chief as landlord and ruler.
Fon symbolises unity and represents the link with the past, the ancestors.
This symbolism is well borne out by the perception of the land as 'the
spirit of the people' and a ritual link between them and the ancestors.
Under customary law, land is viewed more as a source of sustenance rather than
as a means of material accumulation (Goheen 1988 and this volume). It is
useful to distinguish the political rights of sovereignty that accrue to the
chief as a political figure (the chiefdom lands), from the rights of control
and management which accrue to any landlord in the area, of whom the chief
might be one (the lineage lands).
is in his political capacity that the chief can rightly claim that 'this
is all my land, and these are my people'. In this capacity, the chief
welcomes all new arrivals as his 'strangers'. They, in turn, are
expected to pay tribute to him as their Fon and as a sign of their respect and
submission to his authority. Even though these new arrivals might be given
land by any of the land-owning lineages, they are still accountable to the Fon
as his people. It is also in his capacity as political leader that land
attributions, such as for a school or other development project, are made by
the Fon in consultation with the land owning lineage.
example, the Fon of Ndu gave land to the Cameroon Baptist Convention Mission
for the construction of a primary school, a secondary school, a teachers'
training college, and a Baptist Bible Training College. Subsequently, the
primary school was moved to a new site while the teachers' training
college was transferred to Kom. This left much land to lie fallow and so the
Fon of Ndu requested that part of the unoccupied land be returned to him for
redistribution. Without taking any account of customary land tenure, the
Baptist mission instead claimed ownership and sought to have the land
registered under the 1974 land ordinances. This dispute necessitated the
intervention of the divisional administration from Nkambe.
1982, eight years after the dispute began, the Land Consultative Board
(commonly known as the Land Commission) came to the site for judgment. It
concluded that the Fon could no longer re-enter the property he had given to
the Baptist mission. This was now the private property of the mission since it
was already registered and a land certificate for it issued. It is reported
that the ageing Fon (now of blessed memory) overtly lamented: 'who now
owns land in Ndu and in the Wiya Clan? ' The response was that 'the
Fon owns Ndu and the Wiya (clan), but the government owns the land and everyone
who lives on it, including the Fon'.
was a moment of great desolation. Chia's [n.d.] account of this event
states that tears rolled down the Fon's cheeks as he walked away,
helpless before the administration. Obviously, the message the Senior Prefect
and his Land Consultative Board wanted the Fon and his notables to understand
is that he was no longer the undisputed owner of all the land in his
jurisdiction. As the land slipped from his hands, so too did political control
over the territory, and so too he is losing control over the subjects.
years later, in 1992, during the period of popular unrest that shook the
country, Ndu became the scene of intense state violence in a tax collecting
exercise. The area came under military control and six people were killed.
The local population hastily accused their newly installed (educated) Fon of
'culpable inertia', and condoning the brutalization and killing of
his subjects by state
The local population denounced their Fon and even came to doubt whether he
still represented their ancestors, the symbol of continuity with the past. At
some critical moments, certain individuals called him by his name, an overt
sign of dethronement. The chief was swiftly categorized as an agent of the
state who was out to destroy the sacred nature of the chieftaincy. To restore
some credibility, the Fon of Ndu is said to have apologized to his people and
unwarranted brutality of the forces of law and order had further wreaked untold
damage to the chieftaincy. The land had to be ritually cleansed of the blood
shed on it, were it to recover its fecundity. Such ritual reconstructions
could only be achieved if the Fon was 'in one mind and spirit' with
his people. Indeed, in such moments of crisis, the people would expect the Fon
and his notables to invoke the mediation of the ancestors by pouring a libation
to them so that the 'earth could pass judgment'. As chief priest
of the land, the Fon is expected to pour a ritual libation at least once a year
at the kingdom's shrine, invoking the ancestors and gods of the land to
protect the land and bestow numerous blessings on it. Similarly, each
land-owning notable or lineage head is expected to pour a libation on his land
if a dispute arises, praying the 'earth to pass judgment'.
Occasionally, this practice involved drinking the Fon's wine containing a
speck of earth from the disputed area (Chilver 1990).
(god of the earth) to pass judgment has been the main support of ritual
sanctions pertaining to land. In the absence of conflict, notables will still
pour libations to the ancestors and the gods of the land just before the
planting season and during harvest. These manifestations are the symbolic acts
of ownership. Under customary law, no Fon or notable would ever pour a
libation on another's land. This is so because one lineage cannot
falsely claim another lineage's land with impunity. Any act of trespass
will immediately bring about the wrath of the gods and cause the 'earth
to pass judgment' and this is a major check on unscrupulous land
accumulation by fraud. The performance of ritual functions on land are the
obligations that go with the claim of ownership.
are the political rights and religious duties that accrue to the chief as
sovereign. Their observance enhances the protection of the gods and the
productivity of the land. The absence of these observances demystifies land;
it loses its spiritual value and becomes a mere factor of production. Once
land ceases to serve as a link with the past, it is easy for it to be turned
into a commodity and then subjected to bureaucratic control.
Return to the Paideuma Contents page
Return to the 'Mama for story' page