The people versus Biya

March 14th, 2008 by admin

Africa Confidential
Vol 49 Number 6, 14th March 2008

The people versus Biya
The President wants to go on for ever but recent protests show the people may not let him

Having ruled for 25 years, President Paul Biya wants to go on ruling until 2018, when he will be 85. The constitution decrees that he cannot stand for a further seven-year term in the 2011 elections. Although there are dissenters in the ruling Rassemblement Démocratique du Peuple Camerounais, Biya would not have much trouble persuading his parliament to pass the necessary constitutional amendment, since he controls it through his iron grip on the RDPC.

Some observers fear that Cameroon might replicate the troubles of Côte d’Ivoire and Kenya. The violence in its larger towns late last month was the worst for 15 years. The rioters were ostensibly protesting against fuel price rises but a slight reduction in prices after two days of strikes did not calm things down and the protests became overtly political. Mboua Massock (‘father of the ghost towns’), who helped to organise nationwide anti-government protests in the early 1990s, had led previous demonstrations against the proposed constitutional changes. He was promptly arrested.

The weak but sometimes noisy official opposition, led by the Anglophone John Fru Ndi of the Social Democratic Front (SDF), is united in its opposition to any constitutional change. So too are most of Cameroon’s numerous civil society organisations. After some looting and destruction, the police and later the army responded in the way they know best, by shooting down demonstrators: twenty were killed during a week of protests.

This is how Biya and his government have reacted to public protest for 20 years. When protests against the constitutional change started, the Governor of Littoral Province, Fai Yengo Francis, banned all demonstrations in Douala, the economic capital. The protesters responded by erecting barricades, destroying government property and looting. As during the anti-government strikes of the early 1990s, Gilbert Tsimi Evouna, Government Delegate to the Yaounde Urban Council, put into circulation 20 taxis to cripple the core of the protest, the taxi-drivers’ strike.

Information Control

The regime vigorously blocked public information. Communications Minister Jean-Pierre Biyiti Bi Essam sent soldiers to close down two private radio and television stations, Equinoxe in Douala and Magic FM in Yaounde. He claimed that neither had paid the 100 million CFA francs (US$200,000) required for an operating licence. Equinoxe Editor-in-Chief Charles Akoh said the stations had been shut for being too critical of the government crackdown on peaceful demonstrators; the Minister summoned newspaper editors and threatened to close them down, too, if they went on criticising the government.

On state radio and television at the height of the crisis, Biya accused the opposition of trying ‘to obtain through violence what they were unable to obtain through the ballot box’ and threatened ‘legal action’ against anyone fomenting trouble. Fru Ndi denied any involvement in organising the demonstrations but said he supported the protests against the ‘illegal increase in fuel prices’. Transport union officials called the demonstrations but failed to control their consequences. Many demonstrators acknowledged that the strike had given them an opportunity to vent their anger about other grievances.

The presidential succession is particularly problematic, because Biya is grooming a successor. After a failed coup d’état in 1984, Bello Bouba Maïgari, then Prime Minister and probable presidential successor, was fired and the post scrapped. From the Northern Province, Bello Bouba was accused of supporting former President Ahmadou Ahidjo (another northerner), who was in turn accused of staging the coup. Bouba fled to neighbouring Nigeria but came back and is now Minister for Posts and Telecommunications.

Critics are rare and soon silenced. Titus Edzoa, who had been Secretary General at the Presidency and a presidential confidant, resigned as Health Minister in 1997 to stand in the presidential election, was promptly arrested and is serving 15 years in gaol for embezzling state funds. Ayissi Mvondo, who aimed to run against Biya, died under mysterious circumstances. Célestin Monga, an economist, challenged the President’s failing economic policies, was promptly put on trial, escaped with a suspended sentence and now lives abroad. Mila Assoute also challenged Biya and now lives in France. Opposition leaders are called unpatriotic if they criticise the President. Last month, Biya accused them of manipulating youths to destroy property and called them ‘demons’.

Standing for election against Biya is not a rational move, since local and foreign observers consistently describe his elections as ‘flawed’. The government has resisted all suggestions that it might create an independent electoral commission to organise free and fair polls; it did, however, make economic reforms just sufficient to gain admission in 2000 to the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries programme, which the International Monetary Fund designed to reduce unsustainable debt owed by countries that agree on fiscal and economic reform (normally, but not in this case, including transparency for government accounts).

Somewhat behind the times, Biya’s opponents tend to assume that France, the former colonial power, will have a big say in who becomes the next president; the late President Ahidjo lost his job when France withdrew its support. Biya met President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris last year but although Sarkozy has twice been to Africa since his election in May 2007, he has not visited Cameroon – and seems keen to escape the African entanglements that in the recent past have aligned France with various dictators. In any case, there is nobody left who looks worth backing.

John Fru Ndi, the best-known opposition leader, is a militant English-speaker who, during the turbulent 1990s, called for a boycott of French goods in protest against French influence. This February’s street protesters attacked French businesses, including stores belonging to the brewery Brasseries du Cameroun, kiosks of the betting company Pari Mutuel Urbain du Cameroun, Total oil company (and Mobil) and even French-owned driving schools. A protester said these were legitimate targets as symbols of the hated French influence in politics. In fact, there are few other foreign businesses to attack.

Charles Ateba, a supporter of the ruling party who opposes any constitutional amendment to make Biya president for life, describes Cameroon as ‘a volcano waiting to erupt’. Adamou Ndam Njoya, leader of the opposition Union Démocratique du Cameroun, believes the country is on the brink of civil strife. Political pundit (and former SDF Secretary General) Tazoacha Asonganyi sees similarities between the violence that followed elections in Kenya and events in Cameroon. Yet there are big differences.

Biya has held power far longer and has entrenched it far deeper than Kenya’s Mwai Kibaki, who was originally democratically elected. Cameroon has no powerful opposition leader (ethnically based or otherwise) such as Raila Amolu Odinga. Yet many of the ingredients for an eventual explosion are in place.