Dissent as a Higher Form of Patriotism: Reflections
Peter Wuteh Vakunta, Ph.D
Many of us who pontificate about the dissonance between dissent and patriotism remain oblivious to the fact that these are actually very loaded terms. It is a slippery route to walk when we obstinately cling to the antiquated idea that any intellectual or scholar who takes his/her country to task is ipso facto placing himself/herself in the camp of the unpatriotic. One of the most celebrated intellectuals of our time, Edward Said, argues in his seminal book Representations of the Intellectual (1994) that “One of the shabbiest of all intellectual gambits is to pontificate about abuses in someone else’s society and to excuse exactly the same practices in one’s own” (cited in Chomsky, The Common Good, 102). Closer home, Cameroonian scholar Bernard Nsokika Fonlon (cf. Genuine Intellectuals: Academic and Social Responsibilities of Universities, 2009) subscribes to Said’s worldview. Arguing along the same lines, celebrated Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe contends that one common feature of underdeveloped nations is the tendency among the ruling elite to live in a world of make-believe with regard to matters pertaining to patriotism. He remains adamant that "spurious patriotism is one of the hallmarks of Nigeria's privileged classes whose generally unearned positions of sudden power and wealth must seem unreal even to themselves"(35). Achebe's definition of a true ‘patriot’ is one "who will always demand the highest standards of his country and accept nothing but the best from his people. He will be outspoken in condemnation of their shortcomings without giving way to superiority, despair or cynicism." (35)
In the second quarter of the nineteenth century a Russian aristocrat named Peter Chaadayev was portrayed as insane by order of Czar Nicholas I for publicly describing his country as a backward nation caught up in a narrow and boastful nationalism. Chaadayev subsequently defended his patriotism—and the views which had incurred the Czar’s displeasure—in an essay entitled “Apology of a Madman” (1837). “Believe me,” he wrote in the concluding paragraph of the essay, I cherish my country more than any of you… But it is also true that the patriotic feeling which animates me is not exactly the same as the one whose shouts have upset my quiet existence… I have not learned to love my country with my eyes closed, my head bowed, and my mouth shut. I think that one can be useful to one’s country only if one sees it clearly; I believe that the age of blind love has passed, and that nowadays one owes one’s country the truth. I confess that I do not feel that smug patriotism, that lazy patriotism, which manages to make everything beautiful, which falls asleep on its illusions and with which unfortunately many of our good souls are afflicted today (cited in Giffin and Smith, 1971, p.316)
In the essay that follows, I deplore what I regard as a growing tendency among Cameroonians to equate expression of dissent with lack of patriotism. I insist that to criticize one’s country is in itself an act of patriotism. To criticize Cameroon is to do it a service and pay it a compliment. It is service because it may spur the country’s leaders to perform better than it is doing; it is a compliment because it evidences a belief that the country can do better. In a genuine democracy, dissent is an act of faith; it creates room for checks and balances. Like medication, the test of its efficacy does not reside in its taste but in its effects. The test of its value is not how it makes people feel at the moment, but how it inspires them to act together in the long term. Criticism may embarrass the folks at the helm in Cameroon in the short run but it will strengthen their hands in the long run; it may destroy a consensus on policy while expressing a consensus of values. There lies the ambivalence of the term ‘patriotism.’ Woodrow Wilson once said that there was “such a thing as being too proud to fight;” there is also, or ought to be, such a thing as being too confident to conform, too strong to be silent in the face of apparent error. In sum, criticism is more than a right; it is an act of patriotism, a higher form of patriotism that may elude the feeble-minded. Criticism connotes a higher degree of patriotism than the familiar rituals of national adulation.
I may shock some of my readers by insisting that it is not a pejorative term but a tribute to say that Cameroon is worthy of criticism. Nonetheless, if I am charged with lack of patriotism on account of my conviction, I would respond with words borrowed from Albert Camus: “No, I didn’t love my country, if pointing out what is unjust in what we love amounts to not loving, if insisting that what we love should measure up to the finest image we have of her amounts to not loving…”(1974).The root causes of Cameroon’s pitiful performance on the international scene are not a mystery to any keen observer of the political circus that the country has become— tribalism, corruption, impunity, myopia, mutual distrust, constitutional rape and blind allegiance to inept leaders. My question is not whether or not Cameroon can overcome all the fatalities associated with arrogance of incumbency. My concern is the modus operandi needed for this beautiful but misdirected country to get out of the quagmire. I believe that Cameroon has all it takes to be a great nation; I also believe that it is falling short of its priced ideals—good governance, accountability to citizens, fair play and sustainable development. Gradually but unmistakably, we are succumbing to the epidemic of power abuse perpetrated by the Beti oligarchy in Yaoundé. In doing so Cameroon is not living up to her capacity and promises to its citizenry. The measure of the shortcomings of our leaders is the measure of the patriot’s duty of dissent. The intellectual has a critical role to play in blowing the whistle on the failings of our leaders. The role of the intellectual in enlightening the rank and file and setting records straight for posterity is crucial. In doing so, the genuine intellectual must strive to distinguish himself/herself from "okrika" or "kokobioko" intellectuals. In the work referenced above, Said examines the ever-changing role of the bona fide intellectual in the task of nation-building. He suggests a recasting of the intellectual's vision to resist the lures of power and money. Said concludes that it is the role of the intellectual to be the voice of integrity and courage, able to speak out against those in power.
The discharge of this vital duty is seriously handicapped by an unworthy tendency to fear serious criticism of our government. In the abstract we celebrate the freedom of expression that was won at a great price in the 1990s following the launch of John Fru Ndi’s Social Democratic Front (SDF) party. Prior to this era, intolerance of dissent had been a well noted feature of Cameroonian national character. Joseph Richard (1978) attributes this state of affairs to the reign of terror for which the Ahmadou Ahidjo regime was notorious. Cameroon lived with a hangover of this period until the Ntarikon watershed event. Profound changes have occurred in the wake of the Ahidjo regime yet it remains to be proven whether or not the recognition of the right of dissent has gained substantially in practice as well as in theory. I believe that our school system can be indicted in this respect. It seems to me that our universities are churning out products that are lacking in rigorous independent thinking. Universities have a special obligation to train potential public servants in strategic thinking and equip them with the wherewithal to dissociate loyalty to an organization from blind allegiance to personality cult. It is an extremely important service for the universities to perform because the most valuable public servant, like the true patriot, is one who gives a higher loyalty to his country’s ideals than to its current policy and who, therefore, is willing to criticize as well as to comply.
In a nutshell, suffice it to say that we must nurse the germ of dissent that lies in gestation in all of us. We must come to terms with the fact that patriotism can be interpreted in two ways. If it is interpreted to mean unquestioning support of existing policies, its effects can only be pernicious and undemocratic, serving to accentuate differences rather than reconcile them. If, on the other hand, patriotism is understood to mean love for one’s country that pushes one to always demand the highest standards of one’s country, and to accept nothing but the best from one’s leaders, then and only then does it become a lasting basis of national strength. Or as Mark Twain would have it, “It were not best that we should all think alike; it is difference of opinion that makes horse-races” (Giffin and Smith, 320). Like Chaadayev, I do not believe in smug patriotism; I abhor that lazy patriotism which manages to make everything seem beautiful— patriotism that falls asleep on its illusions. I was raised to question authority and will continue to hold leaders of the country that I love the most—Cameroon—accountable. I have done so in A Nation at Risk: A Personal Narrative of the Cameroonian Crisis (2012) and will continue to do so until the powers-that-be in Cameroon regain their sanity.
About the author
Dr. Peter Wuteh Vakunta is a professor at the United States Department of Defense Language Institute in California, USA.
Cited in Against the Grain, p.317)
Ethnic group of the incumbent
The Social Democratic (SDF) Front is the main opposition party in Cameroon. It is led by Ni John Fru Ndi and receives significant support from the Anglophone regions of the country. The SDF was launched in Bamenda on May 26, 1990 in opposition to the ruling Cameroon People's Democratic Movement. Following the launching rally, six people were killed by security forces.
This author has fictionalized this episode in his book of poems titled Ntarikon: Poetry for the downtrodden (2008).
Achebe, Chinua. An Image of Africa and the Trouble with Nigeria. London: Penguin Books, 1983.
Camus, Albert. Resistance, Rebellion and Death (Translated from the French by Justin Obrien).New York: Vintage Books, 1974.
Chomsky, Noam. The Common Good. Tuscon: Odonian Press, 1996.
Giffin C. Frederick and Ronald D. Smith. Against the Grainst: An Anthology of Dissent, Past and Present. New York: New American Library, 19701.
Joseph, Richard. Gaullist Africa: Cameroon under Ahmadou Ahidjo. Enugu: Fourth Dimension Publishers, 1978.
Said, W. Edward. Representations of the Intellectual. New York: Pantheon Books, 1994.
Vakunta, W. Peter W. A Nation at Risk: A Personal Narrative of the Cameroonian Crisis.Bloomington: I-Universe, 2012.
___. Ntarikon: Poetry for the Downtrodden. Bloomington: AuthorHouse, 2008.