Paul Biya, in power since 1982 in the Republic of Cameroon, on 09 July 2018 signed a Presidential Decree convening voters for the election of the President of the Republic on Sunday 07 October 2018. The Presidential Elections will take place in a context of growing violence and conflict on the northern (Boko Haram), western (Southern Cameroons separatist/restorationist movement) and eastern (Central African Republic refugee and armed bandits) peripheries of the central African country. The situation in the Northwest and Southwest Regions is particularly alarming. The risk of low voter turnout in these regions not only undermines the legitimacy of the future winner of the election but pushing on with elections in these two regions on the set date might trigger more deadly violence as well accelerate the armed separatist movement in the regions.
A troubled past
The conflict in the Northwest and Southwest Regions has its roots in the decolonisation process of the Southern Cameroons. These regions are coterminous with this former British Trust Territory forced by the administering authority, the United Kingdom (UK) and the United Nations (UN), with “achieving independence by joining” (whatever that means) either the Federal Republic of Nigeria or the Republic of Cameroun.
In the plebiscite, NOT REFERENDUM, of 11 February 1961 Southern Cameroonians EXPRESSED THE WISH of “achieving independence by joining” the Republic of Cameroun. The agreed policies by which the two parties were to form the union are in-existent as there is no Treaty of Union registered at the UN Secretariat showing that the two territories ever came together. Therefore, from the standpoint of international law it is difficult to argue that both territories formed a union in 1961.
Instead, what happened was that the Republic of Cameroun modified its constitution into a federal one to be enforced on the the Southern Cameroons. The Honourable Prime Minister of the Southern Cameroons was not privy to that constitution, yet President Amadou Ahidjo, first President of the Republic of Cameroun promulgated it on 01 September 1961, a full month before the earmarked independence day of the Southern Cameroons set for 01 October 1961, thereby imposing himself as Chief Executive of the Southern Cameroons and enforcing his rule over its people by sending in troops to that territory on 15 September 1961.
Ahidjo subsequently abolished the Federation on 20 May 1972 in favour of the United Republic of Cameroon (URC) so as to assume full control of the Southern Cameroons thus ending any form of self-rule that might have existed therein. The return to the name “The Republic of Cameroon” by President Paul Biya’s Decree of February 1984 has been considered by several Southern Cameroonians as an act that simultaneously separated the Republic of Cameroun from the union which existed de facto despite what is arguably its unfeigned illegality ab initio and completed the re-colonisation of the Southern Cameroons. A really sinuous and complicated political history it would seem, that nonetheless taints the behaviour of the former French Cameroun in the whole process as dubious, many would argue.
Giving up on the wish for union
Having expressed the wish to join the Republic of Cameroun in February 1961 the well-meaning people of the Southern Cameroons chose to turn a blind eye to what appears to be more likely than not deceit from those whom they so affectionately called “our francophone brothers” and to the repression they have suffered. Instead, they have for decades been asking for a return to the discussion table to re-negotiate the terms of the union. These calls have fallen on the deaf ears of the central government controlled by indigenes of the former French Cameroun.
The nth call for the return to discussions on a Two-State Federation was made by teachers’ and lawyers’ Trade Unions of what is now commonly termed Anglophone Cameroon in late 2016 as a panacea to prevent any further erosion of the what Southern Cameroonians have left as their identity, having eventually lost every other thing, notably self-rule. The trade unions stated that if the Two-State Federation is re-established in the right way, the English sub-system of education will be preserved and respected and the Common Law System will be protected.
According to them, the Two-State Federal system would prevent the sending of French-speaking teachers to schools in the Southern Cameroons to un-teach Southern Cameroonian children and would stop the courts in the Southern Cameroons from being manned by Civil Law judges who pronounce judgment in French thus depriving Southern Cameroonians of the right to justice. However, this very simple and legitimate demand was met with a crackdown. Trade unionists fled the country and protesters protesting with peace plants were met with internet black-out, beatings, maimings, arrests, court cases on trumped-up charges and arbitrary detentions, torture, and extra-judicial killings. This led Southern Cameroonians to call for total SEPARATION from the Republic of Cameroon. In response, government crackdown went unabated, rather going crescendo.
Additional protests on 22 September 2017 and on 01 October 2017 to mark the restoration of statehood of the Southern Cameroons as pronounced by the leader of an Interim Government established in the diaspora in favour of a successor State called “The Republic of Ambazonia” were met with acts of genocide from what stands for army in the Republic of Cameroon. Reports state that protesters who went out with peace plants that Sunday 01 October 2017, were shot at from helicopter gunships, the victims were in the thousands and the “army” reportedly dug up mass graves to bury these innocent people.
As if that were not enough, homes were razed to the ground in villages and fleeing civilians were pursued right into the bushes where they met an untimely death. Logically, therefore, young men have picked up arms to fight for the effective removal of the administration of the Republic of Cameroon from the territory of the former British Southern Cameroons. The abduction of the leader of the Interim Government from Nigeria and his eventual extradition to the authorities in Yaounde in the most irregular and illegal of ways in January 2018 has also been an additional conflict trigger.
The fighting between the restoration forces and the “army” of the Republic of Cameroon has led to more deaths on both sides, 200000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) and a growing refugee crisis of Southern Cameroonians fleeing to Nigeria. The unique style of protests begun in January 2017 called “Ghosts Towns” have also continued every Monday everywhere in the Southern Cameroons.
Elections by all means possible? Heterodox electoral politics in Cameroon
It is amidst this chaos that the 2018 general elections in The Republic of Cameroon are taking place. In March 2018, Senatorial elections were held in which President Paul Biya’s Cameroon People Democratic Movement (CPDM) party won 63 out of 70 elected seats. Ni John Fru Ndi’s chief opposition party, the Social Democratic Front (SDF) obtained only 7 seats, down from 14.
The rest of the 30 seats were filled by Presidential appointment as is required by law. Since the senatorial elections are by indirect suffrage, some councilors from the Anglophone regions were airlifted to the francophone side to vote in what was arguably a measure taken to ensure that the elections take place regardless of the conflict. However, several councilors did not vote. On 13 June 2018 Biya wrote a letter to the Senate President and to the National Assembly President, asking them to consult their various bureaus on his proposed postponement of the Legislative and Municipal elections by one year starting from October 2018.
Biya argued that organising the elections together with Presidential elections would be too cumbersome. The Government has also argued that the insecurity in the Anglophone regions and in the Far North Region warranted the postponement. Considering that the Parliament rarely ever opposes Biya’s bills, seen the CPDM’s one-party dominance or the de facto One-Party System prevailing, the bill was adopted in the June 2018 session thereby extending the mandate of parliamentarians by one year starting October 2018.
The airlifting of the municipal councilors from the Southern Cameroons to vote elsewhere in the March 2018 Senatorial Elections was a procedure which rather spelled an insensitive approach to the conflict. First of all, President Biya has never set foot in the conflict area to address the problem. The insistence of pushing on with elections appears to be a move to demonstrate to the world that institutions are functioning normally and that Southern Cameroonians are participating in these institutions regardless of calls to separate. The decision to suspend parliamentary and municipal elections that are conducted by direct universal suffrage may therefore be for two principal reasons.
First, there is the incapability and incapacity of the Government to airlift voters to other areas to vote as they can be expected to outnumber Councillors since we are dealing with the actual electorate. Second, the regime’s strategy may be to play with time, believing that the activists and fighters will eventually become weary as well as run-out of resources. Whatever the case, underlying the regime’s calculations is the idea that there is a very high risk that pushing on with the parliamentary and municipal elections may lead to a parliament that is poorly voted and thus glaringly illegitimate, a situation which could put to question the representativity of the institution in the eyes of the international community.
In contrast, however, the style of politics that prevails in the country and the type of pluralist electoral system in place means that the Presidential Elections can take place even if voter turn-out in the Southern Cameroons or Anglophone Regions is close to zero. In past electoral periods, there have always been reports of possible generalised violence in case of rigging. This has never happened. Nothing shows that the situation will be different this year. The army will be heavily mobilised to intimidate a generally docile francophone population.
Biya, 85, and 36years already in the Presidential office is, therefore, set to win the elections with an “overwhelming” majority with what little votes cast by the non-apathetic voters who will go to the polls. While the voting will be moving on smoothly on the French-speaking side of the country, it can be expected that Ghost Towns will be called on Sunday 07 October 2017 in the Anglophone regions. It can also be expected that there will be violence as restoration forces have vowed to attack any polling stations that will open on the polling day.
Some observers claim that the Presidential Elections will be some sort of referendum. This means that the candidate who wins the elections would have the green light to implement the form of State he/she or his/her party is proposing. This referendum perspective means that once again, the Francophone majority will be used as in 1972 to decide the fate of the Southern Cameroons or the Anglophone minority. Since Biya is set to win, it would be claimed that his centralised system of Government that Southern Cameroonians have protested against for decades, has received popular ascent. This may give greenlight to further accelerate repression.
What the future holds
As such, the future of the Cameroons appears bleak in terms of democracy, peace, and stability. The UN is still to intervene in the conflict in that country and the African Union (AU) is still to show any real concern. It is amazing to see that people are unable to sit down and talk so as to better the lives of their communities, instead choosing to kill their fellow man in the name of construct called a “one and indivisible Cameroon” they can’t ascertain its future once they themselves are dead and long gone. Democracy is part of the solution to the conflict in the Cameroons.
However, it appears that democracy is instead being controlled by President Biya to promote civil strife, anger, and instability. It is time for Cameroonians, especially the ruling elite to look deep into their souls and ask themselves what they have to show for 50+ years of independence. Is it good governance and justice, a working education system, modern healthcare, functioning infrastructure and happy citizens or is it authoritarinism, underdevelopment, and mass graves?