Author Archives: Yonatan Morse

Cameroon – Coercive Legacies and Innovations

 Cameroon’s record of political and civil rights remains one of the most challenging in sub-Saharan Africa. President Paul Biya, now 85 years old and in his 36th year in power, is likely to run again this year. The ruling Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (CPDM) and its predecessor the Cameroon National Union (CNU) has held power since 1972. Freedom House consistently ranks Cameroon as “Not Free,” and there have been numerous reports on the harsh state of human rights from organizations like Amnesty International, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and Human Rights Watch. Cameroon consistently ranks as one of the most corrupt countries in Africa. The regime is also currently facing an outright insurgency in English-speaking regions, and an ongoing violent conflict with Boko Haram in the north.

Many observers emphasize the multiethnic nature of Cameroon’s ruling coalition, and Biya’s informal role as the kingmaker that holds this tenuous situation together. Indeed, the Cameroonian regime has been able to eschew many of the economic reforms demanded by lenders in the 1990s. Buttressed by minor oil reserves, the regime maintains a monopoly over political advancement, and can use hundreds of positions within the ruling party, government, and military to position supporters. Cameroon has the largest cabinet on the continent, with over 60 ministers, secretaries, and delegates. Certain positions like Speaker of the National Assembly are informally given to representatives from the north, while an Anglophone has been Prime Minister since 1992. Southern politicians, Biya’s home region, hold many senior positions.

However, while this massive patronage apparatus undoubtedly buttresses the regime, a powerful security apparatus also gives the regime significant leeway. Many of the privileges that Biya enjoys as president are constitutional, and are tied to legacies of French colonialism and its fight against an uprising of the Union of Peoples of Cameroon (UPC) in the 1950s. These coercive capacities have persisted, and indeed have also expanded in response to new security threats. In the late 1990s banditry and criminal activity in rural areas was the catalyst for the creation of new military units. In the 2000s the threat of Boko Haram has likewise led to new laws and coercive institutions. At each stage, these tools have been used outside of their original intent to deter and intimidate political opposition.

The Historical Origins of Coercive Capacity in Cameroon

The foundation of the modern security state in Cameroon can be traced to France’s suppression of the UPC Rebellion between 1956 and 1960. UPC nationalist agitation was primarily located in the Littoral and Western regions, where the French High Commissioner enforced official pacification zones (ZOPACs) that gave the military the ability to create ad hoc detainment camps and launch raids. These powers were then essentially transferred to Prime Minister (and later president) Ahidjo during the interim period prior to independence between 1958 and 1960. French input into the interim government was substantial, and the High Commissioner retained the ability to intervene on behalf of public safety. Law 59/33 issued from the interim National Assembly also gave the Prime Minister the ability to declare ambiguously phrased states of alert or warning in UPC-held territories. Thirteen such decrees were issued between 1958 and 1960.

These emergency powers have since been enshrined in every constitution, and used quite extensively. Section 20 of the 1960 constitution gave the president and assembly the ability to declare states of exception and emergency. The government could restrict freedom of movement, prohibit meetings, and ban certain publications. From 1960-1961 a state of emergency covered all of French-speaking Cameroon. Following unification, a new “Supreme Law” gave Ahidjo the enhanced ability to single-handedly declare states of emergency. In both Eastern and Western Cameroon states of emergency were repeatedly extended up to the abolishment of federalism in 1972. Subsequently, the new unitary constitution maintained these privileges and was used to issue no less than 20 decrees between 1972 and 1982. When Biya succeeded Ahidjo, 9 states of emergency were issued between 1982 and 1986. In December 1990, a new law (90/047) reduced the length of states of each emergency and siege, but they could still be extended in perpetuity.

In addition to the creation of these emergency powers, the French also bequeathed a unique array of coercive institutions to the independent Cameroonian state. In response to the UPC rebellion, the French facilitated the creation of a number of new military units, which were largely recruited from the Cameroonian population, but with significant French influence. These include Cameroon’s ubiquitous military-police force (the gendarmerie), and a feared intelligence gathering force called the Service des Etudes et la Documentation (SEDOC). Following independence the SEDOC was converted into the Direction Général d’Etudes et de la Documentation (DIRDOC), and later into the Centre National de Etudes et des Recherché (CENER). French financial assistance also helped fund a presidential guard, as well as a new special force called the Brigades Mixtes Mobiles (BMM).

 Continuity and Innovation During the Multiparty Era

The multiparty era did not bring with it significant constitutional reform that would limit presidential authority, and actually led to the creation of some new coercive institutions. For instance, in October 1992 Biya used a state of emergency to place Northwest Province under curfew for two months, and to place his primary political opponent John Fru Ndi under house arrest. The 1996-revised constitution failed to delink these powers, and still maintained ambiguously defined wording regarding states of emergency and siege (Section 9). In fact, the constitution simply proclaims that “when circumstances so warrant,” the president can decide to issue a three-month state of emergency.

Another constitutional provision that became very crucial in the multiparty era was the ability to direct delimitation during elections. The Ministry of Territorial Administration (MINAT) was able to redistrict based on the peculiar interests of any constituency. Following the 1997 election districting began to take into consideration not just population, but also geographical size. Cameroon uses a mixture of single and multi-member districts to populate its 180 member national assembly, and their size and ratio have since changed with major consequences for party competition. Urban areas like Mfoundi or Wouri are underrepresented by at least 10 seats, while rural areas in Central and South regions are overrepresented by between 5 and 8 seats.

A significant innovation during the multiparty era was in response to the deteriorating security environment in rural parts of Cameroon. The economic downturn of the 1990s and civil wars in Chad and Central African Republic led to an influx of combatants, particularly in Extreme North region. In the late-1990s highway banditry, livestock poaching, and hostage taking, were rampant. In response, the government created the 7,000 strong Rapid Intervention Brigade (BIR). While the security threat was real, the BIR has since been used for other tasks. In 2008 the BIR was deployed in Yaoundé and Douala to suppress youth riots. The BIR has also been recently deployed to the North West and South West regions. According to Amnesty International the BIR is responsible for over 700 deaths and has been implicated in pervasive prison torture.

The War on Terror and New Coercive Capacities

 The difficult security situation in Northern Cameroon was worsened by the rise of the terrorist group Boko Haram. The group has likely been active along the Cameroonian-Nigerian border since 2004, but began to engage in terrorist attacks in Cameroon starting in 2013. Today, approximately 15% of Cameroon’s military, including a newly created BIR division called BIR-Alpha, is now deployed in the north. The conflict has taken a heavy human toll. The governor of Extreme North and local prefects now have emergency powers that allows them to set curfews, conduct ad hoc road inspections, monitor and inspect mosques, and even ban the burqa in public settings. Many of Cameroon’s military units have now been further bolstered by military aid from France and the United States.

 One of the most significant developments to emerge from this situation was the anti-terror law of December 2014. The bill defines the term act of terrorism broadly to include “any activity which can lead to a general revolt of the population or disturb the normal functioning of the country” and allows some crimes to be tried via military tribunal. Critics note that the anti-terror bill has consequently been used repeatedly to silence journalists and researchers, especially those covering the situation in the north and the crisis in English-speaking areas. Importantly, the anti-terror bill was used to imprison Anglophone activists Felix Agbor-Balla and Fontem Neba. Both were charged with fostering hostility against the government and encouraging succession. Both were held without bail for seven months until their release in August 2017.

The use of crisis to generate new coercive state capacities is of course not unique to Cameroon, and is increasingly a challenge for democracy advocates in the era of global terrorism. But the combination of patronage and coercion stands Cameroon apart from other African countries. Moreover, this also suggests that authoritarian regimes do concern themselves with some sense of formal legalism. Laws like the 2014 anti-terror bill have been widely condemned, but might help protect regimes from international criticism, assuage certain internal critics, or convince parts of the public of the legitimacy of their actions.

Yonatan L. Morse – Presidential Power and Democratization by Elections in Africa

This is a post by contributor Yonatan L. Morse, based on his article ‘Presidential Power and Democratization by Elections in Africa’ that will be published in the journal Democratization

In traditional studies of democratization, elections are generally the end phase of a prolonged process of liberalization and political opening. However, in recent years political scientists have also entertained the idea that elections might actually be the starting point of a process of democratization. In foundational work on Africa by Staffan Lindberg, he contended that repeated consecutive elections could create self-reinforcing mechanisms that deepened democracy over time. This approach is intuitively appealing for an era in which elections are commonplace, yet many countries still fail to live up to democratic standards. And expectedly, this thesis has been subject to quite widespread replication, scrutiny, and criticism.

In new research, now published online by the journal Democratization, I engage with the democratization by elections thesis in Africa, and argue that repeated elections can induce some forms of democratic behavior but face real limitations when formal presidential powers are strong. This is because under certain conditions strong presidentialism reinforces incentives for elections to become opportunities for clientelistic exchange, rather than moments of self-expression. Powerful presidents that control legislative agendas, access to political appointments, and the purse strings, might lead certain actors to behave more democratically during elections, but not necessarily to develop more robust notions of citizenship. This holds true in Africa because levels of economic development and inequality reinforce the role of clientelism as a central way elites and citizens access their government.

A caveat is in order here first. If the democratization by elections thesis has been so heavily scrutinized (in Africa and elsewhere), what is there to add to the debate? Other studies have generated, at best, mixed results. For instance, in Latin America democracy was restored in the 1980s after periodic interludes of authoritarianism. Therefore, many of the indicators of democracy simply jumped back to their prior levels, and have in fact declined since in many countries. Most importantly, in many countries repeated elections seemed to reinforce rather than undermine authoritarianism. Referred to as electoral or competitive authoritarian regimes, in these cases repeated elections appear to offer incumbents the ability to reshuffle their coalitions, gather information about their levels of support, and generate international legitimacy. In one study of Africa, the authors found that democratization by elections could only truly be found in a handful of cases.

The problem with previous studies is that they often mischaracterize what the democratization by elections thesis is actually about. Lindberg makes a crucial distinction between the “process of democratization” and a “transition to democracy.” Regimes can show improvements in specific indicators of democracy, while not necessarily transitioning to a new regime. Indeed, autocratic regimes can exhibit more or less democratic behavior. For instance, when actors participate more, compete more effectively, or appear to accept the legitimacy of the election process, this is a sign of democratic progress. Specifically, for Lindberg this is evidence of how elections create self-fulfilling expectations. Elections might also lead to improvements in other realms of democratic life like the protection of civil liberties. This indicates some form of socialization by elections, whereby citizens learn from election experience to demand voice in other realms of life. Using this more limited definition of democratization yields quite different results from previous studies.

My contribution is therefore to stress which factors condition the impact of repeated elections on much more specific democratic outcomes. I gathered information on 679 African elections since 1990, and combined this information with data from the Varieties of Democracy (V-DEM) and Presidential Power (PRESPOW) datasets. These data offer new ways to explore both numerous democratic outcomes, and to compare and contrast the extent of formal presidential power across Africa. The V-DEM data includes measures of electoral participation, competition, and legitimacy. But, it also includes indexes of many non-electoral elements of democracy like the protection of civil and private liberties, civil society participation, and equal protection under the law. I controlled for numerous other factors like executive years in office, levels of economic growth and development, foreign aid, ethnic heterogeneity, religion, and historic experiences with democracy.

A key utility of this study is its use of formal measures of presidential power in Africa. In many studies of African politics the focus has often been on the various ways in which presidents violate constitutions and operate through parallel informal institutions. This approach is mistaken for a number of reasons. First, it is equally clear that African presidents routinely amend constitutions, which means that the formal powers of presidents are not trivial. Second, using formal measures of presidential powers limits the risk of endogeneity in a study. For example, if a president unconstitutionally repeals legislation, this is often coded as both a violation of the democratic process and stronger informal presidential power. It is difficult to know what factor is influencing what factor. By focusing on the formal attributes of presidents, this risk of conflation is mitigated.

The analysis shows that improvements in the election process do not depend on levels of presidential power. Using Lindberg’s criteria, with more experience African elections become more participatory, competitive, and legitimate. This validates the notion that elections reinforce actors’ expectations and conditions them to accede by the rules of the game if they want to get ahead. On the other hand, presidential power significantly conditions the impact of repeated election on civil and private liberties, civil society participation, and equal protection under the law. When presidents are formally strong, repeated and consecutive elections limit the ability of elections to socialize more participatory and democratic behavior. These results hold up to various statistical models, and even the inclusion of a measure of the unfairness of the election.

This corresponds with expectations regarding the intersection of presidential power and clientelism in Africa. When levels of access to a system of spoils define the political game, and when presidents control that access, elections become devoid of deeper civic meaning. Rather, actors decide to accept electoral processes because fighting the system keeps them excluded. These results do not reject the democratization by elections thesis, but rather shed light on its limitations. Moreover, it also corroborates that the problem of democratic progress is not only due to the fact that elections themselves are unfair. In many cases the playing field remains heavily tilted toward incumbents, but clientelism and powerful presidents exist in diverse settings and exert an independent impact on democratic outcomes. It is not enough to just get the elections right, the disproportionate formal powers of presidents need to be tempered too.

Cameroon – Exploring the Anglophone Crisis: A Conversation with Felix Agbor-Balla

A political crisis continues to grip English-speaking regions of Cameroon, with no real solution on the horizon. A year ago strikes by various legal associations quickly expanded into a full-blown protest movement that encompassed teachers, students, and local trade unions. Underlying the movement are longstanding grievances and feelings of discrimination. These sentiments have been exacerbated by perceptions of misallocation of state resources and uneven representation in the highest levels of government. The government has heavily resisted this movement and responded with violence. During the most recent round of protests a reported 17 people were killed in clashes with security forces.

The solution to the crisis is not clear. Dialogue with the government has been limited, and there is no consensus on what an endpoint would look like. The Anglophone crisis involves the resolution of many longstanding issues regarding the region’s British heritage. However, fundamentally the crisis also implies some restructuring of the Cameroonian state. At one extreme are violent groups like the Ambazonia Movement, which advocate for secession. Others like the now-banned Southern Cameroons National Council (SCNC) seem to want a return to federalism, while the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium (CACSC) wavers between calls for federalism and decentralization.

With these tensions in mind I spoke with Nkongho Felix Agbor-Balla. Agbor-Balla is a human rights lawyer and the president of the CACSC and the Fako Lawyers Association (FAKLA). On January 18, 2017 he was arrested and airlifted to Yaoundé. A 2014 anti-terror law allowed the government to try him in a military tribunal, and he remained in military detention without bail until he was released by presidential decree on August 31st. I spoke to him from London over Skype on October 23. Our conversation, which I excerpt below, revolved primarily around the roots of the Anglophone crisis and the difficulty of resolving it within the context of the Cameroonian political system.

The Roots of the Current Anglophone Crisis

The “Anglophone Problem” has historical roots in the country’s brief experiment with federalism that united former British and French territories. The specifics of unification have been covered extensively, but the federal arrangement left significant authority in the hands of the presidency. The president could appoint critical administrative figures, direct the flow of resources, and use emergency powers to curtail political expression. By 1972, both multipartyism and federalism were abolished. Since Anglophones have seen themselves as the main losers of this arrangement. This was true under first president Ahamadou Ahidjo and his successor Paul Biya.

At one level Anglophones are responding to a specific set of discriminatory government policies. For instance, Anglophone lawyers oppose the imposition of French magistrates in English-speaking areas and the absence of sufficient recognition of Common Law. Similarly, teachers and students have protested the lack of English-speaking educational and career opportunities. The issue of language and belonging looms large for Anglophones. As Agbor-Balla noted, “French is the language of oppression for many. And they [the Francophone] do not care about the Anglophone problem because they think that French is the only language you need to speak if you want to have your way.”

At another level the crisis is over the perception that Anglophones have not had an adequate seat at the political table. This is reflected in the distribution of senior appointments and economic resources. For instance, after 1972 many local economic functions were transplanted to Yaoundé, and the government invested in the Douala port rather than Limbe. Most importantly, political exclusion has instilled fear of permanent political alienation from the highest offices of power, namely the presidency. Under Ahidjo the sense was the politics tilted toward the north, while under Biya it is to the south.

The hierarchy of state positions was evident from my conversation. Most clearly, I pushed Agbor-Balla to consider whether a more empowered Prime Minister would be satisfactory. The position was reinstated in 1992 and has informally always gone to an Anglophone. Agbor-Balla claims this concession is meaningless: “Having a Prime Minister without any power! The power resides in the Presidency. What powers does the Prime Minister actually hold? We used to have a Vice President and Speaker who were second in command, but now we have a Prime Minister that does not really matter. Why can’t we have a President? Why not a Vice President?”

Resolving the Anglophone Crisis

The government has not conceded much ground. An ad hoc committee led by the Prime Minister was largely maligned by Anglophones, including Agbor-Balla: “These are the same people who are ministers, the prime minster, members of government, parliamentarians. These are people who do not recognize a problem, who have not accounted for previous government atrocities.” Similarly, a National Commission for Bilingualism and Multiculturalism was seen as cosmetic and a way to demonstrate progress to the international community.

The most significant government concessions emerged out of the March legislative session. While nothing has been implemented, there are new laws that call for the creation of a Common Law bench on the Supreme Court, reforms to the National School of Administration and Magistracy, and the recruitment of additional Anglophone magistrates. For Agbor-Balla “the Common Law bench is a step in the right direction,” but he also claims that “we have passed the stage where we say it is just the legal and education based issues to a stage where we tackle fundamental problems with the form of the state.”

And it is here that significant tensions emerge. Simply addressing questions of discrimination might not be agreeable to the movement. Agbor-Balla advocates for an inclusive constitutional conference, but his position on the outcome shifts. He maintains that decentralization and some form of truth and reconciliation can work. But, he also noted that anything short of a return to federalism would likely not satisfy Anglophones: “The CACSC believes that that federalism is a midpoint between the unionists and the independence movement. It is a win-win situation.” This involves rotating the presidency between an Anglophone and Francophone, restoring the office of the Vice Presidency, and explicit protections for minority rights.

But, this type of change is improbable given the incentives that underlie the Cameroonian political system. The presidency holds together a tenuous multiethnic coalition of entrenched elites who view the question of distribution and political control quite starkly. As Agbor-Balla notes, “They do not have the political will and do not want to lose their control over power. It is a patronage system where you have to have allegiance to them so they can manipulate you.” Indeed, Biya amended the constitution in 2008 to extend his term limits, and is likely to run again in 2018 to prevent a divisive succession crisis.

This implies that many of the underlying issues that propel the Anglophone crisis will persist. Absent a clear political strategy that changes the calculus in the presidency, it is difficult to imagine the government embarking on true reform. Biya has demonstrated a willingness to use violence and curtail discussion of federalism and even decentralization. This leaves Anglophones in a precarious situation as different voices pull the movement in various directions, some potentially violent.