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Time to Think About 2018

26 September 2017 No Comment

By Benjamin Et-Nchenge

There was something about the last presidential election in the US that is oddly reminiscent of Cameroon’s 2013 presidential polls. Many Americans, Democrats and Republicans alike, couldn’t quite fathom how the country’s two main parties ended up with candidates with such significant ethical or mental deficits and who inspired little popular enthusiasm. After eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency, one that restored gravitas, dignity, a humane touch and intelligence to the White House, there was a certain anxiety that the next president will be something of a letdown.
I remember feeling profoundly bewildered about the two candidates advertised as Cameroon’s main presidential choices in 2013.
Whatever the cause—whether he had a feeble political spine or the political opposition sabotaged him at every turn— Ni John Fru Ndi failed to rise to the challenge of leadership. He left the impression of a malleable man, too fickle for the wolves that were his coterie and cohorts, easy to manipulate by some of the sinister men and women he trusted for advice.
Some of us warned of the dire prospects of handing Cameroon to a man quick to appropriate the rhetoric and mantle of “change,” but slow—if not reluctant—to offer even the merest outline of his vision of change. Above all, the CPDM never persuaded me of their difference (in terms of principles and policies) from Ni John Fru Ndi’s SDF. And Candidate Paul Biya of the CPDM struck meas a dud-always-in-waiting. The man seemed entirely to belong to a different time, a long vanished analog moment. Cameroon stood in need of a man able to combine deep intellectual insights with sharp political instincts. It needed somebody with the mental acumen and physical stamina to broadly envision its transformation—and the path towards it. I had no doubt that Mr. Biya was not that man.
We did just that. Disdaining the imperious SDF, ignoring every other party in the race, Cameroonians allegedly cleaved to Biya and the CPDM, the candidate and the party whose mantra was “change.” It didn’t matter that they hardly defined what change meant. Having put Cameroon and its affairs in their hands, Cameroonians returned to the business of daydreaming that God would take up the task of solving the problems we work hard, individually and collectively, to create.
Several years into his administration, it is clear that President Biya is overwhelmed. He has said as much, in oblique as well as direct terms. Many in his bandwagon have joined the chorus in proposing that some forces inimical to Cameroon’s interests have hijacked the current administration.
The immediate crisis facing the Biya administration is a severe shortage of cash and containing the ongoing Anglophone crisis. For decades, a parade of Cameroon’s visionless leaders frittered away their country’s oil earnings. Sometimes they just stole the funds. When they invested the earnings at all, it was on gigantic projects that had little connection to the vital interests and lives of the Cameroonian people. Cameroon has never had a leader who remotely resembles the late great Singaporean Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew. Mr. Yew had his negative side, inclusive a notorious impatience with critics, but he envisioned his city-state as a first-tier economy—and worked assiduously to steer Singapore towards that lofty dream.
Mr. Biya and others in his train have little at their disposal. Yet, this impecunious circumstance is not the sole reason for the current disaster in Cameroon at every level of governance. Those who run Cameroon, the president included, have found in the dwindling oil revenues a perfect excuse for their failure. But I’d suggest that, even if they were to get a sudden infusion of cash, they would remain steeped in mediocrity.
Cash is important for running any social community, but leadership is far more critical. And leadership has to do, above all, with vision and imagination. For a man who sought to lead Cameroon as compulsively as Mr. Biya did, it is astonishing that he has no bold blueprint. He does not appear to realize that Cameroon’s educational sector needs to be revamped, and that the country needs something called a healthcare plan. And he has no plan in place for addressing Cameroon’s colossal unemployment crisis either. For that matter, his approach to fighting corruption is shockingly ad hoc and jaded, hardly more effectual than what passed for anti-corruption efforts undersame leadership in the years past.
A senior militant of the CPDM once insinuated that she might not support her National Chairman to run for reelection in 2018. Her statement got me thinking: it is about time Cameroonians began to think about creating a coalition of progressive, enlightened and visionary citizens to seek political power at every level and undertake the task both of founding their country and realizing its potential. It would be a tragedy to wait until 2018 and, throwing up hands in despair, declare again that we must cast our lots either with the SDF, despite its long history of failure, or the CPDM, which is just as bereft of ideas.
Talking of visionary leadership, I am rather fond of recalling a TV program in which Steve Kroft, a correspondent on “60 Minutes,” an American news program, interviewed Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum of Dubai. The correspondent began by asking what the sheik was trying to do. The sheik’s response was instructive in its clarity: “I want [Dubai] to be Number One—not in the region, but in the world.” Next, the reporter asked, “What do you mean by Number One?” The sheikh had a ready response: “In everything: higher education, health, housing, just [giving] my people the highest way of living.”
The journalist then remarked to the sheikh might have chosen to transform his kingdom within the longer span of a generation, not at the hurried, sweeping pace of a few years. Eyes sharpened, Dubai’s ruler came back: “I want my people to live [a] better life now, to go to the highest schools now, to get good healthcare now—not after twenty years.”
“60 Minutes” showed that the sheikh had carefully chosen young, soundly educated people to supervise critical areas of his transformation agenda. Apart from their youth, these aides were also seized by a palpable dynamism and can-do spirit.

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