The Mail
Tuesday, September 5, 2000
Bassa-Douala, Cameroon

"NDI may still look for ways to be helpful to democrats in Cameroon."
— Dr. Christopher Fomunyoh

The Mail : From what you said during your discourse, one comes off with the impression that your organization, the NDI, has not been to Cameroon again since 1992 because one of the agencies through which the US Congress gives you funding, the United States Agency for International Development, (USAID) pulled out. If that is the case, Dr. Christopher Fomunyoh, would it be reasonable to conjecture that it is all up for Cameroon as far as NDI assistance is concerned?

Dr. Christopher Fomunyoh : We had already made the decision in 1992 not to be involved in Cameroon, before USAID left. I think it is a clarification that is important so that people don't think it is because USAID left that NDI didn't come into Cameroon again. So that is an important clarification. That said, I wouldn't say it is the end of the road for Cameroon because democratization and the struggle for democratization as we have seen it in Africa, is a continuous process and everyday that goes by, I see an increasing number of Cameroonians who want a better way of life for themselves, their families and their children and who aspire to all of the liberties that we enjoy or people in other democracies enjoy. So my sense is that the desire for democratization will continue to grow and that NDI and other organizations may still look for ways to be helpful to democrats in Cameroon. And sometimes you could be very helpful even without necessarily having a ground in-country presence.

T.M. : What was the main reason why you decided not to be present in Cameroon after the 1992 presidential election?

Dr. C.F. : Well I think we have to put the decision in context because as you know, we are involved in different areas of political development work. In a number of countries we work on elections and let me back up by saying that our involvement is also determined by the requests that are made and the level of political development activity in the host country. So in a given country for example, South Africa, we will work on the election during the period leading up to the election. We could assist the government, revise its electoral framework or electoral code; help conduct voter and civic education programmes with South African NGOs and then monitor the elections. If we stay in the country in the post election period, we will engage in a different kind of activity for example providing training and technical assistance to the mayors, members of parliament that were elected during the election that we monitored. However having ended our involvement in Cameroon immediately following the October 1992 elections, there was no work either with the institutions that emerged from the elections or with political parties or other democratic institutions.

T.M. " Okay, since democrats last came to power in America, there are Cameroonians who have been very skeptical about the relationship between the American government and the Cameroonian authorities. At one time the Americans are so hard, they talk down the throats of the authorities, threaten to mete out certain sanctions against the Cameroonian government; at other times they talk mellow and Cameroonians are now thinking that Americans have permanent interests and don't consider the welfare of the citizens as would be based on good governance or democratization as the case may be, irrespective of the party in government. What is your appreciation of that kind of outlook on the relationship between the American government and the Cameroonian authorities?

Dr. C.F. : Well, you know, I don't think I am the best person to respond to that question because you know I don't speak for the US government. I am not an employee of the government. I also couldn't give you an honest opinion because I am not a resident in Cameroon. So having just arrived, it is difficult for me to speak on behalf of the government, or to say what the ordinary Cameroonian feels. However, during the press conference, I read to you recent laws that have been passed, enacted by the US government and passed into legislation that lay out criteria that countries will need to meet to benefit from the recently signed Africa Growth and Opportunities Act and it lists issues related to democratization and good governance. I talked about the fact that organizations such as ours, and others that are being funded by the US Congress to work on democracy in Africa and other developing countries or continents are continuing to receive and enjoy bi-partisan support from the US government. For those two reasons alone and a whole host of others, I could not say and would argue with those who think that the US government's interest in democratization is waning. I don't think that is the case.

T.M. : You are a Cameroonian and you must have a passionate if not, some interest in Cameroon that goes beyond that of others working for the NDI. Given this special status at the NDI, special in the sense that you are a Cameroonian, what do you think is the future of democracy in Cameroon considering that in spite of earlier efforts made, things don't seem to be actually taking off?

Dr. C.F. : Well, obviously as human beings and as an individual I feel passionately about Cameroon my country. But when I put on my professional cap as an employee of NDI, I work and advocate for all of Africa. Whether it is Mali or Nigera or the Central African Republic, I put forward the same strong arguments that I will put for any country on this continent. Because I strongly believe that the African continent has got tremendous potentials both in terms of human as well as mineral resources, and other kinds of resources. I hope and wish to work as strongly as I can to make sure this whole continent can emerge and meet the standards that we all expect for it to meet. I believe strongly in the line of my work that democratization is good for people in Africa, in North America, in Asia, all over the world. And when you create a space that allows individuals to be creative and contribute positively to the development of their respective countries, in the end, everybody's well-being is improved upon. So I continue to remain optimistic as far as the future of democratization in Cameroon is concerned and I hope that we in our life time will be very proud of what we would have achieved in terms of the continuous efforts that are going into pushing the envelope to make sure that Cameroon takes its place at the table of democratic nations.

T.M. : Within the context of your work you have had to move from one country to another. Which country or which countries will you want to put forward as reference of some of the ideals the NDI espouses?

Dr C.F. : Let me answer that this way. By putting the whole discussion on democratization and the efforts that have gone into democratization in Africa in perspective, that despite some of the crises that we have seen in a number of African countries, that I can always look back and think of some of the files, discussions, some of the debates that we were having ten years ago, even in some cases five years ago, when some people were reluctant to bring an end to one party state, to allow for multi-parties, when people didn't understand that civil society organization, human rights organizations, women's associations, lawyers and other professionals could make a contribution to the governance process, when people did not understand that you could still have a life and contribute to the stay of the nation even out of office. Then when you look back five, ten years you cannot but acknowledge that Africa as a whole has made a lot of progress. Now multi-parties are accepted in almost all African countries; now civil societies have become extremely vibrant in Africa; journalists and the media have become more liberated and open; now we are getting newspapers representing various viewpoints; we are even getting private television and radio stations in a number of countries.

Now even African governments and political leaders are beginning to understand that it is time to lose power through the ballot box and accept the outcome. We just saw recently in Senegal that President Diouf lost an election and accepted the outcome and Senegal has had a change of power through the ballot process. We saw that in the early years of Kerekou in Benin and in a number of other African countries including the Central African Republic with Andre Kolingba, Madagascar and Didier Ratsiraka; we have seen a number of countries that have gone through the second set and third set of transition elections that have been viewed as open and credible and transparent and so you cannot help but look at those examples and tell yourself that democracy is taking root in Africa and that we can look through the continent and pull a number of lessons from various African countries that will reassure us that democracy and democratization are not foreign concepts to the African continent. So the countries that I have cited could very well serve as test cases or examples of countries that are doing well; South Africa, Senegal, Benin. Ghana. Central African Republic is surviving on its own, Nigeria has joined the fold, and the hope is that as the number of countries increases, democracy will become an ordinary way of government in Africa.

T.M. : Let's just imagine that Al Gore won the upcoming presidential elections, do you think he could do better in terms of America-Africa relations than Clinton, given that Clinton's performance has already attained a level which people refer to as quite a standard?

Dr. C.F. : Well, it is hypothetical, so I will answer the question bearing in mind that Africans don't vote in American elections and we are waiting to see what the outcome would be. You also remember that I did list a number of issues which receive bi-partisan support in terms of assistance to Africa. However since you refer specifically to Gore in the sense of being another democrat, another candidate coming out of the democratic party and someone who served with Clinton, I would say that President Clinton's challenge has been in being a pioneer in breaking new ground in the relationship between the US and Africa and that a pioneer usually faces some challenges even though they end up setting high benchmarks. What people may expect from the next administration if it were still a democrat elected as a continuation of the Clinton administration is maybe looking on marks that President Clinton has set on the ground, and bring in more depth to try to operationalize or materialize some of the marks that have already been set by Clinton. For example, that the African Growth and Opportunities Act that was recently passed should then be implemented because that is when the benefits will begin to accrue to Africans. So it's probably not a question of surpassing the marks set by Clinton but making sure the reality of those marks, footsteps that have been printed on the ground by Clinton really get to benefit the ordinary African. And my sense is that all things being equal, that will happen with the next administration.

T.M. : you cited the case of Chad, where American interest is growing in recent times and Equatorial Guinea in particular where 80 percent of investment is American. Incidentally, Cameroon lies in between. Do you in this wise see a possibility of a spill down of more US interest in Cameroon, even if we were to look at Africa globally with regard to American-African policy?

Dr. C.F. : That is an interesting question and it is almost a role-reversal for me in some way because what I will wish we could have is a Cameroon that is at the top and let the other countries benefit from the solid nature of relations between Cameroon and the US; let other countries benefit from the investment that American companies make in Cameroon. I think that is the place that Cameroon ought to occupy when you look at the sub-region. Cameroon has 15 million citizens which is more than the population of Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Central African Republic, Congo Brazzaville, and Chad combined. We have got the potential, we have got the manpower, we have got the highest accumulation of intellectual power in the sub-region; there is no reason why Cameroon should not be the first. That is the aspiration that I have for myself and for my generation as well as for our kids. When I think that we all as Cameroonians can begin to aspire to that higher level rather than expect that they could be a spillover from which we could benefit, then we are going to be able to push the envelope from within as we say, and make sure that we can get for our country what is rightfully ours in terms of the level of both political and economic development.

T.M. : If you don't mind we can narrow down the interview now to your person. Do you have any special relationship with Al Gore?

Dr C.F. : Well you know if you are a public official in the US you get to meet thousands and millions of people. And it is very customary in the US to meet people in different capacities, political leaders are more open. You can meet leaders in a conference, in a working group or an old boys' association. There are certain relationships that exist but I wouldn't say that Vice President Al Gore knows me personally. But there is that openness that allows for people such as myself and others who are working in the area of democratization which is very dear to the heart of most American elected officials who are democrats to be able to have some opportunity at various points to get to know them, and know their work and see what they are doing, know what they are doing and see their level of interest in the project that we are working on and the amount of support they have provided an organization like ours and other democracy promotion organizations.

T.M. : How soon do we expect to see NDI here again?

Dr C.F. : Well, this is a vacation for me and I think I would be better placed to respond to that question if I were on a working tour which is not the case this time around. I am just vacationing and I thought I should take the opportunity to meet with friends and families and schoolmates that I have not met for years now and just get a flavour of the country, and get to reconnect again. So I wouldn't be able to answer such a question which is very work-related.