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Spyglass: Cameroon Decentralisation: Genuine Dream Or Phoney Nightmare? 

By Opio Azore

If the panorama of history were rolled before our eyes, we would discern a mutual political phenomenon; government. Ever since the world existed, there have been governments; both aristocratic and democratic.

And both have been best for any given people for whom the form of government of leadership fulfilled its mission, modeled on the wants and needs of the period, informing and adapting to the taste(s) of the present society and, as Prince Napoleon Louis Bonaparte said, "employing the necessary means to open a smooth and easy road for advancing civilisation."

The trail from barbaric rule to modern civilised form of government have been blazed and marked by great men, warriors and legislators such as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Constantine, Charlemagne, Napoleon, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Nelson Mandela…,while forms of government such as republics are as old as the world. Each of these men were milestones in the development of governments, each a degree higher and nearer to the goal of improvement than the preceding.

Along this trail too, have trodden the restless feet of the elective system and the hereditary system through which power has shifted in the hands of various leaders. In all of this, governments are seen as beneficent motive powers of social organisation and progress. In Africa, however, perhaps due to the arrest and strangulation of indigenous development by colonialism, progress has often been displaced by that mortal malady inherent in mankind; corruption.

Whereas governments outside Africa have been constant systems obeying regular progress, mutating flexibly, African governments seem only to be, forever, retreating, regressing into disease, barbarianism and eventually dissolution. All nations, you will concur, have in common the instinctive desire and need to improve with the governors marching boldly and swiftly ahead as guide, with progress as the cargo in tow and the people having faith and allowing themselves to be governed. Nevertheless, when progress is confined to the governors, it marches slowly and the people begin to fight their way and wish to do everything themselves.

At this juncture we note, with deep regret, that while other governments are fulfilling their providential mission through the will of good men and the guiding principles of liberty, marching without hesitation towards improvement, African governments have been stepping farther backwards into the extremity of the old world. In Cameroon, the progress, which has withdrawn this great nation into the abyss of self-conscious backwardness, is due to majestic dynasty that must compete with all the doctrines of modern democracy.

It centralises as much power and all the forces of the state as possible in the hands of a single man in order to thwart all advances that tend to perpetuate themselves under the protection of democratic franchises. Cameroon now resembles a volcano consuming itself in its own crater. Despite this rather disheartening socio-political scenario, Cameroon has realised that it must cast into the scales of improvement all her votes on the side of civilisation and drink from the fountain of decentralisation.

Ideas that have governed the world in the past have, often, in consequence of the necessary transformation of society, been destined to be overcome whenever they lose their practicality. It is thus the idea of centralisation, which has loyally served the Cameroonian nation for over a century, realising that the destructive conflagration of contending ideologies is unfashionable, is undergoing a slow, painful transformation.

The centralised state is now regarded as the larger part of Africa’s problem rather than the much-touted engine of progress and modernisation. The state, however, could be a necessary evil as John Locke propounded, whose powers must be defined clearly so as not to do the things which individuals can do for themselves. The gist of decentralisation, therefore, would be to withdraw the state, without compromising its autonomous powers, from active intervention so that society and private enterprise can take root and flourish.

Cameroon has huge potential for social, political and economic growth, but its poor financials systems, rapacious appetites, inertia and regime fatigue are its major weak links. If the state is honest about decentralisation, then it should recognise that strengthening local governments is crucial to political and economic reforms in the country.

Instead of ambushing councils (most of which are manned by people who cannot pass a driving test with a land mower, let alone grasp the straightforward scheme of decentralisation) with trite seminars, the Ministry of Territorial Administration and Decentralisation should define clearly what a "decentralised unitary state" is; it should not be vague about "finding common solutions together to implement…" (The Post No.01167).

If the constitution was revised in January 1996, constituting "the major turning point of the decentralisation process" (The Post No. 01167), why has it taken the state fourteen years to try to implement decentralisation, piecemeal, if it is not using the rhetoric of decentralisation to buy legitimacy for itself and acquire more aid support from international donor agencies, while it further concentrates more powers in the central state? The decentralisation rhetoric is loud, but the reality of decentralisation is hollow. The argument for decentralisation is not anti-central government because the centre retains some major roles in promoting economic and social change.

To avoid Cameroon from lagging behind the rest of the world in all measures of economic and social progress, and the conditions of her people from worsening, and to avoid civil strife such as concentrated power structures have sparked in Nigeria, Angola, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia, Ethiopia, for example,) the Cameroon state should distinguish between the conventional "deconcentration" standard; thus, delegation of powers to its bureaucratic agents such as Governors, SDOs, DOs, Government Delegates, from devolution (delegation of powers to autonomous public [elected officials] or lay agencies outside the circle of state bureaucracy.

It should also be careful not to deliberately label what is evidently intended to reform its field administration institutions as the strengthening of local governments. For the state to reaslise genuine decentralisation, it will, while understanding that autonomous agencies of local authorities remain part and parcel of the state civil service, scrap FEICOM (the altar where councils go a-begging), Governors, SDOs, DOs, Government Delegates; and stop appointing treasurers to elected council tills, thereby allowing the people to make their choices.

This will entail moving away from a mono-centric to a poly-centric structure of political power, in so doing opening up the political space to accommodate civil and political liberties, foster genuine institutional pluralism and political competition through free and fair elections.

By doing this, the state will be genuinely allowing greater citizen participation and creating institutions to promote the separation of powers and the accountability of the executive of its actions and inactions to public bodies. This will, in turn, enhance positive governance principles such as institutional responsiveness and a huge reduction in white collar corruption, theft and general waste.

The state will go a step further and stimulate economic and financial decentralisation; reduce its dominance in the economic sphere, stimulate economic pluralism through deregulation, privatisation, and support of private sector and informal sector growth, while transferring financial resources from the central government to autonomous local agencies, either directly or through tax powers.

Examples of countries that have successfully implemented decentralization include South Africa and Uganda. If the state does not do all of this with good will, then it will be timidly attempting to twist the nose of history.

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