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Cameroon | Spotlight: Joshua Osih

By Nicholas Norbrook
Posted on Wednesday, 17 October 2018 10:54

Cameroonian opposition leader Joshua Osih wants to wrench the country’s politics out of the 20th century. His running for the presidency in October of this year turns a page on the leadership of John Fru Ndi of the Social Democratic Front (SDF), whose glory days were the failed insurrection of the 1990s. The tougher challenge will be President Paul Biya, who has been in power since 1982, and the ruling Rassemblement Démocratique du Peuple Camerounais (RDPC).

Osih, 49, is older than the average Cameroonian but younger than the current crop of ministers and senior official. This digital native wants to rock the boat, but there is inevitably pushback. Osih took flak from the old guard in the SDF for gaining attention with his popular social media presence. He managed to dethrone Fru Ndi, 76, from the SDF flag bearer position in a hotly fought congress at the opposition stronghold of Bamenda in February.

With a Swiss mother, a career in the aviation sector – where he still owns a company – Osih is popular and bilingual. Does that make him a threat for the Biya regime, as the country heads to the polls?

He believes so. He told his 16,500 Twitter followers in September: “This is lame. Apparently, this government got inspired by my program. They are now planning a salary increase for civil servants. We are not fools!” Osih had already pledged to quintuple the minimum wage, to bring it in line with peer countries, before the government issued plans to raise salaries.

It is a sign of the times: US President Donald Trump realised that social media allowed him to do retail politics at scale, speaking to voters directly. Osih understands this too, using the power of the internet to reach his compatriots.

By providing a steady blend of well-produced short videos, a mobile app, personalised campaigns like the ‘1,000 Faces for Change’ and pedagogical cartoons on subjects such as health insurance – alongside sharp put downs – he is taking political life in Cameroon into a new era.

It’s not just online. Osih’s speaking tour of the country, taking him to all four corners of Cameroon, shows he understands the importance of pressing the flesh. The SDF is trying to improve its ground game and get-out-the-vote campaigns to persuade young people to become politically active. Many young Cameroonians are voting with their feet by seeking better opportunities in neighbouring countries with the hope of making it to the West. Fru Ndi scored just 10.7% of the last presidential vote in 2011, with the opposition criticising the partiality of the electoral commission and the pro-RDPC state media.

Will Osih’s wind of change be enough to take down the rigged system against which he battles? Seasoned observers argue that the patronage powers of the regime remain paramount. The opposition is also divided, with the likes of Akere Muna and Maurice Kamto also running for the presidency – not to mention the fact that turnout is likely to be low in Osih’s Anglophone heartland due to the separatist conflict there and a potential boycott by voters.

The October presidential vote comes against the backdrop of violence in the Anglophone zones due to a two-year-old quasi-insurgency sparked by teacher and lawyer strikes – which Osih blames Biya for stoking up. “We have a president who understands nothing about what’s going on in Cameroon, who spends the best part of his time abroad and who thinks that sending in the army will sort out this problem,” Osih told reporters in August. “It can’t. You can kill people, but you cannot kill ideas.”

This article first appeared in thr October 2018 print edition of The Africa Report magazine

Top photo: Joshua Nambangi Osih – Credits: François Grivelet 2018 for JA

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