By Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Pioneer Journal
In many African states, authoritarian rulers have gone from refusing to hold elections to finding new ways to rig them, and to keep themselves in power. This is sometimes accomplished without having to resort to violence.
Cameroon, a union of former British and French colonies, is one of Africa’s most enduring electoral authoritarian regimes. While multiparty elections exist on paper, these elections are not free and fair and are tilted in the regime’s favor.
Paul Biya, age 85, has been in power for 36 years. On Oct. 7, running for a seventh term under the banner of the Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement, he won yet another presidential election.
This, even though a devastating uprising is taking place in the minority English-speaking areas in the northwest and southwest by separatists who want to form their own country, called Ambazonia.
Following the First World War, the Treaty of Versailles divided the colony, which had been German, between France and Great Britain. Colonialists imposed their own cultures on each region.
Still, the two parts formed a single country in 1961.
The French colonial government had established extensive emergency powers in its part, and subsequent presidents in Cameroon have made full use of these.
Biya is able to use nearly exclusive control of political appointments and state institutions to both reward supporters and punish detractors.
When he became president, he declared nine states of emergency between 1982 and 1986.
At the time, Cameroon enjoyed a booming economy with solid exports of cocoa, timber, and coffee and a growing petroleum industry.
Thanks to corruption and ethnic cronyism, while Biya and his friends grew rich on oil money, the Cameroonian economy shrank for nine straight years beginning in 1987.
Biya’s Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (CPDM) was the only legal political party until December 1990. Under serious pressure, he accepted the introduction of multiparty politics in the early 1990s. But this didn’t end his hold on power.
In 1992, in the midst of economic crisis, many elites in Cameroon defected to form rival political parties. Significant election fraud, repression and an influx of international cash from France helped Biya eke out a narrow victory with just 40 per cent of the vote.
In 2004, Biya came up with a new tactic in the world of rigged elections.
He signed a $400,000 deal with the Washington, D.C., law and lobbying firm of Patton Boggs.
One of the lobbyists, former Congressman Greg Laughlin, formed a group called the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress.
It flew in six ex-congressmen, who observed the Oct. 11 vote, declared it a free election, and flew home.
In 2008, the constitution was changed to remove term limits.
Cameroon’s emergency powers and state control continue to limit electoral competition. The government uses libel laws to shut down media outlets for extensive periods of time.
During elections, state officials constrain the opposition by limiting rally permits or restricting travel for security purposes.
Nevertheless, governing this complex state of some 250 ethnic groups requires finesse as well.
Under Biya, a Roman Catholic from the Beti ethnic group in the south, many Cameroonians see disproportionate political representation in senior political posts from his home territory.
Much of the north (now under threat from Boko Haram in neighbouring Nigeria) is Muslim; it was ruled by a Fulani emirate prior to European colonization.
So Biya uses carrots as well as sticks, offering opposition party leaders positions of prestige.
Today, Cameroon has the largest cabinet on the continent with more than 65 ministers, secretaries and special delegates.
Similarly, Cameroon has not liberalized much of its state-controlled economy, leaving Biya with many fiscal tools to secure political support.
So, even with a multiplicity of parties and periodic elections, he has, as Keith Somerville noted in his book Africa’s Long Road since Independence, retained “an overall structure that ensured the locus of power remained unchanged.”
Supporters of the Cameroon Renaissance Movement Party candidate, Maurice Kamto, claimed fraud. But Biya’s victory was a foregone conclusion.
He received 71.09 per cent of the votes, with Kamto far behind, at 14.4.
One-fifth of the electorate is English speaking, and many, due to separatist violence, could not reach the polls in this election. So the overall election turnout was 53 per cent.
Biya’s party has vowed to continue with protests.