Political Science, Senior Lecturer,
University of Yaounde II

* The author of this paper is highly indebted to Napoleon Viban for his contributions


Cameroon's seeming unity is a faced at the cost of many denied identities and unsettling wounds. And the National Question has become a shorthand for all doubts, fears, experimentation and controversies that surround the search for national integration. Essentially, the National Question concerns the fundamental basis of Cameroon's political existence, of the existence of its people as individuals and some 250 ethnic groups within one state.

The National Question involves the sharing of political power and management of national resources in terms of access, control and distribution. It therefore involves not only such issues as revenue allocation and the creation of states and provinces, council areas, regions but also education, religion, language and cultural policies.

Ordinarily, Cameroon's constitution should reflect national consensus, not "French Francophone chauvinism", on these fundamental issues. The government that emerges from such consensus should reflect common interests, enjoy legitimacy and provide national security. That is why the National Question cannot be confined to the problem of ethnicity or the rights of minority groups alone.

The 1960s and 1970s in cameroon were marked by a tremendous effort to achieve national unity through a systematic effort at ethnic balancing. The 1980s were marked by a New Deal's policy to achieve national integration, which increasingly endangered ethnic tensions. The 1990s witnessed a backlash under intense democratic process giving Cameroonians the opportunity to rethink the failures and successes of the last thirty years. The open debate currently taking place is producing new visions of the future of ethnic relations in Cameroon as elsewhere in Africa.

Two outstanding challenges to contemporary African democracies, all rooted in their legacies, are those of forging a sense of nationness from a patchwork of ethnocentric isolates and, secondly, reordering the functional omnipotence of the overdeveloped state.

Nationhood and the Ethnic Equation

Since his accession to power in 1958, Ahmadou Ahidjo pursued a policy of "regional balance". This policy which aimed at controlling potential regional tensions and conflicts was quite unique in Africa. One of its intrinsic features was the institution of a political system which meticulously ensured that all ethnic groups in every region were represented in the state apparatus (cf. Ngauap, 1983). These regional 'barons', who served as transmission belts between the President and the different ethnic groups within a region, were supposed to owe total allegiance to the President. Attempts by any of them to build a regional power base were perceived as betrayal that sanctioned removal from office and his/her replacement by another representative from the same ethnic group within the region. While Ahidjo's policy of ethnic balance was relatively successful, one may observe a remarkable growth of regional and ethnic tensions during the regime of his successor, Paul Biya. It is, therefore, interesting to compare Ahidjo's approach to ethnic balance with present approaches to national integration.

Prior to colonial interference, most indigenous African politics were generally constituted along the lines of ethnic and tribal homogeneity or, in more accommodating cases, sheer commonality. But the arbitrary balkanisation of these politics by the colonialists rather defied and spoilt their cultural and anthropological symmetry as endogenously evolved, erecting in places heterogeneous entities that were potentially conflictual. And 35 years into independence, the strive to submerge ethnic loyalties and cultivate a new ethos identifying with a larger entity, the hetero-ethnic nation, remains illusive as evidenced by the Cameroonian experience.

On a rather optimistic note but hypothetically sweeping, Omer Yembe premises Cameroon’s nationness on a common sense of destiny, itself born of a common historical experience undergone by the country’s diverse ethnic groups under colonial overlordship and the struggle for independence. That the ensuing national hetero-ethnicity sank no deeper than a common sense of urgency to chase the colonial fox out of the woods is, nonetheless, admitted by Yembe when he notes that "the heterogenic elite galvanized in the fight to achieve independence seemed unable to maintain the same sense of mission when it took over the reins of power at independence."2

The preponderance of the ethnic over all other variables in the political calculus of post-colonial Cameroon was very evident in the "nordist hegemony" of the Ahidjo regime. Although he wittingly gave the impression of spreading cabinet and administrative appointments across the regional and ethnic divides, Ahidjo reserved key and strategic positions and portfolios for fellow "nordists". Undoubted barons of his regime include Moussa Yaya, Ma´kano Abdoulaye and, notably Sadou Daoudou, who held the office of Defence Minister uninterrupted for close to two decades (1960 - 1979). Along this line of ethno-clientellist governance, Kofele-Kale rightly remarked that,

"... it was not usual to find that entire ministries, departments within ministries, parastatal organisations, etc, became prebendary structures to reward members of the minister’s ethnic group. In each ministry, preferential treatment in hiring and promotion was usually given to the minister’s ethnic group."3

By the time Ahidjo quit power in November 1982, he had ruled long enough to entrench an absolutist ethos in the country’s leadership culture. Hence, when Paul Biya took office reverberating the familiar notes of national renaissance (renouveau national), the chances were that unless he undertook a revolutionary correction of the old order, his New Deal would hold no more that the empty promises typical of all political rhetoric.

An attempt a year later by "nordists" to regain power simply jolted Biya’s senses back into stakes of ethno-clientelist and regional politics. After uncovering a coup plot in August 1983 and surviving an attempted overthrow in April 1984, the President quickly went to work, establishing his own Bati ethnic power base. The shortest road to political survival was a strategic retreat as a warlord to his ethnic stronghold and military enclave, and the inflationist use of force and blackmail to obtain what he had failed to gain democratically.

Well groomed under Ahidjo in the monolithic antics of coordinating off competition and stifling opposition, Biya’s administration has since followed the path traced by his predecessor. Just as Ahidjo sought to establish his power base in the North, Biya dug his trenches in the south and centre, planting his tribesmen in key positions in the administration held in place by a legislative and judiciary at the beck-and-call of the executive.

With the administrative cloth woven from the yarn of ethnic and regional loyalties, Biya has pursued an uncompromising politics of exclusion to establish an all-powerful Bati oligarchy that asserts itself in national politics with impunity. For instance, on the eve of the 1992 Presidential elections, Biya decreed the creation of new administrative units, with his South Province of less than 400.000 inhabitants having more divisions and sub divisions than the North West Province with a population of 1.2 million (three times that of the South). When he appointed members of the ‘National’ vote counting Commission, the body validated returns from polling stations, 11 out of 13 members on the commission were people from his Beti power base of the Centre and South Provinces.

The strategic import of ethnicity in the acquisition, retention and use of political (state) power in Cameroon is well noted by Scatzberg :

"For those who already control the state, maintenance of power often becomes a fulltime task accomplished through several, and not necessarily mutually exclusive, strategies. This includes ... a policy of alliance and co-operation of ethnic and regional leaders ... Ambitious politicians also knew credibility as ethnic barons enhanced possibilities for success; some aspiring cabinet members actively created, or recreated, ethnicities to promote their own political advancement. The result, until the attempted coup of April 1984, was a regime of remarkable political durability."4

The corollary of such ethnic mobilisation and manipulation for political ends, particularly in the face of scarcity and social insecurity, has been a passive resignation of ethnic forces to the biddings of the governing Beti oligarchy, as it wields the all-powerful scepter of the state, selectively doling out political ‘sinecures’ and ‘development projects’ to condescending or subservient regions. What this points up to is a politically fatal survivalist twist to ethnic consciousness or ethnicity in which "better-off members of each ethnic group [associate] themselves with the power of the state to better preserve their own interest in the first instance, and those of their ethnic group or region, in the second.5

Already at its perverted extremes in Cameroon as ethnic groups comete for the diminishing crumbs falling off the table of the ruling establishment, this politicized, survivalist ethnicity exudes ethno-regional animosities of xenophobic proportions, where "people identify other [state] exploited people as the source of their insecurity and frustration."6 Overwhelmed by the might of the central power, the peripheral ethnic forces have turned against each other in an 'ethnical' struggle to ease out fellow bidders in the crowded countryside of state power.

The reason lies in the fact that unlike the countries of advanced capitalism, where the private sector is the primary arena of accumulation, the Cameroonian state has been at once the key source of wealth and the means of preserving the ill-gotten wealth. And therefore power holders tend to be obsessed with indefinite tenure of office.

The result has been the privatization of the state with the attendant expansion of the state sector for the copiously flowing rents and prebends it creates. This trend has helped in diminishing the administrative capacity of the public sector. And since the public sector is serving the minority in power the state, thus privatized and personalized, has become incapable of meeting the aspirations of the masses for freedom and economic development.

Thus, far from marshalling the country's ethnic diversity into an integrated cultural mosaic of national 'unity in diversity', the ethno-clientelist character of power brokerage he nurtured a denationalistic ethnocentric ethos. Tetzlaft, Peters and Wegemund have argued that "politically unjust distribution of power, resources and positions are some triggering factors for ethnic-political cleavages."7 And quite evidently, "the major obstacle to the achievement of national integration and even development in Cameroon appears to be rooted in the connection between the politicization of ethnicity and inequality which easily degenerate into ethnic conflicts."8

The ostensibly hostile ethno-regional divide between the two anglophone provinces (North West and South West), the mutual suspicion between the Betis and the Anglo-Bamis (real or imagined), and the dormant antagonism between the Moslem north and Christian South, are but some of the potentially permanent hallmarks of politicized ethnicity in Cameroon.

In the sphere of elitist politics as noted earlier, ethnic groups have been carved out and fenced off by their elites who use them as pawns in trade-offs with state power brokers for administrative positions or public contracts. This is how ethnic groups have been transformed into power bases for barons who gain political office either as a reward for herding in grassroot regime 'support', or as a bait to lure their ethnic following into acquiescence to the ruling establishment. It has thus become the tradition for newly elected cabinet ministers to organize parties and receptions back in their village communities to salute the 'honour' and 'favour' shown the 'ethnic-hood', as it were, by the ruling establishment.

Against this political backdrop of ethno-clientelism where ethnic leverage is a veritable trump card in the gamble for political favours, national integration remains, ironically, a recurrent catch-phrase in political rhetoric. The reality, however, is that far from a nation-state, Cameroon is a state of ethnic entities "so seriously left along social economic and political lines that [they are] united only by their eventual mutual collision."9 Consequently, any claim to a sense of nationness becomes devoid of the substance of national consciousness, one that, in the words of Rovinski :

"finds expression not only in symbols, slogans, national anthems and meaningless concepts, but in something higher, born of a deeply rooted and reasoned appreciation of its nature ... [for,] if the general public adapts a passive conformist, conservative attitude this encourages groups which have an interest in the stabilization of the system to preach a xenophobic, intolerant and discriminatory nationalism which they use as a screen for the promotion of their own interests, thanks to their acquisition of undeserved privileges."10

This is practically a graphic description of the manipulative grip power brokers have over ethnic entities in Cameroon. It explains why state power assumes the form of oligarchic control and ethno-hegemonic sustenance - first the "nordist" Ahidjo and second the Beti Biya regimes. Rather than stand up to an ethno-regional dictatorship, the Cameroonian political being has virtually surrendered to its crystallization over the years since independence to become an integral part of national politics, and this, because of the political might conferred on whoever or whatever group successfully seizes state power.

The Omnipotent State

In the face of the inhibitive influence of ethnicity to national integration and consciousness, and more especially, the remoteness of any probable organic evolution of ethnic entities into genuine nationhood, the alternative in most post-colonial states has been the colossal empowerment of the state apparatus. The 'overdeveloped state' thus becomes the all-powerful mediator of politics, the point of political confluence raised above all other formations - social, economic, cultural, and otherwise. In its omnipotence, the state becomes the political and the political the state, wrenching control from all other potential sources of power, dictating even where basic democratic tenets prescribe autonomy.

Hamza Alavi has explained this phenomenal state 'seizure' of control in the dynamics of post-colonial politics as stemming from a feeble, impotent middle class over-taken by events at independence. Rather than follow the logical sequence of an economic ascendancy to political power, the political took precedence over the economic at independence, with formal political power being assumed by a bureaucratic class with no economic credentials to substantiate its arrogation of state power. Notes Alavi :

"Political parties at the vanguard of the movements for national independence inherit the mantle of legitimacy and the trappings of political power. Nevertheless, in a large number of post-colonial countries, there has been in evidence, a progressive attenuation of their power and correspondingly, there has been expansion in the power of bureaucratic-military oligarchies ..."11

The state therefore becomes an instrument for the assertion and pursuit of narrow class and, in the Cameroonian experience, ethno-regional interests, not the least of which is economic. Hence, those who inherit or seize the levers of states power first consolidate their rule and then move to transform their political power into economic wealth.12

Because of the vested interest of those wearing the state mask, (the ruling establishment), the state becomes 'selfful' rather than selfless at the point where class and other social contradictions must be resolved. Consequently, it ceases to be the neutral arena of social, economic and political competition. Functionally and reglulatorily, it is without fixed or constant shape, rather getting transformed according to the context of the moment. Incontestably, Schatzberg notes that "those who control the [post-colonial] state can, and do, alter the nature of the playing field while the game is underway."13

It is this manipulative leverage over the state apparatus that makes access to, and control of the state crucial, since its overlording authority provides the means to extract resources from the masses of the population in the form of taxes or through corruption, graft and extortion.14 Gaining access to the state is gaining access to a weapon of political and economic domination.

As a lineal descendant of the colonial conquest, the Cameroonian state exudes power in its absolute form, since the concept of authority, as perceived by those who wield power, is no more than carry-over of the colonial culture of metropolitan might and overlordship. The consequence is for the people to cluster into mutually secure ethno-regional bases of identity which transforms into politically potent 'pawns'. Their loyalties are then traded for favour from the almighty "state". Hence, it can be argued that one of the legacies handed down by colonization was a conception of the state as "an arena for the creation, consolidation and politicization of ethnicity."15 From this perspective, one readily understands why the ruling establishment at one instance uses ethnicity and another suppresses it, particularly when it considers ethnicity as a sub-national identity threatening its personal interest.

In the Cameroonian experience, however, the tendency has been for the ruling establishment to covertly fan ethnic exclusionism, articulating ethnic animosity so that isolated entities stand by for eventual political manipulation at the opportune moment. In the final analysis, the appeal to nationalism and nation building becomes no more than a means of camouflaging the politico-economic specific interests behind a broader and more widely accepted symbolic construct.16 In sum, there are conflicting ethnic interests and demands regarding access to land and other resources, representing the location of infrastructure, services and development projects, or the state award of other benefits. In other words, in fighting against the colonial system, Cameroonians had expected that independence will usher in a new era of freedom, material prosperity and nationhood.

What they inherited, however, was a state that was deficient in managing the economy and the natural environment on the one hand, and whose nature and performance gave rise to ethnic divisions and conflicts, on the other.17 This explains clearly, why "it would be unseemly ... to forget the immense significance of the national question."18

And the following factors must be used to determine the place and role of the national question in Cameroon :

a) the peculiarity of the epoch and the historical stage of the development of peoples and national (ethnic) relations;

b) the cardinal significance of the economic basis of the national and international processes;

c) the changing content of ethnic movements depending on the objectives of the epoch

d) the irreconcilable antithesis of proletarian internationalism and bourgeois nationalism, and their influence on social (ethnic) relations;

e) the role of classes and the class struggle in the life of Cameroon, and in the structure and content of ethnic relations; and

f) the relation of the class element to the national element.


There is a link between the declining capacity of the state in Cameroon for economic development and the politicization of ethnicity. Yet, nearly exclusive emphasis has been placed on the political and economic dimensions. The erroneous thinking is that the subjugation of Cameroon to the logic of global capitalist expansion through privatization of state enterprises is a requirement for democratization.

This enticizing gospel of economic liberalism is proving to be anti-democratic in Cameroon. The reason is simple. the major forces in the world capitalist system favour technocrats to any leader with a political constituency. Technocrats thus, can be expected to be loyal only to their foreign patrons while the former are compelled to listen to the national constituency. And technocrats will thus implement externally determined policies for the benefit of their global capitalist gurus to the detriment of the people.

In other words, leaders who subscribe to dogmatic assertions of the virtues of the market became insensitive to inequalities and ethnic exclusion, lack patriotism, fan ethnic hatred as a survivalist tactic and would rather destroy their country than accept the verdict of the ballot box. This calous and vicious approach to leadership shows how the global; capitalist system that favours rule by a technocratic elite is anti-labour, anti-people and anti-democratic. Indeed, the fanning of ethnic conflict and the destruction of the economy by the New Deal rulers are tactics aimed at exploiting crisis to remain in office while being shielded by international capitalism. These tactics constitute criminal violence against democracy in Cameroon.

For one thing, the existential situation nurses a political culture in which opportunism takes precedence over political principle. For another nearly, everyone fails to honour one's agreements. Decisions taken at democratic gatherings like the Tripartite Conference are overturned behind closed doors by self-serving politicians, away from course from the vigilant eye of the masses.

To conclude, it must therefore be asserted here that the national question in Cameroon cannot be attended to without squarely addressing the question of ethnocentricity with a view to cultivating a sense of belonging to a larger entity than the individual's ethnic group. However, we posit here that ethnicity, especially its politicized, has been more of a reactionary and defensive mechanism in the face of a suffocating omnipresence and potence of the state apparatus. The overdeveloped state gives cynical power brokers and political sadists manipulate and coercive leverage which they exploit for wrecking havoc on national cohesion. The state must therefore be sapped of much of its powers, thus checking its inhibitive intervention in the free operation of social, economic and political forces, among them ethnic identity, without which an organic metamorphoses into a national whole cannot be possible.