By Clovis Atatah In Vienna, Austria
October 26 is the national day of the Austrian federation. Being present in Vienna on this year’s occasion, I thought it would be interesting to compare the celebration of Austria’s national day with that of Cameroon. I asked around how the day was celebrated and one item on the agenda caught my attention: an open day at the Hofburg Palace, the seat of the presidency of the Austrian federation.
Atatah, shaking hands with wife of Austrian President
Although I was keen on having a look at the interior of the famed Hofburg Palace, an architectural masterpiece whose original structures date back to the 13th century, and which hosted some of the world’s famous monarchs for hundreds of years, I wondered whether as a foreigner I would be granted access to the inner sanctum of the seat of the Austrian government. But I was assured that not only would I have free access to the place, I would be able to meet the Austrian president face-to-face.
Dressed in faded black jeans pants and Nike shoes, and with incredulity still written on my face, I set off with my wife and 11-month-old son, who had the good fortune of sitting regally in his buggy while being pushed into one of oldest surviving imperial palaces in Europe. At the gate, I expected to see a bevy of scary-looking security officers, but that was not the case. So, without any ID card check, my family and I walked into the corridors of the Hofburg Palace. Within a few minutes we were on a guided tour, watching in awe at the breath-taking splendour of the palace.
In half an hour, we were at the climax of our tour: just a few metres from us were the President of the Austrian federation, Dr Heinz Fischer, and his wife, Margit. And before I realised what was happening, I was talking with the First Lady, Mrs Margit Fischer, who by some intuition, spoke to me in English.
(The official language of Austria is German). And then, I shook hands with the President while exchanging pleasantries. While I spoke with the President, Mrs Fischer was beaming at our little boy. As we walked out of the hall, the palace photographic service gave us a web link, from where we could download pictures of us with the presidential couple. That I did with pleasure two days later.
Days later, the entire experience was still like a mirage. I tried to imagine an ordinary citizen or resident of Cameroon trying to walk into Etoudi Palace to meet the presidential couple, even if he were in a three-piece suit and wielded an ID card as large as a billboard. The image could not form in my mind because that is simply inconceivable.
With hindsight, I should not have been so surprised with the near effortless ease with which I met the President of the Austrian federation. Austria is a democracy and the President accedes to power through a free and transparent election. He has nothing to fear from ordinary citizens because his legitimacy comes from them.
My experience on the Austrian National Day also reminded me of a snake analogy which I made some years back. Snakes that appear innocuous are usually the most poisonous. Non-venomous snakes often have a fiery look and even perform antics to accentuate this appearance when faced with danger. Like non-venomous snakes, autocratic regimes, which know that they don’t have the power which legitimacy gives, must use crude tactics to scare off the people on whose behalf they claim to be running their various countries.
These regimes consider any real contact with the people a grave source of danger. One of the simple tests of the legitimacy of a regime is its level of trust in the man in the street. This can be seen in the regime’s openness (or lack of it) and the extent to which it displays military might to citizens rather than enemies.
On this score, the Yaounde regime fails woefully, and has demonstrated for the umpteenth time that it considers the people as THE ENEMY. The enemy is not an internal or external belligerent, real or imagined. Any person who has lived in Cameroon knows the debilitating militarisation of a country which is not in an armed conflict, and the enormity of the security walls which separate Mr Biya from the rest of the people, so it is not necessary to delve into that.
The real point, however, is that any regime that is quick to flex its muscles; any regime that is trigger happy; any regime that builds a wall between itself and ordinary people, is like the non-venomous snake in our analogy that has no real power. Any such regime is like a fangless dog that can only bark but cannot bite.
Such is the Yaounde regime. It is as stable as a pack of cards. After consuming all of its political capital, it is now in high-speed reverse and taking the people along with it. Pro-democracy forces must "unreverse" the gear before it is too late for everyone.