By Rogers Tabe Egbe Orock (Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Helsinki)
Now, I just have a few observations and additional reflections to make on the public role of the intellectual as seen by Soyinka, with special reference to Cameroon.
First, it is good that most Nigerian intellectuals understand that the intellectual is only valid in his connection to the people and place of his time. Indeed Claude Ake (1994)in his reflections on the erosion of academic freedom in Africa incisively pointed out that oft we take too much of a state-centrist approach, wherein we criticise the state for all the troubles within the university institution, ignoring the self-selling which African intellectuals wantonly subject themselves to. For Ake (ibid.)
African intellectuals are guilty in considerable part, as a result of their overzealous concern with opportunism, careerism, parochialism, factionalism, and most crucially ideological intolerance. The result is a weakened capacity for intellectuals to collectively defend themselves against unavoidable state attempts to co-opt and assault them.
And Abiola Irele (2003) an Africanist literary scholar had hoped that African universities could succeed to severe themselves from state clutches by becoming ivory towers and having less concern with activities concerning their states. In a chiding response John Murungi (2004) has warned that no one, least of all African intellectuals, should delude themselves that there could be a university that is not "fettered" from the state, since a university like all institutions is a product of the 'politics' of its time. For him (as for me),it is only by their courageous engagement, criticism and action as Soyinka does, that teachers and other scholars within African university systems can adequately engage the social process and social conscience of their society, making the university relevant to the wider society. The university, (like the media and recently the church) is the bulwark of the balance between state and society and anything short of this amounts to betrayal of their social responsibility. And the Cameroonian social and political philosopher Bernard Fonlon (1979:13) noted this social responsibility to be primarily that of exploring and disseminating 'all truths'.
The Cameroon Academia
Now turning the situation in our Cameroon academia, could one contemplate that there is any attempt to heed Fonlon's prescription? If not, what sort of academia has Cameroon universities been breeding, the type Ake castigates? Drawing on my observation from my former university (the University of Buea), where I was a student between 2002 and 2005 I will only highlight the trends that point to answers to these questions. The relevance of this reflection can only be fully grasped if we remember that Cameroon, like most sub-Saharan African countries, is presently rocked by what Richard Joseph(2003) has termed "catastrophic governance", wherein the society is preyed upon by those within the state bureaucratic agency.
I need not enumerate many cases which will point glaringly that contrary to the ideas circulated around on political liberalisation by the state and its sycophant, the present regime has no less resorted to the very "preventive strategies" that the old order employed (see Mbuago and Akoko, 2004).
In my days at the University of Buea, the very first psychological reflection that one has on entering the campus for the first time is of fear. Yes sheer fear. The general atmosphere was one to tell you without anyone telling you, that there were things you could talk about and things you could not, that there were people you could talk about and others you dare not mention. In short, the very prescription of Fonlon for a university was here sold at no price. To make things worse, the university was openly divided into two camps (I mean ideologically), between the many barons of the regime under the cloak of intellectuals and those two people considered as pariah: the most incisive and torrentious Bate Besong in the Faculty of Arts and the calm and pragmatic Johnny Fonyam of the Department of Law.
These two in their own different ways were the only two who defied these gluttons in the administration and dared the regime in Etoudi. However, these two had different truths in focus, the former as a social and literary critique was crying for a marriage turned sour between the ever domineering French speaking majority and the suppressed English speaking people of the erstwhile Southern Cameroon and other broad neo-patrimonial ills; the latter was bemoaning a social and political asphyxiation of teachers within Cameroonian universities and the University of Buea in particular, in his capacity as President of the National University Teachers Trade Union for the Buea chapter.
During period of intense political activities such as elections, all these university administrators abandoned offices for their village and regional bases (in reflection to Murungi's argument). But they engaged the political and social process merely in approval of all actions from the regime and went to any length to call any dissident to order, never making objective assessment of regime actions vis-à-vis the society.
Ask me about all the other lecturers in between these two camps? To answer you, here is a picture painted by a newspaper article about the University of Buea:
“The University of Buea simmers with disenchantment, albeit suppressed, for fear of reprisals. Lecturers, for example, are so gripped with fear that when The Post embarked on this investigative reports all those talked-to pleaded - sometimes literally begged for anonymity. Against such a background of crippling fear, intellectual debate is stifled. In other universities debate and dissent epitomise academia. At the University of Buea the impression is that the staff is emasculated.
Nobody dares openly raise a contrary view to that held by the establishment, because they are scared stiff of being expelled" (Wache, Atatah and Njofon, The Post, No. 0143, Monday October 25, 1999).
In this context I propose that if the intellectual is first a citizen before anything, the majority of Cameroonian teachers (I cannot find the force in me to use 'intellectual') are first subjects who have to negotiate their citizenship everyday in their various campuses (see Mamdani, 1996), as the latest example of the previous Vice-chancellor Cornelius Lambi showed when he had to deny the truth of an imposed list to blame the 'mistake on himself' but was nevertheless thanked with a sack. Citizenship (as Soyinka possesses) is not a given in Cameroon, it rests in the hands of some individuals rather than the sovereign will embodied by the constitution, and it could either be forcefully taken as Bate and Fonyam do, be begged for and be given partially as most lecturers do on a daily basis in Cameroon or totally absent as the case is for many. I think that Nyamnjoh's (2007) recent insight on 'flexible citizenship' could be the best perspective to grasp these intricacies. Yet, most crucially we must understand that in the main our universities do not have citizens but subjects, consequently they cannot practice intellectualism 'by action' as Soyinka does.