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Photo source: Al Jazeera

On 23 October 2018, Paul Biya was elected for his 7th consecutive term in office as President of Cameroon. At 85 years old, Biya stands as the longest ruling national leader, having accumulated 43 years at the head of the Cameroonian state, first as Prime Minister (1975-1982) and subsequently as President (1982-2018). 

The last dinosaur

Biya’s contemporaries include the likes of Omar Al Bashir of Sudan, 25 years in power, Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea, 29 years in power, and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, 32 years – a dying breed of one-party state leaders turned “democrat” with the advent of multi-party democracy. These three leaders have something in common, however, that distinguishes them from Paul Biya. Bashir, Afwerki, and Museveni came to power in the context of civil conflict, riding the wave of military victory to the ballot box. 

The staying power of leaders emerging from civil conflict is well documented and can be understood given the security imperative. What is more difficult to understand is the tenacity of a leader like Paul Biya, who came to power “by accident” when Cameroon’s first post-independence leader, Ahmadou Ahidjo, resigned. In 1982, Paul Biya was propelled from his role as a politically appointed Prime Minister to head of state and has maintained the position for the better part of the last four decades. 

His staying power in the face of disintegrating material – Cameroon's gross domestic product per capita is lower today than its was when Biya came to power in 1982 – and security conditions in the country challenges the legitimacy of electoral processes and underscores the weaknesses of what analysts have called “procedural democracies”.  In addition to his advanced age, Biya’s competency has been under scrutiny in recent years – including the curious fact that he spends a significant time outside of the country on personal business rather than attending to affairs of the state. 

Repression of dissent recalls previous episodes in Cameroonian history

To understand the dynamics at play in Cameroon’s recent election, one needs to review the historical record and analyse the context in which Paul Biya’s leadership emerged. While Cameroon has never been engulfed in full blown out civil war, its independence was not void of bloodshed and rebellion. The Union des Populations Camerounaises (UPC) emerged as a vibrant political force in the lead up to independence that challenged the French colonial administration’s choice of leader, Ahmadou Ahidjo.  

Then provincial governor, Ahmadou Ahidjo used the repressive apparatus of the state to quell the momentum of the UPC, outlawing the party and sending its members into hiding. Given the linguistic divisions within the country and bifurcated colonial rule, the UPC sought refuge in the Anglophone regions of the country where their presence was more easily hidden. The ensuing guerrilla warfare between UPC maquisards, colonial security forces, and local populations in the Anglophone region has left deep social divisions within the bordering communities.

Beginning under the colonial administration and perpetuated under both the Ahidjo and Biya regimes, the Cameroonian state has repeatedly deployed violence to quell dissent. Following a close call during the country’s first multiparty elections in 1992, during which Biya won a slim majority of 40 percent against the Social Democratic Front’s 36 percent, the Biya regime undertook systematic dismantling of constitutional provisions meant to enshrine political transition. 

In 1997, Biya’s announced intention to extend the presidential term from five to seven years generated a wave of political activism by opposition leaders and civil society actors. The manifestations were repressed in what came to be known as the “villes mortes”or ghost towns. History repeated itself in February 2008 when social protests spread across Cameroon’s major cities in opposition to rising food and fuel costs and the proposed constitutional amendment removing presidential term limits. 

Unlike the “hunger strikes” that shook West Africa countries like Burkina Faso, Senegal, and Côte d’Ivoire during the same period, the political factor triggered the popular uprising in Cameroon. These demonstrations were met with renewed violence from police and security forces. Those critical of the government were arrested and convicted for their role in fomenting popular resistance.

Similarly, this month’s elections unfolded in a context of heightened insecurity and state repression.  Two conflicts simmered in the background of the electoral contest. The first, in the Northern region of the country where Boko Haram has been active for several years and terrorism suspects and their communities have been severely repressed by government forces, including extra judicial killings and arbitrary detentions. The second is the crisis in the North West and South West regions of Cameroon, which began as peaceful protests by Anglophone lawyers and teachers decrying the marginalisation of the region. 

The severe repression of these protests by security forces, including the government imposed Internet black out, attracted global attention. What began as a peaceful mobilisation has since transformed into a rebellion with an estimated 1,000 armed separatists active in the region, which has occasioned the death of up to 175 security forces and rendered the regions ungovernable. Schools have been closed for over 12 months and an estimated 250,000 people have been internally displaced since 2016. 

Ultimately, this context of insecurity may have boosted Biya’s electoral performance.  The Anglophone insurgency, while led by a small minority of fringe groups has further marginalised the region, decreasing the vote share for traditional opposition candidates such as the Social Democratic Front. Meanwhile, the general context of civil unrest tends to reinforce support for the incumbent in the hopes that continuity will lead to a reestablishment of order. The systematic and violent repression of dissent has successfully undermined political participation and created a culture of fear that prevented many Cameroonians from openly expressing their political opinions or registering to vote.

New developments in the 2018 elections

This month’s election had the lowest voter turn out since the introduction of multi-party elections in 1992.  Official records indicate that only 6.5 million [[i]] Cameroonians were registered, representing approximately 25 percent of the population of 25 million. With an estimated 40 percent of registered voters participating in the poll, this means that less than one out of ten Cameroonians participated in the election (all ages included). 

While many international observers interpreted this low turn out as an indication of widespread political apathy, the realities on the ground in Cameroon point to the emergence of adaptive forms of political engagement. In a context where routine political processes have lost their legitimacy and electoral outcomes are a foregone conclusion, new forms of activism emerge to contest autocracy. Accordingly, social media became the primary platform for information and political debate before and after the election. 

Sixty percent of registered voters were under the age of 26 in Cameroon, meaning that they were born ten years into the Biya regime and have known no other political leader. In response to this demographic weight, the traditional opposition party Social Democratic Front, selected a younger party member to run as presidential candidate, Joshua Osih. The rise of Cabral Libi also reflected new energy and dynamism in Cameroonian politics that has long been dominated by an old guard of political elites dating back to the early 1980s. Initiatives such as Cabral Libi’s “11 million registered” operation in January 2018 mobilised political participation among Cameroonian youth and revived public interest in politics. Unfortunately, this mobilisation came too late in the game and did not result in massive voter turn out. 

For the second time since 1992, the opposition unanimously contested election results, citing voter intimidation and fraud across regions and particularly in opposition strong holds.  With the dismissal of all 18 petitions filed before the constitutional court, attempts at legal recourse have failed. Ultimately, the hegemonic control of the Biya regime across the military, security, judicial, and legislative organs of the state deprived institutions of their ability to counteract fraud and corruption in the electoral process.

Putting Cameroon’s election into perspective

Presidential elections continue to present important tests of democratic consolidation in Africa, particularly in countries emerging from authoritarian rule or conflict. Despite the controversies and contestations that precede or follow elections, peaceful transitions of power in countries like Burkina Faso, The Gambia, Angola and Zimbabwe have strengthened confidence in the transformative power of electoral contests and popular participation.

Looking at these recent transitions in countries where political observes had all but lost hope in transition, should provide an inkling of what the future may hold for Cameroon. In Burkina Faso, popular mobilisation paved the way for the end of the 27-year rule of Blaise Compaore. In The Gambia, the traditional democratic process took observers by surprise when Yayah Jammeh was ousted through the ballot. In Angola and Zimbabwe, long-term revolutionary leaders were removed from office through a combination of popular protest and intervention by the armed forces, ceding the way for electoral transition. 

Today, none of these avenues is apparent in Cameroon. Having ushered in another seven-year term for a president that has weak popular support and is presiding over a disintegrating state, it is unlikely to expect that Cameroonians will wait idly until the next election. If protests in recent months are any indication, Cameroonians have demonstrated their dissatisfaction with political leadership and willingness to risk their personal security to raise the visibility of their country’s malaise. 

Ultimately, the conduct of this election has exposed the fraudulent nature of the political game in Cameroon and lifted the veil of opacity presented by the Biya regime. Despite consistent repression of dissent, Cameroonians mobilised on social media to denounce breaches in the electoral process. While security forces prevented the organisation of formal demonstrations, the civil society and the media took personal risks to decry violations.

The unprecedented mobilisation that emerged in the run up to this month’s election may provide the basis for more sustained political engagement and voting in the future. Despite recent tensions across linguistic divides, a portion of the Cameroonian electorate, led by the youth and the diaspora, came together to reject an electoral process that was rigged from the start. The opposition needs to sustain this momentum in the run up to parliamentary and local elections in early 2019 to secure electoral victories and provide the basis for political counterweights alongside the dominant regime.


* Jeanne Elone is Programmes Director at TrustAfrica and Olivia Tchamba is Human Rights Programme Officer at TrustAfrica. They both write in their personal capacities.