Cameroon, Guinea, South Africa….NDI’s Dr Chris Fomunyoh On Africa’s Shrinking Democratic Space
By Ajong Mbapndah L
While it may be heartening to see how much Africa has changed in the past three decades, the rate at which the successes of political transitions of the 90s are been rolled back should be of concern to everyone says Dr Christopher Senior Associate for Africa at the Washington, DC based National Democratic Institute.
A seasoned professional who has played a leading role in some of the most successful stories of democracies in Africa since the early 90s, Dr Fomunyoh says it is disappointing to see the prevalence of armed conflicts, opposition leaders been thrown in jail, elections being stolen, and constitutions amended by leaders who want to perpetuate themselves in power.
African democrats must not relent in their advocacy and must continue to fight for inclusive and accountable government, says Dr Fomunyoh in an interview with Ajong Mbapndah L for Pan African Visions.
Speaking with passion about his native Cameroon, Dr Fomunyoh says the overall situation looks bleak, and the country’s future precarious. Describing the recent trial of Anglophone leaders as a travesty of justice, Fomunyoh says their sentencing further aggravates the Anglophone crisis and deepens the mistrust, and bitterness that exists between Anglophones and the government of President Paul Biya.
“We must maintain the pressure for dialogue because it is the only means through which this conflict could be brought to an end and the legitimate grievances of Anglophones addressed in Cameroon,” Dr Fomunyoh says.
For the dialogue announced by President Biya to be credible, the government must create an enabling environment in which participants feel that the dialogue would be open and broad based, allowing for different viewpoints to be heard, says Dr Fomunyoh.
“The government must also take confidence-building measures to show that the call for dialogue is sincere. Notably, the killings must stop, the arbitrary arrest and detention of young Anglophones must end, and people who are detained unjustly should be released immediately,” Dr Fomunyoh said.
Considering that many Anglophones have lost trust in the Biya government, Dr Domunyoh said the burden will be on the government to show that it will not steamroll participants to obtain a predetermined outcome.
Dr Fomunyoh, you have just returned from Guinea Conakry, an African country that has tremendous resources, but has experienced difficult political transitions in the past. What is your overall assessment of the situation there in the lead-up to national elections scheduled for 2020?
You are so right, Guinea is a country with so much potential given its mineral wealth that includes some of the world’s highest reserves of bauxite and iron ore, and timber and water resources. Unfortunately, the impact of past military and authoritarian rule is still being felt, and citizens still crave an improvement in their well-being in this age of democratic government. The overall political situation in Guinea is tense and polarized, as the country prepares for legislative and presidential elections which have to be conducted between now and December 2020. On top of that, there is speculation that the country could run into a major crisis over whether to adopt a new constitution or not. Political parties, civil society organizations, labor unions, academics and other opinion leaders are already taking sides on the airwaves and various social media platforms. Many Guineans remain hopeful that the day would come when a democratically elected president transfers power through the ballot box to his successor, something that has not happened since the country gained independence in 1958.
Recently in Cape Town, South Africa, as a guest speaker at the joint conference co-organized by the University of Cape Town and the Kofi Annan Foundation, you stated that “political space is shrinking across Africa.” What leads you to that conclusion?
First let me say how uplifting it was to be at the University of Cape Town for a conference in memory of two great sons of Africa — Nelson Mandela and Kofi Annan — who as world leaders epitomized the best of humanity in terms of their vision and commitment to promoting human dignity, development and world peace. I was truly honored to be invited.
In the spirit of Nelson Mandela and Kofi Annan, it is heartening to see how much Africa has changed in the past three decades: political pluralism is now common practice in all African countries, independent media continues to grow, the continent’s youth are becoming politically engaged, and, increasingly, political power is being transferred through the ballot process. Who could have thought that in Sudan, by the sheer determination of citizens engaged in civil protest, a thirty-year autocracy under General Al-Bashir would collapse! At the same time, one must state the disappointment that in too many African countries some of the successes of political transitions of the 1990s are being rolled back. Armed conflicts are still prevalent, opposition leaders are being thrown in jail, injustice is being inflicted on ordinary citizens, elections are being stolen, and constitutions are being amended by leaders who want to perpetuate themselves in power.
So what should Africans do about the democratic backsliding?
African democrats must not relent in their advocacy and fight for inclusive and accountable government. We need more open political space to engage citizens across the board and harness the rich diversity of talent and expertise that our continent possesses. We must find ways to galvanize our human capital to best utilize the countries’ wealth to improve the wellbeing of our fellow citizens. For this to happen, we have to learn to aggregate our efforts as opposed to operating in silos, we have to build alliances across the continent so that the good guys can support each other and draw inspiration from each others’ successes. The next generation of Africans expect from us a better continent than we may have inherited from the generation before us.
You were in South Africa around the week of xenophobic attacks by South Africans against Africans of other nationalities. What do you make of these attacks and how was the mood like while you were there?
It is sad and despicable to watch Africans being killed by other Africans for no other reason than their countries of origin. Nelson Mandela and other founders of today’s democratic and free South Africa would be turning in their graves, because they would remember the contributions by other African countries to the liberation struggle. Without the frontline states that include countries such as Zimbabwe and Zambia, and Nigeria, perhaps we would not have South Africa as we know it today. Even if South African youth are exposed to many challenges such as high levels of unemployment, lack of opportunities and a sense of abandonment by the state, that still cannot explain why they would take out their grievances violently against fellow Africans. It is my hope that the government of South Africa would draw the appropriate lessons from this unfortunate incident and come out with well-crafted programs that can provide a safety net for the less fortunate of South African society, and a sense of safety and security for other Africans that choose to live in this beautiful country. That tragedy also exposes the failures of other governments across the continent whose citizens now feel obliged to flee their homeland to become refugees in foreign lands, because of political repression or because of lack of economic opportunity. What’s happening in South Africa today must prick our collective conscience as Africans.
Coming now to your home country of Cameroon, what is your assessment of the political situation there, in what shape is the country?
Cameroon is in bad shape. Thousands of Anglophones have been killed, others in their thousands are in detention centers spread across the country; members of security forces have lost their lives in hundreds; over two hundred villages have been burned; 40,000 Anglophones now live in refugee camps in Nigeria and 600,000 others are internally displaced, now living in other regions of the country. For three years running, schools have been unable to open in the Anglophone regions of the country. The United Nations estimates that close to 1.4 million Anglophones could be at risk of famine, all because of the ongoing crisis.
At the same time, the runner-up in the last presidential election, Professor Maurice Kamto, and hundreds of his supporters — many of whom are lawyers, economists and other professionals — are being detained in Yaoundé, with some charged to appear before a military tribunal.
The country also continues to battle Boko Haram extremists in its extreme north region that borders north-eastern Nigeria and Chad. The overall situation looks bleak, and the country’s future precarious. There is reason to be alarmed.
Getting into more recent developments, what is your take on the heavy jail sentence slammed on the Anglophone leader Julius Ayuk Tabe and others?
In my opinion, the sentencing of Ayuk Tabe and 9 others to life imprisonment by a military tribunal in Yaoundé is a travesty of justice on multiple fronts, notably the conditions of their arrest and extradition from Nigeria; their detention incommunicado for an extended period of over 9 months; their trial before a military tribunal constituted only of French speaking military judges; and the all-night trial that ended with a ruling at about 5 am in the morning. There is no doubt in my mind that this sentencing further aggravates the Anglophone crisis and deepens the mistrust and bitterness that exists between Anglophones and the government of President Paul Biya.
The heavy sentence came at a time when there are increasing calls for dialogue, what impact do you think this could have on prospects of dialogue?
This life imprisonment goes contrary to the vein of recent pronouncements in favor of dialogue by the government, multiple opinion leaders, the African Union and the international community. We must maintain the pressure for dialogue because it is the only means through which this conflict could be brought to an end and the legitimate grievances of Anglophones addressed in Cameroon.
As a seasoned professional on governance and conflict resolution, what proposals do you have for a way out of the present crisis?
I have been consistent in advocating for dialogue and in putting forward ideas that could help the country resolve this crisis. As recently as November 2018, I presented a 10-point agenda on concrete steps that could have been taken at the time to bring an end to the conflict. Since then, the situation has gotten worse, more lives have been lost, and the increasing number of victims only reinforces the urgency of concrete actions that must be taken to end the massacres and conflict. As I’ve stated over the years, I’m willing to put on the table how that roadmap could be implemented, were there to be an open platform and a genuine effort to end this crisis and get the country out of the mess in which it currently finds itself.
On Tuesday, September 10, President Biya addressed Cameroonians and, for the first time in three years, he discussed the crisis in the North West and South West regions in some detail. What is your reaction to the speech?
Modern day governance and crisis management demand that leaders be more proactive in communicating with citizens when countries face crises of the magnitude of what Cameroon has gone through over the past three years. It is good that President Paul Biya finally spoke directly to this crisis. The promise of a national dialogue is commendable, although I wish that the rest of the speech was less accusatory and provocative, so as to create an environment in which the dialogue could actually begin.
You have always called for dialogue, and now President Biya says there will be one starting by the end of September. What are some of the necessary ingredients for successful dialogue and a lasting solution?
First, for the dialogue to be credible, the government must create an enabling environment in which participants feel that the dialogue would be open and broad based, allowing for different viewpoints to be heard. The government must also take confidence-building measures to show that the call for dialogue is sincere. Notably, the killings must stop, the arbitrary arrest and detention of young Anglophones must end, and people who are detained unjustly should be released immediately. Cameroonians still remember that a similar national dialogue in the early 90s came up with recommendations, most of which were ignored by the government. It is therefore important to send strong signals that the underlying grievances of Anglophones would be addressed, so they feel that the outcome of the dialogue would restore their dignity and what they have lost during this crisis. Given that many Anglophones have lost trust in the Biya government, the burden is on the government to show that it will not steamroll participants to obtain a predetermined outcome.
Given that President Paul Biya is 86 years old and his legitimacy is questioned in some quarters, do you think Biya is in a position to resolve the crisis in Cameroon?
I have serious doubts that a president who is 86 years old, has been in power for 37 years, and has always been aloof and distant from the population can all of a sudden change his governance style and put in the energy and effort required to resolve the crisis. In the past three years, the magnitude of the crisis has grown exponentially, and it now has ramifications both across the country and internationally; I have strong doubts that the Biya government alone can find a way out. Other actors of good will, nationally and internationally, must step in given that trust has been severely broken between the Biya government and a sizeable chunk of the Anglophone population.
What do you think accounts for the levity with which the rest of Africa, and the broader international institutions like the African Union and the UN have treated the crisis in Cameroon?
I agree that the international community has been slow to respond to the crisis, and so far there have been more declarations than concrete actions. At least, some countries and organizations such as the United States, Germany, the European Union and recently the French Foreign Ministry, have been calling on President Biya to change his approach to the crisis and to engage in genuine dialogue. The United Nations recently expressed its support for a Swiss-led effort to mediate between the government and Anglophone secessionist movements, and the Security Council even held an informal debate on Cameroon in May. However, these measures are insufficient as the conflict continues unabated. One would have thought that after the Genocide in Rwanda in 1994, declarations such as “Never again” would prick the conscience of the international community so as not to allow crises like the one in Cameroon to fester. I truly hope that the African Union and the international community can step up their engagement to bring peace to the country.
You are familiar with the way Washington works; can you help us better understand the different Congressional resolutions that have come up of recent on Cameroon?
I am heartened by the interest shown in the Cameroon crisis by the United States Congress, and I urge Cameroonians and friends of Cameroon to continue to educate members of Congress as well as the international community at large on the devastating nature of this crisis and its negative impact on millions of Cameroonians. Recently, Congresswoman Karen Bass, who is the Chairman of the Africa Subcommittee, led a congressional delegation to Cameroon to hear firsthand from Cameroonians and victims of the crisis. Congressional resolutions, especially when passed on a bipartisan basis as we’ve seen in the case of Cameroon, carry a lot of weight. They capture the voice of the US Congress on an issue, and also have the capability of influencing the executive branch of government in its foreign policy approach. The European parliament, the German Bundestag and other important bodies have made similar pronouncements which help raise the level of awareness of the magnitude of the crisis, both within Cameroon and internationally. Hopefully, more concrete actions will follow.
One of the Congressional resolutions called for a return to the Federation that existed between 1961 and 1972. Do you think that could work?
At a minimum, such a concession could create the space for rebuilding trust, given that the government in power was part of the team that dismantled the first Federation in 1972. Moreover, when the current crisis broke in 2016, the Biya government would not entertain proposals for federalism, and even went as far as banning public discussions on the subject. For peace to prevail, Cameroonians will have to sit around the table and agree on a structure that can guarantee for every citizen his or her liberties and the preservation of their culture and dignity. It is inconceivable that Cameroon could rebuild without acknowledging the specificities of its English speaking population.
What is your take on the issue of school resumption?
As you may be aware, The Fomunyoh Foundation which has been active since 1999 has as one of its priorities to promote and support education in Cameroon. The Foundation has over the years distributed books and other school materials and organized public speaking events in academic institutions in all regions of the country. This underscores my personal commitment to the education of the younger generation. In the context of the ongoing crisis, education entails more than just having kids in a classroom. The back-to-school campaign to be successful, has to be part of a comprehensive package that includes among others, overall peace in the Northwest and Southwest regions of the country; reassurances from both the military and armed groups that neither students, nor teachers, nor parents would be shot at or harassed; that the curriculum is relevant; and that the kids can ultimately be guaranteed a future. This requires a deep analysis and proper preparations to make it meaningful. I am saddened that some people are treating this matter as mere sloganeering for political advantage.
If the government calls on the expertise of the seasoned professional that you are, will you be willing to provide it?
For the past two decades, I have been consistent in raising concerns about how the country was being governed. I have been pained and truly aggrieved by what has happened to the Anglophone community in the past three years. It has been disappointing to see how legitimate grievances by lawyers and teachers were summarily dismissed by the authorities, and subsequently how other socio-political grievances that were brought to the fore were violently repressed. Here we are, with thousands of fellow compatriots killed, others in detention, in refugee camps and internally displaced – all of which could have been avoided. Under those circumstances, one has an obligation, if called upon, to contribute ideas and recommendations on how to stop the killings and get out of this mess.
Some people have mooted ideas for a transitional government led by someone neutral that could help the country wade through the myriad of crises it is facing. First, what do you think of the idea and secondly were this to happen and you were asked to preside over a transition, is this something you could consider?
With each passing day, as these multiple — Anglophone, political, and security — crises we just discussed endure, my faith in this government’s ability to resolve all of them diminishes. At the same time, the current constitution of the country doesn’t allow for a transitional government as you allude to, and so I do not see how this could come about.
What lessons will a future Cameroon and the rest of Africa learn from this crisis?
Many. For example, that a people would rise up if their dignity is trampled upon; that truth, honesty and other democratic values matter for people’s trust in their government; that preventive diplomacy would save us and our continent a waste of human capital and human resources; and that it is incumbent on our generation to shape and give meaning to institutions that should improve the wellbeing of our fellow citizens.
So, what’s ahead for you and the National Democratic Institute (NDI) over the next year?
In the coming year we will be paying very close attention to the transition process in Sudan, as well as political developments across the Sahel and in the Horn of Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Great Lakes region. We will also be paying close attention to upcoming competitive elections in countries such as Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea Conakry, Mozambique and Niger Republic. The beauty of this all is the partnerships that NDI has with civic and political organizations across the board in all of the countries in which we work. They are the true champions of democratic development in their respective countries, and our role is to give them the support and solidarity that they need to succeed.
* Full Interview Will feature in September Issue of Pan African Visions Magazine