Cameroon Elections Analysis: Biya must make reforms to avoid ‘Cameroon Spring’ – By Ajong Mbapndah
As expected, incumbent President Paul Biya of the ruling Cameroons Peoples Democratic Party (CPDM) was proclaimed winner of the October 2011 Presidential elections. Though he and his ruling party may be basking in euphoria, the elections by and large were a loss for the rest of the country. According to official results, the President scored circa 77.989 % of the vote. His eternal challenger John Fru Ndi of the Social Democratic Front came in second with 10.712% of the vote with a collection of smaller parties making up the numbers.
The fact however remains that the Biya era will sooner or later come to an end and the elections provided an opportunity for the President to come out big. This could have been achieved by letting a younger more energetic cadre within his party to take the baton, or at the very least, forcefully and genuinely make the elections free and fair. Mr Biya did neither. The electoral watch dog “˜ELECAM’ was hapless, but Mr. Biya did not need all the gerrymandering that took place to secure a comfortable victory. He may have emerged victorious but can he really stand shoulder o shoulder with leaders like John Attah Mills of Ghana and Michael Sata of Zambia who have emerged victorious from elections and earned respect across the world?
Already in power for some 29 years, by the time the new seven year mandate expires President Biya (in his late seventies) will have clocked 36 years in power. The landslide victory is at odds with the kind of campaign Biya fought – limiting himself to three campaign stops in Maroua, Douala and Kribi, towns in the Far North, Littoral and South Province respectively. Is age making it more difficult to withstand the rigours of campaigning? Or is it excessive confidence that victory will be his no matter what? Either way, no matter how powerful your surrogates maybe, the candidate matters most in this kind of election, and by earning the kind of score irrespective of the means, the incumbent trivializes the process.
For a long time the opposition has done more to justify why Biya should continue hanging on to power, rather than providing convincing reasons why he should not be there. There were some twenty three candidates challenging Biya for the Presidency this year. In a one round election with practical modalities designed for all intents and purposes to serve the incumbent, it was hard for any of them to beat him. The task was even more daunting for them in the absence of necessary resources.
Take the case of the leading opposition party Social Democratic Front (SDF).Up until about a month before the elections the party had continuously discouraged Cameroonians from registering to vote. One would have thought that the party had an alternative strategy but the volte face in urging its militants and Cameroonians to register at the 11th hour is a reflection of the confusion that reigns within many opposition parties. The SDF remains a strong force in Cameroon politics despite the dwindling fortunes of its leadership. Proof of this is the fact that a group of seven parties coalesced around it to eventually formulate a response calling for the elections to be cancelled.
Many had opined that in the face of very unfavourable circumstances, the best the opposition could do would have been to come up with a transition programme and back a single candidate to challenge the incumbent. This was not done, and while they cry foul with legitimate challenges on the charade that took place, the question is, what exactly did they expect? Surprisingly, the leading opposition candidates met after the elections to read the riot act to the government, calling for the annulment of the result. A call for massive protests went unheeded by most. No one knows what dividends would have been accrued had such an initiative taken place several months prior to the polls. That the opposition is talking and trying to put its act together can however only be a healthy development. Time will tell if the opposition, especially those in the group calling for the organization of fresh elections within six months, can resist the temptation of being lured into government.
A most disturbing development in this election was a report about media houses in the country receiving hefty sums from a top government official and one of President Biya’s closest aides. It is a report that may have gone unnoticed to many, but when it involves the most credible newspapers and some of the most authoritative media voices in the country it spells further doom for democracy. The media actors linked in the affair have been evasive about what transpired or under what circumstances they received money from the government. In a country where the government does everything to stifle the emergence of a strong and unfettered press, the timing and source of the funding raises legitimate questions, and there are some who have been quick to point out that (with a few exceptions), the usually critical private press seems to have lost its fangs.
The very high rate of abstention also casts a cloud of illegitimacy over the process. The official results indicate an abstention rate of 36 percent, but some sources say the figure might have been higher. This was heralded by people like popular Artist Lapiro de Mbanga, the call seemed to have gained more traction than expected and suggests a widespread dissatisfaction with the political class both within the opposition and the ruling party.
The Way Forward
Despite his victory, President Biya should be under no illusions – times remain very uncertain. For a man who prides himself in making Cameroon and “˜oasis of peace’ in a troubled sub region, political developments around the country should make him realise that to his luck may hit speed bumps down the line and to avoid this he needs to speed up reforms. Amongst the most vital are electoral reforms. The election watchdog as it stands is grossly wanting in credibility. From the cast of characters who make it up, to its powers, the body is not structured to guarantee free and fair elections. Yet one of the main threats to peace remains elections. With a seven year mandate in place, President Biya stands a chance of making that happen. He could create a credible electoral body and ensure that the next Parliamentary and Municipal elections are free and fair. Let militants in his own party sweat it out and get elected instead of relying on flawed elections.
The President must also show a willingness to curb the corruption that continues to rage with impunity. “˜Sparrow Hawk’ the code name for the corruption crusade that his government embarked has proven itself so far to be an instrument for fending off real and imagined political opponents. The cases against high profile personalities like
former Secretary General at the Presidency Atangana Mebara and Health Minister Olanguena Awona have become more doubtful at each court session, lending credence to the fact that there may indeed have been a political twist to their arrest in the first place. Yet corruption there is, and it has been elevated to an art in the 29 years of President Biya. The basic tools to fight it are there – article 66 of the constitution which calls for senior public officials to declare their assets prior to assuming and upon relinquishing office remains a death letter. The implementation of that constitutional clause will mark the beginning of any serious sign of a sincere commitment to fight corruption from the Biya government.
Infrastructure also remains a very sore point. Projects like the ring road in the North West Province, the Kumba Mamfe road in the South West Province and many other projects to help disenclave the country have continued to remain fallow. At election time it is customary to hear a plethora of promises on contracts that have been awarded for projects to begin immediately, only for nothing to happen once elections are over.
In Egypt, Tunisia, and even Ivory Coast and Libya, the role of youth in the political upheavals cannot be ignored. In Cameroon, it is a segment of the population that should make the President wary, especially with the very high rate of unemployment currently in evidence. On February 11th of this year – celebrated as the Youth day – the President made a promise to employ 25,000 unemployed young people. The time-frame initially was to have the process completed before the elections. It was not done, and now that elections have come and gone there are suspicions that the announcement may have been a political gimmick. The fury of the Youth, from University students to motorcycle riders, always throws the regime into panic mood. If nothing is done to improve the plight of jobless young people with improvements on the economic climate in a way that enhances growth and employment, the government will be in for trouble down the line.
The Southern Cameroons Problem
Despite its gravity, President Biya has continued to toy around with the Southern Cameroons problem. Last year, the government spent colossal sums to celebrate what it termed the 50th anniversary of the independence of the country. That anniversary however marked 50 years of independence for La Republique du Cameroun, which later on in 1961 was joined by Southern Cameroons to form the Federal Republic of Cameroon. The Republic of Cameroon as it stands today is metamorphosed from that union in ways that Southern Cameroonians continue to grieve about. It came as a shock to many that 1st October 2011 – which marked the day La Republique du Cameroun and Southern Cameroons effectively came into a Union – was largely ignored by the government.
To many Southern Cameroonians this was gross insensitivity on the part of the Biya government to such a momentous historical event. To mark the event Southern Cameroonians converged in the town of Buea, where several dozens of them were arrested while others sought refuge at the Nigerian Consulate. The October election had a record number of Southern Cameroonians running for office including the leading opposition candidate John Fru Ndi. The elections in 1992 were widely perceived to have been won by John Fru Ndi, whilst a French politician was quoted as saying a Southern Cameroonian cannot be President of the country. In the face of yet another lost election, there have been calls by some Southern Cameroonians to political leaders like John Fru to finally realize the futility of remaining in the union with La Republique du Cameroun. By ignoring the historic anniversary of October 1, President Biya lost a glorious opportunity to assuage the secessionist but legitimate yearnings of Southern Cameroonians. At the 50th anniversary of independence last year, by presenting two well-framed maps as a present, the United Nations may have been reminding the government that Cameroon was originally made up of two independent parts. Continuing to toy with the Southern Cameroons issue, considered by many as a time bomb, is a luxury the government may be enjoying at its own peril.
Closer to the sunset than the sunrise of his reign, President Biya should be thinking of the kind of legacy he wants to leave for the country. Biya addressed Cameroonians shortly after the proclamation of results in a speech which sort to ease tensions with the usual litany of promises. If he wants Cameroon to remain an oasis of calm then he must get to work. He may have won, but the regime knows it has more foes than friends both within and outside the country. Abstention or no abstention, the number of people who participated in the elections was but a tiny fraction of a highly disgruntled polity. To make things even worse, the chorus of criticisms from foreign powers is getting louder. It is revealing that days after the Supreme Court proclaimed the results foreign nations were in no rush to extend congratulatory messages to Biya. In 2004, the then French President Jacques Chirac did not even wait for the official proclamation of results to congratulate Biya for his “brilliant re-election”. Current French President Nicholas Sarkozy, who is reported to have frosty relations with Biya, took over a week to issue an ambiguous message of congratulation. Despite the euphoria with which the regime received the message from the French leader, the stern recommendations on electoral reforms to make the 2012 parliamentary elections more credible is not part of the celebration. Time is definitely not on the side of the President, despite his victory. He won, but the country did not, and without reforms, without quick and decisive action, the seven year mandate may be more challenging that he and his party imagine. It may define his legacy for better or for worse, and the choice is his to make.
Ajong Mbapndah is Manging Editor of the Online Monthly Pan African Visions www.panafricanvisions.com