Cyprian F. Fisiy
The recent upsurge in popular protest in most of Africa pursuant to the democratization process has refocused scholarly interest in the mechanisms of good governance. There are persistent calls for transparency and accountability in the management of public affairs. Moreover, the shift of emphasis from a development paradigm to one of democratization has led to a growing quest for alternative sources of authority and power that could be enlisted to provide more content to the democratization discourse. It is, therefore, not surprising that the holders of pre-colonial forms of authority, such as chiefs, have (or claim to have) new political roles within the context of the modern state. For all the various transformations of such institutions during the colonial and post-colonial periods, the present incumbents claim that they are the true representatives of their 'people'. Yet, the democratization discourse, predicated on the principle of elective representation, strikes at the heart of these customary institutions which are structured on the hereditary devolution of power.
However, the expectation that the chieftaincy would wither away, as elected officials assumed political power, has not fully materialized. In the colonial period, scholars were already predicting the demise of customary chiefs (e.g. Balandier 1972: 159ff). Despite such predictions, customary chiefs are still charting new spaces on the political landscape. It is therefore with very good reason that scholars have tended to highlight the ambivalence that characterizes this institution, especially as it seems to mediate between the past and the present by imaging itself as a 'symbol of tradition', and at the same time striving to serve as an agency for 'modern projects' (Geschiere 1993: 152). In short, the structures and institutional frameworks for 'inventing the future' (Davidson 1992: 241) are not solely reserved for the post-colonial state elite; other institutional sources also vie for political space.
Rather than treat elective representation as a sine qua non for democracy, the fundamental question is whether the democratization discourse, as propounded in the African context, provides the most appropriate framework for inventing the future, given the pluralistic composition of African societies (Young 1993; Fauré 1993; Throup 1993; Hart 1993)? In which case, to question 'whether the 'customary authorities' have retained sufficient prestige to function as vote banks in the new setting' (Geschiere 1993: 151) appears to contradict the very notion of elective representation; on the other hand it treats as axiomatic the idea that good governance can only be achieved through elective mechanisms.
The expectation that chiefs might function as vote banks raises the question as to whether such homogeneous political spaces really exist and, if so, can chiefs claim to speak on behalf of their people? What implications would such a scenario, with geo-political blocks, have on the democratization process? Might this be read as the segmentation of the post-colonial state into block vote areas, with the obvious implication that ethnicity lies at the heart of the political debate, despite the persistent rhetoric of national integration? However, this is not meant to imply that powerful chieftaincies are necessary crystallizing agencies for ethnic consciousness. The latter cannot be reduced to such local hierarchies.
Complex and dynamic patterns of socio-political interaction have resulted in the co-existence of different institutional frameworks from which contradictory discourses and agendas emerge. New institutions have appeared, some old ones have been substantially transformed, while others have simply atrophied. The institution of the chieftaincy has shown remarkable powers of survival. What factors account for its resilience? What is the power base of the chiefs and how is this is affected by broader political and economic change? In order to understand how the chiefs mediate between the past, the present, and the future, it is necessary to understand the relation between their control over people and over resources. For most rural communities, the control and management of land is at the heart of control over people.
In this paper, I focus on the chieftaincies of the North-West Province (NWP) of Cameroon, and the ways in which their control and management of land has provided them with the power to govern. Where such control over land has been whittled away, they have lost their grip over the people. However, in providing an alternative discourse at the local level, they have effectively obviated the imposition of state land law reforms and made the 1974 land ordinances appear subsidiary to customary tenure systems. They have effectively created a political space within which they can maintain their control over people and resources. State power is contested in the resulting legal and institutional pluralism. This has led the state to seek to co-opt and bureaucratize the chieftaincy in order to exploit the control it exercises over people and resources in order to capture local communities.
To understand how this contest is negotiated, this paper starts with the general characteristics of chieftaincy, it shows how the effective use of rituals and myths are central to notions of governance in a customary setting and then examines the strategies the chiefs use as they face the state. The conclusion re-examines the question of the institution of chieftaincy as an anachronism in the democratization process.
General characteristics and evolution of chieftaincy in the North-West Province
The institution of the chief, commonly termed Fon in the NWP, derives its legitimacy from a myth of origin that confers temporal power on those repositories of traditional authority. Myth and ritual orderings give a spiritual content to the exercise of the authority of the Fon. Although the person of the Fon is seen as 'sacred', the sacredness stems from the royalty itself as epitomized by the royal regalia. Homage is paid to this regalia even when the person of the Fon himself is absent.
The mythic construction of power has the further advantage that rulers could dispense with any socio-political negotiation of meaning. What in other circumstances would appear as ordinary discourse, open to negotiation, is simply abstracted from the arena of daily interaction and endowed with a transcendence that emanates from the primordial past. Endowed with such mythic qualities, the authority of the Fon is not contested. No ordinary individual, no matter how wealthy, can become Fon.
The chiefs do not derive their authority solely from a material base but rather from ritual and moral authority supported and enhanced by a regulatory society. The latter, a male secret society, exercises multiple functions and is termed Kwifoyn in Kom, Kwifo' in Bafut, Ngumba in Bali, or Ngwerong in Nso'. Any violation of the sacred norms of the land, whether by junior or senior members of the chiefdom, could wrack havoc as the 'earth may pass judgment'. The threat of ritual sanctions constituted an effective safeguard against abuses of power. These various strands of authority gave meaning to the institution of chieftaincy and other traditional repositories of power.
The relationship between the Fon and his subjects may be characterized as one of interdependence. It is said that the Fon is only treated as such because he has people to rule. Kaberry (1950: 379) summarized this relationship as 'The Fon often says: 'what is Fon without people? I am in the hands of my people'; and the Nso' have two sayings that epitomize the conceptions of chieftainship : 'The Fon has everything; the Fon is a poor man' and 'the Fon rules the people, but the people hold the Fon'.' This relationship of interdependence has been much eroded as alternative sources of authority, both internal and external, compete for the regulation of community issues.
The internal challenge comes from the elite sons of the land who wish to have a greater say in local affairs. The old institutional framework that was built on hereditary titles has been considered by some as not responding to the changing power differentials in society.
Yet, a closer look reveals that beneath a rigid formal framework, local authorities have shown flexibility by creating non-hereditary titles based on merit that seek to co-opt rival sources of power. By so doing, some of the educated elite, holding office in public and corporate institutions, have been integrated into the local institutional framework. The elasticity of such recruitment (even sons of former slaves can be honoured with non-hereditary titles) is the price the traditional power brokers have paid to retain command over local affairs.
A second and more invidious challenge comes from the State and its bureaucratic elite. By Decree No. 77/245 of 15 July 1977, all 'traditional chiefs' have been turned into auxiliaries of the administration, and are therefore accountable to the Senior Divisional Officer of their area of jurisdiction. This statutory provision which enshrines the pre-eminence of the Senior Divisional Officer over the local chiefs has been strongly resisted. In a recent conflict between the Senior Divisional Officer of Bui Division and the paramount chief of Nso', the Senior Divisional Officer, issued the following order:
Art. 1 : That His Royal Highness the Fon of Nso ... is with effect from the date of signature of this order prohibited from entering the office and residence of the Senior Divisional Officer for Bui Division for continuous disrespect of the Senior Prefect of Bui since his assumption of duty at the Head of the Bui Administration on May 7th 1986.
Art. 2 : That His Royal Highness the Fon of Nso should with effect from the date of this order report all his administrative problems to his immediate boss, the Divisional Officer for Kumbo Central Sub-Division for appropriate solutions.
Art. 3 : That any violation of this Prefectorial Order by the Fon of Nso shall lead to serious administrative sanctions against him.' (Prefectorial Order No E26/78/RPB/RS/89 of 1/6/1989)
This order, shocking as it appears, did not even provoke the population to rise spontaneously to the defense of their ruler. In the late 1940s and 1950s, when Kaberry undertook fieldwork in Nso', such a move by the Senior Divisional Officer was unthinkable and could have sparked off immense civil unrest or rioting. The population would have risen as one in support of the Fon. As late as 1969, there were great riots in Nso' because a prince had been locked up by the police for social deviance.
This prefectorial order is clear evidence that the powers of the Fon are waning. The State is whittling down the powers of local chiefs. For example, officers from those regions where chieftaincies were a colonial creation are sent to administer local communities with well-established customary chiefs. For example, the Senior Divisional Officer who signed the Order intended to discipline the Fon of Nso' came from the Centre Province where most of the local chiefs were creations of the French colonial administration for fiscal collection and for the forced recruitment of labour under the indigènat system. Administrators from these areas are noted for their disrespect for local chiefs.
The marginalization of traditional authority has had a profound impact on the abilities of the Fon to claim ownership of all land under his jurisdiction. Since such claims were based on his political dominance, is he still justified in claiming that 'all this is my land'? In the large chiefdoms, those who exercised daily administration at the local level were the sub-chiefs and other title holders with powers delegated from the Fon. Are they still loyal and accountable to the Fon? The resurgent question is: who rules the land now?
As paramount, the Fon could exact from his subjects allegiance and tribute as a sign of their submission to him. This submission was clearly manifested by the payment of a tribute of allegiance (Aletum and Fisiy 1989) that included surrendering all 'royal game', such as python, leopard, and buffalo to the Fon. Also, as a sign of submission, local notables were expected to drink the Fon's wine of allegiance. All these practices are now on the decline. The Fon can be a very lonely person in his palace since it has ceased to be the main locus of politics and diplomacy.
Although Decree No 77/245 of 15 July 1977 provides a framework for the recognition of genuine sources of 'traditional rule', the law has tended to demystify the sacred nature of royalty by turning Fons into mere auxiliaries of the administration. Fons have now been rendered fully accountable to the administration at the Divisional level and this has reduced to their former 'despotic' powers. A Fon's installation now has to be ratified by an express note of administrative recognition before he can officially exercise any active role as an auxiliary of the administration. It is clear from this that the chieftaincy has been bureaucratized and reduced to the lower ranks of the administrative ladder. As subordinates in a hierarchical bureaucracy, Fons might suffer disciplinary sanction from low level bureaucrats (as in the case of Nso' quoted above), some of whom might be their own sons or daughters.
The 1977 Decree reveals the State's hegemonic project to co-opt traditional rule into an already burdensome bureaucracy. Subsequent classificatory decrees recognized five First Class Chiefdoms in the North-West Province - Bafut, Bali, Kom, Nso' and Mankon. Most other chiefs have been classified as Second Class or Third Class. Chiefs receive a monthly salary from the state in addition to a small commission from tax collections. This appears to be their primary source of income as tribute from their subjects is now rare.
Furthermore, in order to raise money, chiefs have been very willing to confer non-hereditary titles on businessmen and civil servants. This trend clearly signals the commodification of cultural symbols and artifacts. Formerly, these were accorded mythic and ritual connotations, but have now been transformed into commodities and circulate in a broader social context. The angry comments of one educated chief shed some light on the ambivalent expectations of the rulers. In response to the question as to why chiefs participated in partisan politics, he retorted by asking whether we (the elite sons of the land) expected them 'to sit in their palaces and dance to all visiting tourists and bureaucrats'? Additional factors have been significant in transforming the chieftaincy. In the colonial period, the selection of chiefs laid emphasis on time-tested initiation rites and cultural values of the people and did not emphasize knowledge of Western education. This changed in the 1970s and 1980s when it became fashionable to install well-educated princes who, it was believed, could blend the 'whiteman's way of life' with the local culture. Chiefs had to be literate in order to better perform the bureaucratic tasks expected of them.
This marked a turning point in the evolution of customary law. No longer adhered to conservatively, long-standing customary tenets were subjected to strict scrutiny and eventually modified. However, the dual requirements of maintaining 'tradition' and, at the same time, adapting customary rules to the changing social environment, have sent conflicting messages to the local community. The contemporary janus-faced ruler has to satisfy the cultural aspirations of his people while charting a new socio-political path for himself and his community. Some chiefs have sought to define a separate ritual space for dealing with communal interests, especially those associated with land tenure, while adopting an entirely different approach in dealings with the state.
The chief as landlord and ruler.
The Fon symbolises unity and represents the link with the past, the ancestors. This symbolism is well borne out by the perception of the land as 'the spirit of the people' and a ritual link between them and the ancestors. Under customary law, land is viewed more as a source of sustenance rather than as a means of material accumulation (Goheen 1988 and this volume). It is useful to distinguish the political rights of sovereignty that accrue to the chief as a political figure (the chiefdom lands), from the rights of control and management which accrue to any landlord in the area, of whom the chief might be one (the lineage lands).
It is in his political capacity that the chief can rightly claim that 'this is all my land, and these are my people'. In this capacity, the chief welcomes all new arrivals as his 'strangers'. They, in turn, are expected to pay tribute to him as their Fon and as a sign of their respect and submission to his authority. Even though these new arrivals might be given land by any of the land-owning lineages, they are still accountable to the Fon as his people. It is also in his capacity as political leader that land attributions, such as for a school or other development project, are made by the Fon in consultation with the land owning lineage.
For example, the Fon of Ndu gave land to the Cameroon Baptist Convention Mission for the construction of a primary school, a secondary school, a teachers' training college, and a Baptist Bible Training College. Subsequently, the primary school was moved to a new site while the teachers' training college was transferred to Kom. This left much land to lie fallow and so the Fon of Ndu requested that part of the unoccupied land be returned to him for redistribution. Without taking any account of customary land tenure, the Baptist mission instead claimed ownership and sought to have the land registered under the 1974 land ordinances. This dispute necessitated the intervention of the divisional administration from Nkambe.
In 1982, eight years after the dispute began, the Land Consultative Board (commonly known as the Land Commission) came to the site for judgment. It concluded that the Fon could no longer re-enter the property he had given to the Baptist mission. This was now the private property of the mission since it was already registered and a land certificate for it issued. It is reported that the ageing Fon (now of blessed memory) overtly lamented: 'who now owns land in Ndu and in the Wiya Clan? ' The response was that 'the Fon owns Ndu and the Wiya (clan), but the government owns the land and everyone who lives on it, including the Fon'.
This was a moment of great desolation. Chia's [n.d.] account of this event states that tears rolled down the Fon's cheeks as he walked away, helpless before the administration. Obviously, the message the Senior Prefect and his Land Consultative Board wanted the Fon and his notables to understand is that he was no longer the undisputed owner of all the land in his jurisdiction. As the land slipped from his hands, so too did political control over the territory, and so too he is losing control over the subjects.
Ten years later, in 1992, during the period of popular unrest that shook the country, Ndu became the scene of intense state violence in a tax collecting exercise. The area came under military control and six people were killed. The local population hastily accused their newly installed (educated) Fon of 'culpable inertia', and condoning the brutalization and killing of his subjects by state gendarmes. The local population denounced their Fon and even came to doubt whether he still represented their ancestors, the symbol of continuity with the past. At some critical moments, certain individuals called him by his name, an overt sign of dethronement. The chief was swiftly categorized as an agent of the state who was out to destroy the sacred nature of the chieftaincy. To restore some credibility, the Fon of Ndu is said to have apologized to his people and sought reconciliation.
The unwarranted brutality of the forces of law and order had further wreaked untold damage to the chieftaincy. The land had to be ritually cleansed of the blood shed on it, were it to recover its fecundity. Such ritual reconstructions could only be achieved if the Fon was 'in one mind and spirit' with his people. Indeed, in such moments of crisis, the people would expect the Fon and his notables to invoke the mediation of the ancestors by pouring a libation to them so that the 'earth could pass judgment'. As chief priest of the land, the Fon is expected to pour a ritual libation at least once a year at the kingdom's shrine, invoking the ancestors and gods of the land to protect the land and bestow numerous blessings on it. Similarly, each land-owning notable or lineage head is expected to pour a libation on his land if a dispute arises, praying the 'earth to pass judgment'. Occasionally, this practice involved drinking the Fon's wine containing a speck of earth from the disputed area (Chilver 1990).
Reliance on the nyuy nsai (god of the earth) to pass judgment has been the main support of ritual sanctions pertaining to land. In the absence of conflict, notables will still pour libations to the ancestors and the gods of the land just before the planting season and during harvest. These manifestations are the symbolic acts of ownership. Under customary law, no Fon or notable would ever pour a libation on another's land. This is so because one lineage cannot falsely claim another lineage's land with impunity. Any act of trespass will immediately bring about the wrath of the gods and cause the 'earth to pass judgment' and this is a major check on unscrupulous land accumulation by fraud. The performance of ritual functions on land are the obligations that go with the claim of ownership.
These are the political rights and religious duties that accrue to the chief as sovereign. Their observance enhances the protection of the gods and the productivity of the land. The absence of these observances demystifies land; it loses its spiritual value and becomes a mere factor of production. Once land ceases to serve as a link with the past, it is easy for it to be turned into a commodity and then subjected to bureaucratic control.
Modern uses of land by the chiefs.
Two factors have marked major turning points in the occupation and use of land in the NWP. The introduction of cattle in 1919 (Njeuma and Awasum 1989: 288) and coffee in the early thirties (Chem-Langhëë 1989). The introduction of long-horned cattle grazing by Fulani graziers from Nigeria and Banyo has led to numerous problems for resource management since access rights to land for grazing competes directly with the agrarian patterns of land utilization.
The later introduction of coffee provided new patterns of individual enterprise and capital accumulation. As a cash crop, the money earned accrued to the farmer as an individual and not to the lineage. This immediately spurred males to invade surrounding farmland and plant coffee. This implied long-term alienation of land and altered patterns of land use in the subsistence communities. Land occupation increasingly became a case of permanent alienation.
The ensuing competition for land has given rise to conflicts over land for cash crop cultivation and food crop cultivation, and conflicts between farmers and graziers. The major transformation in the customary law principles is the commodifcation of land. For example, Fulani graziers settled in Kom paid an annual tribute of one cow per family to the Fon as a sign of their recognition of the Fon as landlord over all of Kom. With the enactment of the 1974 Land Ordinances, and as a consequence of local politics, the Fulani graziers were persuaded not to pay this tribute. So, a valuable source of royal finance was lost. The late Fon of Kom, Jinabo II, devised a new strategy of selling all unoccupied lands to the Fulani graziers. The local bureaucrats in the Fundong Sub-Division served him notice that he would be arrested if he persisted in 'dabbling in land matters' since, as the local administration now claimed, all land matters were reserved for the Land Consultative Board chaired by the Sub-Prefect.
When asked why he was selling land contrary to tradition, the Fon retorted: 'Why keep the land when the Sous-Prefet controls it anyway'. He saw himself in direct competition with the local bureaucracy for management prerogatives over land. Rather than adopt a confrontational approach to the local state elite, the Fon opted to sell off the land to Fulani graziers. By so doing, he was destroying the material basis of his power which hinged on his ritual construction of space by pouring libations on the same land.
In response to the suggestion that he should have registered his unoccupied lands and then leased them to graziers, the Fon retorted: 'What makes my land my land? Is it that piece of paper or the fact that I am Fon of Kom? It does not matter whether I register the land or not. Traditionally, all grazing land ... is mine, no matter what the Senior Prefect, the Agric. Officer, the gendarmes and the government people ... may say. I am the landlord as far as grazing land is concerned'.
In a more desperate mood, the Fon resorted to graphic metaphor: I have since realized that I am like an (earth) worm since I became Fon of Kom, and more specifically since the Senior Prefect started ... to warn me. Yes, I am as weak as an (earth) worm ... I am like a worm in the midst of ants. On my right, the 'tiny chiefdoms' are biting me, on my left the Senior Prefect and his gendarmes. Everywhere around me, there are pressures. Whether I give the land to the Fulani or not, the Senior Prefect will not only give them but will threaten me with arrest if I challenge him ... Everybody is blaming me as if my successor will not sell the land to strangers ... The land is no longer mine (Chia, n.d.).
The ability to convert public law rights of land control to private law rights of ownership, has led to unmitigated land alienation. Sale of land is such a common phenomenon that future generations might fear to find no family land left for them. This trend has been accelerated by local administrators, such as District Officers, who are taking advantage of the law to seize control over land and other prerogatives that formerly accrued to local landlords.
In response to this encroachment, the chiefs and their notables have been formulating new strategies such as to share family land among family members, unmindful of the fact that land belongs to a vast community, many of whom are dead, few are living, and many are still unborn. Does this mark the disintegration of authority of chiefs and the notables in traditional society? The alienation of the most fundamental of family properties, land, can only tear apart the corporate juristic entity that is the family. This marks the emancipation of the individual from the corporate group.
Chiefs facing the state.
If the old adage that two cocks cannot crow in the same compound is true, then one should not be surprised to come upon confrontations between the state and local chiefs over control of resources and people. The prefectorial order from Bui Division cited above succinctly depicts the nature of this confrontation. The main concern is to determine who has power over the village communities. From a position of strength, the state has sought to co-opt and marginalize the chiefs within its bureaucratic mish-mash as mere auxiliaries. The question is what can the chiefs do? Clearly, this is related to their prerogatives in the management of resources, and how they interact with those state officials that interpret and administer the land reforms. How they devise new strategies to cope with changes engendered by the implementation of the land law reforms should inform us on the transformations the institution may be undergoing, as the chiefs struggle for control over resources and people.
According to section 12 of Decree no. 76-166 of 27 April 1976 establishing the terms and conditions for the management of national lands, the traditional ruler and two of his notables are expected to sit on the Land Commission which is dominated by bureaucrats. Their inclusion on this commission was meant to ascertain the authenticity of customary claims prior to their being converted to statutory rights of ownership under the new law. That they were expected to perform rather marginal roles on the commission is quite obvious from the distribution of tasks. The Sub-Prefect is appointed as President, while the Chief of Service for Lands acts as the Secretary. Within the new framework, the Sub-Prefect perceives his role as that of a real chef des terres , a notion that was commonly used in former East Cameroon prior to the 1974 Ordinances. The real power of attribution lies with the chairman and his secretary, not with the chief and his two notables.
New strategies have been devised to gain some advantage from a potentially hopeless situation. The Fons require that the candidate applying for a land certificate or land grant should first come and pay traditional homage to the palace, failing which the Fon would boycott the session. Hence, the candidate is expected to present drinks and other gifts before the appointed day for land inspection. Evidence from the field suggests that the Fons generally accept a bottle of Scotch whisky and a '5.000 frs envelope'. Once this is accomplished, the Fon would then delegate two of his councillors to represent him during the land inspection.
Exacting such tribute from applicants is a strategy to maintain control over land allocation and also to replenish the coffers of the palace. Although the powers of the Fon and his two notables have been marginalized within the land commission, this ability to get applicants to pay homage to him in the palace is an effective strategy to maintain some political control.
This general state of affairs - of chiefs trying to maintain a firm grip on the land and its inhabitants - is particularly marked in those areas where cattle grazing is practised. Chiefs have always perceived cattle graziers as a source of revenue through their payment of tribute. Similarly, the colonial administration also viewed the arrival of Fulani graziers as a reliable source of income through the payment of Jangali taxes. The Fulani were subject to double taxation, in form of tribute to the Fon and in taxes to the State. This is ample testimony of a struggle for control.
In 1985, I witnessed the then Fon of Nso' installing a Fulani Chief in his palace , an event that had never happened before. The next day, the Fon was summoned to the Senior Divisional office to justify his action since the administration had already installed another Fulani chief for the collection of Jangali tax. The Fon explained that this novel event was intended to enlist a Fulani notable to his entourage of notables and was expected to give concrete form to the policy of national integration. Rumours had it that this was an attempt by the Fon to maintain his political control over Fulani graziers and extract a tribute from them. The Fon was sharply rebuked and instructed to stop meddling with the administration of the land. The attempt to install a Fulani chief represented a new strategy to maintain the Fon's powers over his wealthy Fulani clients. This brought further conflicts between the Fon and the Senior Divisional Officer.
This switch in Fulani loyalty from the chiefs to the Senior Divisional Officer is said to be one of the causes of mounting farmer-grazier tensions. The chiefs and their subjects have persistently accused the administration of colluding with the richer graziers in return for bribes in cattle from them. Not all chiefs, however, have taken the path of confrontation with government officers. Some chiefs have seized the opportunity offered by their membership on the Land commission to exact more tribute from their subjects. This is particularly the case in urban areas where chiefs enjoy much prestige from membership of a government appointed commission. Close association with state bureaucracies is significant to those chiefs with the status of vassal chiefdoms. The German colonial administration used chiefdoms, such as Bali Nyonga, to exact tribute from neighbouring chiefdoms. By the time the English took over the administration, the Germans had emancipated most vassal chiefdoms from that subservient status. They could then pay their taxes directly to the Germans (see Chilver 1967). For the vassal chieftaincies, this pattern of dealing directly with the state has been further enhanced by the decree that recognizes chiefs. These chiefs tend more readily to forge alliances with the state and its agents. Thus, serving on such commissions and boards is perceived as a sign of increasing social status. In such cases, there is an emerging class alliance between the state elite and the chiefs. These vassal chiefs look up to the state elite as their liberators. The mounting restiveness of these chiefdoms pursuant to the classification under the 1977 chieftaincy law is a case in point. Most of these small chiefs shower administrators with gifts in anticipation of an improved classification.
The relationship between chiefs and the state elite is complex and governed by the persistent quest to exert more influence in local matters. When the chiefs perceive that a net gain can be derived, they readily enter into an alliance with the state elite. This is particularly the case of small chiefdoms who now feel emancipated from the shadows of the more powerful chiefdoms. On the other hand, when they stand to lose, they not only adopt confrontational tactics, but also devise entirely new strategies (such as crowning a Fulani chief in the palace) to maintain political control. Control over land stands at the heart of these changing tactics. This already complex relationship has been further complicated by the current democratization process and the political polarization of the local population. The prime concern is to determine what paths the chiefs must chart in order to maintain control over both people and resources.
The chieftaincy appears to be going through one of its most critical periods of transition. The late Fon of Kom, Jinabo II, captured the reality very succinctly when he so graphically compared himself to an earthworm being eaten on every side by ants. On the one side, the ever increasing exactions of the administration and its gendarmes threaten the Fon. In like manner, the educated sons of the land seek a greater voice in village matters. On the other side, the subjects accuse the Fon of selling-out, by collaborating with bureaucrats to divest them of basic rights over land. These competing demands generate centrifugal forces that may destroy the mystique that enshrouds the chieftaincy.
In matters relating to land, the chiefs realize that real power is slipping from their hands into those of the state elite. This realization has caused some chiefs to formulate strategies that violate both basic principles of customary law and the stipulations of the 1974 Land Ordinances. The rampant alienation of land by sale, especially to strangers (such as Fulani graziers are perceived to be), is seen as egoistic and potentially ruinous to the institution. The chiefs are seen by their subjects as neo-traditionalists whose authority is no longer backed by the gods of the land; they feel betrayed by their chiefs. The emerging situation is one of distrust as chiefs are no longer perceived as reliable intermediaries between their people and either the state or the ancestors. The collaboration of some chiefs in the land registration process, especially those formerly treated as vassal chiefdoms, is another example of their ambivalent relations with both the state elite and their subjects. Some chiefs in urban centres perceive the land registration process as a means of enriching themselves. Here again they are seen by their subjects as collaborating with the state elite to dissipate communal land. At each stage, the chiefs and their notables are caught at the centre of turbulent power relations in the modern state. Their basic instincts are to protect their own welfare, not that of their subjects.
The prevailing institutional and legislative frameworks point to the gradual bureaucratization of the institution of chieftaincy. Decree No 77/245 of 15 July 1977 recognizing and classifying chiefs, and the role assigned to the chiefs and their notables on the land commission inescapably point to that end. The question therefore is not whether the institution of chieftaincy is an anachronism, but to what extent the institution can be transformed to serve new needs and yet still serve as a symbol of continuity for the community. The level of power the chiefs can exercise will be determined by their level of collaboration with those who hold the reigns of power - the state elite. The current regime was even, at one point, contemplating the transformation of the present hereditary titles to elective positions to tie in with the so-called democratic process (Biya 1987: 52). It is needless to insist that such a reform would strike at the very foundation of chieftaincy, which is based on ritual and symbolic authority.
With emerging political pluralism, chiefs have suddenly been caught between the competing demands of different political parties. Their initial classification under the 1977 Law on chieftaincy reduced them to mere administrative auxiliaries. They were subsumed thereby within the wider political framework of the one-party state. To give some political content to their attributes, they closely identified themselves with the ruling CPDM party. Consequently, as the NWP emerged as one of the heartlands of the opposition, the CPDM chiefs (as they were considered by many) had to sever their links with the ruling party if they were to maintain some semblance of neutrality, and also if they were to be seen as being above party politics. Some, such as the then Fon of Nso', publicly declared their neutrality and were prepared to welcome all sons of the land, irrespective of their political affiliations.
Where chiefs have sought to impose the ruling party's ideology, violent confrontation has erupted, and for the first time in the recent history of the province, royal property has been deliberately set on fire. The central core of royal authority, the link that mediates between the past and the present in order to chart the future, through rituals and symbols, was placed in jeopardy and became an arena where meanings were now contested. Any form of objectification of meaning through myth was shattered.
The following eye-witness account of the brutal killing of six persons at Ndu by the forces of law and order in June 1992, tells the whole story: 'Today, Ndu market, one of the largest on the Ring Road since colonial times, has been traditionally closed and is only to be opened after it has been cleansed of the blood of those innocent souls. I am not sure it will be the Fon of Ndu to open it. He is eerily worried, selling after the market and some people are now calling him by name - an abomination in Mbum area'.
The vital cleansing ritual that gives the Fon dominion over the land so that he can govern the people had yet to be performed. Now, seen as an agent of the state, the Fon was even called by his name - an abomination indeed! In this emotionally charged political context, can we still talk of the Fon being a 'vote bank'?