Cameroon: After Biya, time for Kamto and the opposition?

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Life after Cameroon’s Paul Biya?

By Mathieu Olivier

Posted on Friday, 4 March 2022 16:51

If in a year's time Paul Biya was no longer president, would his political opponents have a chance? They believe so... But a consensual figure would still have to emerge.

This is part 4 of a 4-part series

The wait is long, in the premises of the Movement for the Rebirth of Cameroon (MRC) on 8 October 2018. In the heart of the Odza district, in the south of Yaoundé, dozens of journalists have made the trip and are waiting for the press conference of Maurice Kamto, opposition candidate in the first round of the presidential election, which took place the day before.

The representative of Cameroon Tribune, the government daily, is present. The front-page story of his newspaper is already wrapped up and will mention Paul Biya the next day, but the journalist is there as a matter of principle. The hour’s pass. Some reporters slip away to the small restaurants in the area. Viper in sauce washed down with an ice-cold beer, helps pass the time. But when the meal is over, the MRC candidate still does not show up.

A rebellion is organised. A journalist tries to convince his colleagues not to play the game of endless waiting and to leave the premises. The argument was successful. However, the initiative fails due to a lack of unanimity. Maurice Kamto’s staff reassure the most irritated.

“The boss is on his way,” they repeat.

Finally, a black SUV passes the gate, immediately surrounded by a police force on the edge. The candidate gets out and goes to the room where a crowd of his supporters has gathered alongside the journalists. With thin glasses on his nose, looking good-natured but offensive, the opponent attacks: “I was given the mission to take the historic penalty. I shot it; the goal was scored.” Maurice Kamto has just declared himself president-elect.

‘We are betting on an implosion of the system’

More than three years have passed. On 9 January 2022, another penalty kick caught the attention of Cameroonians. The Indomitable Lions were playing the 48th minute of their match against Burkina Faso in the opening match of the African Cup of Nations (CAN) in Yaoundé. The Stallions’ defender hit Cameroonian striker Nouhou Tolo in his penalty area. The referee did not hesitate to point to the penalty spot. Vincent Aboubakar took the penalty, scored his second goal of the night and gave his team a two-goal win.

A great football fan, Maurice Kamto felt relieved. Invited to the opening ceremony by a friend of the African Union, he preferred to follow the match of the Lions on television, far from Paul Biya, who was in the stands of the stadium in Yaoundé. Has he said goodbye to his ambitions of succession?

Today, the system holds thanks to Paul Biya. But tomorrow? The interests of rivals will prevail.

“In the scenarios of Paul Biya’s succession, we are confined to a second role. At least initially,” said an opposition member. “Our camp will only have a chance if the Biya system collapses if the factions in the presidency or in the ruling party tear each other apart,” adds a long-time opponent. In other words, if Paul Biya were to disappear overnight from the Cameroonian political equation, Maurice Kamto and his cohorts must also hope that the ruling Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (CPDM) won’t be able to find unity without its emblematic founder.

“Today, the system holds thanks to Paul Biya. But tomorrow? The interests of rivals will prevail,” explains a political scientist. “We are clearly betting on an implosion. The disappearance of Paul Biya means chaos in the presidential camp. And, after the chaos, in an election where the old system will not have been able to remain united, who knows what can happen?”

In the Social Democratic Front (SDF, chaired by John Fru Ndi), the hope of playing the leading role is slim, but still present. The Socialist Party has clearly lost its splendour and is now a shadow of what it represented in the 1990s. Since the mid-2010s, it has seen its political space nibbled away by the MRC. But it has retained some chairs in the National Assembly.

Joshua Osih in August 2018 at Jeune Afrique, in Paris © François Grivelet for JA

“The place of the SDF is that of a constructive opposition, between the CPDM and the MRC, which is undermined by its most radical elements. I think that this posture can allow us to influence the post-Biya era,” said a party executive.

A former member and co-founder of the party is less optimistic: “I don’t see how the SDF could have any clout. Joshua Osih [the party’s 2018 candidate] scored 3% in the last presidential election and parliamentary posts are often only retained through agreements with the CPDM.” Weakened by the internal struggle for power – between Osih and Jean-Michel Nintcheu in particular – has the party said goodbye to its glory days?

“Only the MRC today has the capacity to mobilise the opposition,” says the SDF co-founder.

Kamto in the footsteps of John Fru Ndi

Silent for many months, Maurice Kamto is biding his time. Imprisoned and then released in October 2019 after eight months of detention, the challenger has decided not to express himself in the media for the moment and to make the release of political prisoners – of which about 50 were still sentenced last December – the only battle horse of the MRC.

“We found it indecent to come on television to talk about issues such as the African Cup of Nations when so many of our activists are in prison,” said a party official. On 9 January, the MRC sent some of its supporters to the Yaoundé stadium to distribute Cameroon’s national team jerseys with the words ‘Free the political prisoners on them.

Can Maurice Kamto gather the entire opposition behind him? “He is the most credible today and he is also the only one who has a party in working order,” said one of his supporters. “I don’t believe it for a second,” retorts a political scientist in Yaoundé. “Since the legislative elections of 2020, the MRC is divided between the most radical lieutenants, who were for the boycott, and the rest.”

In 1992, the opposition candidate, John Fru Ndi, almost won the first multiparty elections in the country’s history. “He had the attraction of novelty – with the opening up of the multiparty system – and above all, he benefited from all the work that civil society and the elders of the Union of the Peoples of Cameroon [UPC] had done,” recalls a UPC activist at the time.

“He was not even supposed to be the opposition candidate. Cardinal Christian Tumi was offered the role but he refused. Fru Ndi arrived afterwards and was able to recuperate the political capital of civil society movements such as Cap-Liberté, created after the arrest of journalist Celestin Monga in January 1991”, explains an opponent who was in prison in 1990.

The leader of the Cameroon Renaissance Movement, Maurice Kamto, in Paris, on 30 January 2020. © Stephane de Sakutin / AFP

By focusing his campaign on ‘his’ political prisoners, can Maurice Kamto ensure that this scenario is repeated? “This is the current objective of the MRC,” explains the political scientist. “To make Maurice Kamto the champion of human rights in the face of the torturous state, as John Fru Ndi was the champion of freedom in the face of the single party and the police state.”

‘Big bang’ in Yaoundé

“The era has changed,” says a former member of Cap-Liberté, who does not believe in a repetition of the past. “The success of Fru Ndi in 1992 was that of a whole movement inherited from the UPC. There was a very broad and diversified base. Does Maurice Kamto have this kind of network today?” asks another former supporter of the president of the SDF. “There is a reality that should not be hidden: Kamto is Bamileke. It will be very difficult to mobilise in other ethnic groups,” adds this same source, who is not Bamileke.

Everyone will want to take advantage of the game to represent his party or his region of origin.

“Our party has worked hard to establish itself in all regions of Cameroon,” retorts an MRC executive. “To say that our party is Bamileke is completely false and only repeats the propaganda of the government.” Should we believe in a union of the opposition after the death of Paul Biya?

“Everyone will want to take advantage of the game to represent his party or his region of origin. Some will want to participate in a transition or a government of national unity and others will hope to extricate themselves from the chaos,” says the political scientist. A former member of the opposition concludes, in an astral metaphor: “On the side of the CPDM as well as its opponents, it is difficult to foresee the ‘new world’. The departure or death of Paul Biya will be a bit of a big bang in Yaoundé.”

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