Academic journal article Africa

The Politics of Personal Relations: Beyond Neopatrimonial Practices in Northern Cameroon

Academic journal article Africa

The Politics of Personal Relations: Beyond Neopatrimonial Practices in Northern Cameroon

Article excerpt


This article deals with political culture in northern Cameroon. By analysing two happenings--the arrival of a Minister in his home town and his speech to the traditional elites--it shows how neopatrimonial politics is practised in a given locality. Important aspects of neopatrimonialism--such as the personal distribution of public resources and the conflict between different moral obligations which results in illusory appearances--are described and analysed. Yet the complexity of symbols, behaviour and metaphors outlined in these two happenings suggests that we have to go beyond the neopatrimonial model of thinking if we want to gain a better understanding of politics in Cameroon.


Virtually all students of politics in Africa ... have misunderstood the nature of political legitimacy in African regimes ... [W]e have tended to underestimate the importance of political culture.

[Schatzberg, 1993: 445]

La presence de tous est vivement souhaitee! (1) For the last time, the local radio station in Ngaoundere invites everybody to go to the airport and receive their new Minister. Al Hajji Baba Hamadou from Ngaoundere had just been nominated Ministre charge de mission d la presidence de la Republique by President Paul Biya and is on his first visit to his home town, Ngaoundere, in northern Cameroon, after a few weeks in office. (2)

Previously the Ministres charge de mission a la presidence have been well educated young men personally related to the President (Flambeau Ngayap, 1983: 119-25). Al Hajji Baba Hamadou's appointment is consistent with this custom: he holds a Master's degree in history from Yaounde University and has long been a deputy for the Rassemblement democratique du peuple camerounais (RDPC). The position of Minister charge de mission serves as a springboard to greater power and prestige. Many well known Cameroonian Ministers and directors of national businesses started their political career as a young charge de mission, including President Paul Biya himself, nominated charge de mission at the age of twenty-nine under President Ahidjo (Flambeau Ngayap, 1983: 120). The duties of a charge de mission include responsibility for daily functions at the presidential palace, its personnel and its budget and arranging the President's domestic and international travels. The holder is thus very close to the President. To be one of the President's chums is a very privileged position and offers excellent security for personal well-being in a state often described as neopatrimonial.


The term 'neopatrimonial' derives from Max Weber's concept of patrimonial authority (1947/1979: 1013). To Weber patrimonial authority was a form of traditional authority characterised by personal rule acknowledged by tradition and personal loyalty. The ruler's personal preferences were more important than codified law, and the ruler treated the people under his authority as a patriarch treated his family. This implied that no distinction was drawn between the public and the private, and that policies were designed to benefit not the state at large but groups of people connected by personal ties with the ruler.

Since Jean-Francois Medard used the term to describe the Cameroonian state in 1977 it has been adopted by a number of scholars (e.g. Amundsen, 1997; Bratton and Van de Walle, 1997; Mehler, 1998). Basically, neopatrimonialism is understood as politics that stress the importance of personal political relations and in which political positions in the state are used as a means of accumulating economic capital through the personal distribution of public resources in a more or less hidden way. According to Medard, Cameroon is a neopatrimonial state because the pre-colonial and colonial systems of authority were never integrated and hence created complex postcolonial state structures (1977: 37). This non-integration has resulted in a state that is at the same time 'soft' and 'hard', soft by virtue of being profoundly corrupt and incompetent, and thus ineffective, and hard on account of the constitutional power accorded the President and because of his control over the administration and over society (Medard, 1977). …

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