Fragility and the Crisis of “Vivre Ensemble” in the Anglophone Regions of Cameroon

By Cyprian Fisiy, President & CEO of the Fisiy Foundation and Leadership Center

Featured Photo: Kibunfon, Royal Recognition. Credit to Cyprian Fisiy

Cameroon often prides itself on being Africa in miniature, covering all the ecological zones and home to over 260 languages and ethnic groups. It displays an intricate overlay of ethnicities, languages, religious beliefs, and constant population migrations, and now parts of the country are in a state of violent conflict. This remarkable heterogeneity can be a reservoir of creative talent if properly harnessed or a harbinger of political fragmentation and economic paralysis, and social exclusion. Given the weak governance context of the country without any viable bottom-up accountability mechanism, the underlying social contract holding the country together is fraying at the seams. The government is currently teetering on the brink of fragility, with conflicts in the Extreme North (Boko Haram), the secessionist crisis in the two Anglophone regions of the North-West & South-West, and the overflow of the refugees and insecurity at the border with Central African Republic CAR). The ongoing violent crisis in the two Anglophone regions strikes at the very foundation of the state itself by questioning the very nature of the social contract binding the various groups and their geographies into a coherent body politic. Is Cameroon becoming a fragile state?

In a search for the answer to this question, we need to address the French concept of “Vivre ensemble” or living together. How do we develop a common language of interaction required for the pursuit of shared goals? Rather than focus on an analysis of the root causes of the Anglophone crisis, this blog aims to focus on notions of “being” and “belonging” underpinning the concept of “Vivre ensemble,” which is at the core of social interactions amongst the various communities in these two regions. I will use this concept to shine the spotlight on how to deal with “alterity” (otherness) with “empathy” in our standard search for viable communities.  The idea is particularly pertinent in multi-ethnic (with layered language and social orderings) and multi-religious societies. This quest for a shared platform for living together draws on the conceptual framework of the 2013 World Bank Report, which defines social inclusion “as the process of improving the terms of individuals and groups to take part in society.” This social inclusion process draws on the modes of engagement of citizens with markets, services, and social spaces in which they reside. The unit of analysis of this blog is how the individual establishes the bonds, linkages, and networks in the pursuit to be part of society. In essence, the basic social compact is among citizens and sets the ground rules for their co-existence as community members. Furthermore, the social contract establishes their bond with the state as part of the body politic. In this blog, I will not address the intra-societal issues of voice and recognition; a later blog will address these concepts.

Ryan Muldoon (2005) reminds us that “a social contract is an attempt to design a set of rules and assurances to further the goal of allowing individuals to successfully live together in society…We need a set of public rules…for social co-operation…it is a mutually advantageous agreement designed to facilitate social co-operation… [All] participants must be subject, not objects to the contract….Social contracts enable co-operation by means of providing a set of rights to citizens. Social contracts always embed sets of rights.” This emphasis on living together in a society governed by a set of rules highlights is at the center of the concept of “Vivre ensemble,” mainly when society establishes its core values of social solidarity, tolerance, justice, and individual responsibility. These shared values provide the glue that holds people from diverse ethnic, religious, and social orientation within a shared public sphere.

The current crisis in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon undermines well-established rules of co-existence among the various communities and ethnic groups living peacefully together. The prevailing uncertainty in social interactions is producing heated language undergirding exclusionary and confrontational ethnicity. Political and social entrepreneurs in these contested spaces rely on old notions of “autochthony,” highlighting the rights and privileges of “sons/daughters of the soil.” The later feel they belong and are entitled (geography is destiny) by dint of their birth rather than been driven by “capacity to aspire,” `a la Arjun Appadurai.  The emergence of exclusionary ethnicity, as a mode of discourse, will destroy the prevailing social fabric.  It highlights the “us versus them” dichotomy, especially in the context of dwindling job opportunities and the shrinking opportunities for self-realization. The situation is quite dire when over 60 percent of the population is below 35 years, a very youthful population that is rapidly urbanizing.  Discourses of exclusionary ethnicity provide the primary pathways for accessing markets, services, and social spaces.

First, at the level of markets, this rapid urbanization is unplanned and not supported by the essential infrastructure to sustain effective markets. It has given rise to a booming all-encompassing informal sector, an economy of mostly hustlers. It is within the fluidity of this informal sector that one finds the true expression of the notion of “Vivre Ensemble.” Without unduly romanticizing the idea, one also finds the hardships of lived reality without the essential public services, security, or opportunities to move out of poverty. The informality of these unplanned urban spaces keeps the economy down in a low equilibrium, with its fundamental tenets being ethnic solidarity, trust, and survival.

I could map out a direct correlation between the quest for survival in the rapidly growing informal sectors and the upsurge in the “God business” – privately run churches –  which dominates these emerging unplanned urban spaces. The pathways are apparent, citizens revert to their ethnic groupings for solidarity, or they vest their trust in their “God.” These prosperity-gospel churches endow their adherents with the “capacity to aspire.” This emergent new market in churches and the youth driving moto-cycle taxis is painting a new landscape of informality in business. Everything goes, especially when we take into account the dark and hidden economy of criminality.

Second, knowledge of service providers either through pathways of belonging or motivated by under the table transactions guarantee citizens access to public services. Public services have commodified without any assured access to the less privileged in society. Under these circumstances, we witness the privatization of the state and its public services. 

Third, given the shrinking arena for access to state power and privilege, citizens fall back to their social spaces, defined by ethnicity and belonging, to exercise their voice. This space is where the predominant call for autochthony rinds loud, articulating the rules of engagement. Local political entrepreneurs use the divisive language of autochthony to consolidate their hold on power.

McCandless (2018), writing for the UNDP, reassured us that a resilient society is one that establishes a dynamic agreement between the state and its citizens, including different groups in society, on how to live together (Vivre ensemble), how power is exercised and how resources are distributed. It allows for the peaceful mediation of conflicting interests and different expectations and understandings of rights and responsibilities over time, in response to contextual factors (including shocks, stressors, and threats) through varied mechanisms, institutions, and processes. These are the hallmarks of an effective state, which undergirds resilient societies and communities, what we all crave for in Cameroon today. The emergent fragility of the state accompanied by exclusionary impulses at the community level eventually lead to the unraveling of the social fabric. Deficits of trust compromise the institutional foundations of local development and lack of accountability as citizens rely on exclusive networks of belonging to pursue their goals. The prevailing lack of faith and a shared language of interaction in multi-ethnic communities strike at the very core of the social fabric, tearing communities apart and disrupting their ability to live together. Violent conflict is the very antithesis of social inclusion, for it creates the risk of anomie!