Academic journal article Africa

Elite Associations and the Politics of Belonging in Cameroon

Academic journal article Africa

Elite Associations and the Politics of Belonging in Cameroon

Article excerpt

Anthropologists of the Manchester school are generally credited with first recognising the complexity of the family and kinship ties that bind urban migrants to their regions of origin in Africa (Gluckman, 1940; Mitchell, 1969). Gluckman distanced himself from the structural-functional paradigm of conservative `tribalism' surviving in a modernising town setting by stressing that, whatever their origins, `traditional' urban ethnicities in southern Africa were organised as associations for immediate self-help in town rather than as extensions of rural ethnic politics. The direction of the urban-rural divide was reversed, so that ethnic identities were recognised as a cultural fact of town life and not as some remnant of tradition left from staying in touch with the village. In West Africa, it has been argued, ethnic ties uniting those in town with kin and affines in regions of origin have exerted a more positive feedback effect to both reinforce and transform traditional identities in the village (e.g. Gugler, 1971). Inventing `tradition' in the village as a means of taking advantage of the political driving force emanating from the town has become a recognised feature of urban post-colonial history in West Africa.

In order to understand different processes of urban/regional ethnic identification, we shall compare the role of elite associations in two regions of Cameroon; one in the Grassfields, characterised by `chiefly' titles and `chiefdoms', the other on the coast (South Western Province), distinguished by more diffuse, acephalous polities. We argue that the influence elites exert in their home regions depends on the respect they acquire in local politics for their knowledge of and influence over external affairs. The central point is that the extent to which urban elites will play a significant role in defining a regional identity for their home area depends on the resources they bring with them and the incentives that encourage them to mobilise local political support. To some extent this depends on the number of educated, literate adults that exist to represent a particular rural population as well as their willingness to remain identified with local interests. Encouraging the young to gain an education and go abroad, yet not to forget their debt to those who supported them at home in the village, is one of the benchmarks for measuring regional progress and development in Cameroon.

During the era of President Ahidjo, in the 1960s and 1970s, there was much less reason for elites to remain attached to their `village'. The pursuit of regional ethnic loyalties was inimical to the authoritarian interests of a centralised administration with which elites were encouraged to identify as their source of patronage. How people of influence in the `village' managed to keep control of their upwardly mobile elites at that time has been a much discussed subject (e.g. Geschiere, 1982). Witchcraft and the need for protection against the malice of envious people left behind in the village were widely recognised as a fear that secretly bound urbanites to their homelands (cf. Geschiere, 1997; Fisiy and Geschiere, 1996). Others attached importance to the village as `home' or `place', where it would be unthinkable not to be buried. The push and pull between the dependence of elites on the central government and their attachment to place produced an ambivalence that expressed itself often on the front pages of newspapers.

Since 1989 such ambivalence has been accentuated in Cameroon by the impact of democratisation and liberalisation policies encouraged by political conditionalities attached to structural adjustment. A major consequence of multi-partyism and the weakening of authoritarian control has been the attempt by the ruling party to maintain local support at all costs, principally through appropriating the support of elite associations and their representatives. With the current impasse in multi-party politics encouraging devolved regionalist politics, elite associations now play an unprecedented role in mediating between people who have grown used to the idea of elections and having a vote. …

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