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)]
Ayafor, Isaiah, Munang. “Official Bilingualism in Cameroon: Instrumental of
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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