Cameroon: the urgent need for trade union renewal in a time of severe restrictions on freedoms
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The struggle for freedom is common to women and men throughout the world and throughout time. Like Sisyphus' rock, we never finish trying to get to the top of the mountain. But the context is never the same and, at the same time as each struggle is individual to one group of people or another, it enriches our collective and global experience. Cameroon's experience in this area could easily be integrated into the general landscape of African struggles, or at least those of Francophone Africa. The main characteristics would be the same: young countries, nations facing difficult early years, as satellite economies of a harsh and ultraliberal globalisation, with a relatively recent experience of trade unionism... Perhaps that says it all, but, as the local truism goes: “Cameroon is Cameroon”.
Democracy put to the test
Cameroon entered not into democracy but into a democratic process in the early 1990s. The legal texts that paved the way for and accompanied this process are certainly among the best that exist. In theory, Cameroon’s democratic process is going well: a full multiparty system with more than 250 registered political parties, a constitution that incorporates and enshrines the major international and African declarations and charters of rights, a plethora of laws that also enshrine the main known fundamental freedoms, the regular organisation of elections by universal suffrage, nothing has been left out of the classic democratic ritual. In practice, however, the political reality does not measure up.
The country has had the same President of the Republic for 40 years, the same President of the National Assembly for 30 years, the same President of the Senate since the establishment of this venerable institution. The President of the Republic has not held a single meeting with his opponents since 1990. No opposition party has been able to organise a meeting or an authorised demonstration here for 20 or 30 years. The last party that tried to do so saw its activists arrested, tried and sentenced to heavy prison terms, and they are still imprisoned despite the “strong protests” from here and elsewhere.
In terms of human rights, the country is today divided into war zones (the far north of the country where Islamist terrorism is rampant with the Boko Haram sect as a central actor, the anglophone west where a separatist rebellion has been in conflict with the national army since 2017) and zones not of peace but more modestly of non-war.
In the war zones, Cameroonian and international NGOs  regularly publish damning reports on the horrific abuses perpetrated by all parties present on the frontlines. In the rest of the country, outside the war zones, the independence of the judiciary is strongly questioned. There is talk above all of a justice system under orders, especially since the Head of State is at the same time President of the Higher Council of the Magistracy, of a justice system that is quicker to track down political opponents than proven criminals.
Systematic undermining of trade union action and activists
As far as trade union rights are concerned, Cameroon shows the same ambivalence: it has some good laws but little inclination to apply them. The country has ratified the eight fundamental conventions and laws of the four guiding principles of the ILO, but at the same time has kept, especially for public sector trade unions, a 1967 law and its 1968 decree of application, the most relevant provisions of which are contrary to these conventions, and it is these laws that it applies, contrary to the principle of the hierarchy of legal norms .
Since the return to multi-unionism in 1990, 98% of teachers' unions in the Cameroonian public sector have not been able to obtain a receipt certifying that they have declared themselves in accordance with the legal provisions in force: they therefore operate in quasi-illegality, under the regime of administrative tolerance. Since 23 December 2014, a law on the repression of terrorism has made it possible to treat all forms of unauthorised demonstrations as acts of terrorism that are subject to military tribunals. So how can human and trade union rights be defended and promoted with any success in such an environment?
It must be done, however, and this is what many Cameroonian trade unionists are doing year upon year. They succeed so rarely that most observers believe that the weakness of the Cameroonian trade unions is now the real touchstone of the government's social policy. Nevertheless, strategies, some old and some new, are being developed and implemented to overcome these obstacles and meet the main challenges.
The government in power in Cameroon, master of the clocks, almost always bets on the long term and relies, often successfully, on wearing down and blunting any determination and undermining the strongest commitment: cases of even flagrant violations of trade union rights, brought before the courts, remain pending from year to year and end up forgotten and abandoned. There is no better deterrent to recourse to justice.
The state creates its own unions and relies on them to mitigate the views of hostile unions in the eyes of public opinion. These unions lift strike orders that they did not issue, and in the media defend the government's social policy, which is generally that of the large capital groups that control the country's economy.
The government encourages and maintains the division of the unions that resist it and this has resulted in a highly fragmented trade union landscape: nearly 12 central organisations represent the workers, more than 400 unions represent the workers in the transport sector, about 20 in the education sector...
But there is also the more insidious action that the government has been carrying out for years, which has even more devastating effects on the unions.
In recent years, in the public sector, the state has systematically attacked what has been achieved: delays of four, five or more years in the payment of salaries at the beginning of a career (here we are talking about "taking care" of staff entering the profession), payment of two-thirds of salaries rather than payment in full, with the last third being held back for years, non-payment of housing allowances, an accumulation of unpaid promotions that have been signed off but are not immediately followed by a financial reward, etc. This strategy has several simultaneous aims: to impoverish and weaken workers, to discourage union membership fees, to shift union struggles from the improvement of working conditions and living conditions to basic survival; to shift union action from structural demands to cyclical demands.
This strategy has worked very well so far: From union fragmentation, we have moved on to the ultra-fragmentation of the demands of the teaching profession in a multitude of micro demands taken up by different interest groups, demanding support for one small group, housing allowances for another, for yet another their documentation and research bonuses, their outstanding pay when they have only received two thirds of their salaries, and reminders about one issue or another; then the same demands give rise to new groups that appear in another year or period of time. The result is a disintegration, a pulverisation, pure and simple. These interest groups, which are given priority and a great deal of publicity by the government, have captured and monopolised the attention of the media, public opinion and teachers over the last few years (specifically since 2017 with the creation of the indignant teachers collective) and relegated the unions to the shadows and the presumption of impotence. The loss of credibility of the unions has been almost complete.
Avenues for trade union renewal
Faced with this, the unions, the most lucid of which are aware of their weaknesses, are trying to implement a programme of trade union renewal (the golden age of Cameroonian trade unionism was in the 1940s and 1950s under colonisation, with a mini trade union revival at the beginning of the 1990s): a programme of territorial networking, and then of building up membership at the regional, departmental and local level. The aim was to build a credible national trade union power capable of correcting the blatant imbalance of power that gave the government the upper hand. This strategic choice was not intrinsically bad, but it suffered from an incomplete analysis of the situation on the ground: by neglecting, even temporarily, the short-term but daily and urgent needs of teachers in the name of long term and structural needs, the unions turned teachers away from the trade union movement and threw them into the open arms of interest groups that were certainly more dynamic but more ephemeral because they focused on more individualised demands. Discrediting the unions will probably have a lasting impact and will be one of their major challenges in the years to come.
What strategies should be used to address this? After much analysis and debate, four main strategic paths for the years to come have emerged.
Firstly, unions will need to continue and persist in following the legal route despite the hold ups and setbacks. This is why the vast majority of public sector unions have refused to submit to the accreditation procedure imposed by the government and have chosen to stick to the declaration of existence procedure enshrined in Convention 87. However, this trial of strength limits what they can do on the ground , particularly given the impossibility for these unions to open an account in a traditional bank, with all the consequences that this entails for the financing of unions and the management of union finances.
Secondly, we need to work on building real trade union power, and this implies an effective national presence, strengthening the density of regional membership, and serious training for trade union officials (first of all the intermediate and then grass roots leadership, then the rank and file) to master the key issues in the trade union struggle. This seems like an immense task, but with a good mix of methods, we can progress with reasonable speed in this area.
Thirdly, the problem of trade union fragmentation will have to be addressed, first in the education sector and then more broadly across the whole social field. The unity of action already achieved today in the education sector is only the first step. If we do not move beyond this towards trade union unity, the employers and the state will always have the upper hand. Will this be an easy goal to achieve in the short term? I don't think so: the current level of understanding of the issues among the key players is low, and all the trade union branches are more or less at the same level. As a long-term goal, it seems to me that the chances of achieving it are quite high.
Finally, the unions must remain permanently active, even though this can come at a very high negative cost. Every time there is strike action, the sanctions imposed, usually illegally, on trade unionists set back the pace of unionisation. Teachers’ demands are increasingly related to their basic needs, especially given the State’s disengagement from the social sector in favour of the market or commercial sectors: they find it increasingly difficult to make ends meet. As we noted above, one of the great mistakes of the unions has been to neglect this state of affairs in order to focus on structural issues. This must not be repeated. But trade union action can and must be diversified. It is also necessary therefore to think about actions that restore faith in the trade union movement, uphold an ideal of generosity, and promote the image of positive trade unionism. To this end, trade unions must develop software to fight for quality education, for a sustainable environment, for more inclusive, democratic, transparent and accountable organisations.
In short, can political freedoms, human rights and trade union rights be defended and promoted in a non-democratic context? It is certainly not easy and yet it is not possible to do otherwise. It implies high risk investment and takes infinitely more time. The time needed for a proper analysis and for the development of appropriate, shared solutions. It also takes time to find and put in place the necessary resources. In Cameroon, the trade unions’ greatest enemy has often been time: they have generally wanted to change everything at once, as if with a magic wand. Some of today's leaders may be beginning to understand that, like employers and the State, trade unions will have to find ways of taking the long view if they are to rebuild the trade union movement and eventually achieve trade union renewal.
Notably Human Rights Watch, NDH-Cameroon, Réseau des Défenseurs des Droits Humains en Afrique Centrale (RHEDHAC), Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa, International Crisis Group.
Section 45 of the Cameroonian Constitution states that " international treaties or agreements duly approved or ratified have, upon publication, an authority superior to that of laws".
The ILO Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations (CEACR) in its observations on Cameroon in 2016, analysing this state of affairs, said that " Consequently, trade union members and officials face hostility from the administration, and the functioning of trade unions which cannot hold union meetings in schools or obtain membership without a legal status is seriously hindered".
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.