The different uses of ethnicity in the Constitution

ethnicity in cameroon

With the aim of building relative equity and guaranteeing that all ethnic groups, or at least the major ethnic-regional groups, are represented and integrated in community management, many African states have written specific provisions in their constitutions aimed at ensuring equitable and balanced representation of all the ethnic groups or major ethnic-regional groups that make up the state. Without following the Ethiopian model of ethnic federalism, African states are trying to guarantee the representation of all ethnic groups at all levels of political and administrative life, by applying various and varied formulas. Thus, the constitutional provisions relating to ethnicity are either of a negative nature relating to non-discrimination on the basis of ethnic origin (1), or of a positive nature relating to the modalities of integration of all ethnic groups in the organization, management and functioning of the state, with particular emphasis on the protection of minorities (2).

  1. Non-discrimination based on ethnic origin

Ethnicity is a reality that is virtually impossible to ignore in Africa. Despite the efforts of states to build national unity and achieve political integration, ethnicity remains an inescapable factor in the construction of states and the consolidation of democracy, which began with the first multiparty elections in the 1990s. In many ways, it is a factor of discrimination in Africa’s diverse societies. In Rwanda, it was the main cause of the 1994 genocide, hence the strong will of the Rwandan people to eradicate ethnic and regional divisions, expressed in the preamble of the 2003 Constitution revised in 2010. In Burundi, Article 13 of the 2005 Constitution states that: ‘No Burundian shall be excluded from the social, economic or political life of the nation on account of (…) his or her ethnic origin’. Ethnicity cannot, therefore, be a factor of exclusion in this case, neither socially, nor economically, and even less politically, hence Article 129 of the same Burundian constitution: “the government is open to all ethnic components”. Burundi, unlike Rwanda, is not committed to eradicating ethnic divisions, but wants to build a Republic that integrates all ethnic components in the organization and functioning of the State. In this perspective, the state is committed to implementing various strategies to combat exclusion of any kind based on ethnic origin. According to the OECD, “from the perspective of policies to combat social exclusion, (…) “the bridging ties forged across the boundaries of (…) the ethnic community can be particularly useful”.

In Cameroon, as in Niger, non-discrimination based on ethnic origin is not mentioned in the fundamental text. In Niger, however, political parties are prohibited from associating themselves with an ethnic group (Article 29 of the 1992 Constitution revised in 2017). The well-being of all members of a given society includes equitable access to available resources, respect for dignity in diversity, personal and collective autonomy, and responsible participation. It is only possible if the state and sub-state structures such as decentralized local authorities have the power and political will to ensure it. The state and sub-national authorities thus ensure an equal and/or equitable distribution of wealth, goods, and services so as to avoid the social, economic, and political marginalization of certain ethnic groups at both local and national levels.

Although many constitutions prohibit ethnic discrimination, in practice it has been shown that it is not politically useful to ignore the ethnic factor; on the contrary, it is appropriate to recognize ethnicity as a socio-political category in a way that allows it to be taken into account in the organization of power and public administration. This recognition is at the origin of the constitutional provisions relating to the protection of minorities and indigenous populations, specifically in Cameroon.

  1. Protection of minorities and indigenous peoples

Ethnicity in Africa is one of the main causes of discrimination

Autochthony is a concept that dates back to ancient Greece, but as it is used in contemporary societies, as a principle of self-assertion‘, it emerged in North America in the 1970s as a result of the  self-identification of Native Americans as ‘indigenous peoples’ or ‘first nations‘. In 1972, Martinez Cobo developed three criteria for defining autochthony:

The problem of autochthony, even if it is global, is posed differently in different States.

In Kenya, ‘autochthony (…) is characterized by land claims that defends the idea that local resources belong exclusively to the people who originate from the land’. On the other hand, in Côte d’Ivoire, the intermingling of populations and the high level of urbanization of rural areas are fueling the production of an indigenous identity, the issues of which relate primarily to the management of political power and the justification of political actors. The demand for autochthony in Côte d’Ivoire is at the origin of the concept of “ivoirité” developed by the political actors of the ‘Bédié’ regime in order to exclude non-Ivorian candidates who are integrated into Ivorian society, but considered as foreigners from the political game. This notion of “ivoirité”, whose stated objective is to clearly determine the criteria for belonging to the Ivorian nation and the criteria for defining Ivorian identity, poses in political terms the problem of relations between natives and non-natives. In Cameroon, the question taken up by the public authorities has resulted in the creation of a constitution for the concepts of indigenous and non-indigenous people. In fact, the presumed supremacy of certain ethnic groups, particularly the Bamilekes, Beti, and Fulani, has led the state to take charge of the issue of ethnicity by emphasizing in the preamble to the 1996 constitution that: ‘The state shall ensure the protection of minorities and preserve the rights of indigenous populations in accordance with the law’. Article 57, paragraph 3 of the constitution also contains the following provision: ‘The Regional Council is chaired by an indigenous person from the region elected among its members for the duration of the Council’s mandate’. The issue of autochthony is therefore an issue of power to the extent that the ethnic groups that call themselves indigenous and which are in many cases in the minority, feel marginalized when the so-called non-indigenous ethnic groups hold the reigns of power. This solution, far from having solved the problem, has further marginalized the ethnic question, increasing the social unease that already existed because of the unequal distribution of wealth.

The institution of autochthony in Cameroon was strongly criticized by Beti intellectuals such as Eboussi Boulaga1 and Mongo Beti.  For Eboussi, ‘the protection of minorities is the result of bad ecology: one should not protect a category of citizens as one does with endangered animal or plant species… autochthony is a myth…’. For Mongo Beti, ethnicity and the drawing of borders between the different people in Cameroon is a Western construction; ‘the Sawas did not create Douala either, just as the Beti did not create Yaoundé…’… The white man came, chose the site, laid out the roads, drew up the plans for the buildings, built, and administered’. The logic of this argument clashes with practical reality: the over-representation of Bamilekes in the municipal councils of the littoral and the under-representation or even non-representation of other ethnic groups in the municipal councils of the West is not a myth. While the Bamilekes are welcomed in other territorial areas, they close their areas to others. In this case, the concepts of ‘allogènes’ and ‘autochthones’ can be seen as instruments for rebalancing political representation.

  1. Conclusions and recommendations

Ethnic reference is everywhere in the institutional arrangements and practices of power management in Africa. Ethnicity is constantly evoked in legal domains, public policies, administrative practices, the media, and in collective representations. The complexity of the realities to which it refers is such that the whole life of African societies is influenced by it. The ethnic reality cannot be denied; and even if economic and political factors are increasingly emphasized to explain the dysfunctions of the state and the poor governance from which Africa suffers, the ethnic factor remains a relevant explanatory paradigm. It is all the more so because ethnic considerations are enshrined in the fundamental law of many African states, either to prohibit reference to it or to guarantee its virtuous, fair, and equitable use, particularly when reference is made to the protection of minorities. In view of the power struggles built around ethnicity, it is necessary to go back to the foundations of the constitutions and apply the provisions relating to non-discrimination on the basis of ethnicity and the protection of minorities. To this end, states should

  • Strengthen institutional mechanisms for the suppression of all forms of discrimination based on ethnicity;
  • Strengthen mechanisms for the protection of minorities and ensure their equitable representation in the public arena;
  • Guarantee equitable access for all ethnic groups to public services and public goods.
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Pr. NGO TONG Chantal Marie is a Research associate in Governance & Democracy at the Nkafu Policy Institute. She holds a Ph.D. in Political Science, obtained from the University of Nantes (France). Pr. NGO TONG is also a Senior Lecturer at the University of Ngaoundéré. She is a reviewer and co-editor of the African Development Perspectives Yearbook and a member of the Research Group on African Development Perspectives, Bremen since 2019.


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