Should admissions into state-owned universities be based solely on merit or should “sociological balance” be taken into account?
At the root of the deadly crisis that engulfed the University of Buea in November / December 2006 were deep-seated disagreements over the application of the principle of “regional balance”, Cameroon’s attempt at affirmative action. The crisis began when Prof. Fame Ndongo, the Minister of Higher Education invalidated the list of successful candidates eligible to participate in the oral part of the entrance examination into the Faculty of Medicine which had been published by that university’s Vice Chancellor.
According to the Minister, the Vice Chancellor’s list was null and void because it was based solely on merit (it consisted of the best 127 candidates who sat for the written part of the exam) and failed to "respect of the sociological balance [of Cameroon], the guarantor of national integration and stability".
As the Minister pointed out in a press release carried by the national media:
"... the list of eligible candidates to sit the oral part of the examination [was] composed of 127 anglophone candidates and no francophone candidate, whereas out of the 870 candidates who sat for the written part of this examination, there were 292 francophone candidates, that is 33.56% of the total... As a result... 26 best francophone candidates were added by the Jury to the list of eligible candidates to sit for the oral part of the examination, without suppressing a single name of successful anglophone candidates, thereby bringing the total number of candidates eligible to sit for the oral part of the examination to 153."
And when the final list of the 85 successful candidates was made public, an accompanying press release stressed that the list was driven by “regional balance” considerations. For the first time in the history of public examinations in Cameroon, official results included a detailed breakdown of the linguistic and provincial origins of the successful candidates: - 25 Francophones were admitted against 60 Anglophones with the following provincial breakdown: 39 students from the Northwest province; 21 from the Southwest; 6 for the Western province; 4 from Adamawa; 4 from the South; 4 from the Center, 3 for the North; 2 from the Littoral; 2 from the Far North, and 3 from the East.
Although the Minister insisted that this balance was in conformity with texts governing Higher Education in Cameroon, it was definitely not in conformity with the ministerial decision signed by the same Minister in August 2006 organizing the examination into the UB medical school.
According to Article 10 of the decision: "A l’issue de l’étude du dossier et des épreuves écrites, le jury dresse et publie par ordre alphabétique la liste des 72 meilleurs candidats admissibles à l’épreuve orale." (i.e., after the review of student files and the written examination, the jury shall publish, in alphabetic order, the list of the best 72 candidates eligible to take part in the oral exams).
According to article 12 (1) of the same decision, “à l’issue de l’entretien, le jury établit une liste des candidats proposés à l’admission au concours par ordre de mérite en tenant compte des notes obtenues aux trois épreuves” (i.e., after )the orals, the jury shall establish a list of candidates proposed for admission by order of merit.
As an aside, it is noteworthy that article 12(2) of the ministerial order clearly states that “les résultats définitifs sont publiés par Communiqué du Ministre de l’Enseignement Supérieur” (i.e., the final results are published through a communiqué issued by the Minister of Higher Education). On this point at least, Fame Ndongo was right to insist in a memorandum that dismissed Vice Chancellor Cornelius Lambi overstepped his authority when he unilaterally published a list of successful candidates without consulting the Minister of Higher Education – but that is another story for another time which goes to the failings of Cameroon’s over-centralized system which one foreign observer argues, “will either drown itself, or kill any hope of innovation and advancement.”
Outrage across the land
Predictably, the entire UB saga sparked outrage across the country, particularly among English speaking Cameroonians. As The Post newspaper stated in a commentary,
"The lessons from the recent University of Buea saga are numerous. When it comes to Anglophone institutions, the government voraciously announces ‘regional balance’. Where, one may ask Prof. Fame Ndongo, is regional balance in CUSS, Polytechnic, School of Public Works, Police College(s), CEFAM, P&T School, ENAP, ESSTIC, ENAM etc, etc?”
The reaction was largely the same among Francophone Cameroonians as evidenced by a stinging commentary by Le Messager columnist, Shanda Tonme:
The Minister published the results, indicating the percentage of successful candidates by ethnicity, in effect by Bantustan, like in the worst days of the Apartheid regime in South, all in the name of regional balance. Why is there no balance in the number of Vice Chancellors [in state-owned universities]? Why are two out of six Vice Chancellors from the same ethno-tribal group as the Minister?
Why is regional balance not applied everywhere? Does the Minister know that his native province has one Member of Parliament for every 24,000 inhabitants against one Member of Parliament for more than 350,000 inhabitants in the Littoral, West and North-West provinces? Does the Minister know that one out of five Police Commissioners, one out of three Police Officers, one out of four Army officers, one out of three cabinet ministers, are natives of the Centre-South? Where then is the (regional) balance that the Minister talks about, if not in the voracious determination to control and grab everything by practicing exclusion and marginalization, and by encouraging the spread of sentiments of hate and revenge, to the greatest misfortune of the country?
During his ten-year reign as the head of Cameroon's lone state-owned school of journalism... one out of three student journalists trained in that institution were from the Centre-South
So, where is the balance?
Topsy-turvy Regional Balance?
Was The Post right in claiming that UB had been singled out as a testing ground for this nebulous concept called regional balance? Was the whole “regional balance” talk simply a means to hide the fact that the ruling elite tried to force their “dull kids” on UB at the expense of meritocracy and competence as Tomne argued? In short, was the application of "regional balance" at UB really an anomaly within Cameroon's higher education system?
It is not possible to answer this question conclusively without a detailed study of the ethno-regional breakdown of the origins of students admitted into the different institutions of higher learning across the country. However, anecdotal evidence clearly indicates that ethno-political favoritism rather than regional balance has governed the admission process into the Grandes Ecoles in the last couples of decades – just as the Biya regime tried unsuccessfully to artificially create a Beti business class in the mid 1980s to rival the Bamileke, so too did it try (this time with great success) to create a new Beti elite within the higher echelons of the public service, the police and the army by manipulating the admissions process into professional schools...).
Until November last year, the website of the Ministry of Higher Education carried detailed admission results for the country’s professional schools. However, the website was taken offline during the UB crisis. It was brought back online only last week, but stripped of all the professional school results for the 2006-2007 academic year (was this a technical problem or a political decision???).
Fortunately, due to an obvious oversight, the site still has the admissions results for the École Polytechnique (School of Engineering), which is Cameroon's most prestigious scientific and technical institution of higher learning (modeled after the French Polytechnique and not to be confused with the far less prestigious polytechnic in the Anglo-Saxon system).
Communiqué N° 06/0182/MINESUP/DDES/PEEX of 11 August 2006 signed by Fame Ndongo "To admit candidates into the first year of the School of Engineering (ENSP) of the University of Yaoundé I, for the 2006/2007 academic year" states that:
"The following candidates ranked in order of merit are definitively admitted into the first year of the School of Engineering of the University of Yaoundé I for the 2006/2007academic year, subject to the presentation of the originals of the required certificates."
Note that admission into this institution is by "order of merit" with no reference to "sociological balance" as was the case with admission into the UB medical school. Also, a cursory glance at the list of 100 admitted students shows that the regional balance so stridently demanded in Buea has been largely ignored. To confirm this point, those who are well versed in the ethnic origins of Cameroonian names can take a stab at establishing the ethno-regional breakdown of first-year students in Polytech
(Click here for an attachment of the polytechnique results in PDF format).
While some might be argue that the polytech case alone does not prove a pattern, it nonetheless confirms that the “regional balance” demands that were at the center of the discord in Buea are not universally applied across the board.
It is said in some quarters that the ruling elite is not interested in insitutions such a polytech where you cannot survive “without brains” and whose graduates generally end up in unglamourous – technical/scientific jobs that offer little or no access to state rents and prebends [use of public office for private enrichment]. The political elite is are more interested in sending their progeny to "lucrative" schools such as the Police academy or the school of administration and magistracy (CENAM) which trains high-ranking administrators, treasury inspectors, etc., who have direct access to budgets and quickly become key players in the prebendal system.
A Legitimate Debate
Without doubt, the regional balance debate is a legitimate one in a multi-ethnic and bilingual country such as Cameroon. In principle, regional balance, like affirmative action in the US, is one which makes lots of sense in a country where history and geography have created regions that are lagging behind others, and where colonialism and post-colonial politics also created favored and disfavored ethnic groups.
However, if regional balance is to truly become the cornerstone of Government policy (be it in admissions into state-owned institutions of learning, in appointments to high-level positions in government, or in the creation of road infrastructure and social amenities), then is should operate within a framework which is transparent, objective, accountable and public.
And to avoid situations such as that which happened in the University of Buea, “regional balance”, if it must be applied in higher education, MUST operate under guidelines that are publicized before competitive exams and not during or after.
Regional balance is too emotional, too divisive and too explosive an issue to be left to the whims and caprices of politicians and bureaucrats with hidden agendas who discard the policy when it suits them. For regional balance to succeed, clear laws must be adopted to govern its implementation. Until that happens (please don’t hold your breath…) regional balance will continue to be seen (and rightly so) as a tool to promote mediocrity and ethnic dominance at the expense of excellence and the masses.