Academic journal article Africa

Power and the Quest for Recognition: Neotraditional Titles among the New Elite in Nso', Cameroon

Academic journal article Africa

Power and the Quest for Recognition: Neotraditional Titles among the New Elite in Nso', Cameroon

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

The past decade has been a difficult one for most Cameroonians, and especially so for those living in the anglophone regions of the country. With a 50 per cent devaluation of the CFA franc in the early 1990s, and another rumoured to be on the horizon, people are apprehensive, angry and frightened. In anglophone Cameroon, especially in the North West Province, the primary discursive theme in the national narrative has become one of a separate existence. The narrative constructed here stresses a privileging of indigenous institutions in the cultural production of local identity rather than citizenship within la Republique du Cameroun. This narrative does not seek to isolate the region from the world but rather to bypass the state and articulate local projects with international arenas such as the United Nations, the Commonwealth, US liberal democracy and the World Cup. Chiefship, or rather fonship, has remained central in the discourse about power throughout the grassfields of western Cameroon. This emphasis on chiefship, titles, and palace societies reaches the height of its expression in Nso', the largest chiefdom in the anglophone grassfields, located some 70 km up the ring road to the north-east of Bamenda, the provincial capital.

In Nso'--whose capital, Kimbo, is known throughout the country as `Baghdad' because of its tough opposition politics--identity and power have increasingly come to be centred on the Fon, the palace and `traditional' institutions of government. Here `traditional' and `modern' or `inside' and `outside' have come to mean labile, shifting and sometimes elusive positions in a struggle for influence and success within the polity rather than signify historical stages of development.(1) Power and identity for Nso' people come from the ability to combine a variety of statuses, achievements and forms of wealth; however, to achieve true power and recognition, one must assume a local persona, which includes connections with the Fon and the palace.

This is as true for elites living outside the chiefdom as it is for those at home. Hence one sees a re-creation of Nso in the homes and social lives of Nso' elites in Bamenda, Yaounde, Douala and other urban centres. Living rooms are decorated with Nso' art, symbols and carvings; the Fon's picture is prominently displayed, and on the living room walls, of most Nso' expatriates hang a raffia bag and a sheathed cutlass, often covered with cowries, signifying membership in manjong, the warriors' society. Most urban dwellers belong to Nso' mfu or manjong houses whose officers or [a]mfoomis play a significant political role in these communities. In the world outside Nso' urban elites re-create Nso' culture and institutions: they belong to Nso' njangis, frequent Nso' bars and restaurants, live in Nso' `neighbourhoods', and most commonly their children's first language is Lamnso'. Nso' urban elites maintain an identity which is deeply rooted in their region of origin.

With few exceptions Nso' elites living `outside' seek and are granted titles in the Nso' palace societies. The emphasis on the acquisition of traditional--or neo-traditional(2)--titles cannot be explained in a functionalist way, but rather as the result of a number of historical and social processes intersecting at a historical moment within which the national centre provides neither meaning nor security to its citizens. The state has failed to construct a unified national collective consciousness, nor does it act as the site of a more broadly based cultural discourse. This accumulation of symbolic or cultural capital on the part of the new elites may appear as a simple and even self-interested act, but in fact such transactions embody multiple meanings which are rooted in pre-colonial Nso' traditions, its inventions and reinventions in the post-colonial state, and the exigencies of the national political economy. These meanings play off each other in a dialogic fashion(3) where the central or core meaning of Nso' titles combines status and self aggrandisement with the spatial construction of Nso' as the political (as well as social and cultural) centre. …

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