Some of 83-year-old President Biya’s supporters want him to continue in office for another term in 2018 while others are calling for an early vote. With the government intimidating the opposition, there is little chance of Biya’s critics being able to push back against it
At 83 years old and in power since 1982, President Paul Biya is not ready to retire.
At a press conference during a visit by France’s President François Hollande on 3 July 2015, Biya quipped: “It’s not those who want to, but who can, who stay in power.”
For several months, supporters of the ruling Rassemblement Démocratique du Peuple Camerounais (RDPC) have launched publicity campaigns to call for Biya to run again in the next elections planned for 2018.
RDPC member Hervé Emmanuel Nkom explains: “We have analysed the security situation in the region. We think that our president is able to solve the current problems.” Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria are suffering from terrorist attacks by the Nigerian Islamist militants of Boko Haram.
Since July 2015, Boko Haram has launched numerous suicide attacks in Cameroon’s Extrême-Nord region, killing hundreds of people. The response of the Cameroonian and regional armed forces seem to have weakened the group.
Biya’s supporters regularly organise meetings and marches of support. On 24 April, RDPC members rallied in Maroua, the Extrême-Nord capital, in support of Biya’s candidacy. About a dozen ministers and many regime bigwigs were there.
The party also paid thousands of students and gave them party-themed clothes in order to bolster the ranks of the supporters. A student who attended the events, who requested anonymity, says there was deceit involved: “They asked us to come to participate in a conference. Once we arrived, we realised that it was a political meeting.”
He adds: “At the end of the proceedings, they gave us each 1,500 CFA francs ($2.6), but we had to put our names and signatures on a document.” The party then presented the document as the list of people who support a Biya candidacy.
The president has often done well in the Extrême-Nord during elections, even though it is a very deprived region, direly lacking in terms of infrastructure and public services. It is the poorest area of the country, and scores of young people from there have joined Boko Haram.
Long-serving National Assembly president Cavaye Yéguié Djibril organised the RDPC event in Maroua. According to him “le champion” of the RDPC (Biya) is the “best chance” for Cameroon. Nearly all of the major leaders of the party and the regime, including prime minister Philémon Yang, have taken the same line.
Political scientist Eric Mathias Owona Nguini has studied the Biya regime and his father, Joseph Owona, was a government minister for many years. “We have a governance system that maintains the president in power as long as possible,” he explains. He argues that Biya now “expends most of his effort on staying in power”.
Owona Nguini says that much of the high-level political support is based on personal political calculations: “They hope to “benefit from nominations to major institutions or to gain access to rents and public contracts.” The contemporary RDPC has many similarities to a single-party state.
The near entirety of the staff of the presidency, national assembly, senate, prime minister’s office and ministries are taken from the party’s ranks. Many business leaders and most of the directors of state-owned enterprises have RDPC party cards.
Young people say party membership is a means to succeed in civil service exams and get jobs. The party also has unequal access to state media. A growing number of Biya’s supporters have come out in favour of early elections, with some proposing 2016 rather than 2018.
That would require a change to the constitution. In February, minister in the presidency Paul Atanga Nji openly called for an early vote. As a justification, he explained that the electoral calendar in 2018 will be too busy, with presidential, legislative, senatorial and municipal votes planned.
According to Owona Nguini, the real reason for the proposed rush is to “secure Biya’s control of the presidency in the shortest time possible”. Biya himself has not made any public statements on the topic.
For RDPC member Nkom, the call for an early vote hides a number of the party’s preoccupations, including that of Biya’s succession. “At the moment, the president’s leadership is unquestionable, but we have to start thinking about what comes after Biya,” he tells The Africa Report. The succession remains a taboo topic in the ruling party, and Nkom is one of the few supporters willing to discuss it openly.
Emmanuel Simh, a lawyer and vice-president of the Mouvement pour la Renaissance du Cameroun (MRC) political party, says “there is nothing objective that could justify the holding of an early vote. We are absolutely opposed to any constitutional revision that has the goal of benefiting a single individual.”
Stand up for Cameroon
In April, four opposition parties including the MRC launched a coalition called Stand Up for Cameroon. One of its goals is to fight against any “secret” attempts to modify the constitution.
The coalition says it will “push for a non-violent transition”. Its leaders point to chronic deficits in water and electricity provision, saying the country’s leaders must focus on those areas that affect people’s lives.
Oppositionists have a difficult time organising at home. In February, Social Democratic Front (SDF) member Abel Elimby Lobe – who is know for his virulent attacks on the government on private radio stations and TV channels – launched an online petition asking Biya to retire.
SDF supporters chanted “Biya Must Go!” in front of the Cameroonian embassy in Pretoria, South Africa, in April. The government has systemically banned opposition protests and meetings, and the police regularly crack down on the most daring ones.
On 29 March, about 60 opposition supporters gathered in Yaoundé to protest against the talk of early elections. The police beat and arrested them. A month later, the administration withheld its authorisation for an MRC meeting in Bertoua a week after the RDPC’s events in Maroua.
Owona Nguini says that this suppression of opposition activity is “an expression of the repressive character of the system. The goal is to stop opposition forces and critical civil society groups from uniting and mobilising.”
Oppositionist Simh says that these attempts by Biya to hold on to power have led to “a state of permanent coup d’état”. Oppositionists are not the regime’s only target.
Two journalists and a teacher of journalism are currently facing charges before a military tribunal for failure to denounce acts of terrorism. Another is on trial for complicity in terrorism, and they all face the prospect of the death penalty.
Outside his failure to hand over power to a new generation of leaders, Biya’s critics say that the results of his time in office have been catastrophic. According to the government’s Institut National de la Statistique, 40% of the population live below the poverty line.
In 2013, Cameroon ranked 152nd out of 187 countries on the Human Development Index. The child mortality rate for under fives is dangerously high, at 148 deaths per 1,000 children. Several recent scandals have shown the inefficiencies of the healthcare system.
Still more corruption
On Transparency International’s rankings, Cameroon is among the countries perceived to be the most corrupt.
In 2015, the non-governmental organisation reported: “About 44% of individuals surveyed said that corruption had increased in the last 12 months and a strong majority (57%) said that the government is not effective in its fight against corruption.”
According to the Commission Nationale Anti-Corruption, there are no sectors where corruption is absent. In 2006, the government launched a much-hyped anti-corruption programme called Opération Epervier (Operation Sparrowhawk).
It led to the jailing of several members of the ruling elite and the creation of a bespoke court, the Tribunal Criminel Spécial (TCS). Justice minister Laurent Esso says that in three years the TCS found 146 people guilty and sentenced them to prison in cases related to corrupt deals worth 30bn CFA francs.
While the authorities celebrate these successes, lawyers argue that the TCS is not independent. More widely, analysts argue that Opération Epervier’s real impact is in neutralising influential personalities who have their eyes on the presidency.
If Biya remains in power for years to come, “at best the country will go round in circles. At worst, there will be a chaotic – even apocalyptic – end,” argues Owona Nguini. “Besides, the chaos started long ago, even if seems to be of the slow-burning kind.”
From the June 2016 print edition