Kangsen Feka Wakai traces personal lineage, and the often blurred and disputed spaces, spoken tongues and hybrid forms in which national identity is claimed, contested, co-opted and celebrated in the country of his birth.
The wrinkled folds that encircled my maternal grandfather’s eyes did not divulge much – they thickened when he smiled, but assumed a somewhat menacing quality when he sat expressionless, staring at nothing. He had seen a lot in his time; he had lived change and in one lifetime had been a citizen of many nations.
My grandfather, who had risen through the ranks of the plantation system to a clerical position, had seen villages turn into towns, and bridges built across rivers. He had seen forests give birth to plantations, and roads clearing paths in the middle of nowhere. He was a boy when his homeland was transitioning from a German Schutzgebiet into a League of Nations mandated territory under English and French administration.
His first child, my mother, was born two months after the League’s demise. She was born in a household outfitted with the kind of relics other natives could barely dream of: a generator that was hardly used, light switches, a bible, the crucifix, strings of rosaries and holy water.
When my mother was born in 1946, the idea of Cameroon, as a nation-state, had not come into being, except perhaps in the daydreams of a cluster of native agitators lurking in the shadows of colonial towns. Yet, barely two months before her second birthday, Jacques Ngom, Charles Assalé, Guillaume Hondt, Joseph Raymond Etoundi, Léopold Moumé Etia, Georges Yémi, Théodore Ngosso, Guillaume Bagal, Léonard Bouli, Emmanuel Yap, Jacques-Réné Bidoum and H-R Manga Mado would converge in Chez Sierra, a bar in the Douala-Bassa area, to bring those dreams to reality by forming the Union des Populations du Cameroun (UPC).
I have never known my grandfather’s thoughts about that page in our history, or about the conniving men who animated it, or even if the idea of Cameroon in its different manifestations ever ingrained itself in his being.
At the dawn of the 20th century, even before my grandfather was born, the town of Nkongsamba – located about 115 km from Tiko, where my mother was born, and 145 km from the port city of Douala, on the eastern bank of the Moungo River, the geological marker demarcating the English-speaking from the French-speaking regions of Cameroon – became an important terminal in a railway network initiated by the Germans. Built with German brains and native labour, the railway was meant to facilitate the transportation of coffee and other agricultural products from the interior to the coast.
Flanked by the Manengouba and Nlonako mountains and traversed by the Essoua River, Nkongsamba has become a shadow of its former self since the decline of the railway network that once gave it vitality. Battered by time and abandonment, it is, like other colonial towns in the country, decaying and lacklustre, only making an appearance in the collective consciousness after lending its name to a song by one of its latter-day scions, Prince Ndedi Eyango.
Eyango was born in Nkongsamba. At age 14, after the death of his father, he dropped out of the local technical college to pursue a music career in Douala, the hub of Cameroon’s music scene and a city where artistic dreams are made, squandered and deferred. After several years of dues-paying on the city’s legendary cabaret circuit, Eyango released “You Must Calculate”, a pulsating makossa hit, which earned him an Artist of the Year award in 1987.
Two years before its release, my family had relocated from Bamenda to Yaoundé. My first lessons in French, Cameroon’s language of power, were atop foosball tables with Ewondo speaking kids, who were sometimes raised to view my part of the country as part of Biafra. The Yaoundé we moved to, at least from my pre-adolescent point of view, seemed like another country: new habits had to be learned; a different language was spoken; the pace of life was faster; and the buildings – especially in the city’s centre ville – seemed not only taller, but also possessed of the kind of majesty particularly characteristic of the buildings I had registered in Bamenda. Yet, we were listening to the same music, and the news came from the same source, at the same hour. The concept of belonging lingered but had not taken form.
Eyango’s “You Must Calculate”, its linguistic hybridity (a blend of Pidgin, French and Douala) notwithstanding, became so ubiquitous that it could be heard on speakers even in Yaoundé’s Bikutsi-friendly Nsam-Efoulan area, where we lived.
Six years later, and with a few more albums to his credit, Eyango emigrated to the US, where he continued to compose, perform and tour with the remaining fragments of his group, Les Montagnards. Despite this dislocation, Eyango’s artistic sensibilities remained attached to the local scene, with new releases, the occasional music video and the establishment of a production company, PREYA Music.
While Eyango was away, Cameroon would undergo a social and political metamorphosis that would engender questions about belonging, identity and citizenship. How did the country become bilingual? Why were French-speaking Cameroonians called frogs? Why were English-speaking Cameroonians called Biafrans? What did I, born to a Kom mother who was born in Tiko, and with a maternal great-grandmother of Beti stock, have in common with a peer of Bakossi stock born in Douala’s English-speaking enclave of Bonaberi, beyond the language we were instructed in at school? How less or more Cameroonian was my classmate of Fulani and Bulu stock, born in Yaoundé’s heavily Muslim quartier Briqueterie, than a peer of Bassa stock born and raised in Limbe (formerly Victoria) to a family that could trace its migration to that town at the turn of the century? Did I feel at home in Cameroon?
Twenty-two years after “You Must Calculate”, Eyango returned to Cameroon with the stated goal of imparting “his US music knowledge, to expand his career as a musician and producer, and to promote the vibrant culture and musical talent in his country of birth”. Three years later, his “Appelle Moi” would earn him the Male Artist of the Year award at the Cameroon Music Awards, a ceremony initiated and partly patronised by the country’s Ministry of Arts and Culture.
Then, last November, in the presence of Ama Tutu Muna, the current Minster of Arts and Culture, hundreds of members of the Société Camerounaise de l’Art Musical (SOCAM) congregated at the Yaoundé Congress Hall on a Saturday evening to elect a new Président du Conseil d’Administration (PCA). In recent years, SOCAM has been bedevilled by rumours of mismanagement, embezzlement, infighting, influence-peddling, and its ongoing feud with a rival association, Cameroon Music Corporation (CMC), headed by another 1980s makossa icon, Sam Mbende.
In the wee hours of Sunday morning, after a night of last-minute lobbying, when the votes were finally tallied, Prince Eyango was elected SOCAM’s new PCA with a little more than 38 per cent of the vote, eclipsing fellow singer Romeo Dika, his runner-up, by more than 14 per cent of the vote. When all was said and done, it seemed as if le montagnard’s desire to promote the “vibrant culture and musical talent” of his country of birth had been realised.
Then again, l’impossible n’est pas Camerounais: thus barely days later, even before the new PCA had transitioned into his new role, news reports emerged that Jean Calvin Aba’a Oyono, the president of the Commission Permanente de Contrôle des Sociétés Civiles et du Droit d’auteur (CPMC) – the body that facilitates the SOCAM elections – had been sanctioned for what were referred to as administrative and ethical violations, especially in the vetting of Prince Eyango. In a letter to Prince Eyango, dated 13 December, the minister pointed out that:
“I want to formally indicate that your election is tainted in enormous irregularities, notably in violation of your [SOCAM] statute and in particular Articles 4 and 9 of your electoral code on Cameroonian nationality required of the candidates.”
Responding to the minister’s claims about his eligibility to be PCA, Eyango, in an interview with Mutations newspaper, said that the question of his nationality was a legal and administrative issue, which would be addressed in the appropriate context.
“It should be an issue of whether or not Ndedi Eyango is Cameroonian; and I am. Both of my parents were born in Nkongsamba; Ndedi Eyango is not an American name and I do not sing in English.”
However, Prince Eyango, picking a cue from the fringes of French-speaking Cameroonian exceptionalism, proceeded to unpack the Muna genealogy while showcasing his historical proclivities:
“The father of Ama Tutu Muna (Solomon Tandeng Muna of blessed memory) was a legislator of the Nigerian assembly and later Minister of Transport for that country… was he working in Nigeria as a Cameroonian, Nigerian or British? It is thus evident that her father had a different nationality. Better yet, when the Muna children were born, Ama Tutu among them, did they retain their Cameroonian or Nigerian nationalities?”
In fact, the patriarch of the Muna family served as a deputy for the Southern Cameroons at the Eastern Nigerian assembly, and later served as the first prime minister of the federated state of West Cameroun as a member of then-president Ahmadou Ahidjo’s Union Nationale Camerounaise (UNC). S.T. Muna would spend the last 17 years of his political career (1973–1988) as president of the unicameral Cameroon National Assembly. Depending on whom you ask on either side of the Moungo River (that linguistic marker), the Muna patriarch is at once derided and lauded for his role in unifying the English-speaking and French-speaking Cameroons.
Perhaps it is the trajectory of Solomon Tandeng Muna’s children, in both the political and social landscape, which has fixated attention on the father’s political legacy when issues of identity and belonging project themselves in the national debate. Muna & Muna, the law firm founded by the former bâtonnier Bernard Muna (current chair of the UN Commission of Inquiry into Human Rights Violations in the Central African Republic and failed presidential candidate), remains the country’s most respected law firm; another son, Akere Muna, is Vice President at Transparency International and Sanctions Commissioner for the African Development Bank; then there is Professor Wally Muna, the head of the Cameroon Society of Cardiology, and the late Dr Daniel Muna, the founder of one of the country’s most prestigious private clinics. In certain circles, the Muna family is often described as a subtropical reincarnation of American clans such as the Kennedys and Duponts – a cross-generational colossus of cunning, talent and drive.
My own father, Nyo’ Wakai, born a few weeks after the second Italo-Abyssinian War, had left Cameroon in the early 1960s as a Southern Cameroonian – a quasi-British status – to study law in the UK. He was schoolmates with Ben Muna at Lincoln’s Inn law school, and they would subsequently room together in London, and later in Buea upon their return as West Cameroonians in a reunited Federal Republic. He would serve the patriarch’s government as Federal Counsel and later as Attorney General of West Cameroon. But he would eventually end his career as an associate judge on the bench of La République du Cameroun’s Supreme Court.
His working life, like my maternal grandfather’s, embodied the fluidity of citizenship in that space currently known as Cameroon, but can also be viewed as a testimony to the arbitrariness that characterises the laws governing states such as ours, which have been reluctant to address issues of identity within their inherited borders.
A month after Minister Ama Tutu Muna’s letter was made public, a team of lawyers led by another former president of the Cameroonian Bar, Charles Tchoungang, representing the Ministry of Arts and Culture and the State of Cameroon, convened a press conference in Yaoundé to announce that charges had been filed against Prince Eyango for falsification of official documents. The former bâtonnier rested his case on a constitutional clause enacted in 1968, which states that “Cameroonian nationality is lost or forfeited by any adult Cameroon national who wilfully acquires or keeps a foreign nationality”.
Tchoungang did not stop there: he provided journalists with a copy of a letter that Joseph Bienvenu Foé Atangana, Cameroon’s ambassador to the United States, had sent to the Minister of Arts and Culture, validating the ministry’s claim that Eyango was in fact a US citizen, citing his US passport number and the three-months visitor’s visa number he had obtained for his trip to Cameroon. In effect, according to the ambassador, Prince Eyango had overstayed his visa and was now residing in Cameroon illegally.
But le Cameroun c’est le Cameroun and Prince Eyango is not the first Cameroonian to be subjected to this treatment. When Mongo Beti, the author of Ville Cruelle, returned to Cameroon after three decades in exile, he was solicited by the Social Democratic Front (SDF), the party my father helped found, to run for parliament under the party’s banner in his Mbalmayo constituency. Yet Beti’s candidacy was invalidated on the grounds that he was a French citizen, a foreigner meddling in a sovereign nation’s affairs. Beti would later declare to some SDF officials: “It is a complete farce though, as many people who stood – even Biya, it would seem – have French nationality. The authorities were absolutely determined to exclude me.” The question Beti might have been trying to ask was: how can the custodians of a system be the very violators of that system?
During the public unveiling of the charges against Prince Eyango, the former bâtonnier did not cite any precedents. Yet the irony of his involvement in the ensuing battle, which seemed to pit Prince Eyango against the state, was not lost in the local media, given the fact that the same man who had once been the custodian of legal practice in Cameroon was currently serving as counsellor to a certain Michel Thierry Atangana against the State of Cameroon.
A naturalised French citizen, Atangana, alongside Titus Edzoa – his political mentor and a former confidante of President Paul Biya – had served almost two decades in prison for a laundry list of corruption charges, though their supporters allege their long incarceration was political. Born and raised in Cameroon, Atangana travelled to France to study finance, became a French citizen by marriage, and had what seemed like a promising career with a Paris-based financial firm. Then, in the early 1990s, an opportunity with Groupe Lefebvre, the multinational construction consortium, would prompt Atangana to return to Cameroon to coordinate the construction of the Yaoundé-Kribi and Ayos-Bertoua road network.
Some pundits have speculated that Atangana was not only in the right place at the wrong time, but was also keeping the wrong company when he was corralled alongside his mentor, Edzoa, by the government of Cameroon for stealing from the state treasury. But their supporters claim that the only reason they were arrested was because Edzoa, an erstwhile member of the presidential court, had made it known that he was going to challenge President Paul Biya in the 1997 presidential elections. Atangana and Edzoa’s trials were swift, and each was given a 15-year sentence for embezzling funds earmarked for the road construction project that had prompted Atangana’s return in the first place.
At the time of the first Atangana-Edzoa trial, the issue of his nationality did not figure prominently. And Atangana might have remained another forgotten artefact of a systematic purge had he not faced fresh charges on the eve of his release, which was then followed by another swift trial and a harsher sentence of 20 years for grand banditry. This time around, soon after the decisions were handed down the question of Atangana’s citizenship came under the spotlight: there was the formation of a Comité de Soutien à Michel Thierry Atangana; an impressive roster of French and Cameroonian lawyers; an open letter from his France-based son; and a widely circulated letter from President François Hollande reassuring the inmate that the French Republic would not rest until justice was served and he was released and returned home to France.
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