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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 January, 2004, 10:19 GMT
Frustration threatens Cameroon calm
The politics are less pretty than the scenery
Former BBC Focus on Africa editor Robin White gives his impressions of a country divided by language and culture.

Cameroon is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. Its politics are less pretty.

Elections are scheduled for this year, but few Cameroonians hold out much hope that the voting will be either free or fair, or even worth taking part in at all.

The electoral commission is ridiculed as a rubber stamp for the ruling party, and the electoral roll is widely perceived as fictitious.

Everyone assumes that, unless something very unexpected happens, the 70-year-old president, Paul Biya, will be back for yet another term of office.

Looking back

If ever there was a country that is a victim of its colonial past, it is Cameroon. First the Germans were there. Then, in 1916, the French and British carved it up between them - four-fifths went to France, the rest to the UK.

And so was born a cultural and language divide, which despite federation in 1961 and union in 1972 is still alive today.

The biggest threat to President Biya and his Cameroon National Democratic Movement in previous elections was John Fru Ndi, leader of the Social Democratic Front (SDF).

From his office in downtown English-speaking Bamenda, he says he would rather the elections were postponed altogether than see them take place under the present dispensation.

He claims that if there is yet another rigged election, people will be so angry there could be war. He's careful to add that he will not start it.

The war, he says, would be a spontaneous conflagration, born out of the anger of frustrated Cameroonians.


Much more warlike than Mr Fru Ndi is the Southern Cameroon National Council, a motley group of malcontents who are currently the political sensation.

They too are based in Bamenda, and they want Cameroon, as it is currently constituted, to disappear altogether.

SCNC leader Chief Ayamba Ette Otung
Chief Otung wants independence for English-speaking Cameroon
They argue that the union of Anglophones and Francophones has been an utter failure and they want to reconstitute a separate English-speaking Southern Cameroon.

The SCNC, led by Chief Ayamba Ette Otung, argue that the world, especially the UK, has betrayed them and they're calling on the big powers and the United Nations to give them their nation back.

Actually most Anglophones do not want independence. They might hate the union, and they might hate Paul Biya and his ruling party, but what they really want is more autonomy and more development.

Cameroon as a whole is hardly flourishing, but Anglophone Cameroon is totally malnourished.

There is little development, not much investment and the roads are shocking.

The questions is: how to get development and greater democracy without going to war?

The SCNC tactic of demonstrations and occasional occupation of local radio stations has brought them occasional imprisonment, plenty of publicity and not much else.

Other Anglophone politicians, even those who hate the government, dislike the SCNC even more for stealing their limelight.

Part-time leader

And that's the trouble with the Cameroonian opposition, they can't agree on anything, except that they don't like Mr Biya and want him to go.

They can't agree about policies and they certainly can't, for the moment, agree on a common candidate to oppose the president.

Two chiefs surrounded by women
The chiefs ensure rural areas back the president
Paul Biya is not a tyrannical man. The press is free, private radio stations flourish, there are scarcely any political prisoners. In fact, the president is hardly visible. He lives in a splendid palace in Yaounde, and rarely goes out.

He is occasionally seen at airports around the world conducting government business and maybe other business too.

But the ordinary Cameroonian knows practically nothing about him. His cabinet has hardly seen him either.

The story is that he has only held two cabinet meetings in the past five years, and some of his more recent ministerial appointments have never met him at all.

The business of government seems to be left to a few key henchmen: the finance minister, the defence minister, the education minister, the interior minister.

There are plenty of Anglophones in government but none of them hold the really important posts.

President's men

The army, too, is headed by Mr Biya's handpicked men, mostly from his own Bete ethnic group. If you are not Bete, and not Francophone, you tend not to catch the president's eye.

President Paul Biya
Biya is not a tyrant - but he's not ready to step down
So how does Mr Biya keep a lid on discontent?

He has the police and gendarmerie. They are everywhere, particularly on Cameroon's potholed streets and highways.

They are forever stopping the traffic and demanding bribes in return for turning a blind eye to bald tires, dodgy brakes and lack of driving licenses and insurance.

The other way Mr Biya keeps control is through the Fons (local chiefs) who still exercise considerable influence, particularly in rural areas.

They consider it their job to support the government and explain government's policies to the people.

They are Biya's boys, and if they quarrel too much with the government they may discover that they do not have a divine right to rule after all.

By pleasing Mr Biya, they can also ensure that the small amount of development money there is in the till, will come their way.

Turbulent priest

Mr Biya's most formidable opponent is a Catholic priest; in fact Cameroon's top religious leader.

Cardinal Christian Tumi uses his pulpit, his newspaper and his considerable influence all over Cameroon, to denounce, hector and pray for Mr Biya to go.

Ministry of Higher Education, Yaounde
French-speaking areas, such as Yaounde, are more developed
He would like to open his own private radio station, too, but the government won't give him a licence. The ruling party fears Cardinal Tumi, and they fear a radio station run by him.

At his modest office in Douala next to the Cathedral, the soft-voiced cardinal says that the government has nothing to fear from him - they should rather fear the Cameroonian people who are fed up with misrule, rigged elections and corruption.

Many would like Cardinal Tumi to stand against Mr Biya in presidential elections.

Opposition parties have apparently approached him. He says he will not stand, although there's nothing in his job description to forbid him.

He thinks he's much more effective preaching from the sidelines.

He might not contest the elections, but he will surely be a big influence. He enjoys the limelight, and he enjoys politics.

He chooses his words carefully but he clearly sees it as his divine religious duty to bring democracy and transparency to Cameroon.

The Catholic Church, itself, is hardly democratic, but with God behind you, that makes you very powerful in a very religious and very Catholic country.

The final programmes in the White In Africa series can be heard on 8 and 15 January at 09:06GMT on the BBC World Service.

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