Page last updated at 07:08 GMT, Friday, 11 April 2008 08:08 UK

Cameroon makes way for a king

Cameroonian President Paul Biya and his wife Chantal

By Will Ross
BBC West Africa correspondent

Whilst attention has been focused on Robert Mugabe's attempt to stay in power in Zimbabwe, elsewhere in Africa another president is quietly making moves to lengthen his time in office.

The Cameroonian president, Paul Biya, has been in power for 26 years, but members of parliament voted on Thursday to scrap presidential term limits and enable him to run for the presidency again in 2011 and stay in power until 2018 (or beyond) when he will be 85.

Once before parliament, the bill to remove presidential term limits was always likely to be approved - the governing party has an overwhelming majority in parliament.

The main opposition party, the Social Democratic Front, SDF, has just 15 of the 180 and decided to boycott the debate.

The whole issue is a complete fraud. We do not want to legitimise it by taking part
SDF's Joseph Banadzem

When asked whether it would not be better to take part and put forward a case against amending the constitution, the leader of the SDF parliamentarians, Joseph Banadzem, told the BBC: "The whole issue is a complete fraud. We do not want to legitimise it by taking part."

Mr Banadzem predicts more disorder and violence in Cameroon.

"The amendment is paving the way for very difficult times in Cameroon.

"Instead of working in the efforts of the general public, the regime is only concerned about one individual - President Paul Biya - and the effort to prolong his stay in office," he said adding that most Cameroonians oppose the change to the constitution.


There is at least one lonely voice of disapproval amongst the governing Cameroon People's Democratic Movement (CPDM).

Mourners of a man in Douala who died in a protest against the third-term proposal
There have been deadly protests against the third-term issue

Paul Abine Ayah, an outspoken CPDM MP, slammed the bill predicting it would set the country back 200 years.

He said money was being paid to party members to encourage them to approve the bill.

The effort to extend President Biya's time in office is widely unpopular amongst Cameroonians many of whom feel the politicians are not doing enough to tackle the widespread poverty.

In February, some 100 demonstrators were killed by the military and police during rioting.

Although they were protesting against the high cost of living, their action was also fuelled by the speculation that presidential term limits were to be removed.

In his end of year state address, Mr Biya said having presidential term limits was unconstitutional and added that there were popular calls for him to stay in power.

It is no longer mere speculation - but the violent response from the security forces is likely to dissuade many Cameroonians from mounting any further protests.

African precedents

President Biya, who came to power in 1982, revised the constitution 12 years ago, extending the presidential term of office from five to seven years.

Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni
Mr Museveni successfully changed the constitution to allow him to run again

One of his achievements has been to oversee relative stability in a country comprising more than 200 tribes.

However past elections in Cameroon have been marred by allegations of fraud and vote rigging and it would be fair to say that Cameroonians have become increasingly disillusioned with the political process.

But the 75-year-old is by no means the first African president to tweak the constitution in order to stay in power.

In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni, moved past the 20 years in office landmark after parliament scrapped the two-term limit on the presidency in 2005.

The move was controversial, especially after MPs queued up to receive around $3,000 in what was regarded as an attempt to bribe them to approve the move.

After term limits were removed in Chad, President Idriss Deby, a former army chief who seized power before winning two elections, said the change was not meant to benefit him personally.

In Malawi and in Zambia, former leaders Bakili Muluzi and Frederick Chiluba respectively tried and failed to change their constitutions to get a third term in office.

Nigeria's former President, Olusegun Obasanjo, also tried it but law makers stood firm and rejected the plan.

While all eyes are currently focused on Mr Mugabe and Zimbabwe, Cameroon receives far less attention - despite a very poor human rights record and a reputation for being one of the most corrupt countries on the continent.

Observers point out that an increasingly entrenched elite which seems out of touch with the population is a recipe for instability.

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