"Cameroonians have every right – and I have often heard them exercise that right – to urge the government of the United States to pursue sounder economic policies, to improve our still imperfect race relations or to make greater efforts to achieve social justice. Conversely, we Americans have every right to urge the Government of Cameroon to pursue democratization and respect human rights, and to criticize it when it fails to do so…"
Frances Cook, former US Ambassador to Cameroon - December 24, 1992
The recent verbal jousting between the Biya regime and three diplomatic missions in Cameroon (the US, UK and the Netherlands) over the July 22 elections is a throwback to the early 1990s when Western nations, led by the United States, took the Biya regime to task for its underhanded attempts at hijacking the democratization process in Cameroon.
This was at a time when the French and the Biya regime feared that the Americans were trying to take over the French pre-carré by banking on an “Anglophone Trojan horse” called John Fru Ndi. The stakes were quite high back then, which explains why unlike the recent diplomatic brouhaha which was a fairly civilized affair, the protagonists of the 1992 clashes threw diplomatic niceties out of the window and went for the jugular.
This was particularly so with the legendary confrontaions between the then Minister of Communications and Government spokesperson, “Ayatollah” Kontchou Kuomegni and former US ambassador Frances Cook, whom some described as the “godmother of the Cameroon opposition”. When Cook was appointed on October 25, 1989, nothing seemed to indicate that she would end up playing a frontline role in attempts to force Biya to give in gracefully to the democratization clamor.
However, Cook had barely settled down in Yaounde when the Yondo affair broke out in January 1990. she mobilized western embassies to take a particular interest in affair and to participate in the trial in 1990 as observers. She was also credited with “sending signals of support to the pro-democracy movement” and “keeping in regular contact with pro-democracy activists”. In spite of her activism, she did not however publicly condemn the Biya regime although she and other State Department officials “reportedly raised human rights concerns privately in their dealings with Cameroonian authorities”.
However by 1992, Frances Cook’s – and the United States’ - criticism of the Biya regime had become public. Frances Cook’s criticism of the Biya regime reached its peak in the wake of the controversial October 11, 1992 presidential elections which observers unanimously qualified as flawed and rigged. As Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson (of Niger-Uranium-Iraq-Valerie Plame / Scooter Libby fame) recalls in his memoirs,
"In Cameroon and the Central African Republic, the United States had activist ambassadors committed to seeing that the electoral process was free, fair, and transparent. this meant that the French government's hand-picked candidate did not get a free pass to the palace. In Cameroon, my former boss from Burundi, Frances Cook, was now the ambassador. She was giving the French fits, as it looked like the Anglophone candidate in that bilingual nation might wind up defeating the long-serving President Biya."
Expectedly the Biya regime found none of this commendable. On October 19, 1992, barely a week after the elections, Prime Minister Achidi Achu, in a bilingual TV address to the nation, warned against foreign interference in the affairs of Cameroon, implicitly pointing the finger at the US.
That same day, the government of Cameroon recalled its ambassador in Washington D.C. for consultations, while the Minister of External Relations, Jacques Booh Booh, summoned Frances Cook to inform her that the Government of Cameroon was disturbed by her country’s continuous interference in Cameroon’s affairs.
The entire diplomatic corps in Yaounde was later summoned and either praised for respecting the sovereignty of the host country or chided for violating that sovereignty by criticizing the electoral process. However, the primary target of the regime’s wrath was the US ambassador. She was accused, among other things, of having invited National Democratic Institute (NDI) to monitor the elections without informing the Government, of clandestinely dispatching US embassy and consulate staff to surreptitiously monitor the electoral process across the country, and of visiting opposition strongholds of Bafoussam and Bamenda after October 11 to encourage (“aid and abet”) “radical” opposition leaders in their campaign to intoxicate national and international opinion about the elections.
In a bid to restrict the movement of the mettlesome diplomats who were not contented with official versions of the situation on the field, the Minister of External Relations sent letter no. 07327 to the French ambassador, Dean of the diplomatic corps, on October 28, 1992 banning the movement of diplomats within the national territory without prior authorization from the Ministry. The Minister argued that although the 1961 Vienna convention guaranteed diplomats free movement in host countries, “such liberty is guaranteed within the framework of the laws of that country.” Consequently, he demanded that all diplomats resident in Yaounde verbally notify the Ministry eight days prior to traveling out of the capital so that they could be issued official travel documents. “If this rule is not observed, I fear the consequences could be disastrous to the diplomatic missions concerned as well as to the Cameroonian government”, he warned.
Frances Cook’s immediately issued a fiery reply describing the conditions as “inappropriate and impossible to implement” and warned that “… if the Cameroonian government insists on going ahead with such stringent requirements, we will recommend reciprocity for Cameroonian diplomats in the United States. There will doubtless be other ramifications as well”.
Things took a turn for the worse on that same day when the National Democratic Institute (NDI) released it interim report on the presidential elections during a press conference in Washington DC. During that press conference, NDI President, Brian Atwood, declared that the elections in Cameroon were among the three worst cases, alongside Panama and the Philippines, that NDI had ever observed.
While lauding the “strong sense of civic duty on the part of the Cameroonian people… and the dedication of many election officials and political party representatives who under difficult circumstances, sought to conduct an open and fair election”, the report stated unequivocally that:
“The NDI concludes that widespread irregularities during the pre-election period and in the tabulation of results calls into question, for any fair observer, the validity of the outcome. It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that this election system was designed to fail. While several parties were responsible for election irregularities, the overwhelming weight of responsibility for this failed process lies with the government and President Biya”.
In a confidential telex that US ambassador Frances Cook had sent to the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Leonard H. Robinson Jr., days before the release of the NDI report, she had highlighted the fact that:
"Beleaguered Betis and their cohorts… react viscerally to anything (but praise) from the outside in best of times. The fact that foreign ‘opinion’ (press, radio, etc.,) has been negative and dubious about the October 11 poll has heightened this particularly unwholesome side of the Cameroonian political personality – and it will get worse after NDI report is released.”
And she was right. As soon as the report was released, Government spokesperson Kontchou Kuomegni, in what the ambassador had earlier described in her telex as his “continuous verbal poisoning (and pot-stirring)”, called the NDI report “an intellectual scandal, an Arabian nights fairy tale” woven by “jealous and intellectually dishonest intruders” under the spell of “a certain Yaounde-based western diplomat” with “anachronistic imperialist tendencies”. He lambasted the imperialist-sponsored NDI for not only insulting the Cameroonian people but for also ridiculing the country’s Supreme Court. And for good measure, he labeled SDF chairman, John Fru Ndi, a CIA agent.
Kontchou launched another scathing attack on Frances Cook during yet another daily press briefing, when he lashed out at “a certain diplomat in Yaounde who considered herself a proconsul on Cameroonian soil which she treated like a subject territory”; a diplomat whose “personal actions” were out of step with those of her own Government.
Herman Cohen , the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, came to the defense of the beleaguered Frances Cook in an interview with Jeune Afrique by insisting that she had the full support of the US Government:
“Ambassador Cooke has spoken in support of democracy and multipartism and on my instructions she has denounced vigorously human rights abuses. There are influential persons… who rather than facing up to the problem of democracy have preferred to use Ambassador Frances Cooke as a scapegoat.”
Frances Cook finally responded to the smear campaign by government official and the official media, and to accusations of US meddling in Cameroon affairs during a farewell dinner reluctantly offered her by Minister Jacques Booh Booh on December 24 1992:
Cameroonians have every right – and I have often heard them exercise that right – to urge the government of the United States to pursue sounder economic policies, to improve our still imperfect race relations or to make greater efforts to achieve social justice.
Conversely, we Americans have every right to urge the Government of Cameroon to pursue democratization and respect human rights, and to criticize it when it fails to do so…
… I must take this opportunity to correct two widespread misconceptions about U.S. policy toward Cameroon.
First, the United States does not support any party or candidate; rather we support democracy.
We wish to see open, free and fair elections; we do not care who wins them.
We want the Cameroonian press to be free.
We want transparent and accountable government.
We expect the government of Cameroon to honour the international covenants on human rights to which it has acceded.
Second, the U.S. neither seeks to supplant anyone nor any nation in Cameroon.
Close to 15 years after the NDI argued that “While several parties were responsible for election irregularities, the overwhelming weight of responsibility for this failed process lies with the government and President Biya”, another Cameroonian election has again received a fail grade. As the August 16 2007 joint statement by the United States, United Kingdom and the Netherlands points out:
"On the whole, however, these elections represent a missed opportunity for Cameroon – a missed opportunity to continue building public confidence in the democratic process as Cameroon looks ahead to its next election."
The next elections (2011 presidential elections) which, without question, will be one of the most significant, if not the most significant, in the country’s history. In the meantime, there is every indication that the more things change, the more they stay the same as Cameroon’s tumultuous democratization continues its relentless march backwards.
Adapted from Dibussi Tande. Reform and Repression: The Tumultuous Beginnings of Cameroon's Democratization Experiment, 1990-1992. Forthcoming, Fall 2008.