Monday, June 3, 2013

The Task of the Cameroonian Intellectual

By Peter Vakunta, PhD

At a time when the Republic of Cameroon is squirming under the pangs of misgovernment, bastardization of political power, lethal tribalism, and endemic corruption, it is germane to pose the following thorny questions: what does it mean to be an intellectual in Cameroon today? Are Cameroonian intellectuals merely servants of special interest groups or do they have a greater social responsibility?  As I see it, the Cameroonian intellectual has the choice either to side with the downtrodden and marginalized or with the powerful. Without fear or favor, the genuine intellectual has to have the courage to blow the whistle on blatant human rights violations. Most importantly, the intellectual must have the forum in which to talk back to authority, the more so because unquestioning subservience to authority in Cameroon and elsewhere in contemporary society is tantamount to a threat to an active and sane intellectual life.  In this essay, we will endeavor to address these issues as eloquently as possible.
Celebrated literary and cultural critic, Edward Said, sees the intellectual as a  scholar whose role it is to speak the truth to power even at the risk of ostracism, imprisonment or death: “Real intellectuals…are supposed to risk being burned at the stake, ostracized, or crucified”(7). Thinking along the same lines, Jacoby (1987) defines the intellectual as “an incorrigibly independent soul answering to no one” (quoted in Said, 72).  Both Said and Jacoby agree that the intellectual is supposed to be heard from, and in practice ought to be stirring up debate and if possible controversy.
In light of the status quo in Cameroon under the presidency of Mr. Paul Biya, it behooves the intellectual to speak the truth, ruffle feathers and rock the boat without caring whose ox is gored.  We must caution that speaking the truth to authority should not be construed as some sort of Panglossian[i] idealism. Speaking the truth to the powers-that-be amounts to carefully weighing the options, picking and choosing the right one, and then sagaciously articulating it where it can do the most good and trigger desired change. The Cameroonian intellectual’s voice may be lonely, it nonetheless, has resonance because it associates itself the aspirations of a people, the common pursuit of a shared ideal—the Summum Bonum.

Said observes that “the hardest aspect of being an intellectual is to represent what you profess through your work and interventions, without hardening into an institution or a kind of automaton acting at the behest of a system…”(121). He further notes that the intellectual who claims to write only for himself or herself, or for the sake of pure learning , or abstract science is not be, and must not be believed. To my mind, nothing is more reprehensible than the intellectual frame of mind that induces avoidance, the turning away from a principled position which you know to be the right one, but which you decide not to take. You shy away from appearing politically ‘incorrect’; you are scared of seeming untowardly polemical because someday you hope to earn a big prize, perhaps even a ministerial appointment or ambassadorship in your home government. In the eyes of a bona fide intellectual, these habits are corrosive par excellence. If anything can denature and neutralize an intellectual it is the internalization of such nefarious habits.

Personally, I have encountered these corrupting habits in one of the toughest unresolved problems plaguing the wellbeing of Cameroonian polity—the Anglophone Problem, where fear of speaking out about one of the thorniest national questions in Cameroonian history has hobbled, blinkered and muzzled many who know the truth and are in a position to serve it.  The Cameroon Anglophone Problem manifests itself in the form of vociferous complaints from English-speaking Cameroonians about the absence of transparency and accountability in state affairs, in matters relating to appointments in the civil service, the military, the police force, the gendarmerie and the judiciary.
In short, the Anglophone Problem raises questions about participation in decision-making as well as power-sharing in a country that prides itself on being Africa in miniature. The Anglophone Problem is the cry of the disenchanted, the socially ostracized and the oppressed people of Cameroon. Anglophone Cameroonians incessantly lament over the ultra-centralization of political power in the hands of a rapacious Francophone oligarchy based in Yaoundé, the nation’s capital, where the Anglophone with limited proficiency in the French language is made to go through all kinds of torture in the hands of supercilious-cum benighted Francophone bureaucrats who look down on anyone speaking English. [ii] Richard Joseph talks of “the neutralization of Anglophone Cameroon” on page 82 of his seminal work, Gaullist Africa: Cameroon under Ahmadu Ahidjo (1978).

Despite the abuse and vilification to which outspoken advocates of self-determination for Anglophone Cameroon may be subjected, the truth deserves to be spoken, represented by an unafraid and compassionate intellectual. The Cameroonian intellectual need not climb a mountain or rooftop in a bid to declaim.  The genuine intellectual must speak his or her mind quietly and clearly where they can be heard. Most importantly, they should present their views in such a manner as to drum up enough support for an ongoing process, for instance, the cause of justice for marginalized Anglophone Cameroonians.  Informed Cameroonians know that the statutes and constitutional stipulations on official bilingualism in Cameroon, for instance, is a sham. Arguing along similar lines, Ayafor posits: “There has been unrelenting efforts and frustration at the fact that language policy has not contributed to national integration through linguistic fusion” (2005, 140). Unlike most other African countries which give pride of place to indigenous languages, French and English, languages of predatory imperialists, remain official languages in Cameroon in stark contradiction of the national constitution which stipulates: ‘The State shall guarantee the promotion of bilingualism throughout the country. It shall endeavor to protect and promote national languages (Article 1.3: 5).

No intellectual can speak up at all times on every single issue plaguing national life. But, there is a compelling duty to address the constituted and authorized powers of one’s own country, which are accountable to citizenry, especially when those powers are exercised in a manifestly abusive, arbitrary, and disproportionate manner. For the Cameroonian intellectual, there is no sitting on the fence; there a reality to be faced, namely that Cameroon is an extremely diverse nation with over 236 indigenous languages and cultures, an abundance of natural resources and accomplishments, but it also harbors a redoubtable set of internal inequities and inequalities that cannot be ignored, not the least of which are unsound regional development paradigms and human rights abuses. Cameroon is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted and proclaimed in 1948, reaffirmed by every new member state of the UN. Cameroon is also a signatory to solemn international conventions on the treatment of workers, women, and children. None of these documents says anything about less equal ethnic groups, tribes or peoples.   The aforementioned instruments stipulate that all human beings are entitled to the same freedoms. Of course, these rights are callously violated on a daily basis in Cameroon. Joseph decries human rights abuses and oppression in Cameroon as follows: “Not only has the political system been devised to deprive the citizen of any real say in the choice of his governors, he has also been divested of any control over their actions…confronted with concerted abuse by agents of state… the people of Cameroon are legally powerless”(115).
Faced with this state of affairs, the onus rests with the Cameroonian intellectual to raise moral questions as they involve one’s homeland, its power, and its mode of interacting with its citizens.  This does not mean opposition for opposition’s sake. What it means is asking questions, making distinctions, and committing to memory all those issues that we tend to gloss over in our rush to collective judgment. Arguing along similar lines, Said maintains: “The intellectual today ought to be an amateur, someone who considers that to be a thinking and concerned member of a society one is entitled to raise moral issues at the heart of even the most technical and professionalized activity as it involves one’s country…”(82). There has been a  lot of idle talk lately about something called ‘political correctness,’ which Said qualifies as “an insidious phrase applied to academic humanists, who, it is frequently said, do not think independently but rather according to norms established by a cabal of leftists…”(77). The caveat is that blind adherence to this dogma is likely to curtail individual and collective freedoms.  The corollary is that the intellectual does not represent an inviolate icon but a personal vocation with a slew of issues, all of them having to do with a hybrid of emancipation and civil rights issues.

In a nutshell, intellectualism in Cameroon should be deemed fundamental to the attainment of knowledge and basic freedoms. Yet, these constructs acquire meaningful interpretation, not as abstractions but as experiences actually lived by the individual intellectual. This is true of intellectuals in Cameroon as it is of intellectuals elsewhere.  Thus, the fundamental task of the Cameroonian intellectual is explicitly to rationalize local problems,  universalize national crises, assign greater scope to the sufferings of his or her people, and last but not least, to associate those experiences with the suffering of underprivileged global citizens. This does not imply being an arm-chair critic of the home government at all times, but rather of thinking of the intellectual vocation as maintaining a state of constant alertness, of a perpetual willingness to not let half-truths blind us from seeing reality through a broad prism.


[i] Person who views a situation with unwarranted optimism. [cf. Dr Pangloss , a character in Voltaire's Candide (1759)]
Works cited
Ayafor, Isaiah, Munang. “Official Bilingualism in Cameroon: Instrumental of
Integrative Policy?” In Proceedings of the 4th International Symposium
on Bilingualism.Ed. James Cohen et al., Somerville: Cascadilla Press, 2005.
Cameroon, Government. Constitution of the Republic of Cameroon. Yaoundé.
Government printer, 1996.
Jacoby, Russel. The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe.
New York: Basic Books, 1987.
Joseph, Richard. Gaullist Africa: Cameroon under Ahmadu Ahidjo. Enugu:
Fourth Dimension Publishers, 1978.
Said, W.  Edward.  Representations of the Intellectual. New York: Vintage
Books, 1994.
Vakunta, P.W. Cry my Beloved Africa: Essays on the Postcolonial Aura in
Africa: Bamenda: Langaa, 2008.
Voltaire. Candide. Paris: Haitier, 1986.
About the Author
Professor Vakunta teaches at the United States Department of Defense  Language Institute, POM-CA

Friday, March 15, 2013

Dissent as a Higher Form of Patriotism: Reflections


Peter Wuteh Vakunta, Ph.D


 Many of us who pontificate about the dissonance between dissent and patriotism remain oblivious to the fact that these are actually very loaded terms. It is a slippery route to walk when we obstinately cling to the antiquated idea that any intellectual or scholar who takes his/her country to task is ipso facto placing himself/herself in the camp of the unpatriotic. One of the most celebrated  intellectuals of our time, Edward Said, argues in his seminal book Representations of the Intellectual (1994) that “One of the shabbiest of all intellectual gambits is to pontificate about abuses in someone else’s society and to excuse exactly the same practices in one’s own” (cited in Chomsky, The Common Good, 102).  Closer home, Cameroonian scholar Bernard Nsokika Fonlon (cf. Genuine Intellectuals: Academic and Social Responsibilities of Universities, 2009) subscribes to Said’s worldview. Arguing along the same lines, celebrated Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe contends that one common feature of underdeveloped nations is the tendency among the ruling elite to live in a world of make-believe with regard to matters pertaining to patriotism. He remains adamant that "spurious patriotism is one of the hallmarks of Nigeria's privileged classes whose generally unearned positions of sudden power and wealth must seem unreal even to themselves"(35). Achebe's definition of a true ‘patriot’ is one "who will always demand the highest standards of his country and accept nothing but the best from his people. He will be outspoken in condemnation of their shortcomings without giving way to superiority, despair or cynicism." (35)


In the second quarter of the nineteenth century a Russian aristocrat named Peter Chaadayev was portrayed as insane by order of Czar Nicholas I for publicly describing his country as a backward nation caught up in a narrow and boastful nationalism. Chaadayev subsequently defended his patriotism—and the views which had incurred the Czar’s displeasure—in an essay entitled “Apology of a Madman” (1837). “Believe me,” he wrote in the concluding paragraph of the essay,

I cherish my country more than any of you… But it is also true that the patriotic feeling which animates me is not exactly the same as the one whose shouts have upset my quiet existence… I have not learned to love my country with my eyes closed, my head bowed, and my mouth shut. I think that one can be useful to one’s country only if one sees it clearly; I believe that the age of blind love has passed, and that nowadays one owes one’s country the truth. I confess that I do not feel that smug patriotism, that lazy patriotism, which manages to make everything beautiful, which falls asleep on its illusions and with which unfortunately many of our good souls are afflicted today (cited in Giffin and Smith, 1971, p.316)


In the essay that follows, I deplore what I regard as a growing tendency among Cameroonians to equate expression of dissent with lack of patriotism.  I insist that to criticize one’s country is in itself an act of patriotism. To criticize Cameroon is to do it a service and pay it a compliment. It is service because it may spur the country’s leaders to perform better than it is doing; it is a compliment because it evidences a belief that the country can do better. In a genuine democracy, dissent is an act of faith; it creates room for checks and balances. Like medication, the test of its efficacy does not reside in its taste but in its effects. The test of its value is not how it makes people feel at the moment, but how it inspires them to act together in the long term.  Criticism may embarrass the folks at the helm in Cameroon in the short run but it will strengthen their hands in the long run; it may destroy a consensus on policy while expressing a consensus of values. There lies the ambivalence of the term ‘patriotism.’ Woodrow Wilson once said that there was “such a thing as being too proud to fight;”[i] there is also, or ought to be, such a thing as being too confident to conform, too strong to be silent in the face of apparent error. In sum, criticism is more than a right; it is an act of patriotism, a higher form of patriotism that may elude the feeble-minded. Criticism connotes a higher degree of patriotism than the familiar rituals of national adulation.


I may shock some of my readers by insisting that it is not a pejorative term but a tribute to say that Cameroon is worthy of criticism. Nonetheless, if I am charged with lack of patriotism on account of my conviction, I would respond with words borrowed from Albert Camus: “No, I didn’t love my country, if pointing out what is unjust in what we love amounts to not loving, if insisting that what we love should measure up to the finest image we have of her amounts to not loving…”(1974).The root causes of Cameroon’s pitiful performance on the international scene are not a mystery to any keen observer of the political circus that the country has become— tribalism, corruption, impunity, myopia, mutual distrust, constitutional rape and blind allegiance to inept leaders. My question is not whether or not Cameroon can overcome all the fatalities associated with arrogance of incumbency. My concern is the modus operandi needed for this beautiful but misdirected country to get out of the quagmire.

I believe that Cameroon has all it takes to be a great nation; I also believe that it is falling short of its priced ideals—good governance, accountability to citizens, fair play and sustainable development. Gradually but unmistakably, we are succumbing to the epidemic of power abuse perpetrated by the Beti[ii] oligarchy in Yaoundé. In doing so Cameroon is not living up to her capacity and promises to its citizenry. The measure of the shortcomings of our leaders is the measure of the patriot’s duty of dissent. The intellectual has a critical role to play in blowing the whistle on the failings of our leaders. The role of the intellectual in enlightening the rank and file and setting records straight for posterity is crucial. In doing so, the genuine intellectual must strive to distinguish himself/herself from "okrika" or "kokobioko" intellectuals.[iii] In the work referenced above, Said examines the ever-changing role of the bona fide intellectual in the task of nation-building. He suggests a recasting of the intellectual's vision to resist the lures of power and money. Said concludes that it is the role of the intellectual to be the voice of integrity and courage, able to speak out against those in power.

The discharge of this vital duty is seriously handicapped by an unworthy tendency to fear serious criticism of our government. In the abstract we celebrate the freedom of expression that was won at a great price in the 1990s following the launch of John Fru Ndi’s Social Democratic Front (SDF) party.[iv] Prior to this era, intolerance of dissent had been a well noted feature of Cameroonian national character. Joseph Richard (1978) attributes this state of affairs to the reign of terror for which the Ahmadou Ahidjo regime was notorious. Cameroon lived with a hangover of this period until the Ntarikon watershed event.[v] Profound changes have occurred in the wake of the Ahidjo regime yet it remains to be proven whether or not the recognition of the right of dissent has gained substantially in practice as well as in theory. I believe that our school system can be indicted in this respect. It seems to me that our universities are churning out products that are lacking in rigorous independent thinking. Universities have a special obligation to train potential public servants in strategic thinking and equip them with the wherewithal to dissociate loyalty to an organization from blind allegiance to personality cult. It is an extremely important service for the universities to perform because the most valuable public servant, like the true patriot, is one who gives a higher loyalty to his country’s ideals than to its current policy and who, therefore, is willing to criticize as well as to comply.

In a nutshell, suffice it to say that we must nurse the germ of dissent that lies in gestation in all of us. We must come to terms with the fact that patriotism can be interpreted in two ways. If it is interpreted to mean unquestioning support of existing policies, its effects can only be pernicious and undemocratic, serving to accentuate differences rather than reconcile them. If, on the other hand, patriotism is understood to mean love for one’s country that pushes one to always demand the highest standards of one’s country, and to accept nothing but the best from one’s leaders, then and only then does it become a lasting basis of national strength. Or as Mark Twain would have it, “It were not best that we should all think alike; it is difference of opinion that makes horse-races” (Giffin and Smith, 320). Like Chaadayev, I do not believe in smug patriotism; I abhor that lazy patriotism which manages to make everything seem beautiful— patriotism that falls asleep on its illusions. I was raised to question authority and will continue to hold leaders of the country that I love the most—Cameroon—accountable. I have done so in A Nation at Risk: A Personal Narrative of the Cameroonian Crisis (2012) and will continue to do so until the powers-that-be in Cameroon regain their sanity.

About the author

Dr. Peter Wuteh Vakunta is a professor at the United States Department of Defense Language Institute in California, USA.



[i]  Cited in  Against the Grain, p.317)
[ii]  Ethnic group of the incumbent
[iii] Hollow intellectuals
[iv]The Social Democratic (SDF) Front is the main opposition party in Cameroon. It is led by Ni John Fru Ndi and receives significant support from the Anglophone regions of the country. The SDF was launched in Bamenda on May 26, 1990 in opposition to the ruling Cameroon People's Democratic Movement. Following the launching rally, six people were killed by security forces.
[v] This author has fictionalized this episode in his book of poems titled Ntarikon: Poetry for the downtrodden (2008).
Works cited
Achebe, Chinua. An Image of Africa and the Trouble with Nigeria. London: Penguin Books,
Camus, Albert. Resistance, Rebellion and Death (Translated from  the French by Justin
Obrien).New York: Vintage Books, 1974.
Chomsky, Noam. The Common Good. Tuscon: Odonian Press, 1996.
Giffin C. Frederick and Ronald D. Smith. Against the Grainst: An Anthology of Dissent, Past
and Present. New York: New American Library, 19701.
Joseph, Richard. Gaullist Africa: Cameroon under Ahmadou Ahidjo. Enugu: Fourth Dimension
 Publishers, 1978.
Said, W. Edward.  Representations of the Intellectual. New York: Pantheon Books, 1994.
Vakunta, W. Peter W. A Nation at Risk: A Personal Narrative of the Cameroonian Crisis.
            Bloomington: I-Universe, 2012.
_______________. Ntarikon: Poetry for the Downtrodden. Bloomington: AuthorHouse, 2008.