Throughout the time I have been in Cameroon, (about two weeks now) I have not felt for once that a very crucial presidential election is around the corner – only once in Yaounde when I was asked to present my ID card twice within a distance of 200 km did I get the sense that there was some tension in the air. In fact, I get a greater feel that on the 9th of October 2011, Cameroonians will have to go to the polls, is when I am on Facebook.
It should not be in the least surprising for anyone who has been following Cameroonian politics. The first thing to note about the country is that it is one of the countries that are called ‘democratic’ but which has never for once elected its president. It is alleged that the first President Ahmadou Ahidjo was simply a choice of the erstwhile colonial masters who preferred him to André Marie Mbida after killing Ruben Um Nyobe. Ahidjo himself decided to single-handedly appoint Paul Biya his successor, who has clung to power since 1982. When the winds of change of the ’90s brought multi-party politics to Cameroon, it was an opportunity for old goons to learn new tricks.
The most free and fair elections in the Country was held in 1992 which the opposition led by Ni John Fru Ndi allegedly won but which, the incumbent Biya having the knife and the yam, ended up declaring himself the winner. Many today, blame Mr. Fru Ndi for the 1992 lapse. That was the decisive moment, they claim. He simply had to say the word and Cameroonians would have fought to defend their votes. He rather chose the pacifist route by taking up the bible and pointing to Cameroonians that ‘when two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers’. That saved Cameroon the agony of going down the path of many African nations. OR DID IT?
Since then, the incumbent Biya and his party, the CPDM have mastered the art of maintaining power at all costs. The ultimate result has been that the government has concentrated more on trying to maintain power than do anything else. Most terrible in the whole scenario is that Biya has succeeded to build even within his own party a personality cult around himself. Without holding a Party congress since 1996, he has evolved into a ‘natural candidate’ for the party. Two days ago a Congress held after his candidature had already been declared seemed to be an opportunity for him to show all that he was ‘lord’ of the party (Of course, he is. The most popular emblem of the party is now his 1985 face. It is on all party uniforms and official documents). To have selected another candidate would mean the party will have to go through an overhaul of all its intrinsic values. CPDM is synonymous with Paul Biya.
But why all this sycophancy? Why is it that the failures of the Biya regime stare at all in the face yet he keeps receiving ‘motions of support’ even from parts of the country that are so run-down that one wonders if they are part of same Cameroon? All these would have pointed to the fact that the elections are a foregone conclusion had it not been for the recent happenings of the so-called Arab Spring – especially the fall of Hosni Mubarak. This is what makes the Cameroon situation precarious.
A KEG OF GUNPOWDER?
Cameroon did not take a cue from the uprisings in North Africa as many will wrongly assume. In 2008 Cameroonians came out on a nationwide protest and strike against Mr. Biya’s bid to change the constitution, a protest that was effectively crushed by the US-trained Battalion Intervention Rapide (BIR). Since then it was clear that the force could effectively carry-out the mandate for which it was created. However, with the fall of Mubarak, even when he tried some of the tricks Biya used in 2008, (clearly showing that they were reading from the same script), it became clear to the United States that even the BIR may not be able to quell a revolt in Cameroon this time, should one occur. President Obama quickly called on Biya to hand over power as a bid to avoid the same situation whereby power could fall into the hands of someone who was not on the US control-roll. This will have been an easy thing for Biya to do but unfortunately, he has little or no guarantee that leaving power would mean freedom. He had already soiled his hands. There is the lake Nyos disaster of 1986 that still has unanswered questions; there are the massive killings that he carried out from the period of 1990 to 1992; there are the mass imprisonment of people without trial; there is the case of the 9-killed at Bepanda; there is the recent case of 2008 and many crimes against humanity which the ICC has on their lists waiting for him.
Caught in this dilemma, Biya could not declare his candidacy until a few weeks to the elections as trips to China clearly gave him reason to dare the US. While it is clear that China endorsed his bid, given that they were clearly represented at his party’s congress, the real problem is that the leadership and command of the BIR is more American than pro-Biya. Should there be massive protests in Cameroon this time around, the US will be slow in using the BIR to maintain Biya in power. However, unless the US can get a candidate they can back, it will be a difficult situation as their inaction could still lead to what they are trying ab initio to avoid. The worse case scenario, however, will be one in which the US backs another person against Biya using the BIR and Biya manages to get support from the Country’s French forces and military. A clash between the gendermarie and the military on one hand and the BIR on the other, will be inevitable. BUT THIS CAN ONLY HAPPEN IF THE US SEES A POTENTIAL THREAT TO BIYA’S REIGN AND DECIDE TO LEAVE HIM IN THE COLD!
ANY CAUSE FOR ALARM THEN?
There seems to be none as far as Cameroon is concerned. This is because of three reasons:
First is the fact that Cameroonians are generally peaceful people. No people will bear the failures of Biya with such docility. From the time Biya took power in 1982, the country has been on a steady decline in all aspects. The economic crisis officially declared in 1987 was just the beginning of worse things to come. No new infrastructure in the country can be credited to the regime. From the presidency, airports to even football stadia, everything still carries the insignia for Amadou Alhidjo. Despite all these, Cameroonians have watched the country go from bad to worse with a geometric retrogression but maintained stoic silence. This may be because they are very hard-working, such that they have been able to weather the storms and keep sustaining themselves and forging ahead, and hence, lacking some of the basic ingredients of violent revolutions such as widespread hunger and great frustration, which makes the likelihood of a popular revolution slim.
Secondly, Cameroon has a breed of opposition leaders who unlike the Alassane Dramane Ouattaras and Morgan Richard Tsvangiras, are not ready to sacrifice the blood of innocent Cameroonians for the presidency or a piece of power. John Fru Ndi showed this in 1992 and at this stage, even popular leaders like Kah Walla and Ayah Paul Abine have all shunned the way of violence. This, however, can only be sustainable if none of them decides to approach the USA or France with promises of greater concessions against China. As long as they keep hoping to win through the ballot, none will defeat Biya unless they decide to team up with the power brokers – the USA and France. If they should take this root, however, the avenues for violence in Cameroon will be greatly opened.
Thirdly, the ability of the US to maintain the status-quo is crucial. Asking Biya to leave was not because they favoured change in Cameroon but because they fear change that is not within their control. If Biya can play his cards well and retain power, the US will be all too glad to endorse him again. He may not be playing the huge role that Mubarak was playing in the Middle East but at least being as naive as he is, he is effectively the type of person the US needs to maintain a solid base in West and Central Africa. Hence the USA will back another person only when it becomes crystal clear that a popular uprising that could threaten Biya’s hold on power is imminent.
In the final analysis, one should not expect anything to really change with the present elections, unless the opposition can effectively work out a strategy that promises a fair deal to the US and France. Should this happen, then Cameroon could explode at the slightest ignition after the elections.