Ep. 96: A conversation with Yonatan Morse about the 3 crises in Cameroon

Yonatan Morse, assistant professor of political science at the University of Connecticut, says that there have been three crises occurring in Cameroon over the last few years. He discusses them with Kim in this week’s interview.

In the news: 400,000 people have not been able to register to vote in Burkina Faso, the world is watching the U.S. election, and more!

Listen to the episode below!

Books from the Episode

How Autocrats Compete: Parties, Patrons, and Unfair Elections in Africa by Yonatan Morse

Social Policy Expansion in Latin America by Candelaria Garay

Envy in Politics by Gwyneth H. McClendon

Democracy in Ghana: Everyday Politics in Urban Africa by Jeffrey W. Paller

Electoral Politics and Africa’ Urban Transition: Class and Ethnicity in Ghana by Noah Nathan

Legislative Development in Africa: Politics and Postcolonial Legacies by Ken Ochieng’ Opalo

Other Links and Articles

Surrounded by War, Burkinabe Civilians Have Votes Taken Away

Upcoming Elections in Africa (Press Statement by Secretary of State Michael Pompeo)

Nando’s USA Twitter Posts about the Election

The Challenge of Observing American Democracy

Mtima Rising – EP by Chmba

Malawi Mouse Boys on NPR Tiny Desk Concerts


Kim: Welcome to Ufahamu Africa, a podcast about life and politics on the African continent. I’m Kim Yi Dionne, one of your hosts, and I’m joined by my co-host, Rachel Beatty Riedl. Hi, Rachel.

Rachel: Hi, Kim. So, first up this week, let’s return to talk of elections is one of our favorites here at Ufahamu Africa, as you well know. And the focus for this week is on Burkina Faso. So, I want to give our listeners a quick primer for context to catch us up to where we’re at today. Now, in 2014, there were large protests across the country, trade union mobilization, Blaise Compaore’s third term manipulations. He had been in power for 27 years and was still just trying to change the rules of the constitution to be able to run for what was then deemed a third term. There was also at that time an insight or break off from the dominant party, a faction had broken off a few months in advance anticipating these highly contested elections. And all of these forces came together to push Compaore out and a transitional military civilian government came into power to organize towards new multi-party elections. And in those elections in 2015, the new party that was that break off faction from the dominant party, The People’s Movement for Progress, won the 2015 presidential elections and that brought the now incumbent President Kaboré to power. So fast forward to 2020 to today, and the election is planned for next month, the next presidential election is scheduled for November 22. And a new report out by Al Jazeera as Henry Wilkins details how the deteriorating security situation in the country. And the government’s handling of that condition means that citizen participation in this upcoming election will be significantly constrained, about 17% of the electoral communes have been deemed unsafe by the government for voter registration to take place. And that’s due to worsening conflict, which is pitting government forces and international troops against various armed groups linked to ISIL and Al Qaeda. So, what this means in terms of citizen participation is more than 400,000 people were unable to register for the presidential vote. So, not everyone will be able to cast their ballots, and not everyone will be able to participate. And in particular, those areas that are unable to participate are those that are geographically more detached from the center, less well governed, less state security provided, and more susceptible to these non-state attacks. But the incumbent president and party has said the election must go on, and that despite the failure to register these voters, the election will continue. In fact, they the government passed a new law in August stating that a major force of something to happen in the country, such as this conflict is an acceptable reason not to hold full voter registration. Now, these areas that are really being excluded from the process are of course, those that are most suffering from the effects of the fighting and state neglect. So, in many ways, I think this is, you know, something that’s applicable across many regions of the world. And it sounds to me like some of the questions surrounding the US Census, you know, how long is it able to go on, who’s fighting for it to be cancelled early, and the point really is battles over who is counted, and under what categories, and for what end in terms of political representation are really were struggles to make elections democratic, are frequently waged, and it bears repeating. There’s no guarantee of democratic content just by abiding by formal democratic procedure that is passing legislation in order to disenfranchise is a classic autocratization move via formal institutions. And that’s precisely what happened here, the legislature passed a vote saying, yes, this is an acceptable reason not to hold voter registration. And we’ll go forward with these elections that disenfranchise a large minority of the population. So, what happens next? Once these citizens are further cut out of the state’s ability to provide security, governance or offer their own voice in representation, it’s likely that exit is their next option. So, analysts who are closely following the region such as Alex Thurston, and in the Sahel blog, say that this law, for example, further risks disenfranchising those citizens, and that could drive them into the arms of the armed groups themselves.

Kim: That’s worrying, you know, and it’s interesting when you bring up the case of Burkina Faso, I’m, you know, in talking about voter registration and thinking about the own challenges I’ve faced with getting my own mother registered to vote here in the United States elections. And, you know, starting off with elections, I want to point out the US Secretary of State has issued a statement this week on quote, upcoming elections in Africa. And in his statement, Secretary Pompeo, said in part, we believe all sides should participate peacefully in the democratic process; repression, and an intimidation have no place in democracies. And I think this is really interesting because you know, as many people who pointed out on Twitter this week when the statement was released, it’s kind of hypocritical right for the US to be talking about other countries. And even, you know, going to the point of naming Africa, but not actually naming any of the countries that are having elections on the continent. Secretary Pompeo further said, “We will watch closely the actions of individuals who interfere in the democratic process and will not hesitate to consider consequences, including visa restrictions, for those responsible for election related violence”. Again, like really thick coming from an administration that you know, people have pointed out are not exactly a beacon of light for democracy. Everyone’s getting in on the elections here in the United States, including Nando’s, the South African chicken chain, which has some of the most delicious chicken and chips one can get anywhere in the world. And they post a cute little tweet that was, you know, encouraging people to get out the vote. So, again, we’re going to be watching what Africans are saying about the US elections. And if there’s anything anyone’s reading, in particular on this, we love to hear and see more of it.

Rachel: Absolutely, Kim. So that is totally on my mind. In particular, you know, the kind of hypocrisy of thinking about where and what we should be watching when democracy and democratic procedures so at stake in the United States, and that leads me to an Atlantic article that I saw this week, which commented on the increasing degree of election observation that’s been ramping up in the United States itself, and calling out that international observers who are affiliated with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe are going to be observing this 2020 election. In fact, they’ve been observing elections since 2002, following really the very bungled elections in 2000, the presidential elections in Bush v Gore. So that is really an interesting way in which we see international observers coming into the US context. Now that group is made up of North American, European and Asian nations. So, it’s really a mix of observers, and also the non-governmental affiliate of the Carter Center is also preparing its own observers for this high stakes US election. And it just made me you know, really wish and hope for, you know, ECOWAS or AU observers to participate as well, and maybe to, you know, join a delegation in this context.

Kim: For sure. I mean, for me is someone who’s been watching politics in Malawi over the last couple of decades. I’m, you know, I wish we had observers coming from the one part of the world that that Freedom House has said, you know, democracy is not on the decline. And in fact, democracy is getting stronger in Malawi. And I think we have a lot to learn from Malawi’s most recent elections, and I’ll just share with some of our listeners, totally unrelated to elections, but definitely related to Malawi, that DJ Chmba has released a new EP on iTunes, we’ll be sure to put a link to that in our links post later this week. And also, Amanda Robinson at Ohio State this week pointed me to an NPR Tiny Desk concert by the Mouse Boys, which is another band in Malawi. And that Tiny Desk concert is available on YouTube. And we’ll also be sharing that with our listeners.

So, I’m excited to introduce this week’s guest. Since we’re, you know, talking about elections. This week’s conversation is with Yonatan Morse, his book How Autocrats Compete: Parties, Patrons, and Unfair Elections in Africa, talks about Tanzania and Cameroon. In our interview at the African Studies Association annual meeting last year, he talked to me about the political crisis in Cameroon and if it was an Anglophone issue. Here’s Yonatan.

Yonatan: There’s really three crises in Cameroon simultaneously right now, I’d say there’s Boko Haram still in the North, that is a big strain in the North. There’s still a disputed presidential election for 2018. And the aftermath of that still, the major opposition candidate Maurice Kamto was jailed and just a few weeks ago, and then, of course, this crisis in Northwest and Southwest, the English-speaking regions of Cameroon. It’s been a two-year conflict right now that’s taken extremely heavy toll. There have been approximately maybe probably 3000 people killed, 150,000 internally displaced and about 40,000 refugees. The economic toll is enormous in these regions. And the educational toll about 80% of schoolchildren in these regions haven’t been to school nearly two years. And so, it’s a very drastic humanitarian situation that is now at a stage of stalemate. It’s been going on for two years, there is no or no closer to mediation or negotiation and the government’s no closer to ending the secessionist or the insurgency movement. That is itself extremely fractured.

Kim: Right, because it’s not like it didn’t seem like the leadership in this rebellion is unified.

Yonatan: Not at all. And part of the dynamic that’s happened, it started as not quite as an Anglophone issue. I mean, that was part of it. It’s never just been an Anglophone issue. But Anglophone identities become much more elevated and salient now, since the conflict has escalated, or people not think of it. I think in 2016 there was a lot of grievance over language policy, over the role of common law, over the imposition of French speaking judges who weren’t familiar with common law into local courts. There were concerns over the distribution of resources and who gets what and what access do you get, and broader concerns about representation, accountability in a country like Cameroon, where a man’s been president for 37 years. The government initially made some concessions. It’s a bilingual commission, but also maintain this hard edge response to these strikes and protests that happened in 2016-2017. And once it became violent, it really polarized everything, this mutual escalation. So, in 2016-17, you had some people who are arguing all we need are more English speaking lawyers, or more English classes in the civil service schools, or people to be admitted to people now who wanted decentralization or federalism, secession and independence. And I think if you ask the average citizen of these regions in 2016-2017, you’d get a mixed response. But now I think the sentiment is towards independence for a lot of people because of the government response. And it’s just polarizing things completely. At the same time, the movement is so fractured, there are two competing Ambazonian governments, with two competing military wings, plus local militias and what they call self-defense groups with names like the Red Dragons and the Harlem Dragons, the Manyu Tigers. General people call them Amba Boys. For Ambazonia, which is the name for that, that’s given to the independent state. And recently, there was this national dialogue, at the end of September, beginning of October, these five days, but of course, all the major groups or were boycotted or weren’t invited. Members of the major political party, some of them boycotted it as well. And it didn’t seem to make much dent in the crisis.

Kim: Now, your book has just come out, but you’re already planning this project on social welfare expansion Africa. Can you tell our listeners what you’re researching and how you came to study this topic?

Yonatan: So, this is in very early stages.  I became very interested after studying sort of authoritarianism and unfair elections and conflict in Cameroon, to move to sort of more tranquil ground for the next project a little bit. And it’s a completely different set of countries to which is very exciting. For me, it’s a privilege to be able to do that type of work to be multi country focused. As a comparativist, it’s important for me to do that, within Africa, too. It’s always been a big goal of mine is that we can make valid comparisons within Africa with case studies, rather than having to choose something from different regions where it violates a lot of assumptions. So, I became interested in this notion of state welfare in Sub Saharan Africa, which is not really studied that much. There’s a lot in social protection and cash transfers these days, but not a lot in the concept of social welfare too much. There’s been a lot of focus on informal forms of welfare, like through the family, through NGOs, and international actors. In fact, some people called African states insecurity regimes. Right. These are states that actually predict they don’t provide state welfare. I became very interested in sort of these developments that people have noticed, like national health insurance in Ghana. Universal pensions in Botswana.

Kim: Right, right. Yeah…

Yonatan: People have gone under the radar, this expansion of community-based health insurance in Senegal, or in Rwanda, or places like Ethiopia, and this explosion of cash transfers of school feeding programs and trying to understand that a little bit better. So, stage is where we’re at now, we’ve, you know, one of the things we’ve done is gathered a lot of data. There is no historical information in state welfare, in Africa. Usually, we use spending data, like how much percentage of GDP is spent. That’s great if you can get it, but you can really only get it going back to 2007. We wanted to go back to the 1960s. So, we looked at sort of original social security reports to measure what were the commitments that states made towards notions of welfare. And the data set has stuff on pensions, health, workman’s insurance, unemployment, sickness and maternity benefits. Yes, nearly every African country has maternity benefits.

Kim: Right, right… Only the US could follow African counties in this regard that would be great.

Yonatan: Yeah. That would be that’s historically only been for a very narrow formal sector. But since the 1990s, with the trends kind of show, it’s first of all, there’s always been variation in Africa across countries even with the formal sector received big differences between French colonial countries versus former British colony countries, but some convergence too, over time. Since the 1990s, a couple things have happened. One is that for the formal sector, welfare has actually gotten more generous. Like size of pensions are higher, the number of benefits received is higher. Then, workers in Tanzania all of a sudden receiving health insurance pools as well, which is contrary to the story we tell about welfare, that there’s been this neoliberal retrenchment, there’s actually been expanding and it gets interesting in different ways, too. There’s also been this expansion of how universal policies are going to become.

Kim: Great, like is it for the ultra-poor? Or is it right, you know, universal basic income, anyone can have it.

Yonatan: Just look at pensions, you have pension systems that are still narrowly towards the paying formal sector, you have countries that don’t have any pensions. Malawi didn’t have a formal pension scheme until just a few years ago, which is part of this expansion. Or you’re expanding the categories of eligible people, like domestic workers. So, if you have a domestic, lots of people who have domestic workers in their homes, you have to pay for their pensions. Or do we create some sort of universal benefit? Or do we create voluntary schemes where we can create matching sort of schemes is something Ghana is toying with right now. So, there’s been that this sort of universalization of certain policies of cash transfers and only for the extremely poor, for rural communities, what type of households are targeted. And then the structure of welfare has changed a little bit too where, and here’s how I think, I think it’s interesting to me, like Ghana has an interesting case. Because pensions in Ghana have always been there for the formal sector, they had a very strong social security administration. And the new scheme that’s been around for about eight years now is this three-tier scheme. And part of it was to take formal workers’ Social Security contributions and take part of that away from the state fund, into a private fund to privatize part of it. Now the story we tell Latin America that this is driven by neoliberal retrenchment, the story in Ghana, this was the demand from workers.

Kim: Because, they would get higher returns?

Yonatan: Yes, because of corruption, because of distrust of the state. They wanted independent control of their money. Now, social security is a huge source of revenue, and patronage, sometimes. In a system like Ghana, if you go through Ghana, everybody knows what’s SNIT is, that’s the Social Security National Insurance Trust. The billboards are everywhere, the buildings are everywhere. I’ve seen their real estate holdings, their stock holdings, it’s big business. And so, they’re very reluctant to give away some of that, to put it in private accounts, at the same time, they created this third tier, which is a voluntary tier. And the idea is this is for the informal sector. But this becomes politicized now, too, because now they can say they can mobilize certain sectors of the informal sphere and create a matching system: You put $1 and we’ll put $1 in. That’s the pilot one, of course, cocoa farmers.

Kim: Right? Oh, my gosh, it’s brilliant.

Yonatan: It’s the first and it becomes… So, this is what we’re trying to understand. It’s not that it’s what kind of welfare is evolving at Sub Saharan Africa, because you’re talking about environments where there’s not large-scale social mobilization, for welfare expansion, the way there was in Latin America, there isn’t. Very resource constrained states where you have to make tough choices about who gets what, and a very narrow tax base, often just the formal sector, which is why the formal sector is important part of the story, distrust of the state. And of course, a system of politics that often prefers a very more narrower, selective distribution of resources. So, the question to me is always what part of welfare is going to get emphasized? Who’s going to get it? How is it going to be run? These are very important questions that we’re trying to, to get.

Kim: Yeah. And I’d be curious to know, right, and especially given your expertise on elections, right, the timing of the announcements of these new policies, and how those policies evolve based on, you know, whether the people in power, feel threatened, like their position is threatened by you know, or maybe they’re losing support. And so, they might, yeah, introduce a specific type of policy that might you know reach certain voters.

Yonatan: There’s multiple games, it’s over toying with these ideas of different structures of electoral competition, and how that creates uneven incentives to need to use social welfare policies to reach new voters. But it also influences the capacities that people have to curtail internal dissent. In Ghana, this two-party polarization is actually a boon. Because if you’re pissing off a local MP, if you’re pissing off a local MP, because you’re taking some local power for a universal benefit now, it’s not like they can go anywhere else. They have to live with it. And this is a big part of the interviews that I’ve done. And part of this is that talking to people about pressure they got from MPs to give us the funds, we need the funds for our constituency, and then people in these administrations said no, we have criteria. But then you have the institutions of delivery themselves, that are often politicized. So, it’s different to take power away from something to give it to something more universal versus creating something out of nothing, which was the national health insurance, for instance. And it’s, and also it gets the point is also it’s none of it’s systematic. It’s all opportunistic. And even under the best scenarios, you get this kind of weird quasi, poorly implemented sometimes, some aspects politicized, some aspects aren’t. Sometimes we’re focusing on welfare and sometimes welfare is just not on the political agenda anymore. And things like road construction and other forms of public goods are.

Kim: So, before we go, we have to ask you the question we ask all of our guests, is there anything you’ve read recently that you might recommend to our listeners?

Yonatan: I’ve read a lot for giving a lot of things I can’t just recommend one but for the social protection I’ve been reading Candelaria Garay’s book of Social Expansion in Latin America has been a big influence on the project. I’ve been reading Gwyneth McClendon’s Envy in Politics, and I think it’s just a great book. And in Africa stuff, I’ve been reading the two books about Ghana, Jeffrey Paller, and Noah Nathan’s book…

Kim: Which are nice companions to each other.

Yonatan: Yes, and Ken Opalo’s book on legislative developments. And that’s my stack right now.

Kim: Well, it is a big stack by your bed. Well, thank you so much Yonatan for being a guest on the podcast.

Yonatan: Thank you very much.

Kim: Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of Ufahamu Africa to find any of the articles, books or links we talked about on today’s episode, head to ufahamuafrica.com. We are also available on Spotify, Apple podcast, SoundCloud, and Stitcher. This podcast is produced by Megan DeMint, with help from production assistants Fulya Felicity Turkmen and Aliou Kamau Gambrel. We are generously supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and receive research assistance from Cornell University and the University of California Riverside. Our music is courtesy of Kevin Mcleod. Until next week, safari salama!

One thought on “Ep. 96: A conversation with Yonatan Morse about the 3 crises in Cameroon

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