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Cameroon: Calm Before the Storm?

This page is part of our special coverage Cameroon Elections 2011.

Cameroon's presidential election will take place on October 9, 2011, but the lack of stake [fr] in the outcome felt by the general population is leading to a lack of interest [fr]. The election marks the grand finale of a tumultuous political cycle started in February 2008.

February 2008 riots

In 2008, a constitutional amendment that unlimited presidential terms was adopted by the National Assembly. This decision caused an outcry in the international community and led to riots in February 2008 which were severely repressed; according to Human Rights organisations, more than 100 citizens were killed and more than 1,000 arrested.

In February 2008, anti-government riots spead through Cameroon. These buildings and vehicles in Kumba were targeted for being government related or owned. Image by Caroline Thomas, copyright Demotix (04/03/2008).

In February 2008, anti-government riots spead through Cameroon. These buildings and vehicles in Kumba were targeted for being government related or owned. Image by Caroline Thomas, copyright Demotix (04/03/2008).

Calm was restored after the Army repressed the demonstrations, and after the President, Paul Biya, delivered a strong speech [fr] against the opposition, who he accused of manipulating the Youth.

In a WikiLeaks cable sent in March 2008 by Scot Ticknor, political and economic chief at the United States Embassy in capital Yaoundé, it is explained that these events could reveal deeper political instability:

How long will the “enforced calm” last?  […] All our European diplomatic colleagues, except the French, believe the potential for renewed unrest in the short term remains. None of the grievances of the public have been addressed, whether in the President's speech or the government's actions. […] Even if the current situation remains calm, last week was a reminder that there are many unresolved issues, both political and economic, that are likely to resurface at some point down the road, possibly soon. The 75-year-old Biya is increasingly isolated and unpopular and Cameroonians, while generally peaceful, have shown themselves capable of violently taking to the streets.

Another WikiLeaks cable reveals that in September 2008, influential intellectuals depicted a dark future for the country:

Charles Ateba Eyene, an outspoken critic within the ruling CPDM party, concurred with Owona Nguini's fundamental diagnosis, saying that Cameroon is sitting on “a volcano.” He averred that the crisis is largely generational, with older elites seeking to maintain dominance. Highly centralized power structures and thoroughly corrupt officials at all levels of government have created a system of elite patronage which fundamentally fails to deliver services.

The following video was posted one year after the riots on YouTube. Viewed more than 20,000 times, it shows a young man who was shot dead by public forces during the riots [Warning: Graphic content]:

This crackdown has, according to a post [fr] on camer.be, installed a fragile truce and a climate of fear in the country. An attempted protest was swiftly prevented in February 2011.

Elections tailored for Biya's victory?

Since the February 2008 events, the Cameroonian opposition has been reproached for its lack of organisation, its stagnation and its inability to present a serious prospect to counter incumbent President Paul Biya's Cameroon People's Democratic Movement (CPDM).

In an article on Afrik.com entitled “Cameroon : Opposition Preparing The Victory of Paul Biya” [fr], the author writes:

Comme à son habitude, l’opposition camerounaise n’a pas réussi à présenter une candidature unique à une élection capitale pour l’avenir du pays et qui se joue à un seul tour.

As usual, the Cameroonian opposition has failed in presenting a single candidate to a first round election crucial for the future of the country.

Moreover the continuous criticism aimed at the Cameroonian Electoral Commission (ELECAM), including claims that it is an instrument for those in power to control the elections, does not bode well for a free and fair ballot.

A 2009 WikiLeaks cable reveals the content of the criticism:

In a February 9 meeting with Ambassador, Minister of Territorial Administration and Decentralization (MINATD) Marafa Hamidou Yaya was very discouraged about the ability of the Electoral Commission (ELECAM) to run a good election. Recently named ELECAM officials were incompetent and corrupt, he said, adding that a failed election in 2011 could result in major civil unrest.

According to this article from the website allafrica [fr], the electoral campaign has been tailored in a way to ensure that Paul Biya succeeds:

(…) La démocratie camerounaise n'est pas comme les autres démocraties véritables où tout se déroule dans une transparence totale. Elle a ses caractéristiques propres, ses stratégies particulières pour que le président sortant garde son fauteuil.

Cameroonian democracy is not like other real democracies in which everything is organised with a total transparency. It has its own characteristics, its own very special strategies to allow the outgoing president to keep his seat.

Possible post-electoral crisis?

The question of possible post-election violence is being taken seriously by the incumbent regime, which has strengthened its security capacities. One thousand military students have been added to the contingent already present in Douala, the country's economic capital, explains Cameroonian daily Le Jour [fr].

The prospect of unrest has also been considered since comments made by the current Minister of Justice on a possible ethnic division after Biya's ruling were revealed in a WikiLeaks cable:

In a recent, wide-ranging and frank discussion with the Ambassador, [Amadou] Ali said the foundation of Cameroon's stability is the detente between Biya's Beti/Bulu ethnic group, which predominates in Cameroon's South Region, and the populations of Cameroon's three Northern Regions, known as the Septentrion, which are ethnically and culturally distinct from the rest of the country. The Septentrion will support Biya for as long as he wants to be president, Ali predicted, but would not accept a successor who was either another Beti/Bulu, or a member of the economically powerful Bamileke ethnic group.

According to an article published on Radio Netherlands Worldwide Africa Desk website, “Cameroon fears ethnic clashes following WikiLeaks cable“, the question is a source of great preoccupation:

The ‘revelation’ by Wikileaks has caused a general outcry in the central African country. The article was in the newspaper headlines for several days and has caused a stir on the streets of Cameroon. “Such statements are a threat to our country’s stability. If ethnic groups fight each other for power, we might find ourselves in the same situation as Rwanda in 1994,” fears Edjouma Alain, a civil servant in the capital Yaoundé.

This page is part of our special coverage Cameroon Elections 2011.

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