Cameroon: Impasse in Democratic Politics Threatens Nation's Future
Cameroon: Impasse in Democratic Politics Threatens Nation's Future
Cameroon’s Anglophone conflict: Children should be able to return to school
Cameroon’s Anglophone conflict: Children should be able to return to school
Op-Ed / Africa 3 minutes

Cameroon: Impasse in Democratic Politics Threatens Nation's Future

While the prospect of Guinea's return to constitutional rule after its recent election is cause for hope, the recent resurgence of military takeovers in Africa may not yet have run its full course. Cameroon is one country where many of the conditions conducive to a coup apply today.

In Cameroon the problems can be broken down into three categories: governance, legality and the army.

On the governance front, Cameroon is one of the most centralised states in the world. All state resources, whether cash or jobs, flow from the centre, and mostly from President Paul Biya's office.

Not only does a consequent absence of meaningful oversight encourage corruption, but it also makes grabbing power at the top overwhelmingly attractive. Those who miss out can feed only on crumbs.

For years Cameroon has worked on the basis of re-distributing those crumbs. But if the current president died or was incapacitated, then there could be a desperate fight for the top job. In short, there is too much at stake.

Authoritarian leaders tend to leave chaos in their wake. This frequently includes legal and constitutional uncertainty. When Guinea's former President Lansana Conté, died in December 2008, the lack of popular faith in the constitution meant that there was no support for the constitutional successor: the head of the National Assembly. He could not take over, the argument went, because the National Assembly should have stood for re-election one year previously.

In Cameroon, the head of the National Assembly is also the constitutional successor to the president, unless you are reading the new constitution, which came into force in 1996. According to this, the head of the Senate is the constitutional successor. But the Senate doesn't exist.

In the meantime the country is run according to a provision in the 1996 constitution, which determines that the old constitution can still be applied while the country waits for the new constitution to be enacted. Confused? So are Cameroonians, which is exactly as President Biya clearly wants them.

But with democratic politics at an impasse due to his own manipulations, and the chances of a change of power through the ballot box very low, the question of what happens if the president dies while in power is of vital national and even regional importance.

Diplomatic sensitivities, which are not shared by Cameroonians, who are aware of the looming problems, should not prevent Cameroon's international allies raising this vital question.

Constitutional uncertainty is evidently an invitation for the army to step in. In Guinea, the authority of the army hierarchy had all but disappeared on Conte's death, leaving an opening for a junior officer coup.

Military intervention is not inevitable in Cameroon, where a consensus among the elites could hold things together. But it is certainly a risk.

Although in better shape than Guinea's army, Cameroon's military does have its problems. Alongside the customary bloated presidential guard, specialised units have been set up to deal with cross-border problems and criminality. They appear relatively competent, but their relations with the rest of the army, who don't enjoy their levels of training and of compensation, are tense.

Respect for army command is complicated by an underlying problem of generations. As generals never retire, talented younger officers see their promotion blocked. The last time there was a change of president in Cameroon, in the mid 1980s, there was one general, and he was highly respected. He was therefore able to keep the army together, despite at least one coup attempt. There are now 21 generals, several well into their 70s. Their authority over the troops, as well as their own ability to pull together, could be found wanting.

At its root, this is a slow burn crisis of expectations. In the early 1990s, Cameroonians invested considerable hope in their emerging democracy. This hope has been all but extinguished by two decades of democratic pushback by the regime.

This restoration of authoritarianism is closely associated in the Cameroonian mind with continued poverty and rising inequality. If a Cameroonian version of Guinea's coup leader, Dadis Camara, came with a promise to sweep the house clean, would it be any surprise if he were welcomed?

The only way to avoid this is to allow Cameroonians to hope again, and that means creating a more democratic climate, in which people's voices are heard, and their choices are respected. With presidential elections coming up next year, the challenge, and the stakes, are clear.

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