Cameroon: Kamto – ‘For the sake of the country I will talk to Biya’
Two months after his release, opposition leader Maurice Kamto is back in the political arena. While justifying the MRC's boycott of next February's elections, he pleads for dialogue and appeasement.
Maurice Kamto lives in seclusion behind the high walls of his residence in the northern districts of Yaoundé. To access it, you must show an ID and wait for security guards behind a fence to open up and seat you under an arbour in the garden.
Out comes the university professor and former minister delegate for justice, who has become Cameroon’s most prominent oppositionist as president of the Mouvement pour la Renaissance du Cameroun (MRC). He has the tired look and ragged voice of those who sleep little. Perhaps this is one of the consequences of nine months’ incarceration in Yaoundé’s main prison, which he left in October.
But this 65-year-old is not given to feeling sorry for himself. As soon as he was released he returned to the political arena to announce – to the government’s great displeasure – that the MRC would boycott the legislative and municipal elections scheduled for 9 February, 2020.
Your party, the MRC, has announced that it will not participate in the February 2020 elections. Why not?
Maurice Kamto: There are two main reasons. First, we cannot enter into elections without the conditions being in place for the people of the Northwest and Southwest to be able to go to the polls. This would amount to excluding these two regions from participating in the republic, in terms of local governance and representation in the National Assembly. As if we were resigning ourselves to act out a partitioning of our country.
Secondly, our electoral system has shown its limits and must be reformed. We drafted a bill in 2014 and tabled it in the Assembly, but it has still not been brought to the table.
Under these circumstances, why did you stand in the 2018 presidential election?
Because we hoped to be able to mobilise voters and monitor voting operations properly, and because this election also represented an opportunity to solve the country’s problems. In the end, by bringing the electoral dispute before the Constitutional Council it gave us the opportunity to demonstrate that the laws were not good and that it was high time to reform them to avoid post-electoral crises.
The government seems to be in no hurry to change the laws…
And yet even the international community is urging it to do so. You must be aware that the European Parliament unanimously adopted a resolution that the electoral system be reformed before any new elections are held. And the US Congress and Canadian Parliament are saying the same thing.
We need to solve the problems before we think about the elections”
Do you want the next elections postponed?
Naturally, and we have made this clear. We could have gone there, though, and we would have won, because our popularity is so high. But we think we need to solve the problems before we think about the elections.
Didn’t the MRC participate in the Grand National Dialogue launched by President Biya at the end of September to ease the crisis in the English-speaking regions?
Yes, because it was a matter of breaking the impasse that our country has been in for three years. But even before we made our proposals to the Prime Minister, we recommended that we start by releasing all political detainees, including people like Sisiku Ayuk Tabe [self-proclaimed President of Ambazonia], who have already been convicted.
Such a gesture of appeasement would have generated public support. But the government prefers to keep them in prison and is wrong to choose its own interlocutors.
For the authorities, would it not send the wrong signal to release individuals formally condemned by the courts?
In the current situation, there is no point in identifying the guilty and innocent. We are asking for their release because we are looking for a solution. There will always be time later to set up a truth, justice and reconciliation commission.
What do you think should be done immediately?
In such a violent context, de-escalation measures must first be applied. We want the third category forces [the army] to be withdrawn so that only the police and gendarmerie remain on the ground. Secondly, the State must start rebuilding villages and infrastructure, as we keep saying, to allow displaced people to return home, and in particular to ensure that schools resume. Our demands have not yet been heard, but it is clear that the solution to this crisis is political.
I am not, I never have been and I never will be for the partition of Cameroon”
Are you for or against a change in the form of the State? Would you, for example, be in favour of a return to federalism?
I am not, I never have been and I never will be for the partition of Cameroon. It’s not even an option. Our country must remain united. However, there should be no fear of discussing the form of the State. It must not be a taboo. It is clear that hyper-centralisation no longer meets people’s expectations.
I would add that this reflection is not exclusively an Anglophone one, it concerns all Cameroonians. However, I am not in favour of a straightforward return to federalism as it existed in 1961. We must not forget the 60 years of living together that we have shared since independence, Francophone and Anglophone.
How do you react to the fact that your party’s demonstrations are so often banned?
I do not understand why we are being treated as insurrectionists. We have always respected the law. The MRC was created seven years ago and has never caused any incidents. These accusations against us are unfounded.
To call someone tribal is to delegitimise them”
For the past three years, we have almost never been allowed to hold meetings. And worse! The police now invite themselves to meetings held at our headquarters when, by law, the headquarters of a political party is inviolable.
Is the tribalism of which the MRC is accused also an invention?
Of course, it’s the same thing. Every election, or every time a serious candidate poses a threat to the current government’s candidate, these types of accusations are made. To call someone tribal is to delegitimise them. It’s incredible cynicism, which reached its peak during the last presidential election. It’s time to put an end to it.
Do you deny that your party is regionalist?
Absolutely! Absolutely! No one will ever be able to prove that I have ever been guilty of regionalism or tribalism, either in my academic career or in my political career.
They say Kamto is a dictator. No! It was the national council of the party that chose the boycott”
Was it your personal decision not to take part in the elections?
There, too, I heard a lot of things. They say Kamto is a dictator. No! It was the national council of the party that chose the boycott. I didn’t decide anything on my own. What is true is that I was one of those who thought that we should postpone the legislative and municipal elections and start by solving the problems. An example: we are talking about the special status of the Anglophone regions [a recommendation of the national dialogue], but no one knows what form it would take!
What will you do about young party officials who are impatient to play a role in parliament?
We do not create a party to allow a few comrades to have an experience. It is done to achieve objectives of national interest. Let me explain: if we had gone to the elections, we would most probably have won additional seats, as I told you.
We would have entered the political establishment and played a part in the institutional game. But we could no longer criticise the electoral code, and we would have lost sight of all the objectives for which our party was created, and this for the benefit of a few. I am sure that comrades will understand that their political careers are not compromised.
The rest of the opposition seems to be hesitant about how to proceed….
This is one of the particularities of the Cameroonian opposition. We do not know how to come together and find real areas of political convergence. I have always thought that the issue of electoral system reform could bring us together, precisely because it does not benefit anyone in particular.
When the rules of the game are good, they are good for everyone. In 2014, I wrote to all political parties to harmonise our positions on this issue. I have not received a reply.
Your supporters have complained a lot about administrative hassles. What is the situation?
Some sub-prefects decided to refuse to issue documents to some of the opposition candidates who requested them. This is a serious issue, because through this they are destroying the backbone of the Cameroonian administration. We must explain to the sub-prefects that we are not hunting them, that we are not their enemies.
Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French foreign minister, visited Cameroon at the end of October. He met with President Biya, of course, and several political leaders, including you. Did you expect more?
I wasn’t disappointed because I take things as they come. It would have been logical, in our context, for the minister of foreign affairs of a friendly country to pay particular attention to the one who officially came second in the presidential election. This was not the case.
Jean-Yves Le Drian did not once mention the crisis itself or the revision of the electoral code”
Jean-Yves Le Drian thought that a format with the leaders of all political parties represented in the Assembly was sufficient. Did he get the answers he wanted? I don’t know. I don’t know.
But it became very clear that he came to help implement the resolutions of the dialogue, and one may wonder whether the fact that he gave the impression of coming with a position already established is the right way to help in the resolution of the multifaceted crisis we are facing. At no time did he mention the crisis itself or the revision of the electoral code.
Should France take a stronger line like the Americans, who, in mid-November, excluded Cameroon from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA)?
Those involved will only listen to force. Friendly dialogue won’t get them moving. That being said, any approach that will lead the government to understand that it needs to reform the system is welcome.
You spent almost 10 months in detention. What did you learn from it?
I wouldn’t like to see my own enemies in that place, but prison has not changed me. It merely confirmed the idea that we must fight to make a difference in Cameroon. In my case, incarceration was an injustice. But complaining about my fate wouldn’t change anything. On the other hand, to say that this must not happen to others is already the beginning of something different.
How do you respond to those who say you are rigid?
That I’m not. The proof: I’ve reached out to President Biya to work together on a project for a new Republic – I’ve been working on it myself for decades. To solve our problems, for the salvation of the country, and certainly not because I am looking for a position, I am ready to discuss it with him.
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Did you expect to take so many hits when you entered politics?
Public life is violent. I have sometimes seen hatred towards me, some would even like to see me dead, but this violence is not good for anyone and will not solve any of Cameroon’s problems. Our political projects are not so different that we can’t have a dialogue with each other.
Social networks are not soft on you. Does this affect you?
If lies and insults could kill, I would have died several times already! I don’t read everything, but I see a lot. Does it hurt me? Yes, sometimes, especially since at times jealousy and hatred go beyond me to target the community I come from. But although I am portrayed as a devil, I have never read or heard any reasoned argument on that score.
Do you think there is a risk of inter-ethnic conflict in Cameroon?
Individually, Cameroonians are not tribalists! On the other hand, there is a small political-academic elite that injects the poison of hatred into the veins of our country. But these people have nothing concrete to offer, and their project is doomed to failure.
This article first appeared in Jeune Afrique.