“Scratching” under the surface : The problem in Cameroon


Four months, approximately in Cameroon. From the madness of Douala airport, namely the policeman who wanted to illegally charge me £20 to get my things and the countless children that were waiting for me to give them money – in exchange for a phone card or even nothing – to the chaotic traffic in Douala’s roads, where motorbikes – the fear of every European parent – transforms into the most common means of transportation. From the ‘human’ ATM machines to the thousands of people who live in poverty on the streets and offer whatever service you can imagine, in order to secure their basic needs. From the crowded buses and the terrible roads to that unimaginable place where you can find whatever it is you’re looking for. From the children who shout ‘Whiteman, Whiteman’ and smile happily when you nod at them, to the youngsters who believe that westernization and/or migration to the West is a solution to many of their problems. From the excessive geniality – just because you’re white – to the hostility which surfaces in accusations of racism, when you’re determined not to be the “happy and giving activist” that they wish to exploit – in one way or the other.

What is the problem? People are poor. They work a lot more than 8 hours per day, almost 7 days a week – for nothing (if they are employed, of course); inequality thrives, criminality rises, corruption and discrimination are rampant, while the state is nowhere. Sub-Saharan Africa was, for centuries a colonial territory. Then it became a field of struggle between the great powers, in both – the World Wars and the Cold War, in particular. The end of the latter brought to the surface, the “end of history argument”; liberal democracy, human rights, and development would be finally spread to Africa and the whole world. The “Washington Consensus” and the “Millennium Development Goals”, incorporated into the broader liberal peace-building agenda, would correct the wrongs of the past.

However, things are much more complicated than that. Most of the African states, owing to their place in history (as mentioned above), have never developed a de jure Weberian state, while many of them have not even developed a de facto one. So far, my experience in Cameroon has illustrated to me, a highly decentralized judicial and political system. The central authorities care only about big economic centers, and a handful of those who have power, while a majority of the people mainly rely on self-organization at the communal level. Most of the people don’t trust the central authorities; they feel as though they’re living in a state of emergency, more so, since the bias in voting for the current President was more obvious than ever, during the last elections. This is a penurious state, unable to provide any serious infrastructures and welfare policies and, even worse, unable to provide meaning and social cohesion in a diverse and multi-lingual society, where consensus, even on the subject of the proper variation of Christianity is hard to come by.

The young Cameroonians, raised in the increasingly globalized world of the liberal triumph, feel that all their problems derive from internal corruption. The influence of western-culture has, unfortunately created a monstrous mentality. They desire to acquire all the state-of-the-art technology, travel to Europe and USA, not because of a realistic perception of the West and its values, but based on what the mass media promote. What you experience here, is not much different from what was happening in Eastern and Southern Europe, until recently. People want to defend their culture, but at the same time they run to embrace many of the American goods that globalization brought. All the while, however, it is clear that this culture is not able to deal with the contemporary challenges. This is also a concern in most of the western liberal societies, where contemporary political theorists speak of “post-modernity”, “liquid-modernity” and “de-traditionalisation” as emanating from decline of the state, and the rise of neoliberalism and globalization. Hence, the situation becomes even more chaotic in a place where, as mentioned before, there has never been a real state-building process. The USA, with the radical religious and conservative groups that thrive in a liberal de-traditionalisation world which, in many cases, is a response to the status quo, can give us a sense this chaos. But the absence of state, in Cameroon leads to a hybrid type of governance structures, based on conservative religious authorities and local elites, on the one hand, and the global promoters of commercial globalization (mass media, MNCs, etc.), on the other.

The result is an utterly anarchic society – culturally and ideologically – without any clear orientation. Most of the cultural events consist of a combination of local customs and the cheesiest Western ones. Religious intervention, in most cases looks like a joke, even though religion has a similar position as we have experienced during the past, in the western traditional societies – in terms of involvement in social activities; however, it does not have the same actual influence, in controlling the lives of the people. Jesus is everywhere, from posters and stickers put on shirts, bikes and buses, to TV commercials and music (you can see exorcism on many TV channels and, even listen to church music in a bar). But, it’s noteworthy that corruption, criminality and, most of all, unwanted pregnancies – in many cases, a result of sexual violation – are also everywhere. Discrimination against gender and language – francophone against the anglophone – is unbridled and, one might add, almost legitimate. People embrace mob justice since, “the devil leads a person to steal”, “witchcraft threatens them” and “God does not intervene”; moreover, the police is untrusted and corrupt. People can be awfully pretentious – at both, the personal and administrational level – which is quick to transform into aggressive behaviour. They tend to exploit each other, and certainly want to gain something when they meet a Westerner.

Concerning gender equality, women have been empowered as far as the idea is concerned, but not in terms of financial independence. Some may say this is the first step, some may even say that this is how it happened in the West; I would, however, say no. In the West this process took place, at least in principle, in an ideologically consequent way. The basic feminist idea is to empower women by creating equal structures and by putting women in the job market, in order for them not to use sex only as a weapon for empowerment. Here, in contrast, the young women – influenced by liberal thought – have started developing an aggressive and dominant attitude towards men, seeking equality that, in most cases, is not accompanied by any real desire for financial independence. Of course, the structures that don’t allow financial independence still prevail, but it still remains unclear if women really want this independence or if they rather prefer to put an end to all the discrimination and violations against them, while still continuing to be primarily supported by men, in exchange for sex. Hence, this might be an illustrative example of wrongly importing Western concepts and ideas.

Can you blame them? Underneath all this you just see an unresolved inferiority complex, the desperation that derives from a life of misery, poverty and insecurity; and at a deeper level an entire civilization – African in broad terms – that is unable to cope with most of the contemporary challenges that the west-constructed world poses. All in all, the whole situation brings to mind an axiom that we have about rich people, “Those who created their wealth, usually know how to retain it. Those who just inherited it, usually don’t.” A correlation can be seen here, in the fashion in which these people import many ideas/rights that have evolved and have been adopted in the West – as the part of a large process – without necessarily understanding these processes and the inherent ideas that led to the respective bigger social changes. They just take short-cuts which has led me to assume that what we observe, in Cameroon is a weird hybrid society – a mix of western and local traditional structures, with a characteristic unfiltered rapid import of liberal values. At the communal level, up to an extent tradition seems to be able to deal with the basic organization of society on a daily basis – just as the influence of globalization threatens to derail this precarious balance. In the cities, however, this monstrous hybrid model is the rule.

Liberal ideas are not something that should be imported as such, for the West is not only ‘volunteers’, ‘human-rights activists’ and ‘NGOs’. Hope for a better future should not be based on the stereotypical ‘American Dream’ as manifested in its worse forms, namely promotion of colored athletes, singers and actors – as the ideal types for escaping. Immigration should only be considered as a solution to societal problems, when put in its contemporary context – namely a world where the developed economies don’t enjoy the prosperity of the past, where employment opportunities are in decline and hostility towards immigrants is escalating. People should understand all these things and see the broader picture.

They should understand that these “big powers” still intend to exploit the region mainly for oil and other natural resources, in many cases, by supporting oppressive regimes favorable to their agenda. They should realize that the recent economic crisis has drastically changed the life of the entire middle-income population in the developed world. They should stop projecting the image of a world that, on the one hand has been lost and, on the other hand was never really the one that could improve their lives at the macro level. We have a tremendous financial crisis that has dessicated many a national economies, along with the expectations of the younger generations for a comfortable future life. Countries like Cameroon might have been benefited, to some extent, from globalization and the liberal triumph – even though the biggest comfort that I have experienced so far, has been the cheap prices of Chinese imported bikes which created this motorbike/taxi phenomenon and gave a means of escape to many desperate people who were turning to criminality – but the core element of liberalism, namely its economic model, acted as a bomb in the foundations of the whole globalization structure.

The problems seem to be an oppressive and corrupt regime that governs Cameroonians, the promotion of a decentralized structure that serves specific interests and weakens the state even more, the conflicting import of liberal values and the changing global dynamics, in light of the economic crisis which minimizes foreign investment and makes migration to the West even more difficult.

The solution? First of all Cameroonians should escape from the mentality “better to be a tree in the West than a human being in Africa”, and those who are smarter should be much more careful about what cultural-imports they adopt from the West, and even more so about how they combine these with their own traditions. Cameroonians, and Africans in general, want to change their lives for the better and experience the lifestyle that the Western media promotes. But in their struggle to remain faithful to their cultural past – namely their respect of traditional values and authorities, and their will to oppose the highly unjust and oppressive regime that the central authorities embody – they miss something. They miss to grasp the structural inequalities that the system of global capitalism reproduces, and the fundamentals behind many of the ideas that commercial globalization misleadingly promotes.

The solution is not more decentralization, as the most neoliberal state of Europe, Germany – through Bucchholz, its ambassador in Cameroon – recently suggested. Cameroonians should be aware that any promotion of decentralization by the West is, in essence a good way for state decomposition and market openness. The liberal West desires a minimum state, with which they will negotiate the implementation of market friendly laws or oil agreements. This state should not have to solve the real internal problems. That is why the Western doctrine promotes more power to communities. Inherently, the value of community is important, while people trust and respect these authorities. At the same time, however, if they want to catch up with the West they need a strong and transparent state based on central authorities whom they can trust. Decentralization ignores this need, rather than aiming to replace it. This decentralization, promoted by the West, seems more like a way to save an oppressive regime, whose unpopularity would otherwise lead to its demise. Hence, awareness of how the neoliberal global governance works, is vital. It’s unlikely to say if the development of this area, so far, in economic terms, has benefited more from the neoliberal rather than the Keynesian global capitalism. But even if it has, the consequences of the recent economic crisis and the uncontrollable character that the neoliberal economic model has taken, can prove to be disastrous.

Cameroonians should understand that their interests and those of the West are not as overlapping, as globalization claims them to be. The neoliberal economic model should be thoroughly scrutinized. There are many wrongs in this model. Thus, it is important for both, external and internal authorities to take the necessary regulatory measures for real development to take shape. Cameroonians should take over their state, but they should not hand it over to the commercialized, politically apathetic world that the multinational corporations and the financial sector aim to create. Cameroonians need to change their mentality, acquiring their ideological, national and cultural character by filtering the liberal values and finding harmony between progress and tradition. Cameroonians need a strong state that is ready to correct the wrongs of the markets, providing important services that will improve the lives of the people. Cameroonians need a strong state that will belong to its people. In other words, as difficult as it may be, Cameroonians should advance to a real process of state and nation building – similar with the one that South Africa experienced, during the reign of Nelson Mandela – that will start from the structural level and will reach the ideological one, in a world which is rapidly changing and as the forces against the state are multiplied. This looks like an uphill task, but the awareness of what is the real problem is, is the only legitimate starting point.

This is the revised version of an article that was published in the Cameroonian national newspaper Eden.

Dimitrios Lais(Past Intern), MSc LSE, PhD Candidate