Ahead of last Sunday’s presidential elections in Cameroon, Columbia University’s Institute of African Studies last week launched its series on elections in Africa with a panel discussion on Cameroon: Is change possible in Cameroon?
“Elections are becoming key moments in Africa – moments of conflict and also of opportunity. With crucial elections coming up in Cameroon, Senegal, Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire, it was critical to discuss the organization of power in Africa,” said Professor Mamadou Diouf, the head of the institute, in his opening remarks. “Beyond the process of democratization, the question inevitably remains: Which elections for Africa? Do we need direct universal suffrage for presidential elections or should we organize elections which are indirect? This is linked directly to decentralization – the question of the creation of local powers. The key element of all discussions going on is the big issue of the ‘big man.’ The idea of a big man is a constant of African history including moments of today when we talk of democratization”
Paul Biya, president of Cameroon is one of such big men.
The star-studded panel included two French citizens with expertise in Cameroon: Fanny Pigeuad, who is a journalist with Agence France-Presse and former correspondent for Cameroon, and Dominique Malaquias, a writer, scholar and currently senior researcher at the Centre d’Etudes des Mondes Africains. They were joined by two Cameroonian professors: Dickson Eyoh, political scientist and associate professor at the University of Toronto,Canada and Patrice Nganang, associate professor of comparative literary and cultural studies at Stonybrook University in New York.
The panel members concluded that elections are not the magic wand in the political process in Cameroon. Pigeaud, the journalist, was quite pessimistic about the possibility of change in Cameroon, noting that even though people are focused on ousting the current president of Cameroon, Paul Biya, the greater problem is with the political system which she thinks is difficult to change.
Malaquais, the senior researcher, borrowed President Biya’s “sans objet” response to Cameroonians’ demand for a national conference in the 1990s to describe Sunday’s elections. Many of her friends and acquaintances have told her that elections in Cameroon are pointless, useless and a big joke.
“It is a complete waste of time. Whether people come to vote or not, it will be rigged. The opposition is so fractured,” Malaquais said. “The whole thing is a farce. Unfortunately this farce is not amusing, and voting is a dangerous sport. Given that President Biya often acts with complete impunity, the elections are not only ‘sans objet’ but in fact a non-object.”
Nganang of Stonybrook University was more optimistic and saw in the Arab Spring, promises of a changing system especially with francophone Africa.“Cameroon is a tragedy with its own logic. Yet, just as with Tunisia in 2011, there are signs of hope,” he said.
Drawing from her newly published book, “Au Cameroun du Paul Biya,” which is unofficially banned in Cameroon, Pigeuad explained that Biya has stayed in power for close to 30 years thanks in large part to his extensive use of state violence. Biya inherited this crucial tool from Ahmadou Ahidjo, the first president of Cameroon, and has used it successfully to quell any form of opposition and to intimidate any prospective contenders to power, she said.
Elaborating on this, Malaquais pointed out that a clear sign of the regime’s use of violence and fear would be found in the sheer number of police officers and soldiers that would be deployed on the election day at polling stations.
“This would be a reminder of that bloody week in February 2008 when 100 people were killed and 1,500 jailed over an event intimately related to this election – constitutional amendment,” Malaquais added.
If officers and soldiers are ordered to turn out and use force, it will also be a painful reminder of the extrajudicial killings of more than 1,000 Cameroonians in Douala eight years ago by the infamous Operational Command – a special military squad created by the government and the intense violence of the 1990s during the “Villes Mortes.” – operation ghost towns launched by the opposition.
“These reminders of state violence are least pernicious. It is one thing to abstain from voting because one is legitimately concerned about process, and it is another thing to refuse to vote for fear of safety,” she said.
During the Q & A portion of the discussion, Professor Diouf, remarked that Cameroon has historically been seen as one of the most violent regimes in the history of Africa.”
A second reason for President Biya’s hegemony is the successful implementation of the French-colonial “divide-and-rule” policy, which Pigeuad expressed as “divisez pour mieux regner,” loosely translated as “divide in order to rule better.” Biya has effectively used ethnic identities to maintain his stranglehold on the people.
Pigeaud also said that Biya’s dominance is a result of a power vacuum deliberately created by Biya whereby critical institutions such as the senate and constitutional council, both mandated by Cameroon’s 1996 Constitution are yet to see the light of day.
Of course, talk of Cameroon politics is incomplete without referencing corruption. Pigeaud noted that Biya has been adept in fomenting corruption to enthrone himself.
“Fraud has a deeper context – electoral fraud is a manifestation of the normalization of corruption,” said Eyoh of the University of Toronto. He explained this in terms of the “intense privatization of the state” so much so that those who hold political office do so in an effective exchange for bringing their people along. “You can use corruption. You can eat from the state, but the cost is to bring your people along,” Eyoh added.
In Cameroon, since the state remains key to resources for both public and private sectors, there is enormous pressure on elites to toe the line. Breaking away from the regime is a kiss of death. With surging poverty rates, corruption is bound to loom large.
According to Eyoh, there is widespread disenchantment with the regime in Cameroon, yet this is not translated into any viable form of opposition because of corruption.
The French journalist, Pigeaud, without mincing words, laid the blame for the Cameroonian disaster on the feet of the French administration. According to her, Biya is a puppet of the French regime used to serve the economic interests of France.
Nganang amplified this role of the French by saying, “There is something wicked about the French Constitution that makes it difficult for opposition parties to break through.” This is the same constitution that Cameroon adopted in 1958.”
In seeking the causes of the Cameroonian dilemma, Eyoh pointed to the highly centralized nature of Cameroon’s political system exemplified by former President Ahidjo’s personal selection of Paul Biya for president.
He then indicated that a correct reading of the political situation in Cameroon must look to two watershed moments in the political history, namely the 1984 failed coup d’etat and the 1990 democratization process driven mainly by the opposition.
With the 1984 failed coup attempt, Biya’s sole priority became the protection of the incumbency at all costs. The key mechanism he used “is the growing politicization of bureaucracy and the careful manipulation of ethnic differences, such as Prime Ministry,” said Eyoh. Regime survival is intensified.
The development of mass political power in the 1990s led to the creation of the Social Democratic Front (SDF). This opposition party was a credible national alternative and injected fresh steam into the political system. Prior to this, one could get regional representation without being actively involved, but in the ‘90s all this changed. Now politicians needed to prove that they could broker regional support. The prominence of the SDF was short-lived and soon it began to self-destruct.
As a result, “Cameroonians are suffering from exhaustion,” Malaquias said. “State-sponsored repression, privatization of the state, disastrous unemployment and basic rights have been under attack for so long. This exhaustion is sought and encouraged; the complete sell-out of the opposition compounds the situation further.”
For Nganang then the question was what needs to be done to awaken the Cameroonian citizenry? Drawing from the Obama campaign with its historic grassroots mobilization in which he participated, Nganang revealed that in preparation for the elections, he had partnered with Cameroon Obosso a civil society organization in Cameroon together with some opposition parties to educate the masses. They had launched a campaign, titled, “9-10-11: Don’t Touch My Vote,” dedicated to educating Cameroonians on civic responsibility and training election monitors. The project which is more long term launched on Sept. 7 and had already taken place in six provinces in Cameroon.
In order to fight the blanket immunity president Paul Biya had been given by the new constitution, Nganang also indicated he had launched a campaign to have Biya indicted for crimes against humanity given all that brutality and killing he had orchestrated over the years.
With elections now over and the counting going on, one cannot help but appeal to every Cameroonian to take the challenge put forth by Malaquais: “It will be difficult to change the status quo given that Cameroon’s problems go deep in breadth and depth, and it will take decades to make a dent. But the opposition mantra, “Biya must go,” is spot-on. This is self-evident. Elections are just the tip of iceberg, and we need to be paying attention to the iceberg.”
Columbia University’s series on elections in Africa will continue throughout the year with talks on DRC, Senegal and Mali. It will focus on how to oust dictators in countries like Cameroon and DRC and how to build on gains made in burgeoning democracies like Senegal and Mali, according to organizers.
Etienne Smith, research scholar with Columbia University’s committee on Global Thought who moderated the panel gave a context to the discussion noting that “Cameroon presents an interesting paradigm for thinking and evaluating what democracy in post colonial Africa looks like. The analysis was fundamental for thinking through what will happen one month after in the Democratic Republic of Congo.”
After going in as separate candidates, the opposition is surprisingly coming together to call for a complete annulment of the elections on grounds that they were fraught with irregularities. Results will be published by the Supreme Court whose members are appointed by the incumbent.