Cameroon: Victim of Political Apathy

On April 21, 2008, an insignificant, but determined number of Cameroonians either stayed home or went about their daily routines draped in black dress, in silent protest of the government’s disastrous decision to end presidential term limits. The protest, called for by the country’s main opposition party, the Social Democratic Front (SDF), was largely a failure, as enthusiasm for the protest, both amongst party members and the public, faltered in the face of violent military reprisal and the reality of general political debility. The result of course was tacit acceptance of President Paul Biya’s constitutional coup, which veritably guaranteed his re-election and probable indefinite rule. Last month, to most people’s dismay, but not to a single person’s surprise, Biya announced his bid for a third presidential term, and this past month, presidential elections went ahead in Cameroon. A confident Biya had no need to campaign, as his victory was all but guaranteed thanks to a concerted, effective effort on his part to essentially incapacitate the opposition and degrade the people’s will.

Paul Biya has been president of Cameroon for over 26 years, winning his first presidential election in 1984. Biya subsequently ‘won’ elections in 1988, 1992, 1997 and 2004; however, not without substantial controversy, especially in 1992, when widespread fraud was alleged by the opposition and in 1997, when the election was boycotted entirely by the opposition, which decried an biased and therefore unfair electoral process. Biya ultimately lost his legitimacy as Cameroon’s leader during these years, as it became obvious he would not cede power. Biya proved willing to utilize oppressive and fraudulent tactics to maintain his position, as well as his party’s dominance. Even the extension of presidential terms to seven years, which was part of Cameroon’s 1996 constitutional reform, was insufficient in satisfying Biya’s increasing lust for power, and by 2007, he began his case for an end to presidential term limits altogether.

In his 2007 end of the year address, Biya made the preposterous claim that presidential term limits were “unconstitutional”. Biya claimed, rather unfoundedly, that the people of Cameroon had expressed popular support for him to run for a third term and so to prevent this would somehow limit the ‘will’ of the people and thus be contrary to democracy. Biya believed that false claims of popular support, coupled with ridiculous and amateurish logic, could sufficiently mask his personal power ambitions and counter the very basic but important reasoning behind the principle of term limits. Unfortunately, the public was far too distracted by skyrocketing fuel and food prices to realize the full implications of Biya’s power grab and to thus appropriately respond, a fact Biya and his party, the Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (CPDM), fully exploited.

The public’s outrage with the Biya government’s incompetence and corruption manifested itself in February 2008 with unprecedented protests in the country’s capital. Unfortunately, these protests were met swiftly with violent and deadly tactics by Biya’s police forces, particularly the Brigade d’Intervention Rapide (BIR) or the Special Intervention Brigade, an elite security force which is often employed by Biya to crackdown on any and all opposition activities. Widespread public disenchantment with the country’s political establishment made it highly unlikely that a significant number of Cameroonians voiced support for a third term for Biya, despite his assertions. This fact was further evidenced by the government’s refusal to hold a referendum vote on the constitutional amendment to ban term limits and by the Biya regime’s continued oppression of the opposition and its increasing crackdown on any political dissent.

Oppression of opposition has been a defining characteristic of life under the Biya regime. During the past ten years, Cameroonians have suffered widespread human and civil rights violations, as the government has tightened its grasp upon its power. On World Press Freedom Day just this past May, a couple hundred journalists and supporters gathered in Cameroon’s capital, Yaounde, to protest the government’s oppression of free speech and the media. Specifically, the protesters demanded that all journalists currently imprisoned be freed and that justice be served in the case of Bibi Ngota, the former Editor of the Cameroun Press, who died in prison in April, while awaiting trial on ‘fraud’ charges. The protest, although entirely peaceful, was swiftly met with violence by security forces; protesters were clubbed repeatedly by police. Ngota is one of many journalists to have been arbitrarily arrested, or otherwise threatened or intimidated in the past several years by the Biya government. Serges Sabouang, Editor of Le Nation, and Robert Minsa, Editor of Le Devoir were also both arrested on ‘fraud’ charges, and four other journalists were recently charged for critical comments made on television regarding judicial proceedings.

These violations have gone beyond arbitrary arrests and the shutting down of media outlets; cases of extra-judicial killings, harsh prison conditions, torture and other forms of cruel treatment are also rampant. During the February 2008 protests, over 100 people were killed, mostly by Cameroon security forces, which used lethal force against unarmed civilians. In addition, many extra-judicial killings of political opponents have been documented by human rights groups (See link for photos and video of alleged recent crackdown of peaceful opposition protests:

In 2003, Patrick Mbuwe, a former Secretary of the Southern Cameroons National Council (SCNC), was shot and killed by men suspected of being members of government security forces. Also, in August of 2004, John Kohtem, a leader of the SDF in Balikumbat district of North-West Province, was beaten to death. Doh Gah Gwanyin, a local chief and Member of Parliament, was publicly named by the SDF and local human rights groups as having instigated and participated in the beating of the victim. Gwanyin was finally convicted of murder after years of immunity, but was subsequently released on bail, when the case went on appeal; Gwanyin remains free, as the case is still pending. There are numerous other beatings, arbitrary arrests, use of excessive force and misuse of the legal system perpetrated by the government that continue to go unanswered.

This most recent election was once again hampered by the oppressive state of politics in Cameroon. On the day of the election, international election observers noted a very low voter turnout, the result of widespread political apathy. Most Cameroonians believe the election to be a foregone conclusion and therefore do not believe their participation will have any effect. In other words, it is understood that the opposition will lose. With such a prevailing sentiment, how can anyone call Cameroon a ‘democracy’? A country cannot be called a democracy when its population feels as though it no longer has a choice in its own leadership.

The absence of a strong and healthy opposition is not a mark of the country’s unity, but rather demonstrates the political impotence of average Cameroonians, as well as the country’s opposition. With widespread poverty, it is not that Biya has the people’s confidence; he has proven himself largely incompetent in terms of establishing effective, accountable governance and managing the country’s economy (over 60% of the population is unemployed). The population feels powerless after so many past failures of the opposition to successfully unseat Biya. John Fru Ndi, leader of the SDF, came close to unseating Biya in the 1992 election. In fact, it is widely held that Ndi was the actual winner of the election, but that electoral fraud perpetrated by Biya and the CPDM, which has always been strongly backed by France, led to a Biya victory by a narrow margin. Biya won with 40% of the vote over Ndi’s 36%. A third opposition candidate, Maïgari Bello Boúba of the National Union for Democracy and Progress (UNDP), garnered 19%. Interestingly, even with Biya being declared victor, it was obvious that Biya no longer had the confidence of the Cameroon people. Over 60% of the vote went to other candidates, which essentially meant that over 60% of the voting population no longer wanted Biya as their president.

Unfortunately, the pluralistic, populist politics seen during the 1990s, seemed to dissipate after the opposition’s repeated defeats, which resulted from unfair election conditions, fraudulent government tactics, political and media oppression, as well as opposition party disunity. Some have argued that the opposition’s failure to form and maintain a more unified platform places it at a serious disadvantage. Had opposition parties unified in 1992 to present just one person to the public as the opposition candidate, Biya would have surely been defeated. And had they maintained their coalition, formed just a few years later, Biya would not have won by such a landslide in the 2004 election. One way to prevent any candidate from winning the presidency without winning the majority vote (as Biya did in 1992) would be to implement a run-off, which is currently not constitutionally mandated in Cameroon. This would certainly level the playing field in an election in which there are multiple, weaker opposition candidates. However, Biya has worked to ensure that a run-off will never occur in Cameroon by employing underhanded tactics meant to confuse and divide opposition party support. To guarantee a substantial majority for himself in presidential elections, Biya reportedly props multiple opposition candidates, orchestrating and financially backing political campaigns, whose only purpose is to detract support from more popular candidates such as Ndi, thus preventing their victory.

This past election, there were (officially) only 7.5 million voters in a country with a population of nearly 20 million. A substantial number of these registered voters decided not to participate, we’ve been told.  There were also allegations of numerous voter list irregularities, and a significant portion of the population complained of difficulties in obtaining their voter registration cards. Turnout to both political rallies and events and the actual election was minimal; voting was delayed at over 24,000 polling stations and numerous ballot boxes were either tampered with or reported missing. Furthermore, the Biya’s electoral commission, Election Cameroon (ELECAM), which is led by Biya’s CPDM associates, is overtly biased in favor of Biya. Immediately after the election, several opposition candidates (those of course not working for Biya) file petitions with the country’s Supreme Court to have election results thrown out. The petitioners alleged the following:

  1. no ballot papers of some candidates at some polling stations on election day;
  2. people without names on the electoral registers allowed to vote;
  3. names of the dead found on the voter’s list;
  4. people caught voting severally times and CPDM agents caught paying people sums ranging from FCFA 1,000 to 5,000 to vote for their candidate.
  5. fraudulent possession of hundreds of cards by some party agents;
  6. voting without national identity cards;
  7. chartered and ambulant voters;
  8. favouritism of the CPDM candidate through the State media and mobilisation of state resources;
  9. impartiality of ELECAM and the administration in favour of Paul Biya;
  10. inadequate lighting facilities on election day;
  11. voting in chief’s palaces and military garrisons;
  12. absence of indelible ink; among others.

 Unfortunately, all petitions were denied by the pro-Biya court, and Biya was subsequently declared victor. Some had hoped that a Biya victory would lead to major protests that would eventually force Biya from office, similar to the Arab Spring. However, this has thus far not occurred, and given the population’s lack of investment and the opposition’s failure to mobilize major support, it is doubtful whether it is likely to occur in the near future. Adding to the problem is the international community’s lack of interest in calling for real democratic reforms within Cameroon. Instead of praising the peacefulness of the election, the UN and the rest of the international community should be using its leverage to pressure the Biya government to end its politically oppressive tactics and enact real democratic reforms that include Biya’s removal. The international community has been far too accepting of Biya’s undemocratic 30-year rule; its protest of the 2008 decision to erase presidential term limits was weak and ineffectual. The international community does a serious injustice to Cameroonians by continuing to recognize Biya as a legitimate leader. In particular, France, which actually sent military advisors to Cameroon to assist Biya, in the event of post-election mass protest, must discontinue its support of this tyrant.

If Cameroonians are to salvage their democracy, a much more concerted effort on the part of the international community, as well as Cameroon’s opposition and its population, is needed. Apathy must be abandoned in favor of action. Cameroonians must reengage the political process if they are to free themselves from this tyranny. Apathy is never a solution for political challenges; it only exacerbates existing problems, and permits corrupt elements to further entrench themselves. Cameroon’s opposition, although limited by a politically repressive environment, must unite and strengthen its outreach if it is to regain the momentum it experienced in the early 90s.