By Jing Thomas
A sophisticated and scholarly people, with a longstanding history of trade, politics, learning and animal husbandry, was lulled to sleep with the narcotics of "balanced development" and its dangerous by-product of favoritism.
Balanced development is not a new concept. In the context of post-colonial Africa, with its fragile ethnic patchworks that pass for nations and a development landscape disfigured by history and culture, the concept seems all the more imperative and provides a perfect recipe for social justice and political stability. After all, is there any greater claim to true development than one that is collective? And did all parts of any country see the light the same day?
In a multi-ethnic nation, while the benefits of development enjoyed by each tribal or regional component may not necessarily be commensurate with its contribution, a minimum sense of fairness demands that everyone should be seen to be making maximum effort, at least to justify entitlement to such benefits. The same sense requires that any development experiment should be based on strict and morally sound rules and devoid of double standards and opportunism. Here, Ahidjo's efforts at uniting around the notion of balanced development start to develop warts.
In Ahidjo’s native North Cameroon, children were compelled to go to school and all kinds of incentives and inducements were provided, from free books and uniforms to attractive scholarships. It was far easier for a Northerner to join the military, a formidable lever of power, than members of other regions; special entrances, often made simpler to suit northern whims, were reserved for people of this region to gain easy access into most of the professional schools.
It was almost standard practice for many of its businessmen to grab huge loans from banks and some national financial institutions like FONADER with no intention of repaying.
To cap it all, there was a tarred road that linked Garoua to Maroua, the most important Northern cities, at a time when even the national economic capital was not linked to the political one by such a road infrastructure. For good measure, a modern stadium, complete with synthetic grass, for a region that still did not own a division one soccer club, was thrown in.
The official version of this discrimination, for this is what it ultimately degenerated into, one that has been mindlessly regurgitated by people who know very little of Cameroon and tend to depict Ahidjo in angelic light, held that the former president acted because the North was a "disfavored" region that needed to catch up with the rest of the country. A superficial appraisal of the situation may tend to lend some credence to this claim, which in reality has no bearing with the history and sociology of the country.
If Ahidjo's action was to protect a vulnerable people,Eldridge Mohammadou, one of Cameroon's greatest scholars on the history of North Cameroon, tells a different story. In a series of very brilliant and interesting articles that were published in Abbia, he has demonstrated the central role trade and education played in the rise of north Cameroonian cities such as Garoua and Maroua.
Long before Western institutions really began to take root along the coast of Cameroon, the north was already reaping the benefits of the trans-Saharan trade that linked Bornou, gateway to Hausaland, to Kano. The Diamare region supplied horses to Sokoto and other parts of northern Nigeria and in turn received a wide range of products from them. With the blossoming of trade came Arabic scholarship and its profusion of koranic schools where instructions, contrary to popular belief, were not confined to religion but also extended to other fields such as grammar, astronomy, poetry and mathematics. This development of trade and scholarship accelerated after the jihads that fastened Fulani grip on North Cameroon and gave rise to an organized administration.
It is a measure of the efficacy of this system of education that led early German administrators to note the propensity of Northerners to grasp and speak Arabic better than the German language. At a time when Islam reigned supreme in the region, the fact that Arabic was the language of the Koran and the prophet was no small inducement
This brief account, depicting the North in full stride ahead of the rest of what became Cameroon in almost every sphere, is ample evidence that Ahidjo perverted his own "balanced development" program. Assuming that he saw development only in Western light, could Fulani children have been more disfavored than those of the "Pygmées?" Rather than balancing, was he not trying to tip the balance in favor of the North? What it amounted to in the end was that a sophisticated and scholarly people, with a longstanding history of trade, politics, learning and animal husbandry, was lulled to sleep with the narcotics of "balanced development" and its dangerous by-product of favoritism.
After Ahidjo's experiment, are the Northerners better off today than the rest of the country? Illiteracy still has a firm hold on the region whose population of the blind, of beggars and armed robbers continue to outstrip the national average. Diseases such as river blindness and meningitis are constant companions.
Balanced development indeed!
Originally published on Imhotep.