Cameroon will hold elections in October 2011. President Paul Biya, who has ruled since 1982, won the previous elections in 2004 with over 70% of the vote. In 2004 the BBC characterized Biya as a “reluctant campaigner” because he only made a few appearances on the trail. This time around, though, he has already started campaigning: this week he traveled to the north west part of the country and began his re-election bid. Amidst “rising public frustration,” this trip to “a region traditionally hostile to his rule” suggests that Biya feels he must now do more to assuage anger in Cameroon. His visit to the north served partly to honor the military on the fiftieth anniversary of its creation, but also afforded him an opportunity to make new pledges regarding infrastructure and development and to make a symbolic gesture toward national unity.
The elections themselves may not worry Biya. Given his landslide win in 2004 and the fact that ten out of twelve members of the electoral commission belong to the ruling party (audio), some observers believe that Biya is guaranteed re-election whether by fair or foul means.
What might worry the president more is the aforementioned discontent with his regime, which could manifest in other arenas than just the ballot box. The International Crisis Group gave its take on Cameroon’s situation this summer:
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.
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.
Serious issues lie before the country in 2011, and Cameroon has already seen political troubles in recent years. A series of riots in 2008, sparked by anger over fuel and Biya’s extended tenure in office, claimed at least forty lives and shook the regime’s legitimacy. That anger still exists in some quarters, and the regime undoubtedly knows that. In light of ICG’s commentary and Cameroon’s recent political history, then, Biya’s decision to begin his re-election bid with a simultaneous tribute to the security forces and a nod to national unity dramatically illustrates the perils of the road ahead.
Bamenda, Cameroon, site of President Biya’s visit this week: