Through the Prism of a Local Tragedy: Political Liberalisation, Regionalism and Elite Struggles for Power in Cameroon

By Eyoh, Dickson | Africa, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

Through the Prism of a Local Tragedy: Political Liberalisation, Regionalism and Elite Struggles for Power in Cameroon


Eyoh, Dickson, Africa


The euphoria with which the emergence of pro-democracy movements in Africa in the early 1990s was greeted has waned. Many authoritarian regimes have proved adept at managing demands for political reform without conceding much power, while regimes which emerged from multi-party elections have quickly reverted to the authoritarian style of their predecessors. Nevertheless, political liberalisation generates pressure for readjustments of power relations at all societal levels, as it compels state managers to search for new ways to reassert control of local populations. For ruling elites, long accustomed to exercising power without a popular mandate, multi-partyism demands that they seek the support of ordinary citizens in their contest for power. The increasing resort to idioms of community (ethnic, regional and religious) and neo-traditional institutions by elites in current struggles for power is evidence of these pressures. Such means by which elites strive to defend their political interests facilitate the translation of national-level conflicts into local society and thereby provoke local populations into resisting state power, often through the reinvention of traditions of their own.

This article uses the circumstances of a local tragedy--the death of a chief who was accused of involvement in the witchcraft-related death of his driver in the South West Province of Cameroon--to analyse the response of a local community to the strident appeals to communal solidarity and the use of neotraditional institutions in elite rivalries for power, within the context of political liberalisation in Cameroon.(1) My curiosity about the incident was triggered by what seemed an extraordinary level of state interest in an unexceptional dispute over a village chieftaincy. Thus at the centre of this analysis is the South West Conference of Chiefs (SWCC), an organisation which was formed in 1990, when the incumbent regime succumbed to popular demands for multi-party politics, with the deceased chief as its inaugural secretary-general. The group of senior politicians, state bureaucrats and businessmen who founded and control the organisation are supporters of the ruling party, the Cameroon People's Democratic Movement (CPDM).(2) They claim the organisation is a vehicle for the defence of the collective interests of the South West Province and regard the elite of the North West (the other anglophone province and bastion of the leading opposition party, the Social Democratic Front) as the greatest threat to their political position.

The article is in two main parts. The first narrates the events which led to the chief's death. A brief biographical sketch of the chief and the contexts in which he exercised power frame the narrative in order to illuminate two related issues. First, the ways in which relations of kinship, community and class are interwoven in post-colonial structures of domination. Second, to what extent and how this complex of relations permits local populations to draw on indigenous systems of belief and practices to contest the legitimacy of state power and to resist efforts by elites to control local communities. In the second section, attention turns to the factors that underpin the regionalisation of political competition and, thus, accentuate the significance of this complex of relations as a mechanism for linking seemingly disconnected, local conflicts with elite struggles for power at the national level. A conclusion summarises the implications of the case study for a comparative analysis of politics in contemporary Africa.

THE MAKING OF A LOCAL TRAGEDY: KINSHIP, COMMUNITY, CLASS AND MORAL ECONOMY OF POWER IN A POST-COLONIAL STATE

The incident narrated here occurred in June 1994. It involved the death of the chief of Mbakwa Supe, located in Meme Division in the South West Province, from a physical assault while he was on a visit. As villages in Cameroon go, Mbakwa Supe is the most ordinary of places. …

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