Cameroon’s prospects for democracy, peace and stability are worrying. However, this argument is common and applies to almost every African country, including South Africa and Senegal consistently ranked as “free” or “partly free”. Nevertheless, it is still important to continue having a conversation around the political challenges facing African states individually and collectively to also continue exploring solutions or raise awareness of the need for a concrete democratization effort, good governance and civil-military reforms on the continent.
Cameroon presents a double challenge. First, its democracy is not working. Cameroon’s democracy was dead on arrival and there are more and more fears that after the country’s old President, power will be handed to a hand-picked successor. Second, Cameroon is a disaster in waiting. It is confronted with violence on three or four cardinal points, North, West and East. The lack of a real democratization effort, ethnic politics, deteriorating socio-economic conditions and over-militarization of the state apparatus only make matters worse.
The succession problem
When Cameroon returned to democracy in 1991, many in the civil society and the opposition were under the illusion that it was possible to change Cameroon’s President through the ballot box. It is either this illusion or personal political ambitions that transformed Cameroon’s political opposition into a group of enablers who participate in elections that will not bring any meaningful change. Far too many experts have argued and demonstrated why political transition in Cameroon is change-proof. Regardless, during every presidential election since 1992 a flurry of candidates attempt to challenge incumbent Paul Biya, allowing him to claim legitimacy for his rule.
In 2008, Cameroon scrapped term limits thereby demonstrating Biya’s resolve to stay in power. Biya won elections in 2011 and 2018 and the next presidential election is in 2025. Since 2004, some Cameroonians have regularly predicted that Biya will not run in next elections either because he will die in office, become incapacitated, or willingly give up power. A cross-section of those who hold this view and others think that the type of succession over-the-counter from the first President, Ahmadou Ahidjo, to Biya, in 1982 will not happen (again). However, unless the ruling Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (CPDM) implodes at Biya’s resignation, incapacitation, or death, resignation being the most unlikely, those who hold this view risk being disappointed.
There is a fine line between party and state in Cameroon and the Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (CPDM) can be expected to keep power after Biya. There is no clear protégé for Biya’s succession and Biya is not known to be kind to those who openly or secretly think that they can succeed him. However, the party, administration, and military are dominated by people from Biya’s ethnic background, the Bulu-Fang-Beti, and in recent years these people have made little effort to conceal that they will not allow someone from outside their ethnic group, if not Biya’s family, to take power. Recently, a new movement in support of Biya’s first son, Frank Biya, as successor, was created. While Frank Biya has rarely taken part in the ruling party politics or held any government position, this “testing the waters” policy or strategy is not new to the Biya regime.
A ticking time bomb
Biya once said: “Tant que Yaoundé respire le Cameroun vit”. The direct translation of this phrase is that when Yaounde, which is the capital, is “breathing” then Cameroon is also “breathing”. However, the deeper meaning is that regardless of socio-economic and socio-political problems that may be challenging the country’s regions, including the Centre Region where Yaoundé is located, as long as the capital is peaceful then the Cameroon state is stable and viable. It is this mantra that underpins the regime’s callous approach to the conflicts gradually ripping Cameroon apart. The Boko Haram insurgency continues to challenge Cameroon to the Far North while armed groups and bandits are wreaking havoc in the East Region. Then there is the separatist conflict in the English-speaking regions of the North West and South West, coterminous with the erstwhile British Southern Cameroons, that started in 2017 and continues today unabated, claiming lives and destroying the social fabric in these regions.
The regime’s response to these conflicts has been strong-handed and in the case of the separatist conflict, the refusal to acknowledge the underlying root causes that, according to several sources, can be traced back to the decolonization of the Southern Cameroons, marginalization of its citizens, and erosion of their heritage and identity. While the Centre Region and Yaounde have been largely spared of the violence, Cameroon remains a ticking time bomb. The lack of a real democratization effort with a single ethnic group capturing the state is an ingredient for destabilization and Cameroon is no exception. Although Biya has practiced with the ethnic distribution of threat capacities over the years, handing a few political positions to members outside his ethnic group in an over-blown government of over 60 Ministers and persons ranking as such, there is increasing frustration against the Beti-Bulu-Fang. Also, socio-economic conditions have deteriorated significantly over the years due to corruption and mismanagement.
These issues are sources of conflict because they give rise to grievances that could ultimately be vented through violence especially because of government repression. The risk for conflict is particularly high with the on-going conflicts in the country as these are sources of weapons, and fighters. In recent months, there have been reports of hand-made bombs being detonated in Yaoundé. The government has been quick to pin this on violent separatist terrorists. However, these official versions are not necessarily correct and these bombs are increasing show of Yaoundé’s gradual asphyxiation and therefore the risk of full-blown violence.
What can be done to prevent full-blown violence?
The challenge for Cameroon like for many other African countries is to ensure that festering issues don’t worsen. However, this cannot be achieved without addressing Cameroon’s lack of democratization and rampant nepotism in the country as well as , tackling socio-economic problems, bringing meaningful solutions to existing conflicts and addressing the over-militarization of the state. The handing over of power from one leader to the next over-the-counter disguised with constitutional and electoral outfits is the anti-thesis of democracy and is a recipe for violence.
A lot of attention is given to the security and military sectors. While this has served in protecting the regime over the years a strong military is problematic. First, the temptation is often to use it to quell dissent whereas repression may suppress dissent as well as may lead to conflict as is the case with the separatist violence in the Anglophone regions. Second, a powerful military poses a moral hazard problem for leaders and is therefore anti-democratic. Some experts have advanced the view that a coup is likely in Cameroon. While this is unlikely under Biya, although some think that this can be done to allow an exit for him – very unlikely – Cameroon may bag one or more coups after Biya’s exit.
Cameroon must ensure a meaningful democratization process to avoid the risk of more violence. Democracy, meaning free, fair and transparent elections run by a credible and independent electoral administration and in which there is civilian control of the army, can permit a rotation of power between ethnic groups or simply make the ethnic variable irrelevant as the people reward competence regardless of ethnic background. However, this must be done alongside addressing the on-going conflicts in the country, especially the separatist violence in the English-speaking regions.