What does the demand for good governance mean to an ordinary citizen living in a remote village in the developing world? For a woman in Bangladesh, social accountability means she can state “when I open the tap every morning, water should flow from it.” Could a villager in Cameroon in similar circumstances demand such a service of the state?
As a Cameroonian who visits home every year, I often puzzle over the nature of the social compact between citizens and the state. How do ordinary citizens exercise or express their ‘voice’?
On a recent trip home, I was able to witness the remarkable ingenuity of my compatriots struggling to eke out a living with a very limited asset base and few resources. Invariably, in all the big cities and towns I visited, including Douala (the economic capital) and Yaounde (the political capital), I found an endless stream of ambulant merchants hawking their wares along the streets, at stop lights, almost everywhere. In essence, these cities have literally been transformed into an endless market space, with little attention paid to any zoning regulations.
This market phenomenon represents both the immeasurable coping capacity of my fellow citizens and the apparent lawlessness or absence of any shared code of conduct underpinning civic behavior and engagement in the public sphere. This is not to say that there were no police officers on duty; on the contrary, they were plenty of them along the crowded streets, flagging and shaking down taxi drivers for imaginary violations of traffic rules or for lacking appropriate documentation regarding the roadworthiness of their vehicles. These brief encounters with the omnipresent forces of law and order were characterized by quick handshakes and the exchange of money, after which the cab drivers continued their business as usual – even though, at first sight, the vast majority of taxis on these half-paved roads did not meet the basic conditions of roadworthiness. Given the poor quality of road infrastructure or lack thereof, navigating these streets is a nerve-racking test of one’s patience, with interminable traffic jams providing the street hawkers a captive market.
The questions that constantly came to my mind were: Who do citizens turn to for accountability in this chaotic state of affairs? How does one achieve accountability in this system? And, more personally, do I belong here? And what will it take for me to do so once more? Heading to my family’s village in the North-West Province of Cameroon, where the state’s presence is at most minimal, seemed a perfect antidote to the hassles of urban life. But could one truly exercise an ‘exit option’ from unresponsive state structures by retreating to a quieter village environment or was this merely an illusion?
At the village, I found myself constantly holding court, discussing a wide range of issues (including answering the incessant questions about how the Obama administration will transform governance in Africa). My fellow villagers were very excited that the government had just ‘given’ them a new secondary school but were also worried that they had to undertake most of the construction themselves if classes were to begin during the fall. It has become common practice for government departments to allocate health and educational licenses to local communities with the expectation that the community will provide relevant infrastructure. Repeatedly, I was called upon to contribute to a school or health project, the repairs of local road infrastructure, or the construction of the local church building. The local councils were, for all practical purposes, a replica of the central government structure, collecting meager taxes without ever providing services to the community. In these circumstances, the state emerges as the authorizing environment to local communities for the provisioning of services with token assistance from the government.
In such a context, one begins to wonder: is there any genuine social compact between citizens and the state? What, if anything, might be the point of departure for framing an agenda on the demand for good governance?
What one finds within the village setting are local customary institutions, which are not fully aligned with state institutions. Local elites exercise power and privilege by straddling formal and informal institutions, acting as power brokers between the different institutional arrangements. The bargaining and contestation plays out within an elite realm. Where is there space for ordinary villagers? Indeed, are villagers actually ‘citizens’ in anything but the most formal way? Cui bono?