In Cameroon, the opposition parties have not been able to provide a united front against Biya. This is to the advantage of Biya who has technically declared himself life president.
The Republic of Cameroon is a peculiar country with peculiar problems. It is the only member state of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) where the citizens are sharply divided between two foreign languages: French and English.
While French is the official language in the Francophone northern region, English is the official language in the Anglophone southern region. And this is because the authorities failed to take concrete measures to integrate the languages after the two former colonies united as a country following a referendum. Today, that oversight has become a factor in the conflict facing the country as the south has vowed to resist attempts by the authorities to impose the French language on it.
Beyond the language crisis, Cameroon is also facing the challenge of insurgency on all fronts: Boko Haram in the far northern region, the Anglophone (Ambazonian) Separatists in the South-West and North-West regions and the Central African Republic rebels in the eastern region. Added to the problem of insurgency is the poverty ravaging the land in the face of a dwindling economy.
But in the midst of these problems, there is another outstanding issue: the inability of the people to effect a regime change, which watchers of the affairs of the country believe could enthrone true democratic governance and also inject fresh blood with new management ideas into the system.
After 35 years of uninterrupted rule, President Paul Biya, 85, is set to secure another term of seven years in office when the country holds a general election on October 7. Biya is among the nine candidates that the electoral body, ELECAM has cleared to contest the election. If he wins, which is expected, he will be 92 when his term ends in 2025. Before becoming President in 1982, he had served in various capacities, including being prime minister in the government of former President Ahmadou Ahidjo.
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Reason Biya wants to continue in office
A confident Biya had, on his twitter handle, announced his bid for another term in office, saying he was responding to the call of the people.
He said: “Dear compatriots in Cameroon and the Diaspora, aware of the challenges we must take up together to ensure a more united, stable and prosperous Cameroon,
I am willing to respond positively to your overwhelming calls. I will stand as Your Candidate in the upcoming presidential election.”
Twenty-seven other candidates filed their nomination papers to contest the election. One withdrew from the race to support Biya while the electoral body cleared nine candidates, including Biya. The nine candidates are: Biya (Cameroon Peoples Democratic Movement – CPDM), Joshua Osih (Social Democratic Front – SDF), Serge Espoir Matomba (Pwuple uni pour la Renovation Sociale – PURS), Adamou Ndam Njoya (Union Democratique du Cameroun – UDC), Akere Muna (Popular Front for Development – PFD), Ndifor Afanwi Franklin (Mouvement Citoyen National Camerounais – MCNC), Maurice Kamto (Movement pour la Renaissance du Cameroun – MRC), Cabral Libii (Union National pour L’integration vers lar Solidarie – UNIVERS) and Garge Haman Adji (Alliance pour la Democratie et le Development – ADD).
Main opposition candidate
The main opposition party, the SDF presidential candidate, former businessman-turned-politician, Joshua Osih, 49, believes he can defeat Biya at the election. Osih is from the Anglophone south, he is from the Toko subdivision in Ndian Division of the South-West region. But he speaks both French and English fluently and, therefore, communicates with ease with Francophone and Anglophone citizens. Also, he seems to enjoy the goodwill of the youth. Before becoming the presidential candidate, he was the deputy chairman of the party.
But the game of politics is most unpredictable. Intrigue, blackmail, vote-rigging, use of incumbency power, ethnicity, betrayal are among the tools politicians deploy to secure victory. Sometimes, it is a game for the ‘smart’. These traits will play out in the October 7 election.
But can Osih beat the ‘godfather’ of Cameroon politics? An analysis of the situation immediately shows he has an uphill task. Indeed, it may take a miracle for him to defeat the president. The history of the struggle by the SDF to remove Biya from office through the ballot box dates back 1992 when the founder of the party and presidential candidate at the time, Fru Ndi, 74, contested and lost. In 1997, he again joined the race but boycotted the elections. Ndi, however, returned to the political arena and contested the presidency in 2004 and 2011, respectively. He lost both elections.
In the run-up to the 2018 presidential elections, he chose to step aside, saying it was time for youths take up the leadership of the country. It is of note that Ndi is also from the Anglophone south. Though a big critic of Biya, he is opposed to the Anglophone secession bid. He, however, blames Biya for the woes of the south.
Would the fate of Ndi befall Osih? That is the question the October 7 election will answer. Osih knows that the odds against him are enormous and he has been working very hard. He has an ambitious manifesto but, in Cameroon, like in many African countries, it is the personality involved that matters more. In this case, the ‘awesome’ personality of Biya is a challenge Osih must overcome to win the election.
Also, Osih faces enormous challenges at home. The Anglophone south has only two provinces out of the 10 that constitute Cameroon. The two provinces constitute only a fifth of the country’s population of 23 million. But, more importantly, there is political instability in the south, following the activities of the Anglophone (Ambazonian) separatists. Socio-economic activities have been grounded and many of the towns and villages have been abandoned by the inhabitants who have become refugees in neighbouring countries. No fewer than 200,000 are currently in refugee camps. Even then, the region is politically fractured as it has produced other presidential candidates.
Expectedly, Biya is receiving backing from his allies in the region, dubbed as saboteurs by the separatists. Of course, the race may have been tougher for Biya if peace had returned to the embattled region before the elections. Though Osih has been vocal in blaming Biya for the crisis in the south, his pledge not to investigate human rights violation by government forces in the region may not swing voters. The separatists have always insisted on the investigation of rights violation by government forces as one of the conditions for a peace deal.
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Osih will have to convince the French-speaking provinces that his presidency will not embark on a vendetta as they consider attacks on Biya’s government as attacks on them. Because the bone of contention is the underdevelopment of the south as compared with the north even though the south is the fountain of the country’s wealth.
Controversy over timing of the elections
The timing of the elections has been a subject of debate among politicians. Some politicians had expressed discomfort over the October 7 date. A leading opposition politician, Robert Wafo, reportedly said: “it is difficult to understand that in a democratic country, the president of the republic expected to be candidate during the elections holds the exclusive right to choose the date for an election. In other countries where democracy is ideal, the date of the presidential election is known at least 12 months in advance.”
The irony is, instead of the electoral body fixing the date for the elections, it is the president that does it.
But Biya’s party was quick to dismiss the arguments of critics. A leading member of the party, Herve Emmanuel Nkom, reportedly said he was not surprised, stressing that Biya “is a legalist, a republican, he does it within the framework of the law, he respects the deadlines.”
Also worrisome is the fact that Biya, in his capacity as president, has an overriding power to appoint the members of the electoral commission. Some observers say the electoral body has always acted like an errand boy to the president.
Cameroonian youth divided
Efforts at effecting regime change in Cameroon may not be successful for now. That is because the country’s youth, who are supposed to be agents of change, don’t seem agitated over the current state of affairs. Genuine transformation occurs in a country when the youths are focused and united against an exploitative and corrupt system. In Cameroon, the youth are sharply divided between government and the opposition.
Already, 35 youth associations, known as G35, have endorsed Biya as their candidate, promising him no fewer than two million votes in the election. Another group, President Biya’s Youth (PRESBY) has assured the president of 100 per cent vote. PRESBY described Biya as the father of the nation.
Crack in opposition camp
In the Gambia and Zimbabwe, the opposition united against former Presidents Yahya Jammeh and Robert Mugabe, respectively. But in Cameroon, the opposition parties have not been able to provide a united front against Biya. This is to the advantage of Biya who has technically declared himself life president. Ahead of the elections, some opposition parties have come together on the platform of G20 to drum support for the president. The group reportedly argued that “Biya has to complete a series of giant projects he has initiated as well as the organisation of the 2019 African Cup of Nations in Cameroon.”
The G20 insists that Biya has “vision for the nation” and the “experience to handle state affair.”
Coalition of parties against Biya
Osih has mulled the idea of a coalition of parties to provide a single candidate as a strategy to defeat Biya. But it would seem many of the presidential candidates are unwilling to give up their mandate to contest the election. They are refusing to learn from the past. There is distrust among them. However, the likelihood of a coalition of parties presenting one candidate still remains.
Osih, Biya agree 2018 election crucial for Cameroon
The two frontrunners in the election agree that it is significant for the country. The people are going to the poll at a time when there is nothing to write home about the economy. Biya believes that though he has introduced reforms, he could still do more for the people. On the other hand, Osih believes he is the fresh blood the country needs to wake up the economy and overcome the challenges facing it.
“We will mobilise to ensure victory to improve the people’s living standards … our doors are open to those ready to see us through the journey,” Osih said.
On his part, Ndi believes that the SDF and Osih “remained the only sure path to salvage” Cameroon.
But a former minister and ally of Biya, Prof. Elvis Ngolle, apparently speaking for the president, told Al Jazeera that the president’s “candidacy is one that brings hope, not one that is based on adventure but one that is driven by experience. It will ensure more stability and more continuity because he is a known quantity.”
For now, Biya remains the unbeatable ‘Lion’ of Cameroon, except the elite summon the courage to ease him out through the ballot box. October 7 will tell.