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By Francis Tazoacha    (Download Pdf version here)

Exploring Precolonial Free Trade in the Northwest Region of Cameroon from the Lens of Community Elders and Elite: The Case of  Mankon Fondom

A team of researchers from the Nkafu Policy Institute – a think tank of the Denis and Lenora Foretia Foundation – visited the Mankon Fondom in the Northwest Region of Cameroon in February 2023. This visit was in line with the Initiative for African Trade and Prosperity (IATP) at the Vinson Centre for the Public Understanding of Economics & Entrepreneurship and the Nkafu Policy Institute to better understand precolonial intra-African trade in the area that makes up modern-day Cameroon and its neighboring countries.

During the visit, the team met with the Fon of Mankon, Fon Angwafor IV Fru Asaah, and some elders of the Kingdom and conducted an in-depth interview with them on how free trade was carried out in the precolonial time in the kingdom. According to Mankon-renowned elite Tse Peter Angwafo, Mankon (in the past spelled Mankong) is a geo-historic community comprising a large part of Bamenda in Cameroon, formed as an amalgamation of about five different ethnic groups. The Mankon Fondom is as old as humanity, but the first established king of Mankon was Nde-Magha I, who established this kingdom in the year 1197.

According to Fon and Tse Peter Angwafo, the Mankon kingdom is one of the oldest kingdoms among the grass field people of the Northwest of Cameroon. The Fon and the council of elders further said that the fondom is ruled by a Fon with rights to kinghood inherited by birth. The crowned Fon is the son of the deceased king, who was born during the reign of the king. According to Tse Peter Angwafo Mankon is among the kingdoms that were ranked as a first class Fondom (Kingdom) located at the Mezam Division of the North West Region. It is situated about 1,000 meters above sea level with an estimated surface area of 315 square kilometers and a population of about 250.000 inhabitants. This Fondom is bounded in the North by Bafut, East by Bamendankwe and Nkwen, West by Ngymbu, Meta, and Bali, and South by Mbatu and Nsongwa fondoms.

Findings from the interviews revealed that the people in the kingdom as well as in other grassfield Fondoms carried out free trade on different commodities. African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) may learn lessons from the history of free trade in the grass field area, specifically in Mankon in the precolonial period. One of the 13 flagship projects of African Union Agenda 2063 as it demonstrates how trade in precolonial Africa was carried out freely with little or no barriers. Historically, the Mankon kingdom had trade relations with other kingdoms within and beyond the frontiers of contemporary Cameroon. However, trade was not yet an established occupation, as most people in the village were hunters and farmers.

The Mankon people had trade dealings with neighboring kingdoms, such as the Momo clans, who were reputed for oil production. They also traded with the villagers of the Ndop plain, who were noted for blacksmithing, where they purchased spears and other metallic objects in exchange for foodstuffs. In addition, they traded with the villages around the Santa regions with the Mbuh people, fondly called the Bafuchuh people, and the Babah people, from whom they got kola nuts in exchange for mostly foodstuff.

They also traded with the Calabar Kingdom in present southeastern Nigeria, where they exchanged basically foodstuff for salt, clothes, etc. The main actors who were noted for these trade ventures in Mankon were families like the Ndifombi’s, the Awasum-chelam, and another family in Tangyem. The medium of exchange at the time was simply trade-by-barter. With the coming of the Indians, cowries and metals became the medium of exchange.

Later on, these trade ventures were gradually carried out in established markets. Wherever there were human settlements, there was a small area where people gathered to exchange items. However, the business environment was very timid because people had to trek for long distances with items on their heads, and only very rich families could afford horses. Apart from trading in basic commodities, there was equally a prominent infamous slave trade.

Slaves were transported from Mankon to Europe through Nigeria and Liberia and were exchanged for bottles of whiskey, mirrors, pieces of cloth, and hurricane lamps. However, trade in humans was not very popular in Mankon, as the kings were not very friendly with the whites who went to the area to buy their children as slaves. This accounted for the much resistance during the slave trade and colonial period from the Mankon people.

It is also worth noting that during that time, there were no trade tariffs, owing to the fact that there were no organized governments who could fix the tariffs. Trade in precolonial Mankon, in particular, and the grass field was not without challenges. Firstly, there was no medium of communication. Also, there was a problem with transportation as people had to trek for long distances, passing through forests with the danger of being attacked by wild animals and hostile kingdoms or villages.

Another challenge was that there was no established medium of exchange or currency. In addition, there was a prevalence of inter-tribal wars that perturbed the trade. These challenges made trading quite difficult at the time. People had to survive these difficulties, as there were no available instruments to mitigate them.

Francis Tazoacha is the Director of Peace and Security at the Nkafu Policy Institute. He has a Master’s Degree in Natural Resources and Peace from the United Nations University for Peace in San Jose, Costa Rica.