The Politics and Law of NGOs and Associations
Despite the large number of traditional groups with various goals at the local level, including secret societies that conduct traditional rituals, village development associations that work for the betterment of their village, and women’s groups, the right of Cameroonian citizens to form legally recognized associations remains rather precarious. Historically, the regions formerly controlled by the British were allowed more autonomy and developed more local associations, a difference that persists to the present. Unlike British common law, French civil law does not assume the right of citizens to form associations. Instead this right had to be explicitly granted (Salamon and Anheier, 1996). Moreover, under the one-party system that continued until 1991, autonomous organizations were viewed with considerable suspicion and either dissolved or subordinated to the ruling party (see above).
The reforms of the 1990s authorized the formation of NGOs and other types of associations, albeit under fairly strict conditions, and more recently the state—at least officially—has adopted a more positive view of NGOs and purports to be anxious to work with them. This reorientation was undoubtedly, in part, a reaction to the growing preference of international funding agencies for channelling development funds to NGOs rather than government (see chapter 2). International environmental NGOs also participated in this trend and became eager to develop partnerships with Cameroonian NGOs. In the difficult financial circumstances that followed structural adjustments, the government could ill afford to walk away from possible infusions of funds by blatantly interfering with the formation or operation of NGOs and other associations— even if the NGOs competed with the government for development funds, constituted a new potential power base, or perhaps provided the politically disaffected with an outlet for their energies and ambitions. These policy changes and major infusions of funds led to very rapid growth in the NGO sector, including not only environmental NGOs, but also groups focused on human rights, sports, education, women’s issues, family planning, and cultural activities. This trend was accelerated by state failure, especially since structural adjustments, which caused citizens to turn to NGOs to meet critical needs. In addition, a surplus of laid-off government workers and unemployed college graduates, some with technical expertise, provided a substantial pool of potential founders. Still, the rapidity of change has led to many uncertainties about both the formal status of NGOs and the extent and sincerity of government support for them. Moreover, the NGO sector has noticeable weaknesses, including funding shortages and the associated shortages of manpower and trained staff, problems in maintaining fiscal accountability, and overdependence on foreign funds (Fonjong, 2007b; Gabsa, 2007).
Cameroonian law makes allowance for the formal recognition of both nongovernmental associations and so-called common initiative groups, with much more elaborate requirements and procedures for the former. Official government recognition is sometimes a prerequisite for obtaining outside funding. NGOs can be set up under Law No. 90/053 of 1990, through the systems of either authorization (for foreign NGOs) or declaration (for Cameroonian groups). NGOs created by declaration are required to declare their existence to the local authorities by submitting two copies of their constitutions. They are considered legal once they have obtained official receipts for the required documents. Associations that are registered abroad, managed by foreigners, or have 50 percent or greater foreign membership can be authorized by the minister of territorial administration upon the recommendation of the minister of external relations. In addition, Law No. 99/014 of 1999 grants special status to NGOs that enter into an agreement under which they agree to pursue aims that are in the public interest and, in turn, receive certain tax benefits. The new law also provides for the creation of foundations and an NGO commission, with civil society representation, to represent and regulate them. To date, relatively few NGOs have been officially certified under these requirements.
NGOs are technically different from the common initiative groups authorized by Law No. 92/006 of 1992. These are organizations of an economic or social nature set up voluntarily by individuals having common interests and working together as a group. They can be formed simply by adopting a written declaration during a constituent meeting of at least five persons. The law gives a common initiative group legal existence once it has been issued an attestation of registration with the local authorities or two months after the date of its application to the authorities (Tanga and Fonchigong, 2009).
In addition to formally registered and recognized NGOs and common initiative groups, many environment groups, clubs, and interest groups have been created at the level of villages, schools, and communities to take on specific environmental problems. Although these groups may not be officially registered as defined by the law, they are sometimes registered with the village or school communities in which they operate.