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Cameroon presidential poll underscores the need for term limits

Cameroonian President Paul Biya votes in the presidential elections in the capital Yaounde. He has been in power for 36 years. EFE/EPA/Nic Bothma

The official results of Cameroon’s October 7, 2018 presidential election are due in two weeks. But they’re not expected to yield any surprises. Paul Biya (85), who became president in 1982, is almost certain to retain power for a seventh term. If he wins and stays in power until 2025 – the end of his next term – he would have run the country for a whopping 43 years. His overextended rule has been marked by corruption, patronage politics, and a largely absent president.

The election has taken place amid a great deal of uncertainty and insecurity. Municipal and legislative elections were postponed by a year because of too volatile a space, though government cited more technical reasons. Only senatorial elections were held in March 2018.

The biggest tensions have been between the English-speaking – which represent 20% of the population – and French-speaking parts of the country. After the presidential polls opened on Sunday, violent confrontations broke out in English speaking regions of the North West and the South West. Almost no polling took place in these regions following calls by separatists for a lockdown (stay at home), which would mean in effect that no people would leave their houses to vote.

Biya is almost certain to return to power given the government’s well-oiled election machine and its use of the security sector to manage dissent. Elections over the past 10 years have been marred by accusations of fraud. These elections will be no different.

Nevertheless, Biya’s credibility and legitimacy are increasingly being tarnished. And there is growing support for alternative candidates.

The election is a reminder of the importance of defined term limits for presidents. Although Cameroon’s 1996 Constitution limited presidential mandates to two seven-year terms, Biya’s party repealed the term limits in 2008 so that he could extend his stay.

The main contenders

This year’s election has pitted Biya against eight opposition candidates. The major contenders are Joshua Osih of the Social Democratic Front; Maurice Kamto of the Cameroon Renaissance Movement; Cabral Libii Li Ngue candidate for Univers party, and Akere Tabeng Muna of the Popular Front for Development.

The Social Democratic Front has become a household name in Cameroon since its inception in 1990 and its candidate, Osih, is popular.

For his part, Kamto who heads up the Cameroon Renaissance Movement was a former minister in Biya’s regime. He resigned from government in 2011 to form his own political party. He draws his support from the western region and the urban middle class.

Cabral is a young university lecturer who has been outspoken in his criticism of the regime and has captured the imagination of young Cameroonians. Muna is the son of the former vice president and an international jurist. He aligned with Kamto two days before the election.

Kamto and Cabral attracted large crowds at their rallies. But they are unlikely to gain a majority of votes given that the state’s machinery is stacked against them.

The issues

Three major issues dominated the run up to the elections: political transition, the economy, and security.

After 36 years as president, the opposition and other observers view Biya’s exit as long overdue. But he is unlikely to step down as has been the case of other African leaders who have overstayed their terms. And the opposition forces are not yet strong enough to force a change in leadership.

Cameroon is central Africa’s largest economy, producing oil, gas, timber, and cocoa. Nevertheless, it faces a range of major economic challenges. These include stagnant per capita income, inequitable distribution of income, corruption, nepotism and a large informal economy. It also has substantial debt, constituting 35% of its GDP.

Of all the issues affecting the election, security is the biggest. For nearly two years there have been protests in the North West and South West against what Anglophones describe as general marginalisation as well as the “Frenchification” of their courts and schools. The protests have been met with a brutal crackdown which in turn triggered an armed pro-independence insurgency.

On top of this Cameroon has been challenged by the violence of Boko-Haram in the North, the instability of the Central Africa Republic in the East and the separatist movement in the South. Clashes with the separatists have already left 400 people dead and 20 000 displaced as refugees in neighbouring Nigeria.

Implications for African politics

Some commentators have pointed to the problem of “choiceless democracies” in Africa. Leading economist Thandika Mkandawire has noted that “African leaders exhibit a wide array of unethical ways when it comes to capturing, retention, and exercising of political power, the long-term result being the tendency by a people denied the right to a free choice of their leaders to write electoral lists in blood.”

This is once again playing out in Cameroon. The country has a president who has captured the state to the detriment of many of his people. And people increasingly see violence as the only means through which they can have their voices heard and their needs taken into account.

Across Africa pessimism is replacing the mood of the 1990s when multi-party democracy was on the rise. Old tendencies of authoritarian leaders remaining in power beyond their term, corruption and the pillaging of public resources persist. These in turn is leading to a rise in conflict.

The African Union (AU) and regional intergovernmental institutions seem unable to hold leaders like Biya to account. This despite the AU’s proclamations of “silencing the guns” in Africa by 2020, and creating an Africa of good governance, democracy, respect for human rights, justice and the rule of law by 2063. All Africans need to take a principled stand on presidential term limits as it is impacting on the development, peace and security of the continent.

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