By Dibussi Tande
The year 2008 ended in Cameroon with a major controversy over competitive examinations into the Teachers’ Training College (ENS) of the newly-created University of Maroua in the Far North Province. It is alleged that prior to the launching of the competitive exams, the Head of State personally guaranteed the elite of the Grand Nord that 60% of registered candidates from the three Northern provinces (Adamaoua North and Far North provinces) would be admitted into ENS Maroua.
When the results were released, 760 candidates from the Grand Nord were among the 2253 admitted into the first and second cycles of the School. These results incensed the Northern elite who pointed out that only 14% of registered candidates from the Northern provinces had been admitted, far short of the 60% promised. The Minister of Higher Education presented his own figures which showed that 36% of candidates from the Grand Nord had been admitted. In any case, Members of Parliament from the Grand Nord demanded an additional 500 places, failing which they would organize sit-ins and protest rallies, and also disrupt the seventh edition of the National Arts and Culture Festival (FENAC) which was scheduled to begin in Maroua on December 19, 2008.
The MPs were roundly condemned in the media and elsewhere for trying to sacrifice “meritocracy” on the altar of “ethnic politics”. Northerners retorted by pointing out that the entire Grand Nord was an “educationally backward region,” and that this backwardness was largely due to the fact that teachers from the Southern parts of the country (who form the bulk of the country’s teaching corps at all levels) generally refuse to take up teaching positions in the Northern provinces which are considered too remote. There is even a running joke that only Peace Corps Volunteers who don't know any better are excited about living in the Grand Nord. In fact, the government itself routinely sends civil servants who have fallen out of grace to the Grand Nord as a punitive measure. They also pointed out that less than 3% of students in existing Teachers’ Training Colleges, all of which are in the Southern regions of the country are from the Grand Nord. The MPs therefore argued that it was imperative that the University of Maroua and the ENS in particular be used to resolve the “Educational imbalance” between the North and South. In other words, the University of Maroua and its institutions should be the preserve of Northerners.
On December 18, one day before the FENAC began, the government caved in to the Northern demands. However, instead of simply granting the region the additional 500 places demanded by the MPs, it added a stunning 4899 candidates to the original list of successful candidates (including every northerner who had registered for the exams), thereby increasing the total number of students to 7152 – this for a new university with no infrastructure of its own and which was supposed to kick off with 1,500 to 2,000 students. So after spending 100 million Francs CFA to organize the “concours” into ENS, the government threw a wrench into the entire process in order to satisfy the northern elite.
The ENS Maroua controversy and its controversial denouement raises a plethora of issues, primary among them, the government’s continued use of an undefined “regional balance” policy and a hazy quota system driven primarily by political expediency; the inability of successive “affirmative action” policies to pull the three northern provinces out of the bottom rungs of educational achievement in Cameroon; ongoing doubts about the quality of teachers who will eventually graduate from ENS Maroua, and their potential impact on the quality of education not only in the north but in the entire country; why the Biya regime, which is usually intransigent towards “sectarian” demands (remember the bloody crackdown on protests over admissions into the UB Medical school in 2006) gave in without a fight to the demands of the Northern elite; how Northern MPs successfully created a “Northern bloc” in Cameroon’s national assembly at a time when Anglophone MPs in the same assembly were refusing to take a common stance on development issues concerning their region on the spurious claim that a Member of Parliament represents “the entire country and not a specific locality”, etc., etc.
Regional Balance and the Ethnic Weighting of Examination Results
The use of quotas and the ethnic weighting of examination results is not a new phenomenon in Cameroon. In fact, these were the cornerstone of Ahidjo’s “balanced development “ policy which was officially supposed to "redress regional inequalities by providing education, infrastructures and the public amenities necessary for bridging the country and the town." Defending this policy, Ahidjo argued that,
As the regulator of the nation's economic and social activities, the state must encourage, through appropriate incentives, those regions which for historical and sociological reasons, are lagging behind... our policy of balanced development must be applied not only in the distribution of infrastructure and public amenities, but also in the training of individuals.
In examinations for recruitment into categories B, C, and D of the civil service, two lists were established; an "A" list for natives from "educationally backward regions" and a "B" list for the rest of the country. Those on the "A" list were admitted following less rigorous criteria than those on the "B" list. This ethnic weighting of results was also applied in the admission into top professional schools such as the Joint Forces Military Academy (EMIAC) which trains the country's military brass, and the National Center of Administration and Magistracy (CENAM) which trains leading administrators and judicial officials. Also, at the University of Yaounde, students from these educationally backward areas were eligible for scholarships at age 25, while those from regions considered to be educationally advanced were eligible if only they were not above 18 years of age.
Like all other elements of the balanced development policy, the reason behind the use of ethno-regional considerations in recruitment and admission was a laudable one; that of bridging the gap between disfavored regions and those regions favored by history. But here again the result was the exacerbation of ethnic frustration and antagonism because the beneficiaries of the system were almost exclusively from one region – the Muslim North. Individuals from other educationally backward groups such as the Toupouri, Moundang and other non-Muslim and non-Fulani tribes of the North, or the pygmies of the Eastern province, rarely benefited, if at all, from this policy. The hegemonic ambition of the Fulbe/Fulani ruling class and not social justice was the determining factor in a policy that became a tool for the establishment of a Fulani civil and military elite that dominated the higher echelons of the state bureaucracy and the army.
Under the Biya regime, the balance of power swung to the South, and members of Biya’s Beti ethnic group replaced the Muslim North as the primary beneficiaries of admission policies into the Grandes Ecoles, even though the Beti were among the most educationally advanced groups in the country. In fact, it is safe to say that under Biya, regional balance was mention and implemented in a haphazard only when it served a specific purpose that benefitted the regime, e.g., admitting unqualified Francophones into the UB medical school, or admitting every candidate from the Grand Nord who applied for a place in ENS Maroua, irrespective of their qualfication, in a blatant attempt to garner political support of the Grand Nord.
A Tool for Political Control
Although the ethnic arithmetic formula has been hailed as an astute means of ethnic management in multiethnic African states, Kofele-Kale and Banock convincingly show that in Cameroon the formula has rarely served as a tool for ethnic accommodation and harmony. It has been more of a "device for ethnic fragmentation and mass control." By astutely pitting ethnic groups against each other in the struggle to control or protect principal sources of state rents (such as strategic ministries, lucrative public corporations, and coveted seats in the Grandes Ecoles whose graduates are automatically admitted into the civil service – the main path to social mobility in Cameroon), the Biya regime (like the Ahidjo regime before it) has successfully tightened its grip on power as competing ethnic brokers are increasingly placed in a situation of dependence vis-à-vis the state which is the only institution capable of mediating in their favor.
From this perspective, Biya’s “goodwill gesture” to the Grand Nord, particularly the Far North Province, is not an altruistic act, but a calculated political move to put the region and its elite in his corner during a period when he will need the broadest support possible to stay in power beyond 2011 - or negotiate a dignified and safe exit. This is however a shortsighted policy because while it satisfies the Grand Nord and makes it indebted to the regime, it creates a heightened feeling of marginalization in the other provinces who have been sidelined by the policy. As I pointed out in a 2006 article on the regional balance controversy at the University of Buea,
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.
Still an Educationally Backward Region…
To Ahidjo, regional balance might have been a success since by the time he left power in 1982, northerners controlled all the levers of power in Cameroon, from the civil service, to the military, gendarmerie, public corporations, etc. However, the North province (which was broken up into three separate provinces in 1983) remained an educationally backward region, unable to compete with the rest of the country - even as the Northern elite occupied key positions in all strata of national life. In short, the preferential treatment extended to the region failed to fundamentally change the educational landscape of the region. In fact, many have argued that these preferential policies ironically held back Northerners and contributed to the underdevelopment of the Grand Nord.
That will be the focus of the next post.
For another take on the ENS saga, read Innocent Chia's blog post titled Paul Biya’s Poisonous Gift to Northerners and CameroonGet 10 Free International Minutes - PINLESS