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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Africa > Central Africa > Cameroon > Cameroon: The Dangers of a Fracturing Regime

Cameroon: The Dangers of a Fracturing Regime

Africa Report N°161 24 Jun 2010


After 28 years of the Biya presidency, Cameroon faces potential instability in the run up to the presidential elections scheduled for late 2011. Constitutional and legal uncertainty; rivalries between the regime’s leading figures; the government’s attempts to control the electoral process; the rupture of the political contract between leaders and the population; widespread poverty and frustration; extensive corruption; and the frustration of a large part of the army all point to the possibility of a major crisis. To escape this Biya and his government must restore the independence of the body responsible for elections; institutionalise an impartial fight against corruption and ensure the military’s political neutrality. They must also urgently establish the institutions envisaged by the 1996 constitution, so that a power vacuum and the potential for violence can be avoided in the event of a transition, including an unexpected one such as the death of the 77-year-old president in office. Cameroon’s most influential partners, particularly France and the U.S., should actively support such measures to avoid unrest.

The ruling party is increasingly divided. Although it dominates political life, it knows that it lacks legitimacy, and it is weakened by intense internal rivalries over control of resources and positioning for the post-Biya period. Having done away with the constitutional limitation on the number of presidential terms, Biya, who is at the same time feared and opposed in his own party, is deliberately maintaining uncertainty over whether he will stand again. Many members of his party harbour their own presidential ambitions.

The security forces, a pillar of support for the regime, are also divided.  A small number of elite units have good equipment and training, while the rest, although they do receive their correct salaries on a regular basis, lack resources and are poorly prepared. The military as a whole suffers from tensions between generations, not least because the refusal of older generals to retire blocks promotions for more junior officers. Some members of the security forces are also widely believed to be involved in criminal activities.

With the country afflicted by high levels of corruption, a clientelist political system and a heavy security presence in all areas of life, many citizens feel excluded from the system. Fully half the population is younger than twenty, so the high level of youth unemployment and under-employment is a considerable source of social tension. Given such fissures, were Biya to die in office a serious crisis could unfold, aggravated by the unclear constitutional provisions for a transition. Such an event may not occur for some time, but, with democracy at an impasse, the immediate post-Biya period is already a significant factor in intra-regime politics, and acknowledged as a major potential cause of instability. In any event, the 2011 elections could easily lead to conflict if they are poorly organised or lack transparency. The organising body has no legitimacy and has already made a bad start in the preparations. If there is no option for democratic political change, there is a good chance ordinary citizens, members of the political class and/or military elements will eventually choose violence as a way out of the current impasse.

The long Biya era, his manipulation of ethnic identities and the corruption and criminality among elites have generated numerous frustrations. The serious unrest of 2008, when economic grievances, political protest and elite manipulation resulted in dozens of deaths, gives an indication of the risks of violent conflict. A chaotic situation could lead to a military takeover and would certainly have detrimental effects on the region, in which Cameroon has up to now been a point of stability.

In the medium term, Cameroon faces numerous challenges to improve management of public resources, an issue which lies at the heart of its problems. But in the shorter term, urgent actions need to be taken to avoid a crisis around the 2011 elections.


To the Government of Cameroon:

1.  Promote greater transparency in electoral processes by restoring the independence of the electoral body; revising the electoral code; drawing up credible electoral lists; and enlarging the electoral register, whose current very restricted scope risks excluding many citizens.

2.  Set up, as soon as possible, the institutions provided for in the 1996 constitution but still not in place, including the senate, the constitutional council, and the regional governing bodies.

3.  Improve anti-corruption efforts by:

a) reviewing the “Epervier” anti-corruption operation, which has so far seen the arrest of several dozen high level officials and ministers, in order to make it part of an institutional and impartial fight against corruption;

b) creating an anti-corruption body which is truly independent of the executive and follows clear legal processes; and

c) fostering anti-corruption public awareness and instigating transparent, systematic sanctions against those responsible for unlawful practices.

4.  Enter in good faith into dialogue with opposition forces on election management and tackling corruption.

To the International Community, in particular France and the U.S.:

5.  Put maximum pressure on the government to establish the senate, the constitutional council and regional governing bodies.

6.  Continue to support electoral processes, but speak out clearly against poor and/or unfair practices.

7.  Begin planning observation missions for the 2011 elections; agree on common positions with regard to unacceptable practices before, during and after the elections; and emphasise the need both for all parties to accept the outcome and for neutral legal means to be available for them to contest results peacefully.

8.  Use their aid and training support to the security sector to pressure the government to acknowledge the role its security forces have played in human rights abuses, especially during the February 2008 protests, and to hold perpetrators accountable for their actions. 

Dakar/Brussels, 24 June 2010

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