Not only are the Best and Brightest are leaving, the brain drain is accelerating, and those who travel overseas to further their education rarely return home. Within a short period of time, they join the growing ranks of Cameroon’s Diaspora, which now numbers in the tens of thousands. They have resettled across the globe but in the United States, most live in Boston, New York, Washington, Houston, San Francisco and Los Angeles. They have become successful in their chosen fields and they are raising their families with one foot in the United States and one foot back home in Cameroon.
They are wonder aloud why the political reform is succeeding in neighboring countries like Ghana but has floundered in their own homeland.
The Diaspora Outreach. That is why reform-minded Presidential Candidate Bernard Muna is traveling around the United States, reaching out to members of the Cameroonian expatriate community, as he prepares for the 2011 national elections. Muna is here to make his case why his coalition can transform Cameroon politically and economically.
It is a rare to be present as democracy stirs in the hearts of those who want change. Roughly half who joined The Luncheon Society ™ gatherings in Los Angeles and San Francisco were members of the Diaspora. They came to hear Muna, an international attorney, who is early stages of running for President. He is running against Paul Biya, whose corrosive three decade dictatorship has driven Cameroon into the ground.
The Rise of Bernard Muna. Muna is emerging as the main opposition candidate for the upcoming 2011 elections. He has cobbled together a group of leaders from a variety of political parties to create a broad-based and inclusive structure that emphasizes change but also aims to engage those who have joined the Diaspora.
In July, he traveled throughout the United States to raise awareness and funds and make his case to the Diaspora why his coalition can lay the groundwork for Cameroon’s turn-around, both on a political and economic level.
Muna, who comes from one of the nation’s most prominent families, is the Chairman Alliance for Progressive Forces (APF), the fastest growing political party in Cameroon. Prior to that, he was the Former United Nations Deputy-Chief Prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda from 1997 until 2001. Before being recruited to prosecute those involved in the Rwandan Genocide, Muna was twice elected President of the Central African Union of Lawyers (1987, 1991) and served as President of the Cameroon Bar Council, from 1986 until 1992.
The Republic of Cameroon is a complex mosaic of tribalism and post colonialism. Approximately the size of the state of California, Cameroon forms a land bridge between western and central Africa and shares borders with Nigeria to the West and Chad, the Central African Republic, The Republic of the Congo, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.
Originally a German colony ceded to France and Great Britain as part of a League of Nations Mandate, both colonial powers partitioned the land and imparted their own colonial styles until the wave of African independence emerged in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Months after Francophone Cameroon became independent, the Anglophone section opted to separate from Nigeria and voted to join a greater Cameroon.
The corruption of the current dictator, Paul Biya. On talent alone, Bernard Muna would inevitably rise to the top but Cameroon is not just any country. For the past three decades, Biya has managed to forestall real Democratic reform while allowing the nation to fall victim to wholesale theft.
Biya, who has ruled of Cameroon since 1982, is considered one of the continent’s most corrupt tyrants. In a book by David Wallechinsky, Biya was lumped together with such ilk as Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea, and King Mswati of Swaziland.
Wallechinsky wrote, “Every few years, Biya stages an election to justify his continuing reign, but these elections have no credibility. In fact, Biya is credited with a creative innovation in the world of phony elections. In 2004, annoyed by the criticisms of international vote-monitoring groups, he paid for his own set of international observers, six ex-U.S. congressmen, who certified his election as free and fair.” Biya consistently rewrites the constitution in order to remain in power. Today, Cameroon and Nigeria often trade places as one of the most corrupt nations on Earth.
Examples of Biya’s corruption are simply eye-popping.
- Last year when Pope Benedict prepared to visit Cameroon, the government allocated $1.6M (USD) to prepare facilities and ensure a smooth papal visit. However, the bulk of those funds were later found in the government minister’s personal bank account. He lamely replied that the money was placed there for “safe keeping.” For that lame excuse, he was promoted to a better job. Crime apparently pays—and pays well.
- When Cameroon participated in the 2002 FIFA World Cup, the Sports Minister requested a suitcase full of cash to pay for the team’s travel expenses.
- Private fundraising by the Cameroonian Diaspora in the United States is often whittled down by civil service fraud before it reaches those who are in greatest need.
- However most pernicious of all, Cameroon’s oil revenue is considered a guarded state secret. Nobody knows how much income is generated; nobody else knows whose pockets are being lined.
The only transparency in Biya’s Cameroon is the open nature of wholesale fraud.
The vision of the Alliance for Progressive Forces (APF). Cameroon now has over 260 political parties but they represent only a small sector of society. Biya has been able to pit one against another in order to lengthen his stay in office, while offering a fig leaf of a multiparty state.
According to the APF website, their concerns have reached a pivotal point.
- “Cameroon has been governed by one leader since 1982. That means, if you are a child born in Cameroon and under 28 yrs old, you have never experienced a change in government leadership.”
- “Cameroonians have never lived to see the virtues of true Democracy. That is why a lot of young Cameroonians are disillusioned and probably rejoice each time they finish high school and are granted a visa to study abroad. Sadly to say, most of them do not return to the country but find professional work elsewhere once their studies are done. The intellectual brain drain from Cameroon is alarming.”
- “We are all sick and tired of being labeled the most corrupt country in the world when the corruption itself is championed by a few that have hijacked the system and continue to govern Cameroon for their personal and selfish benefit. It is time for us all to say NO to such a system.”
- “Our people have tried and came close in the early 1990’s to actually bring about meaningful political change in the country. Despite the sacrifices made by so many, the current CPDM government under President Paul Biya continues to manipulate the result of every important election held in the country. Sometimes, they circumvent the process by appointing non-elected government officials to override the will of the people. This is the case where CPDM supporting civil servants are appointed as “Government Delegates” to override elected municipal councilors and Mayors.”
The guiding principles of the APF. The APF wants what we take for granted in Western democracies. As listed on their website, the APF stands for:
- National Unity. “The unity of any nation depends on how the nation is governed. It does not depend on Presidential decrees or empty slogans. The unity of a nation depends, especially in African, on equitable and fair distribution of wealth across regional and ethnic divides and the equitable development of all parts of the nation. In multiethnic and multi-tribal societies like Cameroon, the unity of the nation is also reflected by the equal distribution of political and administrative posts. Nepotism and tribalism in political and administrative appointments does not help to unify the nation. No tribe or ethnic group should hold the view that it is their turn to eat the lion’s share of the so called national cake. The APF manifesto therefore contains proposals to strengthen national unity. Leaders will be term-limited.”
- Anti-Corruption. “The APF believes that the most urgent issue is to recover the large sums of money stolen from government coffers. An all party Commission should be set up to ensure that the sums embezzled should be returned and those in foreign banking institutions should be transferred to Cameroon banking system. Cameroonians who cooperate should be given very light sentences or granted a Presidential Pardon. The need to punish such criminals should be carefully balanced against the need to return the stolen money to the people of Cameroon. The APF is the only political party in Cameroon that provides a full financial disclosure of its activities.”
- Education. “The APF believes that knowledge is the key to development and as such children must be obliged to go to school up to a certain age and that such schooling is really free up to a certain stage or level. The national budget for education must therefore be fixed to meet such ambitions. This means that more well-equipped schools, universities, and other institutions of higher learning will be constructed and education will be accessible to all no matter their social conditions.”
- The Necessity of Dual Citizenship. “The APF has long advocated for Cameroon to recognize the dual nationality of certain citizens especially those who are in the Diaspora. Recently, the CPDM has made some announcements that this long awaited measures will be taken. An APF government will not waist a time in changing paragraph 1 of article 31 which forbids dual nationality. APF will go further to ensure that Cameroonians in the Diaspora shall have the right to vote and participate in elections held in Cameroon.”
- An Honest Judiciary. “The APF will continue to push for the Magistrates and Judges of Cameroon not only to be given the respect and dignity that is rightly theirs but also to be paid salaries that befit the positions. However the Magistracy will have to be weeded of Magistrates and Judges who can never be cured of corruption or reformed. The APF will then press for all Magistrates and Judges to be paid not only a decent salary, but a salary that befits their ranks and position in society, and reflects the work that they are called upon to do, The salary of Magistrates and Judges should also be fixed at such a level as to enable them to resist corruption and those who are found to have engaged in corrupt practices would be severely sanctioned.”
The real hope for Cameroon could be an energized Diaspora. Those who live outside of Cameroon also live beyond the strong-armed tactics of the current regime. They are unafraid to level their criticisms at Paul Biya and they were equally direct when questioning Bernard Muna because they want to know how serious he about challenging the mentality of corruption. Those who attended both luncheons spoke not only for themselves, but for their family, relatives, and friends who still remain in Cameroon and whose voices remain stilled. They are a wildcard that Paul Biya cannot control and as a result, they might be the wedge that brings change.
Cameroonians have been burned before. In the early 1990’s when Biya’s hold on power began to slip, opposition parties were allowed to flourish, but what started off as great hope soon crashed into a crushing disappointment. The regime was able to manipulate the process to render the opposition irrelevant. Soon after that period, a great national cynicism settled over the land. People left and the longer they remained in places like The United States, the link they have with Cameroon becomes more tenuous and fragile.
The Diaspora could tip the balance for Muna because they can raise critical funds needed to run a competitive campaign. If Bernard Muna and the APF can raise $5 million, roughly the same amount as a competitive US congressional seat, he has an honest shot of winning.
The Long term hope: Building political institutions that can survive for the long term. In the United States, we can throw around the furniture on basic cable because our political institutions, in spite of being awash in special interests, remain vibrant. There were no tanks in the streets when Richard Nixon resigned in 1974. The controversial nature of the 2000 elections, regardless of how you felt about the vote counting process, did not result in wholesale bloodshed. The transition to new leadership at the end of a presidential term now has the feel of “Super Bowl Sunday.”
In the Untied States political parties rise and fall, only to rise again, refreshed and renewed often after a period of soul searching. New ideas and new leaders bubble up and the old are discarded and quietly retired. In the end, political change acts as a filter that prevents corruption, cronyism, and wholesale fraud from seeping into the mainstream like a national cancer. Right now, Cameroon is stuck in 1982.
Democracy is time well-spent. Great Britain did not move to a parliamentary democracy while the ink was still drying on the Magna Carta; it took time. Muna’s goal is to build a pluralistic society where love of country trumps tribal affiliations and the rule of law honors those who play by the rules and prosecutes those who break them.
The New Nationalism of the 1960’s has passed, one-party states have lost their luster, and thanks to the internet, news and information cannot be stifled. Ghana has experienced a peaceful transition of power. Perhaps the time is ripe in Cameroon for something better.
The Luncheon Society ™ is a series of private luncheons and dinners that take place in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Manhattan. We essentially split the costs of gathering and we meet in groups of 20-25 people. Discussions center on politics, art, science, film, culture, and whatever else is on our mind. Think of us as “Adult Drop in Daycare.” We’ve been around since 1997 and we’re purposely understated. These gatherings takes place around a large table, where you interact with the main guest and conversation becomes end result. There are no rules, very little structure, and the gatherings happen when they happen. Join us when you can.