Like apartheid in South Africa before 1994, or slavery in the United States before 1865, Cameroon's Supreme Court has —in the aftermath of last April's senatorial election (and for the umpteenth time)—conspired with the current administration to institutionalize fraud and deception as weapons for its own survival. Not surprising, many Cameroonians, some of whom have been fed this caper over the years, now wrongly believe that there might be a patina of legitimacy associated with the Biya government.
But the SDF, Cameroon’s main opposition party, vanquished, even in its stronghold of Mezam Division during the senate election, now returns to Yaounde without a single representative from the North West province. Its grab of a few seats in the Adamawa and the Western provinces— attributed, some have alleged, to some nefarious arrangement on the part of the CPDM— however lends it some credibility to gingerly dispel in the minds of some Cameroonians the notion that it’s a party made up of some loonies in the grass fields of Bamenda, bent on ingloriously driving President Paul Biya out of power.
The SDF, however, is in a deep crisis over what has been simmering for years: how to get rid of John Fru Ndi who’s been that party’s chairman since its inception in 1990. There have mounting calls, even from some diehard supporters, that it’s high time for Fru Ndi to leave. Of course, were one to ask a number of Cameroonians, if Fru Ndi should step down as that party’s chairman, the overwhelmingly response would be yes. But such a response would differ if the question is whether Fru Ndi should leave, because he’s headed a political party that has not sailed to victory in Cameroonian elections marred by fraud and deception, both perpetuated by the CPDM.
For the record, I have, in the past, been critical of the SDF. However, what those calling for Fru Ndi’s ignominious exit at this moment have failed to decipher is this: as long as President Paul Biya indulges in these machinations to stay in power, as long as Cameroonians watch octogenarians carrying placards, emblazoned with praises for a man who has been in power since 1982, and as long the judiciary cannot subject Biya to the same laws—as it’s rightfully done to those who today are behind bars for graft— then Fru Ndi would, in the eyes of rational Cameroonians, still be looked upon as a victim of a cruel and unjust system, and not a chairman who brought doom and destruction onto the SDF.
What perhaps even eludes Fru Ndi, like many others at this time, is that his survival as that party’s chairman no longer hinge on whether he could deliver to Cameroonians what they have been yearning for. Rather, his longevity as that party’s head over these years stems from what he’s come to symbolize to a cross section of Cameroonians: a bookseller who rose up to challenge an unjust regime at a time when no one dared to. It’s an image that his diehard supporters won’t let go, so far as he is alive and well.
But now completely wizened after fighting pitch battles with the Biya regime without any concrete results, an honorable exit would require Fru Ndi to revamp the party’s image.
And how does he do this? First, I’ve often wondered why Fru Ndi was advised to occasionally leave his Ntarikon home —a place that while under house arrest there in 1992, turned out to be his badge of honor — to take up residence in Yaounde, a city that has tarnished his image with all sorts of accusations and humiliations. But that siege around his residence during the “ghost” town period, reminiscent of Beirut in 1982—when Israeli forces invaded Lebanon to snuff out PLO leader Yasir Arafat and his guerrilla fighters—propelled Fru Ndi into the Teflon Chairman that he became in later years.
Second, having an eloquent and forceful spokesperson would bode well for the party. There have been accusations— without any forceful response from the SDF —that it’s in cahoots with the CPDM. No political party survives a crisis without an eloquent spokesperson, and in the case of the SDF, it’s been a disaster watching Dr. Elizabeth Tamanjong, the party’s spokeswoman, sell its image to the public.
Think of it this way: would Zionism— the movement which led to the founding of the state of Israel in 1948— been possible without the oratory skills of Theodor Herzl, its founder? Or would the scourge of slavery been swept off the American map without an orator like Abraham Lincoln? (“Although volume upon volume is written to prove that slavery is a good thing,” Lincoln brilliantly argued during the Lincoln-Douglas debates, “We never hear the man who wishes to take a good of it, by being a slave himself.”)
What the SDF should be aware of is that “universal truth”, as the CPDM now purports to convince Cameroonians about the Biya regime, resides in the ability of words and narratives to generate concurrence with the public. We find this phenomenon right across Nigeria where— once installed as Nigerian president—Jonathan Goodluck used the skills of Reuben Abati (a former editor of a renowned Nigerian newspaper), who, so far, has effectively fended off charges of cronyism within his administration.
Yes, vilifying the SDF has become the national pastime, and rushing to its defense in any forum today is considered blasphemy, but the SDF should mount some of its defense shields against these scurrilous charges, one of which is: Why is disproportionate blame being heaped on it and its chairman when they don’t even run the affairs of a country that has been mismanaged for more than half a century?