Reviewed by Dibussi Tande
Quel est ce pays organisateur qui ne peut pas s’organiser?
Ateba-Eyene, C. (2008). Les paradoxes du "pays organisateur": Élites productrices ou prédatrices : le cas de la province du sud-Cameroun à l'ère Biya (1982-2007). [Yaoundé́]: Editions Saint-Paul.
One of the most controversial books published in Cameroon in recent years is Ateba Eyene’s “les Paradoxes du pays organisateur” (The Paradox of the “host country”: Productive or Predatory elite: The Case of the Southern Province during the Biya Era, 1982-2007) which seeks to understand why the South province is lagging behind in all development indicators in spite of its “numerous and wealthy elite”.
For starters, “Pays organisateur” is a term borrowed from international sporting competitions such as the FIFA World Cup where the “pays organisateur” or host country benefits from privileges not generally extended to other participants; “direct qualifications without going through eliminatory rounds, home turf advantage, indulgent refereeing, financial incentives, etc. In Cameroon, the term is used to refer to the Beti-Bulu of the Center and South Province whose elites have controlled the levers of political power in Cameroon since 1982. In his book, Ateba Eyene has narrowed the term exclusively to the South province, president Biya’s province of origin.Les paradoxes… paints a picture of the South province or region which is quite different from what abounds in popular imagery. What he shows us is not a province spoiled rotten by its favorite son, Paul Biya, and its elite who have had a stranglehold on the Cameroonian state for the last 27 years, but one that is poor, backward , underdeveloped and neglected.
Stranglehold on the State… Off the bat, the book confirms what other Cameroonians know about the South, i.e., although it is one of the least populated provinces in the country with about 600,000 inhabitants, the vast majority of Cameroon’s ruling class have come from here since 1982. For example, between 1982 and 2007, the South produced:
- 42 Directory-Generals and Assistant Director-Generals of public corporations
- 22 cabinet ministers and officials with rank of minister
- 19 Secretary-Generals of Ministries and the National Assembly
- 17 Board Chairs of public corporations;
- 10 heads of Professional Schools and University Faculties
- 7 provincial governors
- 8 University Chancellors
- 6 Vice Rectors
- 5 Army Generals
- 5 Secretary-Generals and Assistant Secretary-Generals at the Presidency
- 2 Directors of the President’s Cabinet
…But As Backward as They ComeAteba Eyene however asks his readers not to rush to judgment because these mind-boggling statistics belie a more sinister reality; the presence of sons and daughters of the South province in the corridors of power has not brought development. The majority of inhabitants in the South still live in abject squalor, misery, and poverty. Ateba Eyene puts the blame squarely on the shoulders of the province’s elite whom he accuses them of betraying the president:
Thus, rather than being agents of development, the elites of the South have become predators sucking the nation dry of its wealth while forcefully grabbing vast expanses of land from local peasants in the South. In short, they have abandoned the South and its people to their own devices. No wonder the South is littered with stillborn projects that were supposed to transform the province economically and socially. Some of these projects include:
“President Biya thought he was creating a leading elite, but this elite neither understood nor conceived (political) power as a service. These sons of the South are insolently rich, drive posh cars and are owners of vast estates. But there are no roads, portable water remains a luxury, the kerosene lamp is still used to light up households. These sons of the south are rich but there are no schools, hospitals or medicines to improve the standard of living of the population.”
- The Ebolowa agro-pastoral show ,originally scheduled for 1987 but which was postponed indefinitely after investments worth billions of Francs CFA , including the construction of an ultra-modern agric village which was eventually pillaged by local authorities;
- The 110,000 hectare Mengame gorilla sanctuary , a huge eco-tourism draw created in 1997, which is in a state of perpetual take-off;
- The Memvele hydroelectric dam announced by Biya himself in 1991 and which is still not a reality nearly two decades later;
- • The Kribi deep seaport and gas factory.
In a passage that will come as a surprise to Anglophones who believe that the government has always wanted to transfer the Limbe seaport project to Kribi, Eyene laments that:
“Everything indicates that this is what the Anglophone Prime Ministers wanted [i.e., to construct a deep sea port and gas factory in Limbe]. During this time, the elite of the South were asleep. Who does not know that these two projects were supposed to transform the South economically and socially? What are the chances of the youths of the south being employed in corporations run by Anglophones and which are, moreover, based in Limbe... This is once again the fate reserved to projects in the South under the New Deal.”
Another peculiarity of the South, according to Ateba Eyene, is the existence of a special class of Southerners, the so-called “fils a papa”, the “Daddy’s boys” who have become rich and powerful thanks to their well connected parents who are more interested in creating “family dynasties” than in spreading their “good fortune” around. “History will remember that during the New Deal, each elite tried to place his or her children at the top.” These children are awarded juicy government contracts, many of which they never bother to carry out, are imposed as mayors and Members of Parliament, etc., and don’t even bother to work with the youths of the province. Eyene laments that this experiment has been an unmitigated disaster for the South because these spoiled brats have “pillaged the state” and brought nothing but dishonor to the South province.
Oath of OrmetaAteba Eyene also lashes out at the law of silence that the elites of the South provinces have imposed on the inhabitants of the province, requiring from them a blind and unwavering support for the CPDM and the Biya regime. As he points out, “Under the new deal the people of the south had only obligations (towards President Biya and the CPDM) and very rarely did they have rights (to development).”
The ultimate losers in this charade, according Eyene, are the people of the South who have little to show for 27 years of Biya rule even though they are constantly demonized by other Cameroonians on the false premise that they have been the prime beneficiaries of the New Deal. As he prays that a future regimes would not abandon the province, he nonetheless wonders whether it will “be possible tomorrow to differentiate between the children of the South who “ate”, who went hungry and those who were starved”. His conclusion? The people of the South might end up paying for the crimes of their venal elite.
"During Paul Biya’s reign, the children of the South were barred from thinking lucidly… [they] were barred from questioning how the province’s budget was executed, or from pointing out that they could not receive CRTV signals in the province. They were barred from raising the issue of abandoned projects, of schools without teachers or desks… the people of the South must remain quiet between the false promise of elected officials, the traffic of influence of the powerful elite, and the manipulation of public opinion."
Whatever one makes of Ateba Eyene’s unapologetic support - or promotion - of what some have described as “tribal politics”, one cannot help but concede that Les Paradoxes… is an eye-opener that takes the reader into a very revealing journey through the South Province. In fact, this is a book that could only have been written by a native of the South province and by someone whose political allegiance to the CPDM and President Biya is without question. This has spared the book the fate usually reserved for “subversive” publications – even though it has infuriated the Southern elites, some of whom tried to have the book banned.The Bigger Issue – Looking beyond the South
The book also raises questions about the role of the state elites in local development: Are their state offices personal preserves which should be used to develop their hometowns and villages? Are the elite the ones to “bring development” to their hometowns rather than the state? Should local development be contingent on the quantity and quality of “sons of the soil” who occupy high office at the national level and their willingness to bend the rules in favor of their kith and kin? Or should there be a more rational basis for distributing resources from the center to the periphery?
In Cameroon and other neo-patrimonial states in Africa, appointments to high ranking positions in government and the civil service are a game of musical chairs, part of an elaborate ethno-regional balancing act used by regimes to control the elite and ensure the support of the periphery. As Van De Walle pointed out over a decade ago [ "Neopatrimonialism and Democracy in Africa"], the Biya regime has institutionalized ethnicity as a frame of reference through a tacit or explicit encouragement of "the establishment of ethnoclientelist networks that link public functionaries to their sectional constituents in an instrumental and reciprocal fashion," thereby transforming state elites into ethnic brokers rather than national leaders.
From this perspective, Ateba Eyene‘s indictment of the elite of the South province for failing to “deliver” is in line with the political reality in Cameroon– even if this reality is one of the main reasons for the country’s continued inability to pull itself out of the socio-economic and political morass.
So, until there is a systemic change with regards to the role of political elites in natioanl life, this game of smoke and mirrors will continue with regional elites using the local population as bargaining chips in their bid to secure their positions at the national level or to catch the attention of the “prince” – a game which benefits only the elite and not the masses who are forced to “toe the line” supposedly for the common good.