Paul Biya, the President of Cameroon, has declared his candidacy for the October 7 presidential polls. A tweet from his Twitter account on 13 July 2018 reads as follows:
Dear Compatriots in Cameroon & the Diaspora,
Aware of the challenges we must take up together
to ensure a more united, stable & prosperous Cameroon,
I am willing to respond positively to your overwhelming calls.
I will stand as Your Candidate in the upcoming presidential election pic.twitter.com/6oldKFYWak
— President Paul BIYA (@PR_Paul_BIYA) July 13, 2018
Election or plebiscite?
From the way the tweet is drafted, some people may wonder why elections are being held. Is everyone calling for the President to stay in power? If so, one might reasonably then question if elections have become a formality in Cameroon, perhaps a “tick the box” exercise meant to satisfy Western conditionality for more aid.
The 36-year incumbent’s tweet rather tends to suggest that a plebiscite, not an election, might actually occur in October 2018 in Cameroon. Could elections have become a periodical reminder to the rest of the world about who the holder of incumbency in Cameroon is? Are they organised to give a semblance of popular participation in decision-making in the Central African country?
Why Biya is set to “win” re-election lies in the nature of politics and of elections
Author Olanrewaju Eweniyi has noted that:
“Biya became president on November 6, 1982, after the resignation of the Central African state’s first leader, Ahmadou Ahidjo, but he had served as Prime Minister from 1975 to 1982, technically ruling the country… He has won five elections since then, and in 2008 he revised the 1996 constitution to remove term limits. He’s also maintained a close relationship with France, Cameroon’s former colonial master.”
Over the years, Biya has enforced his rule to the point of practically becoming the only institution in the country. The style of politics in the country tilts distinctly towards patrimonialism. Reading the Constitution of Cameroon, one has the impression that it only stops short of replacing the word “Executive” with the incumbent’s name.
Biya’s party, the ruling Cameroon People’s Democratic Party (CPDM) is the de facto single party in the country. It has the majority in both houses of parliament and Biya still appoints up to 30 of the 100 Senators in the Senate. The President has powers over the Constitutional Council and presides over the Supreme Magistracy Council as well as appoints all judges including those on the Supreme Court bench. He appoints all Governors, Divisional Officers and Government Delegates, thus circumventing local government.
Needless to say he is the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, the Police and the National Gendarmerie and and many would say that the “honour and fidelity” sworn by new recruits is to him personally. He is equally the sole organiser of the Government and the public service. He appoints all ministers, including the Prime Minister, Directors General and Board Chairpersons of Public and Semi-public corporations and parastatals. He terminates their functions when he so wishes.
He has often ignored allegations of corruption reported about his Ministers and appears to order their arrests only when it seems politically opportune to do so. He governs by decree and also acts as referee and player in the electoral process as he is both candidate for elections and controller, so to speak, of the electoral commission known as Elections Cameroon (ELECAM).
He equally appoints top members of the State Media, the National Communication Council and of all bodies “combating” corruption, sometimes appointing individuals to more than one of these institutions of oversight. Eweniyi has then noted that despite all this, “[some people still dare to] expect democratic transition in Cameroon every now and then”.
Some even speak of widespread violence if he attempts to stand for re-election or indulge in rigging, predicting that the ultimate end for such conflict will be his demise. This has never happened and nothing shows that the situation will be different this year. It can be expected that during this election the army will be heavily mobilised for Biya’s purposes.
Biya, 85 years old, is therefore set to win the elections with an “overwhelming” majority that will echo the “overwhelming calls” for him to stand for the elections even as it can be expected that only a fraction the electorate made up of what remains as non-apathetic voters will turn up for the polls in October 2018.
Elections that may further drive a wedge in the growing discord
The backdrop of this upcoming Presidential election in Cameroon is the growing armed separatist movement in the English-speaking part of the country. While the voting will be moving on smoothly on the French-speaking side of the country, it can be expected that the unique style of protest called “Ghost Towns” will be called on Sunday 07 October 2017 in the Anglophone English-speaking regions.
It can also be expected that there will be violence as armed groups have vowed to attack any polling stations opened in the English speaking regions. Pushing on with the elections as if nothing is happening in these regions and stating in his tweet that he is “aware of the challenges we must take up together to ensure a more united, stable & prosperous Cameroon” without having ever set foot in the conflict-affected areas says much about political philosophy of the President and the type of confidence he has for a future win.
It is possible that he will visit at least one of these regions to campaign for re-election, perhaps to attempt a psychological beat-up of opponents. Needless to say that the army will be play its usual role were he to do so.
The political future of Cameroon
Presidential term limits were deemed necessary when (re)democratisation occurred in the early 1990s in Africa as a movement to push for good governance, equal opportunity to hold power, an end to patrimonial politics and authoritarian rule. Countries that have effectively democratised have ensured alternation in power either through truly free, fair and transparent electoral processes or constitutional provisions for only two terms in power. These countries have since witnessed positive outcomes in terms of stability and development. However, it appears that Cameroon has taken a different path and this may prove disastrous for its political future. If the right steps are not rapidly taken going forward to return the country to normalcy and set it on the path to stability, the troubles will continue.