The fall of the Berlin Wall inspired freedom and hope in many African nations. Cameroon, Chad, and the Central African Republic all experienced changes which reflected the spirit of events occurring in central Europe.
The tenth anniversary of the fall
of the Berlin Wall was predominantly a European celebration – understandably so since it and other events of 1989 symbolize the failure of Soviet communism in Europe and the rebuilding of the continent. The geopolitical implications have affected relations between states in every part of the world; indeed, they have helped to reshape the world order. It is perhaps less often remembered that tearing down the Wall also had an impact on political life in countries not readily associated with communism.
I experienced this first-hand in west-central Africa from the vantage point of Yaoundé, capital of Cameroon, where I found myself in the autumn of 1989, as ambassador for Canada. I also covered Chad and the Central African Republic.
It can be said that all the significant developments in central Europe over the past decade can be traced back to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Rid of Soviet domination, and later of occupation forces, central European states were free to pursue their goal, which was overwhelmingly to reaffirm their European identity.
Freedom and hope were the prevailing sentiments. They caught the wind all the way to Africa where in several countries local political elites were feeling the pressure to loosen up. In the three countries in which I was most closely involved, the reaction of ruling parties varied significantly from opportunistic to outright battening down of the hatches.
In Cameroon, government ministers and opposition activists alike told me that freeing central Europe from Soviet control compelled them to go forward on their paths, albeit with varying degrees of motivation. In the Central African Republic, I heard leaders thunder about the dangers inherent in “le vent de l’est,” which seemed to provide them with a convenient excuse to keep the screws on.
The “eastern wind” blew over central Africa for a few brief years. In Cameroon, where the political culture was the most developed and where the dangers of “tribalisme-confessionalisme” were most present, the leaders had no choice but to react to Indigenous demands for greater transparency and participatory democracy. In March 1992, the first multi-party elections since independence in Cameroon some 30 years earlier grew partly from a seed carried on this wind.
Africa consists of over 50 very different countries; not all were receptive to what was occurring in central Europe. Not all were cohesive states able to react to international events – although this was not necessarily the case for individuals living in such states. However, I believe that very few ruling parties, let alone political activists, could remain indifferent to the shock waves set off by the fall of the Berlin Wall.
At the end of the 1980s and into the 1990s, Cameroon saw its Western partners open their arms to central Europe. It feared competition for the finite fund of aid dollars. At the same time, donor countries had become more rigourous in their demands on the recipient government – good governance had become a new watchword. All the various definitions included respect for human rights and participatory democracy. The pressure was on Cameroon to show that it bought into this.
In Europe, the fall of the Wall led to a series of parliamentary and presidential elections in the former Soviet client states. The excitement generated by the birth or rebirth of parties and the re-emergence of free media fed the desires of politically active Cameroonians. Many had long been fighting their own fights. The fact that the same objectives were being realized in Europe – and with the encouragement of Western countries – was a tremendous boost for them.
The government recognized this and to a certain extent accommodated it. There was merit in allowing a certain measure of political freedom in the press. Very pragmatically, it concluded that donor requirements for participatory democracy could be dealt with expediently by holding “multi-party” elections. In countries with foggy recollections of party politics, which in any case did not always fit the country’s historical and social experience, it was expeditious on the part of the West to gauge a country’s commitment to “democracy” by its successful organization of such elections. Nevertheless, given the pattern in central Europe, it fit the bill.
In one of many discussions with presidential advisers about the particulars of holding multi-party elections, I was asked by a key decision-maker, with a smile in his eyes, how many parties we would require. He was cynically right; that was not the point. He was conceding, however, that the external environment, specifically the recovery of free political expression in central Europe, added urgency to keeping up with the times and with Western donor expectations. He probably realized that once you start down this road, expectations have already been raised and that is a step toward participatory democracy – at least, in the “inculturated” African version of this Western concept.
Cameroon’s neighbour, the Central African Republic, reacted altogether differently. Its leaders saw nothing good coming out of central Europe. On the contrary they railed against the nefarious consequences for their all-too-fragile state. What they really had in mind was the precariousness of their hold on the state. At a rare congress of the ruling party in 1991, I heard one party representative after another warn against disorder as had been unleashed in central Europe; placards carried by hordes of uniformly brightly clad activists at the closing of the party congress read: “Non au vent de l’est.”
Yet, it is in the Central African Republic that a young activist reflected on the downfall of the Ceaucescus in Romania and their summary execution. He took some pride in drawing attention to the relatively civilized manner in which the current regime in Bangui had dealt with Jean-Bedel Bokassa, the disgraced “emperor.” He had not been simply eliminated but sentenced in court. There was no intention here to draw any unwarranted comparisons with Europe or to gloss over any of Africa’s notorious difficulties. However, here was a call for a Westerner to take notice that in Africa, too, there was hope.
In Chad I saw yet another variation on the impact of events in central Europe. Unfortunately, Chad was practically oblivious to goings on outside its immediate region. Central power changed hands militarily, and the challenge to the capital was to keep its hold in the regions. Chad remains an interesting case in the study of the rivalry between France and the United States for influence in Africa that became more evident after the end of the Cold War.
Ten years on, much has been written about the transformation of Europe and the geopolitical reordering symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall. A lot remains to be said about the global reach of these events and how they inspired people, not complete strangers to European civilization but certainly living in another world. This is one illustration of the universality of human rights and aspirations.