SDF North American Convention

Chris Fomunyoh, Ph.D.


The Chairman of the SDF North American Province
Honorable members of the SDF National Executive Committee
Members of the SDF / NA Organizing committee
His Excellency, the Cameroon Ambassador to Washington
Distinguished Guests
Ladies and Gentlemen

Thank you for inviting me to this grand occasion of the North American Convention of the Social Democratic Front (SDF). Perhaps by sheer happenstance or by design you planned this memorable event exactly nine and the half years since the launching of the party on May 26, 1990. I am pleased to be here and deeply honored to have been asked to be your keynote speaker.

Needless to say, this convention is taking place a few weeks before the beginning of the next millennium; and so it is the most ideal time to take stock, to assess the past, reflect on the present and contemplate the future. This is the ideal time to look at our continent of Africa, to look at our cumulative struggle as small 'd' democrats, our contribution in ways big and small to the cause in a place dear to our hearts --Cameroon -- and ponder upon how far we have come and how distant we still must travel. For this reason I felt it would be appropriate to share with you my thoughts on democratization in Africa and the prospects for the 21st century.

About two weeks ago, former leaders of the free world gathered in Germany to commemorate the collapse of the Berlin wall. Ten years ago, the fall of the Berlin wall signified the end of communism and the cold war; it also released new energies upon humankind to reach out for more democracy and the freedoms that citizens of the free world so take for granted. So began what has been termed by Samuel Huntington and other political scholars as the 'third wave of democratization' in developing countries around the world.

In the specific case of Africa, the people's aspirations for greater freedoms crystallized in two different process outcomes. In countries such as Benin, Mali, the Central Africa Republic, and Madagascar (to name a few) a unique people-driven phenomenon of national conferences provided an avenue for grassroots organizations, civil society groups and professional associations to reshape the political framework of these nation-states. Constitutions were rewritten to provide for political pluralism or multiparty politics, new political parties were allowed to form and compete in elections, independent commissions were instituted to conduct competitive elections and new elections even led to multiple cases of regime change. Believe it or not, the period between 1991 - 1994 saw the highest regime change in post-independence Africa with about a dozen new governments coming to power through the ballot box.

In other cases such as Cote d'Ivoire, Kenya, Togo, and our own Cameroon, through elite-managed transitions, recalcitrant incumbents manipulated the transition process in ways that allowed them to relinquish a portion of their monopoly on avenues for political participation without loosening their grip on power. Military leaders in countries such as Burkina Faso, Ghana and The Gambia quickly shredded the military attire for civilian suits. Some of them maintained their military titles while proclaiming a desire to tolerate political competition. In the above-cited cases opposition parties are allowed to form and other features of electoral democracy are practiced, without necessarily leveling the playing field or creating the political space that 'provides a fair arena of contestation to allow the ruling class to be turned out of power' -- to borrow freely from Larry Diamond's definition of pseudodemocracies.

As Africa experienced its share of political transitions in this decade, two schools of thought emerged: on the one hand there were the romantic-optimists who felt that 'good-natured' or benevolent African dictators and autocrats would transform themselves overnight into catalysts for change and seek to improve the lives of their people. Boy were they mistaken! Little did they know that 'old habits die hard' and that it would take considerable time and a consistent effort to tear down the legacy of the one-party state and its imprint on the clientelist or pre bendal states on the continent.

On the other hand, there were the beneficiaries of undeserving privileges who thought that Africa could be secluded from the rest of the world that was undergoing dramatic changes for the better. In Malawi, for example, President Kamusu Banda still professed that Malawians loved to have him be president-for-life, only to find out later in a secret ballot referendum that at least two-thirds of the country's electorate saw rightly that 'the emperor had no clothes.' In our own Cameroon, we saw people whom we thought were respectable and intelligent stage demonstrations in protest 'against democracy as an imported concept' and carrying placards that read 'no to multi party politics.' Today some of these eleventh hour converts proclaim their 'democratic' credentials with a straight face and assert they have lessons to learn from no one.

These 'nay sayers' have been proven wrong. For all its crisis, this decade has seen changes for the better in Africa in the area of democratization and good governance. During this decade apartheid ended in South Africa after long years of racial segregation and untold hardship on the lives of black South Africans; Namibia achieved independence ending decades of illegal rule by the white minority regime in South Africa; and least we forget, until recently Marechal Mobutu Seseseko and General Sani Abacha reigned supreme in Zaire and Nigeria, respectively.

Due in large part to the work of committed democrats on the continent, the overwhelming majority of African countries - in fact all but a handful - now recognize the democratic ideal of political pluralism and the rights of parties and candidates to compete for political office. Just a decade ago, single, state parties were the order of the day. We are seeing a more accepting attitude toward democracy and even an increased willingness of leaders to step down from positions of power - SOUTH AFRICA, BOTSWANA, (Amadou Toumani Toure in) MALI, (Abdusalami ABUBARKAR in) NIGERIA, and (WANKE in) NIGER.

In today's Africa, for the most part, you find a vibrant civil society with a free press and the freedoms of speech and association being respected and the rights of women and other minorities well preserved. Home-grown initiatives of increased citizen participation in the political process have manifested themselves also in the emergence of domestic election monitors and political party poll watchers. They too are a confirmation that Africans are holding themselves and their elected officials to higher standards - we have seen these civic groups at work in SOUTH AFRICA, KENYA, MADAGASCAR, MALAWI AND NAMIBIA.

In most of today's Africa, courts and other judicial bodies are beginning to assert their independence, a degree of fairness and respect for the rule of law. They are daring to be critical of over zealous government bureaucrats who trample upon the constitutional rights of ordinary citizens - CONSTITUTIONAL COURTS IN BENIN, MADAGASCAR, MALI, SENEGAL, SOUTH AFRICA.

In a number of African countries, elected representatives from different political parties and with divergent viewpoints are participating actively in functioning legislatures and conducting the constitutional duties of law making, responding to the needs of constituents and exercising oversight responsibilities. A few years back, these legislatures served solely to rubberstamp dictates from the executive branch or ruling apparachik - MAURITIUS, MOZAMBIQUE, SOUTH AFRICA, KENYA ..... and even in NIGERIA. In today's Africa, you will find that more than a dozen countries have developed the capacity and political will to conduct democratic elections, thereby helping reinforce the notion laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that in democracies, political power and the legitimacy of political office derive from the choice, freely expressed, of the people - - BENIN, BOTSWANA, CAPE VERDE, GHANA, MADAGASCAR, MAURITIUS, MOZAMBIQUE, SOUTH AFRICA. The military is becoming less willing to seize power because of the lack of popular support for coups and sharply diminished public confidence in the military's ability to govern effectively. Even the Organization of African Unity in its last general assembly meeting in Algiers had the courage to finally speak out against military incursions into politics stating that military regimes will not be welcome into the club and demanding that those already in power organize transitions to civilian rule and relinquish power to democratically elected governments by 2002.

In a nutshell it is fair to say that the achievements of this decade allow room for guarded optimism with regard to the course of democratization in Africa in the years ahead. It is heartening to find that ten years from 1989, for every pillar of democracy one can point to empirical data from African countries making progress towards a commendable record of accomplishments.

At the same time one must admit that for most of us gathered here today, there is a sense of unfulfilled dreams, unmet aspirations and wasted opportunities in that the country most dear to us -- Cameroon -- could not qualify on most of the criteria listed above. There lies the challenge for the future.

There comes a moment in the life of a people when by a stroke of enormous courage a decision is made and a stance is taken. When the moment came in the 18th century, the American colonies decided to rid themselves of British imperialism and the founding fathers emerged to create the democracy that we now enjoy. When the moment stroke in the 19th century, Abraham Lincoln decided to stand up against slavery so all men and women would be born free and stay free. In this century one could point to the daring stance taken by Rosa Parks, just a 'small size' black American woman who refused to move to the back and give up her seat in the bus - and there began the civil rights movement in this country that we now benefit from in one way or another. Internationally, we remember Boris Yeltsin standing on the tank or armored vehicle in the heart of Moscow and saying "no" or niet to a military coup. We also have crystalized in our memories, the image of the Chinese student standing in front of a squadron of armored vehicles or tanks, stopping them in their first attempt to crush the pro democracy demonstrations in Tiannemen square. I still have vivid images of this little young man wearing a white shirt and black slags and holding a little sack in his hands that may have contained all his worldly belongings.

CNN was not there at what is now called the Liberty square; but history was made nonetheless in May 1990 when the SDF was launched in Bamenda against the backdrop of a heavy deployment of troops and skirmishes between security forces and ordinary, unarmed, citizens leading to the loss of six innocent lives. On that eventful day a new page was written in the history of democratization in Cameroon. That, indeed, was a moment of courage. As the late Robert Kennedy once said, speaking in Capetown, South Africa in 1966..."It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance".

The SDF and its Chairman Ni John Fru Ndi made history, and there too comes the additional burden -- to make sure that in the next century the story can be told of how the success began. The prospects are promising for many a reason: time is on the side of democrats. The mere passage of time and the emergence of other democracies on the hemisphere reduces the toxic level of non democratic regimes and enhances the prospects for meaningful change. In the first decade of the next century we would have a generation of Cameroonians that attained maturity only ten years ago for whom tolerance and the freedoms of speech and assembly are sacred and non negotiable. The challenge is to keep the faith, maintain the commitment and be more strategic in re galvanizing the broad coalition that would combine internal forces and external know how to bring about meaningful democratic change in Cameroon, as in every other transition.

It is often said that from those to whom much is given, so is much expected. The Cameroonians of the diaspora have the unique position of knowing the hardships of an undemocratic regime even as we enjoy the fruits of a democratic society. The intensity of commitment to democratization that I feel in this room reassures me that the potential exists for that broad coalition to come together. We leave in a community where voices from here get heard in places near and far. We have seen some of that momentum in the past. It is about time to rekindle the flames, regroup and work on the unfinished business and battles ahead. As one of the greatest American presidents, Franklin Roosevelt once said, .."The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today. Let us move forward with strong and active faith."

My greatest hope is that from hence forth, your voices and actions would be enhanced here and within the inner workings of the party so you can bring your insights to bear in the reformulation of a new grand strategy for meaningful democratic change in Cameroon, and why not, in Africa as a whole, as countries share lessons of successful transitions with each other. Again permit me to leave you with these words of Robert Kennedy when he said..."Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation."

I wish you fruitful deliberations during this North American convention, I hope that your commitment to democratization in Cameroon grows from strength to strength, and I thank you sincerely for your time and attention.