Interviewed by Jude Abanseka
The North West and South West Regions are being rocked by growing conflicts between traditional rulers and their subjects over the disrespect of traditional procedures and political influence peddling, to name just these two. To better understand the growing discord between traditional rulers and their subjects, L’Effort Camerounais caught up with Prof. Paul Nchoji Nkwi of the Catholic University of Cameroon, CATUC, Bamenda, who explains the situation. Excerpts:
Traditional rulers are people who provide leadership to people who share a common language and culture. They are the gatekeepers of the people’s cultures and traditions. If people understand and give them the moral support they need and the traditional rulers recognise that they are just the gatekeepers and the people’s representative and they need to listen to them, this will significantly reduce conflict.
Conflict usually emerges when two parties fail to understand their complementary role; when the people and their ruler fail to understand that for their culture to survive, they have to play complementary roles, conflict is bound to emerge. In the past, the palace was a centre of accumulation and distribution, but this is not the case today. For example, if the houses in the palace were built by people of the different villages. Today the palace has been virtually abandoned to the Fon. He cannot command them to do the things they would have done fifty (50) or a hundred (100) years ago. Therefore, palaces are no longer centres of accumulation and distribution and the Fon just sits there and expects that his people will visit him and “wash the palace”. How many people do effectively engage in this? Today, traditional rulers’ sources of revenue and moral authority over their people have significantly diminished.
How would you react to the assertion that these traditional rulers are selfish and are now more preoccupied with self-aggrandisement instead of playing the natural role of custodians of culture and leaders of traditional religions?
I do not think it is an issue of self-aggrandisement. Do not forget that Fons have found themselves isolated in a world that is constantly changing and they have to look for alternative strategies and mechanisms of survival. As I said earlier, palaces are no more centres of distribution and may have probably become centres of influence. In this case traditional rulers who are smart enough to join modern politics are making the best of it to survive and we pity them. Sometimes we complain that they have become involved in politics to the detriment of the rule of neutrality. They have to engage in modern politics to attract scarce resources. They are playing hard politics as the times, moods of accumulations, attitudes and traditional institutions are changing. The power that traditional rulers had has significantly diminished. This explains why some have become parliamentarians, others senators and others are doing everything to have good rapport with the State and the government to survive.
Do you not think culture is gradually losing its value and the dignity of traditional rulers especially North West Fons as we saw them queue up to shake hands with the Head of State and his wife during their last visit to Bamenda?
Let us not forget the most recent cases in the Bafut and Mankon palaces. The Minister of Culture walks into the Mankon Palace and is greeted by the Fon with the hand and an embrace. He walks into the Bafut Palace after that encounter probably expecting a similar show, but the Fon of Bafut steps aside and insists that it is not within his culture to greet the minister with a hand shake. I think the protection of our culture depends on the magnanimity of the rulers themselves who understand that culture and who are supposed to keep a distance rather than watering it down. They have to ask themselves why the Fon is not allowed to extend his hands to anybody who is not a Fon. If they want to demystify that by shaking hands with everybody, then fine. They are actually watering down their status and dignity because these are respectful behavioural patterns that enhance the status and importance of traditional rulers. Therefore, traditional rulers have a duty to protect their cultures. If they cannot protect it, how can they expect ordinary people to do so? For example, during the “Ngonso” festival, which is the supremacy of the exercise of Nso culture, everybody appeared in traditional attire, and the Fon walked in as if he was an Alhadji from Saudi Arabia. I do not know what people thought of it, but he may either have been introducing a new element into the Nso culture or he was simply saying that his culture is inferior. Every year that the Nso people come together to celebrate their culture, everybody must be seen as respecting the tradition, culture and norms of Nso people. So if the Fon behaves otherwise, what more of the ordinary person.
What is your take on the buying and selling of traditional titles to the highest bidder?
The attribution of titles is not a new thing. We had our own title system. My earlier statement that the palace was a centre of accumulation and distribution was actually referring to the distribution of resources, titles and other things. This is one way the Fons used to survive by giving more importance to titles and encouraging the elite to take them because you are not given a title for nothing. That was and is a very good strategy. For example, in Nso nobody carries the title, “Fai wo Bastos”. This title can only be used in Yaoundé and never in Nso. Despite this fact, the title holder is comfortable with it because in Bastos he is a ‘Fai’ even though in Nso he is a “Shey”. The title holder does not find any problem with this. He is proud that he shares this title with his kinsmen in the village who are classified as “Fai”. Some titles need to be revised, revisited and probably further enhanced. Indeed, every modern state attributes titles. In Cameroon, the award of medals; is one form of giving titles. I stand with the traditional rulers who are reviving the title system of their chiefdoms and making the best of it for the interest of their people. ---
By selling them?
Not necessarily. Certainly the title systems in any chiefdom of the North West is one way of generating resources for the royal household and cannot be considered simply as a commercial transaction. When our compatriots are given medals by the Cameroon state, they are given on their request and they usually pay a certain fee to be given a certificate of recognition.
Fons and chiefs are now obliged to use traditional offices to promote and defend the ruling party’s interests. What should be the stance of traditional rulers with regards to this kind of politics?
Traditional rulers should be neutral! This does not mean they cannot vote in conscience for the party of their choice. Once their neutrality is jeopardised by their affiliation to a given party it can be counterproductive. Traditional rulers should stay neutral because their people belong to different political parties. A traditional ruler does not necessarily have to openly show himself as a member of a political party, but he can vote in conscience for the party of his choice. However, because the Fons lack solid financial resources to live decently, they are obliged to openly associate with the party in power and this probably opens up additional resource opportunities.
Considering the recent attempted traditional coup d’etat in Bangolang village; does culture or tradition allow subjects to usurp traditional authority?
I do not think it is a question of usurpation. You need to understand what tradition prescribes when a Fon blatantly disregards basic rules and regulations of his tradition. There are specific traditional procedures to deal with unruly Fons or those who have disobeyed basic traditional norms. You might have heard about the “Kwifon” which is probably the supreme body in a chiefdom and even higher than the Fon. In most North West chiefdoms if the Fon violates traditional norms he can be brought to book. There are two mechanisms: withdraw or withhold services given to him or isolate him until he comes begging. The second mechanism is to physically remove him and declare that he is missing. That used to happen in the past, and maybe with the modern law, most traditional kingmakers today and the “kwifon” cannot do what they used to do many years ago. But Fons could be removed or forced to retract counterproductive behaviours.
You sound as though what happened in Bangolang is out of the norm.
Many people may say that it is out of the norm and I am sure that many people thought that way, too. They have forgotten that they are living in a different era and that times have changed. Kingmakers or kwifon must realise times have changed. It is difficult for them to ask the Fon to step aside for disobeying or violating the rules of the land especially when such a fon is politically connected. But Fon Chafah was a magistrate and is backed by a modern state. But the people who consider him as having violated the rule probably acted as the tradition prescribes. They only forgot that they were acting in a different era where different forces exist. Fon Chafah simply walked back to his palace with the protection of the modern state.
Is there a possibility of restoring the culture and the dignity of traditional rulers as in those days?
It is not an issue of moving back to ancient times because culture is dynamic and every culture adapts to changing times. We should instead ask whether there are good practices in our traditions which can be maintained and used today. We should examine them and our culture should adapt to the changing times because any culture that does not adapt to changing times risks disappearing. Adapting the values of our customs to the changing times is a way forward. We have leadership and we are never going to get up one day and say Fons should no longer exist because the Divisional Officer is there, no! The Fon’s moral leadership is still a unifying factor among people in the North West Region. We cannot dismiss chieftaincy; not even the State can do that. That is why the State is trying to integrate it into the modern administration by describing traditional leaders as the auxiliaries of the administration. but they have not been able to consider the most powerful institutions like the Kwifon or the Nwerong or the Ngumba, which control the people’s lives.
A few months ago, the Senior Divisional Officer for Boyo was admitted to the Kwifon. The Fon actually proposed and made him a member with the intention that by becoming a Kwifon member and getting closer, he would understand the inner workings of that institution. So we need to adapt our cultures and traditions to the changing times.