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Cameroon’s Traditional Rulers Seek to Regain Lost Stature

Before the scramble for Africa a century ago, traditional rulers were held in high regard. But colonialism, modernism, and politics threaten to end their influence. In Cameroon, traditional rulers are demanding recognition. But observers say their open support for incumbent President Paul Biya in upcoming elections may foil the effort.

Long before the coming of the Europeans, African chiefs, fons [chiefs], sultans and lamidos [emirs] were considered to be the indisputable custodians of tradition and culture. Like the biblical King Solomon, they were seen as embodiments of wisdom and character, discharging their functions and delivering judgment with neither fear nor favor.

Those days are gone.

Historians say European colonizers bribed traditional rulers with whiskey, mirrors, clothing and gramophones to gain access to land and coax them into becoming slave dealers.

Since independence, traditional rulers have helplessly watched their power progressively shrink.

In Cameroon, many are ridiculed. They’re openly challenged by their subjects or arrested and jailed for murder, theft, embezzlement and illicit land sales. Others gain negative publicity with drunken fights in bars over alcohol and women. In some cases, irate subjects protesting corruption have set their palaces ablaze.

Observers say Cameroon’s traditional rule is currently teetering on the brink of collapse, as expressed in this sampling of public commentary:

“Chiefs have actually derailed ...Our fons [chiefs] are no more respected ... The chiefs are more interested in their stomachs than actually bringing the people together ...They have lost their personality and their legitimacy ... Some go around drinking in beer parlors ... They are dragging themselves into politics now because they’ve long been abandoned.”

After independence, traditional rulers set up the West Cameroon House of Chiefs in a bid to stem their eroding authority. The government subsequently disbanded it, saying traditional rulers are impediments to nation building. In other reforms, traditional chiefs were elected or appointed by authorities. Previously, they were based on inheritance.

Three decades ago, the government granted a number of chiefs some recognition for helping to safeguard culture and tradition, partnering in development, troubleshooting in tribal conflicts and enforcing customary laws.

But more and more local government structures were created, and traditional rulers complained the recognition was only notional as they were sidelined from decision-making. Many protested in vain their eroding powers and lack of government stipends.

Things changed in the early 90s with the return of multiparty politics. Traditional rulers seized the occasion, assuming the role of political power brokers and forcing their subjects to vote like them or face banishment from the community. Across the country, tension mounted as respect for the chiefs plummeted.

In recent years, traditional rulers have set up regional and ethnic associations to defend their collective interests, lobby for development and recover lost respect. But most of these structures have crumbled from lack of support, embezzlement of funds and their continuous support for politicians.

So when thousands of monarchs from across the country launched the Cameroon National Council of Traditional Rulers last March, observers thought they were turning a new page to shed partisan politics and push for effective participation in governance. But the conclave ended with calls for long-time President Paul Biya to run for election in 2011.

Many in Cameroon expressed disappointment. One such person is Agbor Emmanuel Ashu Omar, a barrister and leader of the opposition Reform Party:

“Normally, a traditional chief is supposed to welcome all the sons and daughters of the village no matter their political inclination. Chiefs are not spokespersons for their villages or subjects. The political forum that has been created represents nobody but itself. Now when they go the extra mile to say that they are giving Mr Biya a mandate; who are they? Who do they represent?”

But founders of the Council say it’s an apolitical organization that advocates equal development for all regions, consolidates peace and stability, promotes human rights and ensures the wellbeing of traditional rulers.

Fon Isaac Chafah, pioneer secretary general of the council’s 50-man executive bureau, says the council is not a political forum:

“Traditional rulers are not against state institutions. Any head of state in this country must enjoy the support of traditional rulers. When we conceived this idea, we got frightened at one point, because there has never been an instance in the history of Cameroon when all traditional rulers are found under the same roof. Finally, traditional rulers have recognized they have a common problem and need to organize themselves. It’s too early to start assessing things.”

Yet across the country, debate is raging on the role traditional rulers should play in a democracy. While some are calling for the abolition of traditional institutions, others say they should be incorporated into modern African governance systems.