Joshua Osih could become the next president of Cameroon. But who is the man who wants to change the torn country after 36 years of Paul Biya? What plans does he have to finally settle the conflict between the English and French speaking Cameroonians? And what are the biggest challenges for him? An interview with Joshua Osih, Chairman of the Social Democratic Front (SDF):
Patricia Schmitz: Elections will be held in Cameroon in autumn 2018. In 2011 Paul Biya presented his vision of a “strong and united Cameroon” in a manifesto. Seven years later the country seems to be deeply torn apart. What is the SDF’s vision for Cameroon in 2030?
Joshua Osih: I can’t give you a detailed program. The party has a forum, but there is no official party program. But the crisis between the French- and English-speaking parts of the population is only a minor problem in our internal conflicts in Cameroon.
Patricia Schmitz: Members of the ruling party RDPC are expressing their wish for a change in leadership anonymously and behind closed doors. What is the system struggling with?
Joshua Osih: In the modern networked world, you can only govern if you give the people decision-making powers. Citizens who know that their votes carry no weight will lose the bond with their country. I believe in the motto “unity is strength”, but in its present state Cameroon is not a nation. We are a group of nations with 70% Christians, 30% Muslims and about 300 tribes, which have their own traditions and partly also their own tribal languages and legal systems.
Patricia Schmitz: How do you intend to overcome cultural barriers?
Joshua Osih: Democratic legitimacy and transparent leadership are basic prerequisites for the strength of a nation. We currently live in a monarchical system. But Cameroon needs much more than a change of government. The country must be changed from the ground up.
Patricia Schmitz: What would that look like?
Joshua Osih: Take the equal treatment of men and women. This is an important topic that is also highly topical in the German Bundestag. As a member of parliament, I campaigned in Douala for a quota for women on boards of directors. We discuss this issue on the same level as the Western nations. And a few hundred kilometres further south, tribes live according to their old traditions. Most of the girls there have no school-leaving qualifications and have their first child at the age of 16. In these tribes it is considered a disgrace for the family when women take paid work. Here one has to plan about 10 years of educational work before one can discuss the issues that have been on the agenda in Douala for a long time.
Patricia Schmitz: Despite everything, Cameroon is the economically strongest country within the Central African Economic and Monetary Community (CEMAC). Biya has kept its promise to increase the gross domestic product every year. Per capita income has risen by 12.5% over the last ten years. The economy is growing – where does this growing bitterness come from?
Joshua Osih: The statistically proven economic growth has not reached the population. When Cameroon publishes its average income, women are not included in the calculation, in contrast to what is usual worldwide. And finally, the rising gross domestic product is a result of public construction projects. Very little has happened in the private sector. Most people do not earn enough to live on. One looks in vain for a growing middle class.
Patricia Schmitz: I have met many women who earn 40,000 CFA francs (approx. 61 euros) a month. The average cost of living is 200,000 CFA francs. How does it work?
Joshua Osih: Since there is no minimum wage in Cameroon, a job is not enough to live on. Undeclared work is booming. Employees do not pay taxes because no reports on the use of tax money are published. The lack of transparency leads to a loss of trust – a perfectly natural reaction.
Patricia Schmitz: The lack of transparency also deters foreign investors. In the international Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) Cameroon has always been among the top 20 percent. How do you intend to eradicate corruption, your biggest problem?
Joshua Osih: I do not see corruption as our biggest problem. Corruption is the symptom. The cause of the disease is insufficient management. Corruption, tax evasion and a disastrous health and social security system – all of this is due to our lack of leadership.
Patricia Schmitz: Leadership in Cameroon is not only an issue at state level. Traditionally, within a tribe, a male chief is the ruler of numerous families. Power passes from father to son. What role do the tribal chiefs play?
Joshua Osih: The patriarchs are very important and prevent real progress. Knowledge can only be passed on to a certain extent. At some point the learning curve no longer increases. In order to initiate further developments, new influences from outside are needed. Outside larger cities, around 25% of members of traditional tribes can neither read nor write. There is no compulsory school attendance. There are enormous differences in the level of education across the country.
Patricia Schmitz: In addition to the Code Civil in the Anglophone and the Code Napoleon in the Francophone area, tribal law applies in Cameroon.
Joshua Osih: Yeah. Our criminal law has been unified. Otherwise, however, there is no commitment to the creation of a nation state, even from a legal perspective. Traditional tribal chiefs act as government advisors and look after their own interests. That’s how they get their power.
Patricia Schmitz: So the chiefs are also political representatives of the people.
Joshua Osih: … and they don’t understand that their reactionary leadership style prevents growth. With the social security system they have maintained for 60 years, they are taking their economic future away from future generations. This deceptive security prevents personal responsibility. In this way no industry is created and no new jobs are created. Only a decentralised political system can remedy this situation. We need a federal system. And within this system we need compulsory schooling for all.
Patricia Schmitz: Instead, large sums are being invested in the military and defence. Boko Haram is very active in the north. I have heard from your parliamentary colleagues that the members of Boko Haram, unlike the members of the IS, are not fighting for an ideology, but are economic refugees from Libya who are looking for a better perspective for themselves. Is that really so?
Joshua Osih: Boko Haram is a consequence of Western politics – and another consequence of the lack of leadership. Boko Haram hires young men who kill civilians for 20,000 CFA francs a month. No one who had any other perspective to secure his livelihood would engage in such a self-destructive trade.
Patricia Schmitz: How many members does Boko Haram have? In contrast to the IS, hardly any figures can be found for this.
Joshua Osih: You think someone went out there with a list to count them? If the American military needs to put together a report quickly, they say it’s 5,000, and if they need more money, they say it’s 50,000. We don’t need a stronger military presence in the north, either by our troops or by Western troops. What we need are jobs that allow us to live in dignity. If you create the basis for a functioning economy in the north, then everything that has to do with the core of Boko Haram will disappear within five weeks. I have been to the Nigerian border many times and have spoken with the so-called terrorists of Boko Haram, both officially and unofficially.
Patricia Schmitz: Weren’t you afraid?
Joshua Osih: No.
Patricia Schmitz: Why not?
Joshua Osih: I have a political assignment. If I do not visit these dangerous places myself, how can I send soldiers there? A politician must above all be courageous. If you don’t have courage, you shouldn’t go into politics.
Patricia Schmitz: You didn’t want to say anything about your party’s programme. As a private person, what do you wish for Cameroon?
Joshua Osih: I would like to see a government that wants to serve the people, a government that does not carry out superficial reforms in Cameroon, but changes the country from the ground up. Our country is falling short of its potential. We need a leadership that will again fully exploit this potential. This includes profound changes in our institutions and a complete modernisation of our health and education systems. I want a government that introduces compulsory education and creates opportunities for economic growth. A government that understands that the economy can only grow with a strong private sector and that the administration can only play a regulatory role. I would also like to see a stronger sense of belonging and community in our region, especially through disciplinary measures against the other CEMAC states. It must be ensured that they achieve their contractually agreed objectives. We have a customs and monetary union, but our economic cooperation is in great need of improvement. Non-compliance with contractually agreed economic objectives must be sanctioned. Here I wish that words are followed by deeds.
Patricia Schmitz: Many thanks for the interview.
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