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How long can Cameroon's Biya rule?

By Patrick Smith
Editor, Africa Confidential

Children stand around a charred bus in Douala, Cameroon, on 24 February
February's violence was the worst in 15 years

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 party, President 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 Cameroon People's Democratic Movement (RDPC).

Some observers fear that Cameroon might replicate the troubles of Ivory Coast 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.

Demonstrators in Doula
Cameroon is a volcano waiting to erupt
Ruling party supporter Charles Ateba

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: 20 were killed during a week of protests. This is how Mr 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 ($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.

Cameroonian President Paul Biya
There are plans for Mr Biya to run for president again in 2011

On state radio and television at the height of the crisis, Mr 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.

Mr 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.

Successor?

The presidential succession is particularly problematic, because Mr Biya is not grooming a successor.

After a failed coup d'état in 1984, Bello Bouba Maigari, 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.

Mr 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 jail for embezzling state funds.

Ayissi Mvondo, who aimed to run against Mr Biya, died under mysterious circumstances. Celestin 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 Mr Biya and now lives in France.

Opposition leaders are called unpatriotic if they criticise the president.

Last month, President Biya accused them of manipulating youths to destroy property and called them "demons".

Standing for election against Mr Biya is not a rational move, since local and foreign observers consistently describe his elections as "flawed".

Charles Ateba, a supporter of the ruling party who opposes any constitutional amendment to make Mr Biya president for life, describes Cameroon as "a volcano waiting to erupt".

Adamou Ndam Njoya, leader of the opposition Democratic Union of Cameroon, 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.

Mr 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 Odinga. Yet many of the ingredients for an eventual explosion are in place.

A full version of this article appears in Africa Confidential, a fortnightly bulletin on African affairs.





SEE ALSO
Cameroon head blames opposition
28 Feb 08 |  Africa
Country profile: Cameroon
19 Jan 08 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Cameroon
01 Mar 08 |  Country profiles

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