By Dibussi Tande (Revised and reproduced from a May 2000 Posting on CAMNET)
Political power in the French Cameroons and subsequently, in the bilingual Cameroon Republic, has largely been a power sharing exercise between the Fulani of the North province and the Beti of the Center-South provinces, with the balance tilting in favor of the Fulani until 1982 and the Beti thereafter.
That the Beti and Fulani came to dominate politics in the French Cameroons on the eve of independence and later strengthened their political grip on independent Cameroon was no accident. Because of their high level of education which was as a result of their early contacts with European Christian missionaries, the Beti were among the first to actively participate in nationalist politics in the French Cameroons. In the last decade of French colonial rule, the Beti elite opted for "legality" and collaboration in the last phase of decolonization (as opposed to the Bassa and Bamileke who preferred dissidence and rebellion).
Beti sympathy for France and dislike for the radical nationalists of the UPC was epitomized by the two most prominent Beti leaders of the time, Charles Assale, leader of the Mouvement d'Action Nationale Camerounaise (MANC), and Andre Marie Mbida, leader of the pro-Catholic Parti des Démocrates Camerounais (PDC), who were both strongly opposed to the radical UPC.
In 1957, Andre Marie Mbida became the first Prime Minister of French Cameroons after forming a coalition government that included parliamentary members of the northern-based Union Camerounaise (UC) and other anti-UPC groups in the south. Mbida's erratic nature, his bid to introduce legislation to delay independence for at least 10 years, and his rejection of the reunification idea, led to the collapse of his government in 1958. He was replaced by his Fulani Vice Premier, Ahmadou Ahidjo, leader of the UC.
With this change at the helm of power, the Beti maneuvered themselves out of the leading position in Cameroon politics. They were to play second-fiddle to the Fulani for the next quarter of a century.
The Fulani Paradox
The rise of the Fulani to political preeminence on the eve of independence is a paradoxical one. Detached from central politics, and largely uninvolved for the most part in the struggle for decolonization, the Fulani were solely concerned with maintaining their cultural and political dominance in the Northern region. This they achieved by successfully preventing southern political groups (including Christian missionaries) from expanding into the North, and by monopolizing the
northern seats in Cameroon's Territorial Assembly.
By 1957, however, the Fulani began to develop a keen interest and started to play a prominent role in national politics. They formed the Northern Islamic Group that included other Muslim groups of Northern Cameroon and the Islamized Bamoun of the Western Highlands. With political divisions rife in the South during this period, the bloc and its leader, Ahmadou Ahidjo, became the pacesetters of the last phase of decolonization by astutely taking up the key points on the agenda of the radical
Nationalists, i.e., immediate independence and reunification. Ultimately, it would be under Fulani leadership that these two most important items on Cameroon's decolonization agenda would be achieved.
Victor Azarya best sums up the paradox of Fulani dominance in Cameroon as follows;
"The fact remains that the Fulbe, who were not among the most Westernized people of Cameroon and who were absent from the center during the early stages of decolonization, became dominant just when self-government was achieved... their absence from the political arena in the early stages of decolonization saved the Fulbe from being targets of anticolonial struggle and were never associated with collaboration with the colonial administration as were the Catholic Church and the closely connected Democratic bloc."
The power-sharing exercise between the Fulani and the Beti which began in 1957 continued after the birth of the Federal Republic. It is worth noting that the three Prime Ministers of the federated state of East Cameroon -- Charles Assale, Vincent Paul Ahanda, and Dr. Simon Pierre Tchoungui -- were all from the Beti ethnic group. This alliance was maintained after the dissolution of the Cameroon federation and the establishment of a unitary state in 1972. In 1975, Paul Biya, another Beti, was appointed Prime Minister, and in 1982, he became Cameroon's second president after Ahmadou Ahidjo's surprise resignation. Paul Biya in turn chose Bello Bouba Maigari, a Fulani prince and an Ahidjo protégé, as his Prime Minister.
This power-sharing policy between the Beti and the Fulani — commonly referred to in post-independence Cameroonian politics as the North- South axis, or as the "hegemonic tribal alliance" — was brought to a violent halt in April 1984. That year, northerners, backed by the predominantly northern Republican Guards who were in charge of presidential security, attempted to overthrow the Biya regime. This came on the heels of a year-long power tussle between the northern barons of the ancien regime and the Beti factions within the Biya regime, and more precisely, following a bitter power-struggle between Paul Biya and his erstwhile mentor, Ahmadou Ahidjo, who had gone into exile a year earlier.
The failed coup was followed by a gruesome anti-northern "cleansing" campaign. From then on, political power swung completely to the South in favor of the Beti elite who would hold tightly onto the reigns of power until the end of the decade, and tolerating very little dissent and challenge to their hegemony.
Reconstituting the Hegemonic Alliance
With the advent of multiparty politics and the assault on Beti hegemony, the so-called Beti lobby made overtures to its erstwhile Fulani comrades in an attempt to stave off the rising threat from the Grand West. The desire to reconstitute this alliance was succinctly captured by Le Patriote, a leading pro-CPDM newspaper reputed to be mouthpiece of the Beti lobby:
"Let the moderate liberals of the UNDP and CPDM overlook their differences stemming from the New Deal reforms of 1983 and 1984... Only through such forgiveness can the political process in Cameroon be made elegant, with an alliance of moderate liberals from the CPDM and UNDP facing up to the Cameroonian left wing made up of the liberal corporatists of the UPC, the social democrats of the SDF and other small socialist groups."
This initial attempt at reconstituting the Beti-Fulani alliance failed principally because the southern influence was still strong within the UNDP at this time, which was still headed by Samuel Eboua. Unable to entice the UNDP into an alliance, the Biya regime tried to bring back the Grand North into its fold by banking on the political clout of the pro-CPDM elite of the region.
In April 1991, the constitution was again amended to make room for the post of Prime Minister which had been eliminated in 1984. Sadou Hayatou, a prominent Fulani Prince from Ahidjo's hometown of Garoua, was appointed Prime Minister. Hemmed in by the hard-liners of the Beti lobby who were against any form of concession to the opposition, Hayatou was unable to win over the Grand North or pacify the rebellious western stretch of the country. By the end of that year he had become a largely irrelevant political figure and the punching bag of the opposition as the alliance between the Grand North and the South-Central failed to materialize.
Faced with Hayatou's inability to deliver, the Biya regime then revised its strategy by focusing on the Anglophone component of the Cameroon equation. This led to the appointment of Achidi Achu as Prime Minister (who would be replaced by Peter Mafany Musonge in 1996, who was in turn was replaced by Ephraim Inoni in 2004, all of them Anglophones).
The ouster of Hayatou signaled the failure of the first attempt in the 1990s to revive the Beti-Fulani alliance. The appointment of a couple of UNDP members into the Biya cabinet in 1992 did not fundamentally change this fact.
It was only with the appointment of Northerners in strategic cabinet positions in the Musonge government of 1996 that there seemed to be a clear attempt at reviving the North-South axis, while trying to make inroads into Anglophone Cameroon at the same time. As Asonglefack Nkemleke pointed out in 2000,
“Mr. Biya's 1996 cabinet reshuffle brought the northern alliance back to life, though at a lower level. By appointing Mr. Marafa Hamidou Yaya as Secretary General at the Presidency of the Republic and Ahmadou Ali as Minister of State for Defense, the President timidly indicated that the north/south alliance is not totally dead.”
In the decade since the 1996 cabinet reshuffle, the strength of northerners has grown with each new cabinet. In fact, Northerners occupy 17 portfolios (including the position of Vice Prime Minister) in the current cabinet formed in 2004, while the Beti occupy 20.
So how will the Biya succession play out? Will the Beti handliners seek to hang on to power by all means necessary, or will they agree to "play fair" (from the Fulani perspective, that is) and peacefully let power swing back to the Fulani? Or, will a new power structure emerge with "politically marginal" groups such as the numerically-dominant Kirdi of the Far North, Anglo-Bami getting into the driver's seat? That is the million-dollar question which no one can answer with certainty given the ongoing "luttes de positionement" within the regime itself anbd the complete absence of any viable constitutional succession mechanism. Qui vivra vera!!