which opens in New York City on Wednesday, September 6th, 2000. This United Nations trip by Cameroon's Chief Executive, and the high diplomatic shuttles we expect would take place in New York City during this period were preceded in Cameroon by two successive visits of two powerful delegations.

The first from the Commonwealth of Nations and the second from the National Democratic Institute (NDI). We know how preoccupied these two international organizations are when it comes to matters of democracy, good governance, and human rights. How does our country interest these organizations just at this point in time, especially as it concerns the National Democratic Institute, is what we shall soon find out when we meet its regional director for West, Central, and East Africa, Cameroon born Dr. Chris Fomunyoh who was here to give a series of talks in the cities of Douala and Yaounde to some Cameroonian politicians, members of civil society, university men and women, female activists, and journalists.


AM: President Paul Biya's diplomatic offensive at the U.N. Millennium Summit falls within what could be conveniently described as preventive diplomacy, that is being able to detect a potential source of conflict and strife, and going out to prevent the situation from exploding. That is the kind of thing the National Democratic Institute, the NDI has been doing in emerging democracies around the world, although from a very different approach. Democracy, free and fair elections, good governance, human rights and so on. The NDI regional director for East , Central and West Africa Dr. Chris Fomunyoh was guest of the American Cultural Center, the Department of Public Affairs of the American Embassy during the week, and he gave talks to various interest groups of Cameroonian public in Douala and in Yaounde.

Our reporter John Mbah Akoro sat in on some of those lectures and now has this analysis.

John Mbah Akoro: The National Democratic Institute is a world recognized body involved in election monitoring and in the promotion of democracy worldwide. The NDI enjoys great credibility everywhere in the world due to the frankness of the reports its experts present after monitoring elections anywhere on the globe. The credibility of the NDI stems especially from the fact that it is affiliated to all three main world political groupings to which all parties at least identify. These are the Socialists International, the Liberal Democrats International, and the Religious Democrats International. But that credibility has suffered a lot of set backs on the African continent. Relations between most incumbent governments in Africa and the National Democratic Institute are anything but cordial. So many regimes in Africa at the dawn of multi-party politics were enthusiastic in inviting the NDI for the purpose of elections monitoring, but after they discovered that that body only stands by transparency, the same regimes turned around and named the NDI an opposition supporter, a trouble maker that publishes reports intended to incite people to revolt. But the regional director for Africa at the NDI, Dr. Christopher Fomunyoh, denied that accusation at a press conference in Yaounde, saying the NDI reports are only meant for political activists to draw from experiences in other areas. He noted that the organization gets to work in any country only on the request of the government. Adding that authorities who mean to cheat do not invite the NDI. Talking about Cameroon, Dr. Christopher Fomunyoh maintained that the NDI report on the 1992 presidential election remains applicable until date. The lesson drawn from that press conference is that when people loose faith in a political process, then positive change cannot come about in such a country. Seeds for discord and future conflicts are sown, and the people generally appear prepared to use other means to translate their aspirations, and political expressions, since elections no longer serve the purpose.

But the work of the National Democratic Institute has greatly influenced the policies of donor countries and international bodies on the African continent if they have done nothing on the leaders themselves. Bearing in mind that most of the governments are corrupt, illegitimate, and autocratic, the world's richest countries came up with the promotion of the civil society participation in development projects through non-governmental organizations. In the past World Bank and IMF officials only concerted with finance administrations and with the executive branch of government in developing countries. But today there is a greater involvement of the opposition leaders, the press, and of the civil society. And that course of action is yielding dividends in that even the most corrupt officials in Africa are becoming acquainted with the twin words transparency and credibility.

AM: Dr. Chris Fomunyoh is a young patriotic Cameroonian who loves and adores his country. He got his law degree from the University of Yaounde, worked briefly with Cameroon Airlines before proceeding to take an LLM degree in International Law from the prestigious Harvard Law School and a Ph.D. in Political Science from Boston University. He has been working for the National Democratic Institute (NDI) for more than a decade today. We had a chat with him in which he began by briefly presenting their work at the NDI.

Chris Fomunyoh (CF): The National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, called NDI, is a non-governmental organization that was formed in 1983 by the United States' Congress to help support and promote democracy around the world. As you stated very rightly we do have programs in Africa, but we do have program in other parts of the world, in Latin America, Asia, the former Soviet Union, the Middle East, and even Eastern Europe. And basically we work with "small d" democrats in various countries to help them organize political parties, organize civil society organizations, as well as provide technical assistance to elected officials and elections administration to make sure that democracy can take root or to encourage them, and strengthen democracy in their respective countries.

AM: And how successful have you been in promoting these democratic values especially within the emerging democracies on the African continent. How successful have you been in your venture?

CF: Well, as you can imagine, Africa is a continent with very many countries. You also know that democracy is a never ending endeavor, as President Kennedy always said. And also in the last few years we've had a number of setbacks in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and Rwanda, and Sierra Leone. Setbacks that unfortunately have given the impression to people on the outside and in the continent, shortcomings which have eclipsed some of the achievements of the last five to ten years. But I also look around the continent and I see the progress that has been made in South Africa. The fact that apartheid has ended, Nelson Mandela came out of jail, got elected as president, served one term, and willingly gave over the presidency to Thabo Mbeki through an election that was viewed as free and fair, and credible. I look at Nigeria that has gone through a very dark past under military rule in recent years, and is now on the way to a successful transition. I look at numerous other countries, Mali, Benin, Senegal, and I see progress that has been made in the last five, ten years. And I am rather optimistic that Africa has achieved a lot in the area of democratization.

AM: Yeah, when you say that it reminds me of the role that the NDI played in Cameroon in 1992, when they came to monitor the presidential elections out here. Since those elections at which NDI played a rather prominent role, we have heard nothing of the NDI in spite of the fact that we have had many other important elections in this country?

CF: Well, that's a very legitimate question because I am sure that Cameroonians would love to be involved in the democratization process not just in Cameroon, but also make their contributions to other countries on the continent. And for people who have had the opportunity to work with NDI, they can testify the work that we've done that has been well valued in a number of countries including here in Cameroon. I must say that when NDI worked in Cameroon in 1992, a lot of Cameroonians on both sides of the political divide appreciated the fact that people volunteered their time from a number of countries to come and try to make a difference here. Unfortunately, we haven't been involved, you are right, in Cameroon since then. That could be explained in the context of not receiving the kind of request that would reassure us that our assistance was needed. And also in the context of different requests and different demands that are made on our time and our resources from other countries where the political environment is more encouraging of that kind of assistance; it becomes difficult to make a case as to why we have to be involved in one country at all cost, rather than try to respond to the numerous requests that we are receiving from other countries.

AM: Some people are tempted to think that the NDI has not been present in Cameroon all this while because the NDI is very satisfied with the democratic process that obtains here; Is that the case?

CF: Well, people who know our organization know that we are very straightforward and blunt about what we think. And we would say so ourselves, we wouldn't wait for people to guess or imagine what we are thinking, and we traditionally would say so ourselves. So I wouldn't pay too much attention to what people are saying or guessing or thinking. But I think that at the right time or whenever called upon, our organization will be able to make its position known.

AM: And now when you are talking about this question of democracy in Africa, from which perspective are you talking? Are you talking from the American perspective? Are you taking into consideration the local realities of these emerging democracies? Do you take these into consideration? Or do you just come in and say o.k. this is how democracy is, this is the way things have to go?

CF: This is a very pertinent question because I think especially in the early '90's this debate took place in a lot of countries on the continent. At the time unfortunately, a number of people had the false impression that organizations such as NDI and the Republican Institute (RI) and other organizations that work in the area of democracy support programs would come into a country with a preconceived idea, with a check list of things which must be done at all cost. But increasingly as African countries have gone through successful democratization efforts, they have began to realize, especially working with these organizations, that nobody is seeking to impose the American model of government, or the British, or the French model of government, but that people who work in the area of democracy support, at least I can speak for my organization, we come to the table with a broad range of experiences. And we allow the democrats in each country to determine for themselves which lessons they can draw upon themselves from what other countries have gone through. That's one reason why whenever NDI is working in a country, we always have multinational delegations; people who came from the United States, but also Canada, South Africa, Nigeria. We've taken Senegalese to Botswana; we've taken people from Angola to Nigeria. We've taken people from Morocco to Senegal; because we believe there is community of "small d" democrats around the world. And it doesn't matter which country you belong to, or which continent you belong to; as long as you aspire or are committed to democratic principles, there is a lot we can share in common. And whenever you bring people together who share common ideals in terms of respect for democratization or democracy, there is bonding and lessons learned across the board. I hope and we've already seen some of that, Cameroonians go out and share their own experiences with democrats in other countries.

AM: Some political observers are of the opinion that the NDI kind of provokes conflicts on the African continent. Let's take for instance the kind of inflammatory reports which are published at the end of an election which you monitor; you come out with all the things that didn't go well with the election and you say, no, this election wasn't right. Then you pack and you leave and do nothing to straighten the situation.

CF: It's unfortunate, because I wouldn't use that characterization myself. I wouldn't be with this organization if I didn't believe in its work. NDI is a well respected organization worldwide, we are the only organization in the whole world that is affiliated to all the three main internationals [political ideological groups] in the world. We are affiliated to the Liberal International, we are affiliated to the Socialists International, and we are affiliated to the Christian Democrats International. So we cover the entire political spectrum around the world, and we wouldn't have that kind of reputation if we were viewed as an organization that goes around provoking conflict in emerging democracies; be they in Africa, or Asia, or Latin America. NDI has got a track record and I would challenge anybody to look at our track record, and to have a debate with us about the ways in which we conduct our activities. That said, I think your question had two parts to it. First the statements, and what NDI does after statements.

I think its important that whenever an organization, be it NDI or any other organization has gone into a country and taken the time of political leaders from both sides of the political spectrum in meetings that are held with these leaders, the people generally donate their time, sometimes in the heat of political campaigns, taking time away from other commitments to meet with you and share with you some of the concerns that you have; its is important, out of respect to the citizens of that country, and even to the political leaders of that country, to be able to be very honest in the way in which you lay out your statements. I would also say that in a number of countries, conflicts have emerged because people have been fed with the impression that no one listens to them; no one listens to their complaints, and no one took them seriously. And every time you have come out with a detailed and thorough statement, people have come to believe that at least someone listened, and at least someone took us seriously. I must also say that whenever NDI has issued a statement, we've always made sure that our statements include recommendations on what could be done to resolve whatever problems we would have identified. And I can cite specific examples of cases where NDI has been criticized for not being severe enough in its statements or where domestic organizations, local groups have come out with statements on the same elections that were more severe than the statements issued by NDI. And I think out of deference to people you do not want to patronize them by giving them the impression that their issues are not being taken seriously. That's always the framework within which we couch our work and our statements, and the statements that we issue not just in Cameroon, but in other countries.

With regards to post election work, I think that's always determined by requests that are made by political leaders, and political activists in a given country vis-à-vis the organization, and we try to be as responsive to those requests as possible.

AM: Thank you Dr. Chris Fomunyoh, for accepting our invitation.