A lack of voting in Cameroon by indigenous peoples cannot be simplified as voter apathy, but is reflective of deep frustration and hopelessness.
Evidence shows that Baka indigenous peoples in Cameroon value liquor over voting.
It’s not so simple and such preferences are certainly not generalizable to the whole community. But, understanding one man’s choice to drink the local brew, “kitoko,” over casting his vote provides insight into the strained relationship between civil society and the government.
Recently, a Baka man, Mgwape, traded in his voting card for kitoko for reasons that did not necessarily reflect indifference to voting but instead indicated frustration. Mgwape questioned why he should vote when “elections have never given [the Baka] anything – not hospitals, not food, nothing. We still have to trek long distances to get game, gather fruits, honey and tubers as well as fish.”
As a hunter-gatherer people, the Baka are struggling to sustain their livelihoods in the same ways as they have in the past. Living in the southeastern rainforests of Cameroon, the Baka hold land communally and have intimate relationships with their environments. Cameroon, though, has historically refused to recognize indigenous peoples’ rights to their ancestral lands, which has led to the state’s soaring deforestation rate, reflecting the second highest in the Congo Basin, following the DRC. As a result, the resources that used to be readily available to them are either gone or difficult to reach. The state has not only usurped the Baka’s lands, but it has also not compensated for the loss of livelihood. It is therefore not hard to understand Mgwape’s position and loss of faith in the weight of his vote.
Voting fraud, in this case the bartering of voting cards for other goods, has been noticed throughout the country. Reports have shown that individuals are registered in different towns with various ID cards, and the names of deceased people have appeared in voter databases. Politicians are believed to be partially responsible for collecting and redistributing the cards. This phenomenon only exacerbates an already tense relationship between the indigenous people and their national representatives, including a president who has been in power for 30 years. Not only have politicians overtaken indigenous peoples’ lands, but they are now presumably benefitting from indigenous peoples’ frustration so that they may remain in power. The Social Democratic opposition to the governing party, CPDM, claims that they will not tolerate these “games” anymore, and that they will seek justice before, during and after the election. CPDM representatives quell accusations saying that they do not need to use such methods to win the election.
Calls for educating indigenous people on the importance of voting within a corrupted system are for naught. Instead, efforts should be made to simultaneously eradicate the corrupted voting system as well as rebuild trust between the indigenous people and their government, perhaps starting with recognizing their land rights, so that Mgwape and his community’s faith in their vote can be restored. Such a goal is not easy, will take time and relies on the participation of all stakeholders, but is crucial to securing justice.
The plight of indigenous peoples is not confined only to Cameroon but it is a pattern in many of the world’s rainforests, which is becoming even more evident for those who support them and ask for justice and equality.
To help the indigenous peoples defend their human rights and lands, please visit www.rainforestfund.org/donate and consider making a contribution this holiday season. 100% OF YOUR DONATION GOES TO THE FIELD.
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