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The Cameroonian Diaspora and the Great Abandonment

Tuesday 15 July 2014

By Joseph M. Ndifor (Opinion Writer)

If you visit Bamenda or any major Cameroonian city on a weekday, chances are you might come across long queues of men and women waiting patiently in line to pick up remittances wired by relatives and friends living overseas. This infusion of remittances and other capital flows into Cameroon’s tottering economy in recent years ought to give Cameroonian nationals in the Diaspora some modest political capital and influence over vital issues like presidential and parliamentary elections in the country.

Considering that so much blame has been hurled at the opposition back home for its inability to wrestle power from this thirty-year-old regime, the raging question now is whether those Cameroonians living overseas have, throughout these years, taken full advantage of their economic power to make political dents in their ancestral land. It’s a question that should stare everyone in the face.

The most sought-after Cameroonians living overseas—partly for their host country’s global reach and power status—by those attempting to bring changes back home, are those Cameroonians that have made North America, particularly the United States, home. But how much leverage have these Cameroonians living in the United Stated exerted on Cameroon’s political landscape?

For generations, immigrants living in the United States have sought its power and prestige to shape and alter political changes in the countries that they left behind. The Czechs of Pennsylvania, for example, actually wrote the first Constitution of the free Czech Republic in 1919. And sixty four years ago in 1948, the American Jews, during Harry Truman’s administration, sought and won Israel’s independence. An argument may be raised that the economic clout of immigrants from these countries on American domestic issues easily gives them considerable political favors. But apart from Haiti’s proximity to the U.S shores, how much more economic clout do Haitian immigrants in the United States have than Cameroonians, when the plots to help depose their country’s brutal military junta in 1994, and the monist Aristide government in 2004, were all hatched in the U.S?

As evidence that some within the Cameroonian Diaspora think they can duck home politics for economic power, Cameroon currently bristles with Non-Governmental Organizations—a staggering number of them set up by those who live overseas—whose altruistic motives are often to help ameliorate those harsh economic conditions of average Cameroonians. However, unless these NGOs are willing to take on vital political changes head-on—insisting on free and fair elections, for example, having term limits for politicians, setting up an impartial and functioning judiciary, and fighting rampant corruption—their efforts to empower Cameroonians economically would be doomed.

Think of it this way: How “sustainable”—an often-cited reason for empowering Cameroonians through this means—is a local clinic in a village (for example), when officials of such a clinic are all too often willing to pilfer, and illegally sell medicines and paraphernalia meant for the clinic? What this means is that for sustainable development to be effective, the ethics of good governance—frowning on corruption, tribalism, nepotism, bribery, etc. —must be front and center in their agenda.

There was a time too when immigrants, particularly students, living in countries like the U.S. and U.K., used their presence on these foreign soils as launching pads or incubators for far-reaching political changes in their homelands. (Think of these men: Kwame Nkrumah, Obafemi Awololo, and Hastings Banda, whose crusades against British rule in their countries, even before they returned home from overseas, all began while they were students in the U.S. and England, respectively.) We might as well literally ignore that “independence” was ever obtained in Cameroon, and once again use the same means that these individuals skillfully used while overseas, but this time against our brethren back home.

But those political stirrings among Cameroonian students (CAMSA) in the U.S. that began in the 90s have somewhat ebbed in recent years. The association’s “compassionate” approach—it’s not uncommon for a CAMSA-USA president, while visiting Cameroon, to show up around local schools and hospitals with donated gifts— to what ails Cameroon, while commendable, often avoids the labyrinthine networks that are necessary in the United States for long term changes back home. I’ve pivoted back to this issue of political and economic power following a previous write-up about it, because a number of Cameroonians, living overseas in recent years, have become Pollyannaish, holding onto to this belief that if only Cameroonians are empowered economically—even with the current political setup—everything would be fine and dandy. But consider this conversation about these two issues—economic and political power—between two Jews in Peter’s Beinart’s, The Crisis of Zionism:

KATZ: ….My father was a rich man in Poland, and he says, “Economic power is good. You have to have money, but if you just have economic power and don’t have political power….”

STEINER: You’ve got nothing.

KATZ: You’ve got nothing.

STEINER: If we had AIPAC [The American Israel Public Affairs Committee that was founded in 1951] in the ’30 and 40’s, we would have saved Jews. We would have political power. But Jews were afraid to open their mouth. They didn’t know how.

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