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Why the World’s Newest Country Has Only Known Conflict
Why the World’s Newest Country Has Only Known Conflict
Briefing 101 / Africa

Cameroun : mieux vaut prévenir que guérir

La stabilité apparente du Cameroun dissimule une multitude tensions internes et externes qui menacent le futur du pays. Sans un changement social et politique, un Cameroun fragilisé pourrait devenir un autre foyer d’instabilité dans la région.

Synthèse

L’apparente stabilité du Cameroun et les récentes améliorations institutionnelles ne dissimulent plus sa vulnérabilité. Alors que le régime du président Paul Biya a verrouillé le jeu électoral et consolidé son emprise, la vie politique est anémiée, le mécontentement social se généralise et de nouvelles menaces sécuritaires émergent. La combinaison des menaces externes (Boko Haram et la crise centrafricaine) et de l’in­satisfaction interne constitue un cocktail déstabilisateur. Paradoxalement, la force du régime ne réside pas dans le parti au pouvoir ou les services de sécurité, mais dans le fait que la plupart des Camerounais pensent que ce régime est un moindre mal. Pour minimiser le risque de crise violente avant la prochaine élection en 2018, le pouvoir et l’opposition doivent renouer le dialogue et s’accorder sur une profonde réforme politique et institutionnelle.

La question pour tous les observateurs de la vie politique camerounaise, qu’ils soient camerounais ou étrangers, est toujours la même : celle de la transition politique post-Biya et de la stabilité du pays. Après 32 années de présidence, Paul Biya, âgé de 81 ans et réélu en 2011 pour sept ans, ne semble pas prêt à renoncer au pouvoir en 2018. L’International Crisis Group soulignait déjà en 2010 les fragilités dissimulées par le statu quo non violent et les dangers d’une trop grande fracture entre le régime et la société. Depuis lors, les fragilités se sont accentuées.

Malgré des améliorations institutionnelles demandées de longue date par l’op­po­sition et la société civile (nouveau code électoral et création du Sénat), le parti présidentiel, le Rassemblement démocratique du peuple camerounais (RDPC), exerce toujours une domination outrancière du champ politique. Sur fond d’allégations de fraudes électorales, les scrutins de 2011 et 2013 ont réduit l’opposition à un rôle de figurant au parlement, dans les villes et communes, et signifié l’improbabilité d’une alternance par les urnes.

Malgré la prolifération des médias et des associations, la société civile a perdu l’in­fluence qu’elle avait durant les années 1990. Une partie est sous l’influence du régime, l’autre sous la perfusion des financements étrangers. A cause de la corruption, du chômage et de la pauvreté, le secteur des organisations non gouvernementales (ONG) et des associations est devenu un véritable marché, avec comme conséquence une faible influence sur les politiques publiques.

Par ailleurs, certains des piliers du régime se fissurent. Le RDPC est travaillé par des tensions internes tandis que les forces de sécurité apparaissent divisées et sous forte pression. Leur mise à l’épreuve par les menaces extérieures que sont Boko Haram, qui a étendu ses activités à l’extrême Nord du Cameroun, et la crise centrafricaine, pourrait accentuer la fragilité de l’appareil de sécurité et amplifier le mécontentement interne.

La conjonction d’une pression sécuritaire externe et d’un blocage social et politique interne est un cocktail explosif en cas de transition imprévue. Comme l’ont démontré les scrutins de 2011 et 2013, ni l’opposition ni la société civile ne sont en mesure de canaliser un mécontentement social qui s’approfondit sur fond de fracture générationnelle et laisse augurer des luttes sociales violentes, marquées par l’irruption des cadets sociaux. La population majoritairement jeune (l’âge moyen de la population est de dix-neuf ans) et souvent sans emploi perçoit l’élite dirigeante vieillissante comme le principal facteur de blocage du pays.

Les recommandations du précédent rapport de Crisis Group (transparence du processus électoral, mise en place des institutions prévues par la Constitution et réforme de la lutte contre la corruption) demeurent valides. Elles doivent être complétées par un accord de gestion de la transition post-Biya entre les tenants du régime, l’opposition et la société civile, garanti par un témoin international (l’Union africaine) et qui prévoit :

  • la création d’un cadre de dialogue entre le pouvoir et l’opposition pour négocier et adopter les réformes institutionnelles ;
     
  • le rajeunissement de la classe politique camerounaise, notamment par l’instau­ration de quotas d’âge dans les instances dirigeantes des partis politiques ;
     
  • la promesse du président Biya de ne pas se représenter en 2018 en échange d’une absence de poursuites (hors crimes relevant du statut de Rome) et du maintien de ses avoirs ;
     
  • l’organisation de primaires dans les partis politiques camerounais, y compris au sein du parti au pouvoir, avant 2018 ;
     
  • la réorganisation des modes de désignation des membres de la Cour suprême, du Conseil constitutionnel et de l’instance chargée de l’organisation des élections pour garantir l’indépendance de ces organismes ; et

la réduction du mécontentement au sein des forces de défense par l’octroi des mêmes équipements, salaires et avantages financiers aux unités d’élite et aux unités de l’armée régulière déployées à l’extrême Nord, et par leur rotation régulière.

Nairobi/Bruxelles, 4 septembre 2014

Op-Ed / Africa

Why the World’s Newest Country Has Only Known Conflict

Originally published in World Politics Review

Few nations have seen their dreams and hopes dashed as quickly and ruthlessly as South Sudan. As the country approaches its 10-year anniversary, the risk of a return to full-blown conflict is never far away.

Few nations have seen their dreams and hopes dashed as quickly and ruthlessly as South Sudan. A mere two years after thousands thronged the streets of the capital, Juba, to celebrate independence from Sudan’s autocratic rule, the country descended into a brutal civil war. The fallout between President Salva Kiir and Vice President-turned-rebel Riek Machar, and the subsequent fighting, exerted a terrible toll. Between 2013 and 2018, up to 400,000 people were killed and 4 million—a third of the country’s population—displaced, amid numerous reports of ethnic-based atrocities like rape and massacres.

The world’s youngest country is now approaching its 10-year anniversary, and while the war has quieted thanks to a fragile 2018 peace deal, the risk of a return to full-blown conflict is never far away. South Sudan still faces an insurgency in the south of the country and rampant localized violence elsewhere. Ethno-political tensions remain high and could be unleashed again by the next presidential election, which was originally scheduled for 2022 but is likely to be delayed. Moreover, amid the constant efforts to halt violence, avoid the further deterioration of a dire humanitarian situation and keep the sputtering peace deal on track, both external partners and many South Sudanese themselves seem to have lost sight of any vision for longer-term stability.

Maintaining the peace deal and getting the country past the presidential poll—which would likely pit Kiir against Machar, who has returned to the position of vice president under the terms of the 2018 agreement—are the most immediate hurdles. But any hope for stability demands a reset of South Sudan’s ill-suited, winner-take-all political system that fuels the ongoing tensions among elites.

Despite the fact that its divisions and vulnerabilities were apparent at independence a decade ago, both South Sudanese and outsiders downplayed the new country’s political woes, and especially its ethnic cleavages. South Sudanese had fought a long war against Sudan, but also, more often than not, against each other. Kiir and Machar, for example, fought on rival sides between 1991 and 2002, mobilizing fighters from their respective Dinka and Nuer ethnic groups.

At independence, the country’s political system, which vests enormous power in the presidency, offered few mechanisms for the inclusion of rivals. This meant those locked out of power had few incentives to believe in the new state rather than rebel against it. The scramble for power and resources dominated politics in Juba and, as Kiir and his clique monopolized both, the scars of decades of infighting reopened.

Conflict soon flared, while several peace agreements and cease-fires collapsed—notably in 2016 when Machar, then vice president, fled to the Democratic Republic of Congo on foot after fighting erupted in Juba—before the 2018 pact brought a bit of respite. Kiir and Machar finally formed a unity government in February 2020. But they have achieved little beyond a delicate cease-fire, as most of the provisions of the agreement languish unfulfilled. These include the unification of forces supporting the two rivals into a single national army, the establishment of a new National Assembly, the creation of a transitional court of justice, and economic reforms. On top of all that, South Sudan still has to deal with the insurgency in its southern Equatoria region led by Thomas Cirillo, a former senior military officer who has not signed the peace agreement. Localized violence in other places rages unabated.

With this uneasy arrangement in place and ethno-political tensions so deeply rooted, the risk of a new collapse exists at every turn of the road. No turn looks more dangerous than the next presidential election, whenever it is held. Even if they seem to have lost the confidence of a significant part of their respective support bases, Kiir and Machar still look intent on facing off. The poll, if it ever occurs, could be a fatal blow to the peace agreement, given that the winner could lock the loser and his coalition out of any share of power.

Ultimately, the country will need to revisit its political model to avoid remaining stuck in cyclical bouts of conflict.

Given the current level of tensions, rival factions will surely contest nearly every step in the leadup to the poll, so foreign diplomats in South Sudan should refrain from putting pressure on the government to rush into a potentially destabilizing election. Crucially, regional powers like Sudan, Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia, which are the main guarantors of the 2018 peace deal, will also need to push for some form of pre-election deal that ensures a share of power to the losers.

Such an outcome could avert a violent breakdown around the vote, but it still would not resolve South Sudan’s many problems. Ultimately, the country will need to revisit its political model to avoid remaining stuck in cyclical bouts of conflict. The existing centralized state butts up against the harsh realities across the country. South Sudan still lacks roads or basic institutions, and peaceful governance is impossible without broad accommodation across its diverse patchwork of communities and groups. As the International Crisis Group argues in a recent report, instead of a king-of-the-hill system, South Sudan could evolve toward a more consensual form of governance. This would give the country’s notorious elites in Juba, as well as its beleaguered but divided population, a sense of shared interest.

What would this look like? One way to begin solving exclusionary politics is by institutionalizing power-sharing at the heart of the state. Several options exist, including a presidency that rotates among ethno-political groups or regions, formally slotting government positions for runners-up or instituting diversity quotas at all levels of political and public life. None of these options would address all the challenges the country faces, but they may at least help reduce the deadly stakes of the central power struggle.

Beyond power-sharing in Juba, devolving power and resources to regional and local authorities could also reduce the temperature of national politics. Decentralization, enshrined in South Sudan’s constitution but hardly implemented over the past decade, is increasingly back in fashion among the country’s thinkers and politicians. Striking the right balance will be critical if the country heads in this direction, as decentralization can also push conflict and corruption to the local level. But devolving power and resources could also help resolve raging local conflicts by empowering local officials and opening avenues for conflict resolution outside the political gridlock in Juba.

The prospects of such changes happening soon are limited, though, to say the least. The challenge of reform lies less in imagining new options than in persuading self-interested elites to adopt them. This challenge goes beyond Kiir and Machar, although the two are likely to remain unconstructive actors at the center of the country’s political stage for some time to come. Yet even when these archrivals are finally out of the equation, the country will still likely lack state institutions and infrastructure, in addition to being bitterly divided, awash in guns and in need of broad consensus to avoid more rampant bloodshed.

Faced with such grim prospects, other South Sudanese leaders and their external partners must seize every opportunity to push for improvements, even if gradual. Reform-minded South Sudanese politicians should push for constitutional reform and champion an inclusive national conference to chart a path away from the zero-sum politics that define the status quo. External partners should be ready to push in that direction and support such initiatives, including financially. If South Sudan’s peace deal again collapses, external mediators could also assess whether efforts to patch things back together again can also go some way to address these underlying structural questions and make peace more durable.

For now, the scale of South Sudan’s challenges contrasts frighteningly with what seems politically possible to fix, and progress in that direction will undoubtedly be halting. But persistence toward a broader settlement is the only way for South Sudan to salvage the dreams that so animated its independence celebrations a decade ago.