Wednesday 23 April - 2014

Macbeth in Cameroon

By Chief Bisong Etahoben

Where power is seen to come from witchcraft, and witchcraft is called upon to slay one’s enemies, good governance doesn’t feature, explains Chief Bisong Etahoben. The Paul Biya regime in Cameroon bears much of the features of the ill-fated King Macbeth, who also derived his ambition and bloody reign from a witches’ cauldron.  But will all end well in Cameroon, with good rulers and natural order restored, like in the play? Or will the country in the end see a revolution?

In Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, a greedy and ambitious local leader is inspired by witches’ prophesies – which he doesn’t understand – to commit murder and usurp the place of the rightful king, Duncan. Where Duncan had the good of his people at heart, Macbeth is consumed by one thought only: to maintain and extend his power, and to slay his enemies. To this end, he again relies on witches. This very fact, ironically, becomes his downfall: he has underestimated the wisdom of prophesies, which spoke veiled truth but easily fooled a cruel and ambitious man. In the end, the natural order of things is restored, including a victory by a proper king.

When I read Macbeth, it is as if I am reading about my country, Cameroon.  In my long life as a traditional chief in Limbe, I have seen good community rule in my country eroded and ambitious ‘kings’ try to usurp, maintain and extend power by all means. I have seen ‘kings’ resorting to witchcraft and bloody murder for this purpose.  I have seen how prophesies of power, like those from Shakespeare’s witches’ cauldron, made what were once bright Western-educated intellectuals, like our present President Paul Biya, take on governance jobs that they were and are simply not capable of doing. Urban legend has it that Paul Biya once admitted as much himself in an interview with French media: “The French gave us a state machinery to rule,” he is thought to have said. “But they didn’t tell us how.” (1)

If he didn’t say this, he should have, because local and foreign observers agree that Cameroon’s two presidents since independence – his predecessor Ahidjo as much as Biya himself – have not, in a combined 53 years in power, managed to turn around a state that was always bureaucratic, ineffectual and repressive. This failure must have given rise to a profound sense of incapability and powerlessness in both. Which, perhaps, explains why first Ahidjo and then Biya, much like Macbeth, resorted more and more to black magic to cement their rule.

“The French gave us a state machinery to rule,” he is thought to have said. “But they didn’t tell us how.”

Cars, mansions and human organs

Early this year, just before the 14 April senatorial elections, twelve young men were found murdered in the government capital Yaounde. All had had body parts removed, typical of the kind that is ritually turned into charms that are believed to ensure political victory. In one case, a young man was caught with the severed head of his own father. He later told police he had been promised the equivalent of US $30,000 by a politician in the contest for the senate. The politician (who dismissed the claim as ‘rubbish’) was left unbothered by the police, but he and other politicians of the ruling party are still widely suspected to have been behind the killings. In other cases, politicians buying charms made of body parts have asked suppliers for refunds when elections and other competitions turned out unfavourably.

The belief that your special powers come from an alien, magical, force is not difficult to grasp when you are Cameroonian.  After all, we had ‘special powers’ coming to our country from alien places to begin with: there is a reason why our people often refer to ‘white witches’ when they talk of the colonisers, or of Ahidjo’s and Biya’s French advisors. Our presidents’ powers, like our borders, come from France: it was France that in colonial times established the state bureaucracy that they are ruling; it was France that educated them and, through advisors and support, helped them to their ‘throne’.  Their riches – their expensive cars, clothes and other possessions – are alien, too:  paid with help from foreign donors, the result of the sell-out of their own country’s resources.

Ask any Cameroonian how they feel when they see a ruling elite member’s mansion, car park and other possessions. “He must be a great witch, to escape the jealousy and wrath of other witches,” they will say, or, depending on their assessment of the individual and his situation: “The witches will get him for being so presumptuous.” Both answers are based on the same, very rational, assumption: wherever the rich guy got his possessions from, it can’t be from good, hard work. You don’t get these things from good, hard work in Cameroon.

Wherever the rich guy got his possessions from, it can’t be from good, hard work. You don’t get these things from good, hard work in Cameroon.

Our rulers, feeling incapable to handle the complex, foreign machinery they have been sitting on top of, know this, too. They wouldn’t know how to work hard, and for the good of the people, from where they are, even if they wanted to. However much lip service they may pay to ‘good governance’ and ‘democracy’, they are just as disconnected from the country they rule, disconnected from the good of the people and from Cameroon’s natural development, as Macbeth was in the play. They know it and, like Macbeth, it drives them crazy.

Fire burn and cauldron bubble

What does a ruler do when he suspects that he isn’t really the right person sitting on the throne?  Especially if he is, like Macbeth, greedy to maintain his position and wealth, and fearful of what enemies he made in the process may do to him if he would ever step down? Again like Macbeth, he goes back to witches. The Biya administration in particular has been described as a regime of witchcraft by a number of Cameroonians, mostly in whispers, seldom openly. The whispers refer to rituals involving animals (to transfer powerful characteristics of these animals to oneself); rituals borrowed from pygmies who are said to be able to become ‘lions’; the drinking of human blood; rituals ensuring that one can be invisible, and therefore present when enemies talk. Biya was, at one stage, said to be so plagued by his predecessor and renewed rival Ahidjo (who apparently had mastered the arts of invisibility and omnipresence) that Biya saw his presence everywhere, much like Macbeth saw Banquo’s ghost.

It was already under the reign of Ahidjo, that witchcraft started to be seen as a way to maintain power by the new rulers. Shortly after independence, graveyards in most of the urban centres became looting grounds for power mongers, who profaned the graves in search of human body parts with which to concoct what they termed ‘eternity potions’.  After outcries from the population, local authorities fortified the grave yards with iron fences and sentries, but to no avail. The practice continued for years, until the ‘dead’ body parts were found to be of little use by many a disappointed customer. Upon which the so-called ‘shrine priests’, who had positioned themselves as the advisors and medicine men of the power-hungry, declared that indeed, body parts of the dead were virtually useless for the attainment of long-term objectives like eternal power. In order to secure that, organs of the living should be used for charms.

After that, ritual murder for body parts, like the ones in Yaounde earlier this year, started in Cameroon. One case directly linked to Paul Biya’s ruling party was that of the Reverend Mveng in Yaounde, in 1995, after Biya had been in power for 13 years. Mveng had been a vocal critic of Biya’s rule. He was found naked, in his toilet, on the morning of April 22 that year. Biya’s men were widely suspected to be behind this, and rumours abounded that Mveng’s brains had been cut out and turned into charms.

The murder case came back in the spotlight recently, when ruling party member Dr. Charles Ateba Eyene claimed that indeed, Mveng was ordered killed so that his brains could be used in preparing charms that would enable the clique around Biya to remain in power for decades on end. Though retired Senior Superintendent of Police Sontia Sadate, who took part in the investigation of the death of the Reverend and who was one of the first persons to see the corpse in the morning following the assassination, came out publicly to say he found the clergyman’s head intact, this has not convinced the majority of Cameroonians, who still strongly believe that the body of Mveng was mutilated by occultists in high places within the government.

Adding fuel to the suspicion is the fact that the Reverend Mveng’s body had been found naked. Nakedness and sexuality are a feature in many rituals, murderous or not, as sexual actions are believed to transfer occult powers. Stories abound about the sexual aspect of the rituals allegedly being conducted in Biya’s government palace. Daniel Ebale Angounou, whom President Biya once described as his ‘young friend’, wrote a book – forbidden in Cameroon – in which he accused Biya of conducting rituals involving sexual relations with animals. Among other things, he alleges that Biya once kept a female dog in a special room, for daily sex sessions during three weeks, after which he, he thought, would have gained more special powers. The account also covers the alleged dismay of Biya’s wife, First Lady Jeanne-Irene about this: she would have attempted to kill the dog, after which she was, the narrative goes, locked and imprisoned in her room.

Unlike Lady Macbeth, who was the power behind her husband’s plotting and slaying of rivals, Lady Biya found herself dead as a result.  She died, a year later, under mysterious circumstances, on an evening just after Biya had left on a foreign trip. Ebale Angounou alleges that she was killed both as a human sacrifice, and as a result of her resistance against the practices in the palace.

Homosexuality as witchcraft

One feature in the narratives about the sexual rituals practised by Biya’s rulers is homosexuality. Some officials are alleged to have ritual homosexual relations with young men, based on a belief that this act transfers young masculine powers to the ‘dominant’ penetrating partner. This is what makes homosexuality very ambiguous in Cameroon, and has been the cause of much anti-‘gay’ sentiment among the populace: many see homosexuality as a way for young men to ingratiate one self with the leaders, thereby incurring unfair favours.

People engaging in homosexual activity because of this belief would not see this as an issue of sexual preference and they would not call themselves ‘gay’.  The activity would rather flow naturally from the traditional view that it is empowering for a man to ‘conquer’ a woman by having sex with her. By the same token, a man who is desirous to conquer his enemies, can conquer them by sleeping, for example, with that enemies’ wife. Or by penetrating the enemies sexually themselves. Or by, as now often happens, penetrating any young man, thereby hoping to ‘sap’ his masculine powers.

The penetrated ones, in contrast, are seen as having outlived their usefulness after the act . There are certainly no ‘gay rights’ for them.  Not very long ago, a young Cameroonian graduate, Djomo Pokam, was thrown to his death from the balcony of the plush Hilton Hotel in Yaounde; subsequent investigations revealed that he had been sexually sodomised before being thrown to his death. Though hotel authorities are supposed to have a record of the individual who hired the hotel room from which the unfortunate young man was thrown, it was the hotel staff who witnessed the fatal fall who ended up being prosecuted and jailed. The name of a high government official who is said to have been the guest in the room was hurriedly sanitised from hotel records and officialdom to date continues to protect his identity.
Cameroonian law formally outlaws homosexuality with penalties of up to 5 years in jail. But it is only the ‘ordinary’ homosexuals – those without any position in government – who fear exposure and prosecution. Over the last five years, many media in the country have published lists of highly-placed individuals in government accused of homosexuality. But some of the most powerful and well-known ‘lovers’ of young men are absent from the lists, and none of the government officials who were named have been prosecuted. Those who are prosecuted for homosexuality are invariably the ruling men’s wretched victims, or their rivals, who are feared to want to enter their ‘kingdom’, quite literally, from the back door.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow

Cameroon’s current descent into a nightmare where fields are barren, people suffer and progress is reverted is almost perfectly Shakespearean.

Accounts of strange rituals are unconfirmed and may be exaggerated. Still, it is fact that opponents of Biya have been found murdered, with certain body parts missing; it is fact that his wife has died under mysterious circumstances; it is a fact that young ‘lovers’ of powerful men have been victimised amid much secrecy. That Biya does believe in the power of witchcraft was also confirmed by the man himself, when he blamed violent protests in the capital Yaounde in 2011 on ‘apprentice witches’. Since he emerged the successful oppressor of the rioting people, he must have found confirmation of himself as the more powerful witch.

Being a traditional chief, I can attest to the fact that witchcraft was not used like this in the olden days. I remember that my elders ruled their own communities with as much wisdom as they could muster, and in the public interest, too. And even if I am faced by much adversity caused by our corrupt and inept government, I try to keep up this practice now that I am a chief: in the traditional way, where magic is used for good. Because its power – in which all Cameroonians believe, not excluding myself – is traditionally used to seek guidance for ruling well and for healing where there is damage: not in establishing and maintaining dictatorships, not for slaying real or perceived rivals.  What we see in my country today is not a rule of old tradition: it is reinvented tradition turned bloody, and the country, like in the play Macbeth, suffers as a result.

Cameroon’s current descent into a nightmare where fields are barren, people suffer and progress is reverted is almost perfectly Shakespearean. We are moving further and further away from democracy.  Nowadays, only relatives of leaders stand for positions; media tell lies; and many people will talk of money as a memory, a thing they once had.

We can only hope for a change of the tide, such as Shakespeare describes in Macbeth, where good and just people, together with nature itself, rise up to chase the bad leaders away. Perhaps advances in the magic kingdom will evolve to the point of putting a stop to the sacrifice of human beings on the altars of greedy individuals seeking power and wealth. Perhaps our forests will start to move to Biya’s Dunsinane Castle to uproot him. Or perhaps, in more modern terms, we will see an actual revolution. In the eyes of this old traditional ruler, a revolution might actually not be such a bad idea.

(1) "La puissance coloniale nous a donné l'independance, mais elle ne nous a pas montré comment gérer les affaires de l'état". (“The colonial power gave us independence, but they did not teach us how to govern".)  Alleged quote from http://www.africa-wakeup.com/component/content/article/64-diagnosis-of-a-problem-2.html

Chief Bisong Etahoben (61) is a Cameroonian investigative journalist and editor-in-chief of the Weekly Post newspaper. He been writing extensively for the international media and has participated in several transnational investigations. He is a member of a number of international investigative journalism professional bodies including the Forum for African Investigative Reporters (FAIR).