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Chieftaincy: The Bane of Cameroon Politics And What To Do About It 

By Joseph M. Ndifor

At this time of despair, when a sizeable number of Cameroonians have lost faith in their national institutions, one would have expected that chieftaincy, a once venerated   institution in some parts of Cameroon, would be the last bastion for some to defend. Instead, chieftaincy also appears to be teetering on the edge of collapse.

Cogent calls on the chiefs to put on their traditional garbs and return to their palaces with honour seem to have no effect. The rapid erosion of their influence on their people is cause for concern for tradition-loving Cameroonians who grew up with some respect for the royal family and the man at the helm of power in the village. Chieftaincy has never come perilously close to its own abyss. It never used to be this way. What happened? 

A few years ago, when Cameroonians only owned radios then, it was not uncommon during news hour for listeners to hear that "a political fugitive, being sought after by the central government, was probably hiding in his village among his people." (Interpretation: by virtue of one’s filial relations, the village was always the best place to seek for shelter during hard times, even if that was not where one was born).

The chief was there to guarantee your safety. Even in captivity following tribal wars for land, prisoners taken captive from battlefields were accorded some protection by the chief. In fact, Bamendankwe, a village located on the outskirts of the Northwest Regional capital, has a piece of land, an equivalent to its own "Golan Heights", if you may,  that was captured many years ago following a pitched battle against the neighboring village. The Bamendankwe village chief’s composure during an incident that day, was one of admiration and respect, and remained etched in this writer’s memory many years after he heard the story.

On that day, after the prisoner was handed over to the village chief as a war "trophy", one of the chief’s war combatants recognised the prisoner and recalled the prisoner’s atrocities earlier that day on the battlefield. In utter rage, this combatant attempted to bludgeon the prisoner to death in order to avenge the prisoner’s misdeeds. The Bamendankwe village chief, who was as tough as nails, bellowed in an authoritative tone, intervened, and saved the prisoner’s life. Such was the authority, the pride and dignity that came with the title of being a chief in the old days. There was no greater or more honorable act than to offer protection to someone in genuine need of it.

In his recent autobiography, "Royalty and Politics" (The Story of My Life), the Fon of Mankon, Fon Angwafor III, sheds some light on such behavior when he writes, "Francophone Cameroonians, mostly Bamileke, who came seeking refuge or opportunity, were easily accommodated by my father, especially following the partition of Cameroon after World War I. Even when an attempt was made to repatriate the Francophones who had sought refuge in his kingdom, Ndefru III objected, arguing that he was entitled as a Fon, to offer protection to these people."

Today, such protections, especially for political offences, would be hard to obtain from chiefs who have been stampeded into nefarious collaboration with the government. It would be difficult to come even close to the royal grounds in order to ask for shelter from chiefs once thought of as guarantors of their own people’s safety. At the beck and call of the current regime, they have suddenly become slush-fund politicians. There are few, if any, of the chiefs who have not been tainted in the current political mess. At the height of this dismal conduct, the 2004 murder of a Balikumba SDF militant, allegedly at the hands of his own chief, a CPDM stalwart, left no doubt how low the chiefs have stooped and where the allegiance of some them lies.  

Chieftaincy, historically, has always not fared well under dictatorial regimes when the desire for the regimes’ survival often outweighs national interests. In Cameroon under Ahmadu Ahidjo and Paul Biya, for instance, a few months after Ghana gained independence, Kwame Nkrumah, having not sustained adequate chieftaincy support during the 1957 premier’s elections that catapulted him to power, courageously and decisively began to chip away powers once enjoyed by the chiefs. By the time he was overthrown in the bloodless coup of 1966, a takeover that was welcomed by some of the chiefs deposed during his reign, Nkrumah had virtually forced all but a few powerful chiefs into a humiliating submission.

Curbing the inimical powers often associated with chieftaincy, and often frowned upon by those who detest it, through laws, would be quite effective in a society like Cameroon that is a cauldron of many cultures. And contrary to claims that chieftaincy is not in tandem with democratic societies, it thrives where there are trappings of modern democracy, and Botswana, Africa’s beacon of democracy, is clear proof that chieftaincy, with its functions clearly defined by the state, could be used effectively in the delivery of customary and common laws. For the sake of its own survival, chieftaincy in Cameroon may have to emulate Botswana’s example.

Recent democratic elections in Ghana also seem to vindicate this claim. With the two nationalist governments that have been ushered in since Jerry Rawlings’s exit, chieftaincy has once again re-emerged as a pivotal player as Ghana forges ahead with its ambitious national agenda. Even the United States, a superpower with all its musings about democracy, had to come to grips with the traditional values of the Native American population, allowing them to retain their chiefs who are also custodians of their traditional practices.

But far be it from this article that an attempt is being made to ask the chiefs to come to the defence of common criminals from their villages; clarity of the chiefs’ authority in a polarizing environment that now prevails in Cameroon is what is at stake, and requires urgent answers. Those misdirected allegiances are at the heart of the problem. By the same token, the solution involves redefining those allegiances, and indeed redefining the relationship between chieftaincy and the central government.

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