Logo of the Hebbel am Ufer
Peguy Takou Ndie and Richard Djemeli are participants in Edit Kaldor’s project “Inventory of Powerlessness”. They fled dictatorship in Cameroon and are now in Germany awaiting recognition as refugees. Here as well they protest against a government that withholds many rights from them. Anne Meyroth* worked in migration politics in the national government for many years. She attempted to change the conditions from the inside – and was not successful. A conversation about power and powerlessness, the space of political action and institutional limits, documented by Christian Jakob. (* Name changed)

Christian Jakob: Mr Djemeli, Mr Takou Ndie, you grew up in a country that has been ruled by the dictator Paul Biya since you were born. What is the significance of political power for you?

Richard Djemeli: We don’t know Cameroon without him. That’s a feeling of weakness. The entire press is controlled by the government, there is no freedom of the press, no electoral freedom. Opposition groups can’t make any headway against the government. Sometimes people have the feeling that it’s our own input that’s missing for things to change. Then comes the military – ready to massacre everyone that goes on the street. Young people are powerless, corruption is endemic. It’s not just a couple of men that have to go, it’s the whole political system. You automatically become the enemy of the Biya system.

Peguy Takou Ndie: It’s a feeling of monotony. Everything is always the same, politically, socially, everything is very static. Like many other young people, I looked for a job for a long time without success. We all suffer under a government that takes away any opportunity to shape our own lives. That’s frustrating. At the beginning we still said: Well, there is freedom of speech, we say whatever we want to. But this dream ends as soon as you’re threatened. Yes, it has the feeling of weakness.

CJ: How did you deal with these experiences?

PTN: I turned them into a book about the situation of young people in Cameroon.

RD: I was one of the organizers of large student protests in 2005. It was the first strike of its kind since the ‘90s. It made the government afraid. The situation at the university was bad, it was clear that the government was to blame. We weren’t openly calling for Biya to step down at the time, even if many of us wished for that. A lot of people were expelled from the university, beaten by the police or arrested, some lost their lives. Later, my plays and films were directly about Biya stepping down. Recently I made a film about African political dynasties and political change. It is a critique of a state presided over by an apparently immortal president. But I hadn’t imagined that I would be displaced after showing the film in a few cinemas. I was mistreated and held prisoner for eleven days.

Anne Meyroth: So it was possible to make political interventions, but only at great personal risk?

(Both nod.)

AM: Is that already a way to appropriate power? A way to develop the sense of being a political subject, capable of action?

RD: We never had the opportunity to express ourselves without having to fear violence. In film I found a very important means for me to deal with the lack of freedom of speech, both artistically and politically.

PTN: Writing my book didn’t give me a sense of power, but of taking on responsibility. I tried to say what was no longer acceptable. I described the reality of young people, which is hidden or concealed. Everyone has the responsibility to do something. Change has to start somewhere. Why not with me?

CJ: Ms Meyroth, you did not have to undergo such experiences. For many years you had some influence on German migration politics from the side of the government. How free were you in this, how powerful?

AM: Among other things, my area covered the situation in Europe and the transit countries. I had a lot of contact with member states within the EU that are under a great deal of pressure from migration, for instance Italy, Greece or Malta. For me it was clear early on that the Dublin system can’t work. It was similar with the deaths in the Mediterranean. Italy alone could not permanently finance the emergence sea rescues, not to mention their repercussions. After the accident in Lampedusa I often spoke with representatives of the other member states. We were looking for ways to Europeanize the emergency sea rescues. I told my superiors that we had to fight for an EU mission. But this was not backed by the whole national government. There was a fear that the Dublin system would fall under great pressure.

CJ: Why?

AM: All the migrants should not simply have been dumped in mass in Italy, they needed to be distributed throughout Europe – exactly as is currently in discussion again through the EU Commission’s recommendations for migration politics. For a long time the German government was against such a distribution key. Only recently has there been some movement on this, to my great relief.

CJ: Did you feel helpless in this situation?

AM: Yes, above all personally, but even institutionally. There were often other positions that had more influence on this question. My colleagues from other EU states told me that it was similar in other countries.

CJ: Is it not possible, in such a situation, to say, okay, I can’t do anything in this question, but I will use my influential position to change other things that are under my direct control?

AM: It was my intention, of course, to make the best of my position and to change things for the better. For instance in the negotiations about how to facilitate the visa process for citizens of certain states in North Africa and the Middle East, which was my area. This was a double-edge problem, because at the same time the countries are receiving funds to keep other migrants back. But there was also positive aspects. As a whole, however, there are very strict hierarchies in the ministries. There are up to six levels involved in every decision: the section director, the department director, the state secretary, on up to the minister. I could never take decisions entirely on my own. But I tried to convince my direct superiors. In certain cases I managed to succeed. A couple of times I wrote dossiers directly for the state secretary, which reflected my convictions. I never heard back from them, but I hope to have given the directorship something positive to think about. 

CJ: Were there any results or consequences?

AM: I tried to do what I could and hoped that this would make the upper levels rethink the situation. But it is very difficult to get to a change in thinking in fundamental questions. In terms of concrete politics, nothing fundamental has changed to this day. At the EU level it was sometimes easier to influence decisions. But there as well, the really important decisions are made at the higher levers – and always only with the agreement of other federal agencies.

CJ: Mr Takou Ndie, Mr Djemeli, in Germany the political circumstances are different than in your home country. Nonetheless you have both joined protest groups. When did you first have the feeling that you had to fight politically here as well – and about what?

PTN: As soon as I arrived. For five days I was in the closed internment centre at the Frankfurt Airport. I was interrogated every day. This procedure was long and complicated. The officials were very sceptical, they were suspicious, I had to give the same reports over and over again to different people. This reminded me of Cameroon. And I was afraid I would have to return.

RD: The way my interview went at the federal agency was incredible. After all the stress of fleeing, I was at the reception station in Eisenhüttenstadt. One evening at six o’clock I got a letter. I couldn’t understand a word of German. Someone translated it for me, and I was going to be questioned the next morning. But you need time to prepare yourself for such a thing.

CJ: The federal agency has not yet made a decision about your asylum requests. Did you consider first waiting it out and then, if necessary, protesting afterwards?

PTN: It’s not just about me, it’s about everyone who has suffered injustice, marginalization, racism. And even if there has not yet been any decision about my asylum request – I have certainly experienced institutional racism.

CJ: In what ways?

PTN: For instance in the way asylum seekers are provided for in my administrative district, Oranienburg. Until March of this year we were receiving food stamps. Then you’re standing there in line at the shop where everyone’s paying with cash and you have to ask other customers: “Will you trade me these for cash?” This is degrading and painful.

CJ: You have joined refugee initiatives and, in an attempt to make political interventions from out of a situation of marginalization and disenfranchisement, you’ve taken to the streets. How would you describe your situation in comparison to that of Ms Meyroth?

RD: We are both victims of a certain kind of democracy. We fight on the street, we organize ourselves and the state allows this. It allows us to say: “We are not free here.” But that doesn’t change anything. Quite to the contrary, the demos serve as the state’s proof that we are indeed free here and it doesn’t need to change anything. There is a certain parallel between protests by migrants and a government official that is trying to change things in politics. She is stuck in a system in which she is only meant to take on one function, but is not entirely responsible for what she does. She can write her dossiers, like we write our proclamations. The result is the same. Or can you change the statutes of your work?

AM: No, I can’t.

RD: You could also protest against them. Or make recommendations in terms of substance.

AM: We are not allowed to demonstrate in our official function. Making recommendations is more realistic. And I did that as well. But in many cases they were not accepted.

RD: When you make recommendations that are rejected by your boss – do you then have to fear for your job?

AM: No, you don’t lose you job because your boss doesn’t agree with your recommendations. I was never afraid that would happen.

RD: In many countries this is the case – for example in Cameroon this could happen.

CJ: Mr Djemeli, you said that the refugee protests wouldn’t change anything. But in the last two years a whole series of troublesome ordinances in asylum law have been relaxed or suspended. This would certainly not have happened without the protests.

PTN: I agree, there is a mutual effect. People articulate their demands on the street and those in the institution can – perhaps must – take that on, establish some relation to it and use it to deal with legal projects. I know a lot of people who have been living here for eight, ten years. They tell me it was much worse before. And they also say that things have changed because the refugees have put up a fight, for example in organizations like the Karawane or the Brandenburg Refugee Initiative. If we continue to act, there can be more progress. The problem today, however, is that the activists are primarily European. At demos there are often more Germans than refugees. A lot of people think, well, the situation for the refugees must be okay, they don’t need to take it to the streets.

RD: Many, but by no means all of those who come here and protest had already been activists in their home countries. This is another reason why they don’t simply accept the circumstances here. It’s a psychological question. At any rate, many have been traumatized by their experiences during the flight. And the situation here is also burdensome. They feel helpless and they forget that you have to fight for your rights. And they are lacking a voice. The legal, institutional voice. We hold demos and everything stays the same afterwards. Who is going to go to the parliament and address these issues? If you don’t want food stamps anymore, there has to be a new law, and someone has to bring it up and discuss it.

AM: Agreed. It is definitely an institutional problem that there is so little communication. The only solution is for people to become engaged, to follow their consciences. Functionaries that represent a system can’t simply go to demos, at the very most as private individuals, and even then it’s difficult. There is an invisible border, this is very difficult to change. But I have colleagues who are pro migration like me. They try to find loopholes. This is more promising than changing the big things. The minister doesn’t want this, you can’t win elections that way.

PTN: We are all in a helpless situation – the functionary, the refugees that want to improve the lives and only have a restricted voice. But when several helpless parties act together, this can have results. Sometimes there are points of contact. For instance recently when there was the boat accident. The more demonstrators there are on the street, the sooner corrections can be expected at the political level. If we say things over and over, our demands seep into people’s heads, and that of course also has an influence on parliamentary debate. The demos and hunger strikes here allow the migrants to express themselves, they give them a certain power. In Africa such actions often end in blood. That’s why at first I was afraid to go to demos in Germany. Then a friend said to me: “This is not Africa, you can say whatever you want, you don’t have to be afraid.” I believed him.

Rodrigue Peguy Takou Ndie, 33, comes from Cameroon, where he studied economics and worked as a writer. At the end of 2013 he came to Germany. His asylum request is still pending.

Richard Fouofie Djemeli, 36, studied performing arts and theatre in Yaoundé, the capital city of Cameroon. In November 2013 he fled to Germany. His asylum request has also not yet been decided.

Anne Meyroth (name changed) worked for several years in the area of migration politics in national government.