"IT IS TRUE THAT POLICIES HAVE OFTEN BEEN THE MOST FAUTIFUL, BUT THE DREAM IS THAT THESE PHYSICAL AND EVEN PSYCHOLOGICAL VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN ARE FOUND IN ALL SECTORS AND PROFESSIONS." CHRISTOPHER FOMUNYOH, REGIONAL DIRECTOR FOR AFRICA AT NATIONAL DEMOCRATIC INSTITUTE
FOR INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS (NDI -WASHINGTHON DC), IN AHOU ATTITUDE MAGAZINE
Born in 1956, in the village of Guzang - Batibo in Cameroon, his parents told him a few years ago that they did not imagine that one day their eldest son would be in the corridors of influence on the Washington DC and across the continent of Africa for issues of democracy and good governance. And neither did he. Today, political scientist, regional director for Africa at NDI, (Washington, DC) - The National Democratic Institute for International Affairs Christopher Fomunyoh collaborates with the greatest personalities of this world , such as Madeleine Albright, former US Secretary of State, who chairs the Board of Directors of NDI. He explains to us how the representation of women in all the constituent elements of society remains essential. Discover the vision of a man with an extraordinary career in the AHOU ATTITUDE interview.
Interview conducted by Annick N'GUESSAN
1 / Please introduce yourself and describe your childhood years and your background.
Interesting question indeed. Until a few years ago, my parents always told me that they did
not imagine that one day their eldest son would be in the corridors of influence in
Washington DC, USA and across the continent of Africa on issues of democracy and good
governance. Neither did I. Born in 1956, in the village of Guzang - Batibo in Cameroon, I
started with a very normal childhood going from primary school to secondary school with
Protestant missionaries, then high school in Bambili - Bamenda, before landing at the
University of Yaoundé, in the political capital of the country, in 1975. After my university
studies in Yaounde, and with a law degree in my hands, I went down to Douala, the economic
capital, in search of a job. At the time, young graduates had better prospects than nowadays,
so I started as an administrative officer at the National Water Corporation of Cameroon
(SNEC), and later joined Cameroon Airlines as a legal officer. At that time, Cameroon
Airlines competed fairly well with other large companies such as Air Afrique and Ethiopian
Airlines. . After a few years with the airlines, I decided to continue my graduate studies in the
United States of America, having been admitted in the very prestigious law school of Harvard
University in the State of Massachusetts.
"MY MOTHER, A CHRISTIAN PRACTITIONER OF HER LIVING, WITHOUT HAVING SCHOOL IN HER TIME, ABSOLUTELY KEEPS HER CHILDREN ATTENDING THE BEST SCHOOLS"
Incidentally, I would be the very first Cameroonianto obtain an LL.M. from Harvard Law School, and that in 1989. After Law School, I embarkedon a doctoral program in political science at Boston University, which I completed in 1994,before joining the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI) where I currentlyserve as the senior associate for Africa and regional director.
2 / Which women marked this period of your life?
First of all, my mother, a practicing Christian during her lifetime and who, without having attended school in her time, absolutely wanted her children to attend the best schools possible. She molded me, as well as my brothers and sisters, very much through her humanism and generosity; her openness to sharing what she had with those in need.
The mother of the late Mrs. Esther Fomunyoh, and his wife Mrs. Mary Anne Fomunyoh, two ladies who forged his life
And then, there were my two grand mothers, paternal and maternal, both of very strong characters that served them well in a context of life in rural areas and in polygamous families in Africa, it was often up to the matriaches to take care of their children and grand children.To this day, I cannot praise or thank these great ladies enough whom I had the good fortune
to see, admire and live with until adulthood. They all contributed heavily to impact the person that I am today.
C.F's mother and three of her four daughters Evelyne, Devodia and Rosaline. “I was born and raised with equal opportunity and respect for women as a golden rule.”
3 / As a child, did you dream of working in the world of politics?
Not at all, especially since I grew up in the Africa of one party and military regimes, so with no particular points of attraction in this regard. At the time, the most politically-minded youth could engage in student and cultural associations, and there I was very active in my region of origin while in high school and at the University of Yaoundé. Back then, some people said
that my dynamism and my leadership in these circles foreshadowed a promising and glorious future, but without knowing how such would manifest itself.
4 / Describe for us the beginnings of your professional career.
My career at Cameroon Airlines started out of simple curiosity to discover the air transport sector which was a novelty for this child born in a village far from the modern world; and it was this company that subsequently opened my eyes to the international scene, given its activities at the time on several continents. As for my second career with the National
Democratic Institute for Inernational Affairs (NDI), I aggressively pursued it because the end of my doctoral studies coincided with various political permutations around the world such as the collapse of the former Soviet Union, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of apartheid in South Africa, the release of Nelson Mandela from prison, and all the democratization efforts that followed. So, in a surge of pan-Africanism, and despite other opportunities that presented
themselves at the time, I felt a moral obligation to support my people on the continent in their efforts to democratize. I therefore applied to join this institute, which was among the very first organizations to support and provide technical assistance to countries in democratic transitions. For the record, I thought it would be at NDI for no more than two, three years;
time to gain professional experience before returning to Cameroon to make my contribution more directly to the political and economic development of my country. More than two decades later, our continent, Africa, continues to challenge me and I am happy to always be able to respond.
"WE HAD MANY CAMPAIGNS ACROSS THE WORLD SUCH AS WIN WITH WOMEN WHICH MEANS WIN WITH WOMEN OR CONTINENT CAMPAIGNS TO PREVENT VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN IN POLITICS."
5 / How would you define your responsibilities and work at NDI?
As senior associate for Africa and regional director, I participate in the design of technical assistance projects for pro-democracy partners engaged in the strengthening and consolidation of democracy and good governance. I also oversee the implementation of
projects by staff both at headquarters in Washington DC and in country teams where we have representation. It is such a valuable and enriching experience that opens many doors and opportunities as oftentimes you engage socio-political activists, as well as civil society actors, leaders of political parties, and elected officials, all in one breath. The same goes for my colleagues who work on other continents, as NDI has offices in cloxe to 60 countries around
the world, spanning five continents. It is worth noting that our work is non-partisan; and, being funded by the US Congress and donors like the United States Development Agency (USAID) and others, our activities do not cost our partners or host countries anything.
6 / Is equality between men and women important to you? Define your commitment to this topic on a daily basis. What do you propose for the most effective protection of womens rights?
Indeed, on a professional level, the quest for gender equality is a permanent priority for NDI, and we have a whole department for Gender, Women and Democracy that ensures that all our projects integrate the gender component to ensure continuous awareness and effective support for the participation of women at all levels of decision-making and politics. Thus we
constantly conduct awareness campaigns around the world such as "Win with Women" and
how to prevent violence against women in politics. In addition, since 2020, the NDI created a Council on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, to demonstrate our commitment to these principles. I have the honor of being appointed co-chair of that Advisory Council.
7 / You travel the world and interact with various governments. What are your observations on the role of women in international politics, particularly in Africa?
In my various interactions on the continent, I see, unfortunately, that most of our countries are not yet able to guarantee for women, equal access to decision-making positions at the highest levels. So, you find very dynamic and active women activists within political parties, but very few in the central committees or political bureaus of these parties. For example, of
the hundreds of African heads of state that have served in the past 30 years of democratization, only four women have held this office, and only one of them through competitive multiparty elections. Similarly, for the legislative branch of government, the
average in terms of elected women remains very low in our Parliaments or National Assemblies. And yet, women constitute more than 50 percent of our country populations, and we find very bright and enterprising women in universities, in the liberal professions and even in the private sector, but not in high level political leadership positions. Some countries like Rwanda and Senegal have institutionalized quotas to facilitate this legislative representation, but overall for the continent, there is a lot of work still to be done in this area.
8 / In the United States, women did not obtain the right to vote until 1920. What is their place today in American politics?
On this aspect, we can all see that even some old democracies suffer from an unacceptable gap between the aspirations of women and their place in the highest levels of political power. It has taken almost 100 years, so a century since obtaining the right to vote, to see a woman Speaker of the House of Representatives or the lower chamber of the American Congress, and also for the first time a woman vice President of the United States. According to the
database compiled by the Inter-Parliamentary Union on the place of women in legislatures, the United States is 77th out of 190 countries, and that is not a great place to be for the worlds leading democracy.
9 / In France, female politicians earn less than their male colleagues. Is the same true in the United States?
But yes, these inequalities also exist in the United States, and this is one of the reasons why we must continue to advocate for old habits and backward practices to change.
10 / Sex scandals involving politicians seem common in the United States, what do you think of movements like #MeToo which encourage women to speak out?
Indeed, the #Me Too movement has raised awareness on the prejudices that women suffer when the professional environment in which they work does not allow them to prosper in their careers because of unjustified pressures of all kinds, in particular sexual harassment. It was time for women to find their voice to denounce these acts, and for the perpetrators to be held
accountable and also pay the price. It is also reassuring for women to know that they are supported in their demands by todays society which no longer tolerates the misogynistic abuses of the past.
It is true that politicians have often been the most at fault, but the tragedyis that this physical and even psychological violence against women still pertains in all sectorsand professions.
SOCIAL MEDIA :
11 / As you collaborate with great female politicians around the globe, which ones have impressed you the most?
I am lucky in my work to meet frequently with great personalities, many of whom inspire me through their vision, their humanism, their courage, and the dedication with which they have been able to expand freedom and civil rights in their countries and an improvement in the
living conditions of their fellow citizens. These personalities have greatly impacted the history
of their respective countries and yet their humility and generosity in sharing knowledge and experience know no bounds. I would cite global leaders such as H.E. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, former president of Liberia -- first woman to be elected president in Africa, she got her country out of a civil war and deep identity crisis and put it back on the rails of economic and political development.
With former President of Kosovo Jahjaga Atifeke and former President of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf at the latter's farm a three-hour drive from the capital Monrovia.
I am also thinking of former president Dr. Joyce Banda who had to manage a complicated transition in Malawi while Vice-President, and later became President of the
Republic at the untimely death of her predecessor with whom she had a difficult working relationship. There’s also Mme. Catherine Samba Panza who succeeded in a democratic transition in the Central African Republic and led the country out of a major crisis to inclusive and credible elections. Outside Africa, I am also thinking of H.E. Jahjaga Atifete, this dynamic lady who found her voice at a time of great upheaval in the Balkans with the breakup of the former Yugoslavia and was able to negotiate the emergence of Kosovo as an independent
C.F with former President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria, former President Jahjaga Atifete of Kosovo, and former Foreign Minister of Ghana Hannah Tetteh, all observers for the national elections in Liberia in 2018.
12 / So, can you name two politicians whose work you admire?
Oh yes, Angela Merkel who, of humble origins in what was then East Germany, not only knew how to attain the pinnacle of power in a reunified Germany, she governed very effectively for 16 years and has made her country more prosperous and more unified, all
without unnecessary fanfare or arrogance. Also, the president of the Board of Directors of NDI, Madeleine Albright, former American Secretary of State, who, despite having been a refugee twice in her childhood, became so accomplished in academia and politics to be the first woman Secretary of State in American history.
C.F with Mme Madeleine Albridgt and Mme Marie-Madeleine Kalala (former Minister of Human Rights in the DRC) in 2004, during the Democratic Party convention in Boston, USA.
Today, she's still very simple and easilyapproachable, teaches graduate courses at Georgetown University, and still cares about thefate of the most underprivileged among us. These remarkable global women leaders deservethe greatest respect and admiration from everyone.
13 / Jackie Kennedy, Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton (former Secretary of State of the United States) and now Kamala Harris, women in American politics have been sources of inspiration for many designers. Is being a woman in politics an asset or an obstacle to success in this environment still largely dominated by men?
Fortunately, the world is getting younger, and we must keep in mind that young people who increasingly constitute the vast majority of voters, always keep an eye on designers to determine the likeability of a particular candidate. For many Americans and observers of US politics, Jackie Kennedy remains a legend of beauty and elegance in the upper echelons of
American politics, even though the sudden and untimely demise of her husband, former president John F. Kennedy took her off the scene rather prematurely. Since the 1960s of Jackie and John Kennedy, the world has also evolved and today, a feminist woman of
character or beauty can catch the eye of the designer with her elegance and at the same time be respected for what she brings into politics.
"IT ALMOST NEEDED
100 YEARS, SO A CENTURY SINCE OBTAINING THE RIGHT TO VOTE, TO SEE A WOMAN PRESIDENT OF THE BASIC CHAMBER OF THE AMERICAN CONGRESS "
C.F with my daughter Christina Fomunyoh who is as interested as her father in the essential role of women in international affairs and politics. A student at Pennsylvania State University, she is very active in the student movement on campus. Already during her high school years in Arlington, Virginia, she was elected student president; one of the few black Americans to hold this position since the opening of this elite high school in the Washington suburbs in 1957.
Let us not forget that in the 2016 US presidential election, Hillary Clinton had almost three million more votes than Donald Trump, even though the electoral college system prevented her from becoming president. As for Michelle Obama, already highly appreciated as first lady of the United States, she remains very popular, and in 2020, and for the third year in a row, led in public opinion polls as the
most admired American woman. Michele Obama is a great lady, lawyer by training, and alumnus of the prestigious Harvard Law School. She definitely was able to impose her own style on the White House with elegance and simplicity, and today is still highly respected and admired. Of course, Michelle Obama is still young, relatively speaking, and I tell myself that
her future is still full of positive influences on American society and on humanity itself. As one of her fans and alumnus of the same law school at Harvard, I enthusiastically wish her more positive impact in the years and decades to come.
"YOU MUST GO. YOU MUST RUN AS YOU CAN. SINCE THE BEIJING CONFERENCE IN 1995, OPPORTUNITIES HAVE BEEN OPEN TO WOMEN AND CONQUERED."
14 / Talking about Michelle Obama being elegant, how do you define elegance, and what is the ultimate feminine outfit in your opinion?
Elegance, in my opinion, is this ability to dress and wear in a coherent way that fits with the person, and which projects a perfect harmony of one’s personality and the context of the environment in which they find themselves. For those looking from the outside, a dress code that avoids clashing contrasts craves respect, admiration, and consideration. Surely women's
outfits differ according to cultures and even customs and traditions; but generally speaking, the best feminine outfit in my view would be one that makes the wearer feel as comfortable as possible in the environment in which they find themselves.
15 / What does your daily life or, broadly speaking, your lifestyle in general consist of? And how do you stay in shape?
Outside of working hours, I like to listen to music, especially African music. Because for me musicians channel a lot of ideas about society, and peoples’ thoughts and experiences. Listening to musicians for me is like opening up an encyclopedia and either reminiscing about the past, contemplating the present or projecting into the future. I also like walking, which
serves as a time for reflection in a free space close to nature. This is part of my inextricable attachment to my roots and being born in an African village, very close to nature and its beauty and peacefulness.
C.F and his wife Mary Anne Fomunyoh, and their daughter Christina Fomunyoh
16 / As a man, what is your favorite outfit?
Although the suit and tie is a must for service needs, I absolutely adore African outfits that some people commonly call traditional outfits. In almost every social or cultural event I attend in the United States, I carry a traditional garb to promote our culture and also to remind the younger generation of immigrants to never forget where we came from. Moreover, everytime I
go to Cameroon or anywhere else on the continent, people are happy to see me in the traditional outfit, as that reassures them that I am strongly in tune with my roots, anchored in the land of our ancestors.
C.F in traditional dress in North Cameroon
17 / What advice would you give to women who, like you, want to succeed in politics?
They have to go for it as best they can. Since the Beijing conference in 1995, opportunities have opened up and many have been won by courageous and daring women. Security Council resolution 1325 of 2000, advocates equal opportunities for women in matters of peace and security and even humanitarian work and development. Good governance is all of
the above and as in the era of democracy which requires competitive elections, the barriers of
the past must be overcome or squashed to enhance this effective participation and leadership by women. I encourage these women aspirants and I congratulate those who dare and who already succeed in making their way into political leadership positions.
18 / What are some of your exciting upcoming projects?
The list is very long, but I would mention just two which are: aiming to return home and being more present in Africa to be able to make a more significant contribution to the development of the continent by leveraging all this knowledge and these relationships that I've been able to accumulate in over 25 years of hard work on democracy and good governance.
Additionally, I hope to intensify humanitarian actions through my family foundation that works in this area (www.tffcam.org) As my country, Cameroon, is going through difficult times with a fratricidal war, the humanitarian challenges are growing and will require enormous efforts to restore a certain normality in the lives of my fellow citizens and to give back to the people their lost dignity.
C.F in his hometown of Guzang, Cameroon, with the young people during the summer vacation.
19 / The final word
My warm thanks and appreciation to you for this wonderful opportunity in your newly launched magazine which, like many of your previous initiatives, seeks to project the best of Africa in all its diversity, including in relation to the place of women. I wholeheartedly and enthusiastically congratulate you and your Team for your collective efforts in favor of women. You are the pride of the continent and we wish you every success in your actions.
Thank you Christopher
Photos credits Christopher Fomunyoh