When Cameroon’s first President, Ahmadou Ahidjo, a Muslim northerner, resigned from office on November 4, 1982, ostensibly for health reasons, he left the entire nation in shock. No one could imagine that this despot would leave office of his own accord. But the signs were already there that Ahidjo was preparing his exit from office and many were able to single out the successor he was grooming.
In effect, in 1972 Ahidjo had unilaterally engineered the modification of the 1961 Federal Constitution. This Federal Constitution was born of the understanding between the parties that the former British Southern Cameroons and the Republic of Cameroun (La République du Cameroun, LRC) would co-exist as equal States. It is believed that elites of the Southern Cameroons – West Cameroon in the Federation – thought that there would be a rotation of power between them and elites from the LRC – East Cameroon in the Federation.
The 1972 Constitution Article 6.4 a & b made the Head of Parliament the interim successor of the President. Solomon Tandeng Muna, one of such elites from the Southern Cameroons, was made Head of the Parliament. However, Ahidjo reinstated the post of Prime Minister in 1975 and then made the Prime Minister the constitutional successor by constitutional amendment of June 29, 1979.
His choice for Prime Minister in 1975 was Paul Biya, a Francophone Christian southerner. He took power on November 6, 1982. Known to be a discreet and astute bureaucrat, it was believed that Biya would be a milder and more liberal President within the One-Party dispensation in place since 1966. Multiparty politics was reinstated in 1990.
When he took power, Biya seemed to respond to popular perceptions about him, especially when he announced “rigor and moralisation” as his political mantra. However, there was an unsuccessful coup d’état in April 1984 against Biya, allegedly plotted by Ahidjo factions. Ahidjo had fallen out with Biya who increasingly despised his shadow.
Following the coup, Biya became perhaps an even greater despot than Ahidjo had been, relying on the security sector and close ethnic ties from his Bulu tribe and associated Beti and Fang clans to maintain himself in power. 37 years after, his regime has reportedly seen a country that has left from a middle-income economy in the 1980s and near food self-sufficiency, if not food self-sufficiency, to a begging bowl relying on foreign aid from France and the China.
Under Biya’s rule, the brewing separatist conflict in the contiguous English-speaking regions of the North West (NWR) and South West (SWR) coterminous with the erstwhile British Southern Cameroons escalated into full-blown violence in 2017. State repression of protests over the increasing influence of French in Anglophone institutions saw moderates leaving the Anglophone movement for hard-line pro-independence activists and fighters legitimately opposing brutish State repression.
But despite this balance sheet, catastrophic by many standards, Biya still records near-soviet, if not soviet scores in presidential polls such as the recent one in 2018 where he obtained 71.28% of the votes. The opposition has accused the electoral machine of being stacked against them stating that the electoral administration is run by Biya’s government and the ruling Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (CPDM). As such, with no end in sight for his rule, many Cameroonians have resorted to hopes for better leadership after Biya’s death.
Biya is seen to have become used to a comfort zone of relative inertia because of years of unchallenged rule, tacit support from France and the backing of China. Various opinion circles think that it would be impossible for the next President to have the same attitude as s/he would certainly attempt to stamp his/her feet with his/her own developmental policies. We will show why, everything being equal (ceteris paribus), this will likely not be the case.
Change proofing by virtue of the caste system
Cameroon’s ruling system is structurally change-proof. Political and administrative life gravitates around President Biya who is constitutionally empowered to run everything, including elections. Overall, Biya is seen to oversee a “masterclass of fake democracy“. Around him is a cohort of enablers – civilians and military; opposition and ruling party – who propagandize and repress psychologically and physically in order to perpetuate their patron’s rule.
As a reward, these clients are allowed to co-govern as they see fit. Corruption is endemic but remains unchallenged. Impunity is the order of the day and vice has become virtue. The administrative or public sector has subjugated the private sector with the richest people in the country being government officials who thrive by forcing bribes from citizens and businessmen.
To ensure the recycling of this system, the regime is practicing nepotism in recruitment into civil and military positions. A caste system has been put in place. In theory, there is equal opportunity but in practice, the children of the poor are kept poor while the children of the rich administrators will succeed their fathers in the administrative bourgeoisie. The National School of Administration and Magistracy (ENAM) has become the formation center for the children of the barons of the system.
Under this dispensation, it would not be surprising to see a Togo-style or Gabon-style transition. While it may not necessarily be from father to son, the dauphin has already been selected or will be in due course. It would be surprising if this dauphin is not one from within the system. Biya had been groomed by Ahidjo to be the successor, Biya’s succession will, therefore, likely not be different, notably as a result of this caste State.
The conflation of honey money best behavior and change
Biya’s public relations stunt when he took over was nothing short of honeymoon niceties and best behavior. Under a dictatorship, you do not legitimize your recent accession to office or eminent ascendancy only by means of elections; you also do so through pomp, fanfare, pageantry and by announcing lofty slogans and projects.
The current Constitution of Cameroon states that the interim is led by the Head of the Senate who is also a member of the Central Committee of the CPDM. At Biya’s death, the CPDM Central Committee will select a new Chairman, most likely from one of the ethnic groups close to Biya. The electoral administration is not independent and is overseen by the Ministry of the Interior.
Apart from the little or no independence of the electoral administration, the ability of the real opposition to canvassing for votes in Cameroon has been significantly undermined by targeted interdiction and repression of its rallies. The compromised security sector is often deployed to quell all manner of protest by the political opposition and civil society organisations as well as other sections of society asking for fairness and equality.
How to be certain of meaningful change
A real democracy functions like an automatic screening machine, a sifter. It rewards good leadership with a new and final term of office and sanctions bad leadership through its removal from office in the next elections or through impeachment. Good leadership cannot be a matter of lottery.
Unless the electoral code in Cameroon is reformed to ensure free, fair and transparent elections, meaningful change is not likely to become reality after Biya who is set to die in power, everything being equal. The electoral administration must become a completely independent institution.
Cameroon is just another example of indecorous political practices on the African continent. African long-stay regimes, that have proven very incompetent for the most part, have simply found a way to disguise their despotic and dynastic tendencies with democratic outfits.
The only way out of this political slump is through the limitation of presidential terms; strengthening of democratic institutions, notably the separation of the three branches of government; putting an end to military centrality in politics, and; bolstering the independence of the electoral administration. To get this going, we need not war but democracy protests.