(The case of fons in multiparty politics)

Part 2: The institution of Fon among the Tikar


Every human achievement is rightly the result of a collective effort. Therefore before we begin our second part, let us genuinely acknowledge the fruitful reactions of those who read our first part. Needless to say that some touched on issues we are yet to come to. I am most grateful in a special way for the contributions of Professor Ian Fowler of Oxford and Prof. Jude Forkwang of Ontario. Both of them are great anthropologists with appreciable background knowledge of Northwest ethnography. So, I take them very seriously. I recognize, as both of them said, that culture is a great receptacle and has gone through several mutations as a result of socio-political and economic evolutions. In fact, we shall deal with this in our third input. I am also aware that we can never get back to where we were before, nor could anyone pretend that Nso' culture stands out differently in the Northwest Region. This would be a false affirmation! Furthermore, the case of the alleged appointment of the Fon of Nso' to the CC of the CPDM, only gives us the basis for this write up. It is not the main subject of our preoccupation. So let us re-focus and put our concerns on a broader perspective. That said, we need to indicate in response to other preoccupations that some people had, that there are always variables and invariables in every change, and that is why we can still recognize the same boy who has grown by 20 or more years. Invariables by their nature, simply DO NOT and SHOULD NOT change. So there is no attempt to dogmatize “Tikar culture” (if this exists).

I also acknowledge the fact that the concept of “tribes”, “ethnic groups” and communities, are special anthropological headaches especially in relation to Africa. No one can ignore the impact of colonialism and other foreign interventions in the African geo-political and social atmosphere. Therefore the observation that “traditions” and “cultures” are not pure entities, is an honest social admission. In fact, all the interventions that I have received so far, are taken in good faith. Unfortunately, many comments touch on areas which lie outside the competence and scope of our present consideration. So we would have to make apologies for not attending to them in this write up.

In part 1 we introduced and defined the contours of our investigation. The issue at stake is the role of Fons from the Northwest in multiparty politics. The word to underline is MULTIPARTY politics; not just POLITICS in general. The provocation has been the alleged appointment of the Fon of Nso' into the CC of the CPDM. The reason for the reaction is because even the fons of the Northwest Region will accept that the Fon of Nso' occupies a special place in NorthWest cultural Protocol. So, as the saying goes, “if gold would rust, what will iron do”?

A great part of what has been happening in our traditional institutions is due to the fact that many people do not understand the institution of the Fon as understood among the Tikar. If we did, neither the fons nor those who are wooing them into deviance, would continue to act the way they are doing. And there is no attempt here to romanticize our cultures and tradition. Of course, we live in a world of constant change, but there should be very grave reason to necessitate a change of what has governed the life of a people for centuries. Furthermore, one wonders why when it comes to Africa, scholars are prepared to take a very easy argument out whereas in the West, there is a DELIBERATE attempt to conserve the patrimony! Those who doubt, let any politician try messing up with the British, Danish, Dutch or Spanish Monarchy! Inspite of their “development”, “learning” and political gymnastics, they know where to draw the line when it comes to royalty. What is good for the goose is good for geese!
Aware of this, part 2 of this work will focus on the institution of Fon among the Tikar. There are two key words here, both of which lend themselves to great anthropological controversies Fon and Tikar!

1. The Concept of Fon:

1.1 A linguistic problem: There is a huge linguistic difficulty here due to the fact that today several words are often used to designate traditional rulers. Scholars of the Bamenda Grasslands variedly refer to them as “fons”; “chiefs”; “kings”, His Royal Highness; His Majesty and so on. And these titles are apparently used indiscriminately and equally whether one is talking about HRH the Fon of Mbinon or about HRH the Fon of Oku or HRH the Fon of Nso'. All of them are said to be “tribal” leaders; and this introduces another difficult word for anthropologists and ethnographers. It is not too clear whether in the case of the Northwest Region, we should be talking about “tribes”, “ethnic groups” or “communities”.
We do not have the time to get entangled in linguistic analysis, as this would carry us way out of our real concern. However, we shall adopt the word “Fon” to mean the legitimate and paramount traditional ruler of a people who have a common ancestry. In some places like among the Aghem, there are more than two fons, but the people know who is their Paramount Fon.

We also have a difficulty with the word “tribe” when applied to the Northwest Region. The word “tribe” comes from the Old French tribu, itself derrived from Latin tribus, referring to the original tripartite ethnic division of the Roman state. Consequently it may not be the appropriate designation for what we refer to in our context as “tribes”. However, language is a symbol to which people attach meaning. And the people in the N.W. Region have so used the word tribe that most people know exactly what we are talking about. The difficulty lies with school men and women! We do not have the luxury of entering into that grove for now. But there are “tribes” who claim Tikar origin.

1.2. A Tikar problem: The appellation “tikar” used to describe some “tribes” in the Northwest Region raises anthropological problems. Among scholars, there has not yet been a solution to the so-called “Tikar Problem”.Much has been written on this (cf. E.M. Chilver 1966; Chilver and Kaberry 1968; J.P. Warnier 1985; Nyamnjoh 1985; Nkwi 1987; Nyamndi 1988; Fardon 1988; Fowler & Zeitlyn 1996; Yenshu 2001) . Whatever the academic arguments are, the following “tribes” of the Bamenda Grassfields claim Tikar origin: Nso, Kom, Bum, Bafut, Oku, Mbiame, Wiya, Tang, War, Mbot, Mbem, Fungom, Weh, Mmen, Bamunka, Babungo, Bamessi, Bamessing, Bambalang, Bamali, Bafanji, Baba (Papiakum), Bangola, Big Babanki, Babanki Tungo, Nkwen, Bambili and Bambui. This paper has no time to get involved in this very exciting debate about the real existence of the “Tikar”, but we use the term here to refer to the tribes listed above.To appreciate the Tikar, perhaps it is important to briefly refer to the general African belief in the community.

2. Belief in the value of the community

Belief in the “Community” constitutes one of the basic stones of African Traditional Religion (ATR- cf. Tatah 2010). Every individual gains identity in Africa only as part of a community “within which the person’s individuality is exercised.” (Joseph Therese Agbasiere, 1997) This is the basis of the South African concept of Ubuntu. which Mbiti ( 1969)summarizes in these words: “Only in terms of other people does the individual become conscious of his own being, his own duties, his privileges and responsibilities towards himself and towards other people.... Whatever happens to the individual happens to the whole group, and whatever happens to the whole group happens to the individual. The individual can only say, ‘I am, because we are; and since we are, therefore I am’” So for the African, the individual has meaning only within the context of his community. This community is held together by authority that is believed to be divine. And this is what gives the “fon” his central role.

3. The institution of Fon

There is a convertibility of existence between the fon and his community that one cannot exist without the other. But the fon is primarily an intermediary between the living and the “living dead”, a spiritual leader and a chief priest who offers sacrifices on behalf of his people. He only assumes administrative office by inference. Owing to his spiritual ministry in the community, the authority of the fon is indisputable, special and considered as divine. The reference by some anthropologists to the “Divine rights of Fons” among the Tikar is probably in recognition of this spiritual function.

Traditionally, there was no politiking to be fon because there was a clear lineage of succession and the king-makers knew that they had a sacred role to play. So they followed very precise instructions (laid down by their ancestors) in the choice of who was to be fon. Although a tip from the predecessor (while still alive) was often important, moral rectitude, natural wisdom and love for the common good were deciding factors. Sometimes, the oracle or the soothsayer would be consulted if there were any doubts.

The spiritual significance of the fon is more clearly brought out during his enthronement and coronation. In the Western Grasslands of Cameroon for example, the ceremony involves well-defined rituals meant to give mystical and spiritual powers to the chosen heir. In most tribes, the electum first spends at least a week in communion with the “living dead”. This takes place in the “family shrine” - a “sacred house,” often at the centre of the village, believed to be the resting place of interested ancestors. After 7 days the elected fon is then rubbed with camwood, annointed with soil and officially enthroned. The occasion for the public presentation of the new fon becomes a tribal festival, celebrated with pomp and peagentry. Neighbouring fondoms, as well as those with historical links, are all invited.

The fon is a corporate person, so he is not called by his name. He is an incarnation of the tribe. He is spoken of in the Third Person Plural (They). He does not mix with people at will, nor does he shake hands with anyone, not as a sign or pride but because he has too many hands and eyes. The fon never dies, even if the individual who was enthroned actually dies. In fact when the individual dies, it said that the fon is missing or that the “sun has set” on the tribe. The fon rules with and through a council of elders. He is NEVER allowed to take sides in any conflict, even if his own biological child is involved. The neutrality of the fon is such that once anyone had problems and ran into the palace, he was safe. The palace belonged to everyone, irrespective of their origin, sex, status, religion and opinion.

All of this may sound superstitious and weird to someone who does not fully understand what culture actually means. This will be our next consideration in Part 3. So STAY ON.....

Nothing would be done at all, if a man waited until he could do it so well
that NO ONE would find fault with it. Bl. John Henry Newman, dixit Bernard Nso'kika Fonlon

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