2011 Presidential Election in Cameroon: Context, Risk and Conflict Prevention

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Recently, several conflicts occurred in Kenya, Zimbabwe and Ivory Coast because of election results that were not accepted by the voters. As a result of the complex political situation, post-electoral instability is a concern in Cameroon as elections are planned for October 9, 2011.

On September 29, unidentified gunmen interrupted traffic at the main bridge of Douala, Cameroon’s largest city, shot at police and requested the departure of the current President Paul Biya. On October 1, many protesters and activists celebrating the independence of the “Southern Cameroons”, former British Mandate territory, or seeking the separation of this area from Cameroon, have been arrested. This situation, still embryonic, can quickly degenerate into a violent conflict, and threaten the international peace and security in the Central African Region (Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo, Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon). In order to prevent conflicts and promote peace and democracy in Cameroon, it is important (1) to analyse the political context while highlighting (2) some potential risks to the country’s security and democracy, and (3) formulating recommendations for the main actors involved such as the Cameroonian people, political leaders, the Government, security forces, the international community, and the United Nations.

The Cameroonian Political Context

The present context in Cameroon, in the run-up to elections, is characterized by specific political and institutional configurations including (i) a strong, organized, and dominating ruling party and leaders; (ii) divided, disorganized and weak opposition parties and leaders; (iii) an initially contested but reluctantly accepted electoral management body; (iv) a Supreme Court in charge of electoral dispute resolution; (v) a unique configuration of security forces that will not tolerate unrest likely to degenerate into conflicts; (vi) citizens that prefer peace to unrest, but aspire to a more democratic system; (vii) and an international community closely monitoring the political developments.

The ruling party and leaders are strong, organized and have been dominating the political arena for decades. The Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (CPDM) was created in 1985 as a result of the transformation of the Cameroon National Union (CNU) which has been dominating the political sphere since independence in 1960. President Paul Biya, who has ruled the country for 29 years, is the chairman of the CPDM. During the 2011 CPDM ordinary congress held September 15-16, 2011, Biya was re-elected as head of the CPDM with 1134 out of 1135 votes. He is the natural candidate for the next presidential election. At this congress, he has clearly stated that any actions threatening Cameroonian peace and security will not be acceptable. He indicated that unsatisfied political opponents must express any claims within the existing legal framework. Biya is backed by some well-known figures with historical connections to the opposition. These backers are currently members of the “Coalition Government” including Bello Bouba from the National Union for Democracy and Progress (NUDP); Issa Tchiroma Bakari for the Front for the National Salvation of Cameroon (FNSC); and Hamadou Moustapha of the National Alliance for Democracy and Progress (NADP).

The opposition parties and leaders are divided, disorganized and weak. As of January 2011, the Ministry of Territorial Administration and Decentralization has registered over 200 political parties. Fifty-two Cameroonians have submitted applications to run for the presidential election. Twenty-three out of the 52 candidates were accepted in September 2011 (two of which after the intervention of the Supreme Court), even though few of them present a legitimate challenge to the president given their limited resources. The opposition is divided by a plethora of candidates. This gives the advantage to the incumbent CPDM as it is the largest and most organized party. The main opponents represented at the Parliament are Ni John Fru Ndi of the Social Democratic Front (SDF); Adamou Ndam Njoya of Cameroon Democratic Union (CDU) and Jean Jacques Ekindi of the Progressive Movement (MP).

The election management body was initially contested but reluctantly accepted by opposition leaders. Elections Cameroon (ELECAM) which manages all matters related to elections was created in 2006. The members were sworn in by the Supreme Court in 2009. ELECAM has been criticized by the opponents as being controlled by the Government and likely to hide potential irregularities. The ruling party chairman denied this criticism. According to the President Biya speaking on September 15, 2011, ELECAM is an independent and neutral institution. After an initial boycott, major players have reluctantly accepted the electoral body, but are still criticizing and questioning its independence.

The Supreme Court of Cameroon will play an essential role as it is the institution in charge of electoral dispute resolution. They are already very active having ruled, in September 2011, on twenty petitions filed by eighteen candidates rejected by ELECAM. Two of them have finally been accepted: Anicet Ékané for the African Movement for New Independence and Democracy (MANIDEM) and Daniel Soh Foné for the United Socialist Party (USP).

The police and military forces will fight against any threat to security. Based on past actions, the police and military forces carry out orders to the letter in order to combat political unrest.

The Cameroonian citizens aspire to democracy but prefer peace. It is common to listen to Cameroonians fiercely proclaim that the country is the point of stability for the Central African Region. They highlight that one of the official mottos of the country is peace. As many countries around the world, Cameroonians aspire to a democratic system with more political, civil and economic rights. However, they tend to believe that an electoral political change is impossible and several of them do not trust the current opposition leaders. As of June 10, 2011, 6 786 785 Cameroonians (about a third of the population) were registered to vote; for the first time in the history, the Cameroonian Diaspora is allowed to vote outside of the country.

Finally, the political developments in Cameroon are also closely monitored by the international community of which leading actors are France, the European Union, the United States, and the United Nations Department of Political Affairs (UNDPA).

Main Risks to the Peace and Security

In Africa, several conflicts have occurred as the result of challenged election results. The situation is characterized by tensions as illustrated by current events such as gunmen shooting at police and requesting the departure of Biya; arrests of several protesting activists seeking the independence of the “Southern Cameroons”; and the increasingly criticized electoral management body (ELECAM), whose independence is questioned by several opposition leaders. The situation in Cameroon can become more unstable if the majority of political actors and citizens do not accept the results or recognize the legality of the 2011 elections and as a result call for citizen mobilization. In case of citizen mobilization, a potential misuse of security forces can easily degenerate into violent conflicts.

Actions to Prevent Conflicts

In the light of the above, and in order to prevent conflicts, the following self-evident measures which conform to the spirit of democracy and the rule of law should be implemented. The Government, ELECAM, and all people involved in the electoral management process should ensure the organization of a free, fair and transparent election. The Cameroonian people and political leaders should abide by law and use the vote as the only way to choose the country’s president. The Supreme Court of Cameroon should serve justice in cases of electoral dispute, and ensure that the constitutional right of the Cameroonian people to choose their president is respected. Security forces should prioritize the protection of citizens and the integrity of formal rational-legal institutions. The international community should act as an independent electoral observer and dialogue facilitator. The United Nations should closely monitor the political developments and activate tools of preventive diplomacy. The United Nations Secretary-General or its Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs should seek high-level interactions with the Cameroonian Government and discuss the legitimate political process and its long-term benefits for peace, democracy and development.

Potential conflicts in Cameroon should also be prevented, as they are likely to have damaging impacts on the Central African Region (Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo, Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon) considering the fact that the country represents about half of its trade GDP and population, and is home to refugees from neighboring countries. Thus, a free, fair and transparent election is the best way to prevent possible post-electoral conflicts in 2011, and eventually ensure long-term peace, security and economic prosperity.

Dr. Landry Signé

Banting Fellow, Stanford University

October 3, 2011

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