ILC Ideas | Kah Walla

In November 2023, the ILC sat down with Kah Walla, a Cameroonian politician, entrepreneur and social activist who ran for president in 2011. She is also the CEO of STRATEGIES!, a leadership and management consulting firm she founded in 1995. In this interview, Walla discusses her perspectives on strategies for social change in Africa.

You’re an entrepreneur, an activist, a politician. It looks like you're working to make change with lots of different tools. How have you transitioned between these different tools for social change? I’m especially curious how you eventually found yourself running for president of Cameroon, especially when the odds were so stacked against you.

To start off, I think I’m a very privileged African. I come from the Cameroonian middle class. My parents were both college-educated, in fairly high-level managerial positions. My dad was in the civil service; my mother was in the civil service, but also worked in the NGO world. They both believed very strongly in education as the most important investment for their children. So I got a very good education in Cameroon and then went to university in the United States. I also say that I was probably in that last generation where we came here to go back there. We were not coming to the West, whether it was the U.S. or to Europe, in order to stay. We were coming to get an education and go back and build our countries. My parents were the independence generation. They got independence for us and, in my home, it was very much about, “We fought for independence and we achieved that and now your responsibility as the next generation is to build the continent and build the country.” It ended up in my generation that we were 50/50 — I think 50 percent of us went back and 50 percent ended up staying, because things were already getting quite bad in in Africa by the late 1980s, early 90s when I went back. We are also the generation where our parents said, “Build the country, but don’t do politics.” They had just gone through independence, and independence in Africa was a very painful, violent process, especially in some countries, including Cameroon. And so for your safety— they’re your parents – they don’t want you to be on that path. They said, “Don’t do politics.”

Now, I had had an interest in politics since I was about eight, nine years old. But, you know, you listen to your parents when you’re young. And so, I had done an MBA, and I thought the way I’m going to change Cameroon, the way I’m going to contribute to building Cameroon, is by building an excellent company where we hire Cameroonians, we build up Cameroonian expertise and we take it out to the rest of the world. And we did that. We have a consulting firm, STRATEGIES!, that’s 28 years old now, that is based in Cameroon with 100 percent Cameroonian consultants who work all over the world. Since 2017, we have a branch office in D.C. We work in over 30 countries in Africa. So, you know, we did alright as far as businesses go. We did alright for our staff. Maybe did well with our clients. But we were certainly not changing Cameroon.

And so, I began to get interested in civil society activities and became very active in certain associations, in community projects and so on — building wells, building schools, doing entrepreneurship, training for women, for young people. We had success. We would train 500 women and 400 of them would improve their sales and increase their market share and be able to hire other people. I had my vision on scale. What I had as a vision was the transformation of my country into a place with peace, justice, democracy, a vibrant economy. And I felt like we were doing things for pockets of people, but we’re not reaching for the fundamental system.

I often say that my work in my company and in civil society led me to politics because where the barriers were—where the hurdles were, where people with an enormous amount of will and energy and even resources would get stuck—was always the political barriers. It was always the fundamental system, the system that didn’t provide infrastructure, water, electricity, roads. It would be political decisions that didn’t make sense for people who were trying to build a small business or even sometimes for people who were trying to build a school, it would be the corruption of public officials. The parents would get together and pool their money together to build a school for their kids and then find that they had to bribe an official to get the land or to get the space.

I realized the problem is political. And I got to a stage where I felt like I had a choice: Either you get involved at the core of the problem or you shut up and stop being an armchair politician where you’re fixing everything from the armchair but you’re not actually involved in providing solutions. I also got really mad. I was really, really angry. My country is an amazingly rich country; name the resource and we have it: oil, gold, cobalt, diamonds, huge mineral resources, huge natural resources. Cameroon is abundant in terms of water, in terms of rainfall, in terms of land. The fertility of the land is amazing. And probably most important, human resources. We are lucky in that the first president of Cameroon invested heavily in the educational system and we have a high literacy rate and Cameroonians are very dedicated to school and really do well in school. And we have a very entrepreneurial culture as a country. So, here we are with everything anybody could ask for in the world and 40% of our population is living in poverty. Sixty percent at the time did not have access to electricity.

Cameroon has only had two presidents since independence. The first one was president for 22 years. The second one is still in office and has been in power for 41 years. And I thought, “We have got to offer ourselves—and the world—something better than this. We have got to show that Cameroon has something else to offer.” And that was what really drove my path to running for president. It’s also a presidential system. I had been a local government official. I’ve been elected at local office and understood through holding that office how the Cameroonian government works. I saw that change, real systemic change at scale, can only happen from the top. So, I decided to run for president.

Your president is 90 years old. He’s the oldest head of state in the world and the second-longest ruling president in Africa. Is there a succession strategy? What does the next generation of leadership look like?

He’s a dictator. Let’s not have any qualms about what kind of system we live in. And dictators, by definition, do not have succession plans. If you have a succession plan, it means that you have allowed other leadership to emerge. And dictators find that dangerous. My position is that we should not be waiting for a succession plan from this 90-year-old man who has been in power for 40 years. We have to make our own succession. So we set out to. I ran in 2011 and, in 2013, my party ran in the in the municipal and legislative elections. We won seats but, after that, we determined that we would not be able to remove the Biya regime from power through elections. Throughout history, nobody has ever voted out a dictatorship. It’s just not possible, because the dictatorship controls the entire electoral system.

We set out in 2014 to build a nonviolent movement capable of carrying out massive protests, massive enough to bring an end to the dictatorship. This is a strategy that has worked in countries around the world, from Romania to Burkina Faso to Egypt. That seemed to be a model that could work in our country and that’s what we set out to do — and that is what we’re still doing. We have a strategy of political transition which starts with putting an end to the current regime. After putting an end to the regime, putting into place a transition government that is led by people who have the mandate to carry out national dialogue. This is a country that since the end of colonialism has never defined itself, has never said what it means to be Cameroonian. What is the relationship between the state and the citizen? What is the form of state that we would like to have?

You know, all these fundamental questions need to be discussed by Cameroonians, and we need to define the kind of nation that we want to build going forward. We have post-colonial heritage. Cameroon was colonized by the French and the English. Today, there’s a low-grade civil war in Cameroon, along the lines of the former English-speaking part and the French-speaking part. The Anglophones are a minority, 20% of the country, and have been systematically discriminated against since independence. For us in our movement, which is called Stand Up for Cameroon, it is absolutely necessary for us to have dialogue about this post-colonial heritage. We do not believe, contrary to some Cameroonians, that the country should split up along the lines of who colonized it. We believe that we can build a real Cameroonian identity, which is post-colonial, which acknowledges the fact that we were colonized, but does not build our future according to our colonial identity.

For us, it is the end of the regime. It is national dialogue over a number of issues and then it is institutional reform, including reform of the electoral system so that we can have free and fair elections. And the transition period is then concluded by elections that are credible and that people can truly participate in. This is the political offer that we put on the table for Cameroonians and where we ask them to join us in building up this movement that can actually make this transition happen.

When we look at Africa right now, we've got this domino effect of coups. There also seems to be some split between the former French colonies and the former British colonies, that the former French colonies are much more susceptible to these coups right now. That may be coincidence, but I’m wondering what you make of this phenomenon. Why is it happening now? And how do we stop it?

I think we have to understand why the coups are happening, right? First of all, there is quite a history of coups in Africa. There are only about 10 countries in Africa that have never had an attempted coup. The vast majority of the African countries have experienced an attempted coup and there is no Anglophone-Francophone divide. Nigeria is amongst the countries that has had the largest number of attempted coups. Ghana is right up there on the scale. Coups occur and Africans are not crazy.

There is the saying that when you prevent peaceful change from happening, you are sowing the seeds for violent change to occur. This is very true in Africa. We have a tendency to focus on the military coups without looking at the constitutional coups and the electoral coups which occur. If we’re talking about stopping coups in Africa, we should not be talking about stopping military coups, which are an indicator of the fact that you have had constitutional and electoral coups which have kept people in power for so long and have closed all of the avenues to change in such a way that the people actually support the military coming in with guns. And I think that especially for our Western partners, they need to look at their support. They work with this guy who has done a succession of electoral coups for the last 41 years. He’s their friend, their partner. If they continue to do that, we will have a military coup in Cameroon. The Bongos [in Gabon] were all great friends of the West. They passed on power from father to son and nobody blinked at that. But now there’s a coup and there is trouble. Well, you reap what you sow. So I think one of the things where Africa needs to ask itself—it’s our continent—but also the West needs to ask itself is, “How have we been supporting the constitutional and the electoral coups?” And if you want to stop military coups, you start from there. Stop supporting dictators. Stop supporting the people who remain in power forever and ever. If you continue to do business with them and you continue to support them by providing financing, by providing support in various forms, you will get military coups. I think we need to look at it in that trajectory.

I’m just coming from Burkina Faso where I had the privilege of facilitating a workshop with parliamentarians from seven different countries. Four of these countries were countries in transition: Chad, Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso itself. I am personally fundamentally anti-coup. I believe in nonviolence as a principle, as a strategy. I think you should avoid violence, almost at all costs. So, I went into the workshop very prejudiced against these countries that are under military rule. I have to say, I walked out of there a lot more encouraged than I went in. In three out of four of these countries, a transition is actually taking place. People have an end-goal of improving the governance in their country and they have a roadmap of the steps that they’re taking in order to be able to do that. I think that’s a wonderful place to be, to actually be rethinking the governance of your country so that it serves the citizens of your country better.

Second thing that I observed is that the average age in the transition countries was 10 to 15 years younger than in the non-transition countries. These representatives were fairly balanced in gender. There were quite a few women in each of the delegations. These were finance committees and on them you had people who were chartered accountants, finance consultants, who had worked in government for years in the Ministry of Finance. That is an indicator that even though these are military governments, they are being purposeful in the parliamentarians that they have nominated. They are nominated officials, but they are at least being purposeful in terms of what they want to accomplish in terms of improved governance. That’s the part that I found encouraging.

There are fundamental parts that I’m very worried about. This is the tension in all of those countries—between trying to make a transition happen, trying to get the entire country on board for this huge transformational change that they want to do, in a context where they have security challenges, and in a context where you have a great power competition going on between the West and Russia and China. These countries are really struggling to bring everybody together behind a vision of transformational change in such a context. The tendency is to not want to hear dissenting voices, to not want to hear critical voices, to not want to hear groups that feel like their interests are not being defended in this process. And so we are seeing clearly some violation of fundamental human rights, free speech, right to assembly. The quality of what you’re going to do as a transformational process is not going to be very good if you don’t have critical thinking going on, if you don’t have people who are questioning various steps, and if you don’t have a process for integrating that questioning, improving the process as you go along. So there are fundamental things to be to be worried about.

The thing to do is to engage with these transitions, not to shun them. For the most part, the world is shunning them and keeping them on hold. I think our reaction should be the exact opposite. I think there is a possibility for engagement. I think there is a possibility as we engage to remind them, “Why did you do the transition again? Why did you do the coup? You said it was to improve governance. You said it was because the resources were not getting to the people you said it was. So your transition has to be making that happen, even if it’s your final goal. Even as you transition, we should be seeing some of those fundamental changes going on.” And the other aspect that I see in engaging with them is that there is a need for technical competence. This is not an easy job, no matter who you are. To totally transform governance in a country, some of whom have had very little actual experience with democratic practice, it’s not so easy. You need a lot of technical competence. You need a lot of strategic thinking. You need people who are addressing that tension between respect for fundamental human rights and getting everybody on board to a towards a certain vision.

I would say in this moment, the regional organizations like ECOWAS need to engage with those countries. The continental organization, the African Union, needs to engage with those countries, and certainly the international community need to find ways. This is difficult work. It’s not easy to engage because I think we cannot compromise on fundamental human rights. We cannot give them a little slack on dissenting voices. We do have to insist on those fundamental rights being respected. And we have to work with them to find ways on how that can be done. How can that be done during a transition? What are the platforms that you create, the channels that you create, so that people can criticize and that criticism can be taken up within the transition constructively as something that improves the process? That is the job that is before us, right? We should not shy away from it because it’s difficult. And I think if we do shy away from it, we are going to be aiding and abetting the next set of dictatorships in on the continent.