Uncanny Autochthons: The Bamileke Facing Ethnic Territorialization in Cameroon
The Bamileke in contemporary Cameroon are known by the services of the General Delegation for National Security as one of the approximately 200 ethnic groups that have been assigned a registration number, and they must like all citizens formally identify their ethnic group at the time of national identification. Unlike most Cameroonians who identify with a primary language, the Bamileke usually identify with a chieftaincy or a village of origin, which may not always correspond with a distinctive language. This situation has led the police to hold a map of chieftaincies during registration in order to assist the self-identification of those whose declared place of origin is located in the former Bamileke Region. While this operation reveals the extent to which the Bamileke ethnonym corresponds to a linguistic umbrella term and sets apart the Bamileke as an ethnic group in state records, it also highlights the general assumption that one can match every registered ethnic group with a discrete region of the country’s territory. The structure that grounds this assumption is referred to as ethnic territorialization in this dissertation and is critically examined from the vantage point of ethnographic exhibition, identification with homelands, political competition, and colonial history.
The legibility and traceability of both ethnic identity and putative home villages that come with national identification in Cameroon contrast distinctly with the generally repressed character of ethnicity in national politics and state institutions that have the representation of the nation as one of their main objectives. This was the case in the early 1990s when the newly created National Museum of Yaoundé had to confront the imbalances and contradictions that would result from an effort to put the “synthesis of Cameroonian cultures” on display. It was also the case in 1996 when the newly amended constitution included a provision for the rights of indigenous populations and limited candidacy for each of its ten regional council presidencies to “an indigenous person”. In both cases, the Bamileke have been described in the literature as the major concern for lawmakers. In the first case, the predominance of ethnographic materials from the West Region was perceived as a threat to both the visibility of other ethnic groups and the cherished principle of regional balance which ensures the enrollment of state representatives on the basis of ethnic quotas. In the second case, the protection of indigenous people was understood as a means developed by the ruling party, identified as the Beti, to undermine Bamileke interests in regions other than their own.
Given the ambiguous character of ethnicity in Cameroon, this dissertation resists the temptation to reduce the apparently recent institutionalization of indigenous rights in Cameroon to a matter of the current international increase in claims to “belonging” or autochthony, or to a strategy developed by the ruling party in order to fragment the current political opposition. Rather, this dissertation draws lessons from an ethnography of the failure of the government in Yaoundé to give an ethnic description of the nation at the National Museum and the relative success of a non-governmental institution, known as The Road to Chiefdoms, that created a museum in the former Bamileke Region with the same goal. Accordingly, this dissertation suggests that the apparently contradictory outcome of these two initiatives both results from a political fiction that territorializes identity ethnically and makes use of chieftainship and land tenure as its cornerstone. More importantly, this dissertation examines the ways in which the Bamileke actively engage, partake in, and question state politics as both indigenous people or autochthons and gradual opponents of the principle of autochthony. It further highlights the reasons why any debate on either regional balance or autochthony in Cameroon must include the matters of chieftainship and land tenure as institutions whereby the Cameroonian state seeks to portray itself as a supra-ethnic political entity that incarnates a non-ethnic Nation to come and avoids being reduced to only one of the many ethnic groups officially assumed to be at its foundation.