Cameroon is now in the midst of an escalating civil conflict, which some have already termed a nascent civil war. Over the past six months the crisis has taken a brutal turn as several secessionist militant groups under the umbrella of the “Ambazonia Movement” have clashed repeatedly with security forcesand engaged in hostage taking. The government’s response has been violent – indiscriminate killing, burned villages, and now over 160,000 displaced people. In one recent instance, 39 people were killedin the Northwestern village of Menka, including women and children. In May, U.S. Ambassador to Cameroon, Peter Henry Barlerin, accused the government of targeted killing of Anglophones, and warned President Paul Biya that he should be concerned with his legacy. There is no dialogue to speak of, or a readily apparent exit ramp that could deescalate tensions.
Concurrent with this crisis, some modicum of electoral politics persists in anticipation of a legislative and presidential election this fall. No date for these elections has been announced, and there are rumors of a possible delay due to the security situation. Nonetheless, earlier this year the opposition party the Social Democratic Front (SDF) held primaries to nominate a presidential candidate. The SDF chose sitting parliamentarian Joshua Osih, a significant shift in SDF politics. For nearly three decades the SDF’s co-founder and perpetual presidential candidate, John Fru Ndi, has dominated the party. Fru Ndi remains the SDF’s chairman, but Osih rise reflects a new generation of opposition leadership. By contrast, the SDF lost ground during March’s senatorial election, and the ruling party now controls 90% of senate seats.
The SDF is Cameroon’s most significant opposition party, and was one of the primary organizations that sparked Cameroon’s democratic transition in the early 1990s. While the party at one point held more national appeal and could run candidates in all of Cameroon’s regions, it has always had deeper roots in the Anglophone North and South West. During Cameroon’s foundational elections in 1992, Fru Ndi won 36% of the vote to Biya’s 40%, and fraud was likely a factor in Fru Ndi’s loss.
However, over the years there has been a steady decline in the party’s viability. This is partially the result of strategic errors and internal wrangling. In 1992 the SDF controversially boycotted the legislative election, which helped the CPDM recover from a devastating electoral performance and form a temporary coalition with a minor party. In 2004 Fru Ndi rejected the decision of the National Reconciliation and Reconstruction Coalition (CRRN) to nominate Adamou Njoya as the opposition’s unified presidential candidate, and decided to run himself. Indeed, John Fru Ndi’s personalization and domination of the party has been a cause of bitter factionalism. For instance, in 2006, a wing of the party led by Clement Ngwasiri was expelledfollowing intra-party violence. In 2010 rising star Kah Wallah also left the party in criticism of Fru Ndi. These factors have hurt the SDF’s electoral support. In 2011 Fru Ndi won just 11% of the vote, and in 2013 the SDF grabbed just 10% of the legislative seats.
With the SDF’s dwindling electoral prospects the party has played a more mainstream and conservative style of politics. Some observers within the SDF note the continued influence of a radical and oppositional wing, but also a stratum of moderate politicians and many elites who seem aligned and quite comfortable with the CPDM. In 2010, Fru Ndi’s decision to seemingly reconcile with Biyaalso drew criticism from party many hardliners, and for some harmed the SDF’s popular appeal. Unsurprisingly, the current crisis in English-speaking areas has emerged independently of the SDF. While the party has commented on the crisis, it has taken a backseat to the civil society and youth-backed components of the opposition movement.
Joshua Osih, a charismatic 49-year old member of parliament, reflects a generational shift within the SDF (his main opponent was 70-year old Fobi Nchinda Simon), and Cameroon more broadly. Osih is a party insider, who started as a base militant in the 1990s before becoming the Regional Chair of the party for South West region. A few years later he was elected as 2ndVice-Chair of the party and then as 1stVice-Chair. He is chairman of the influential finance committee, and therefore works very closely with many CPDM members of parliament. Osih maintains a number of businesses in Littoral region – most notably his aviation cargo corporation Camport Plc. He is also bilingual, which provides him with a certain crosscutting appeal, particularly among the exploding and increasingly frustrated urban youth demographic (see for instance the novelty in Cameroon of a campaign website, www.osih2018.com). Osih has also been vocal in his support of a return to federalism, and a trenchant critic of hyper-presidentialism in Cameroon.
These factors make him a very versatile candidate. He can maintain the backing of the SDF establishment, while also garnering support among the opposition movement in North and South West. His rapport with many CPDM members, in particular younger members of parliament who are frustrated with the status quo in their own party, buttress Osih’s appeal outside of English-speaking areas. It is less clear whether he can anchor an opposition coalition that brings together other potential presidential candidates, like 65-year old Akere Muna, or the leadership of other opposition parties. It is also unlikely that Osih will win if Biya runs. Biya’s control of massive patronage resources, state institutions, and the election management body give him an insurmountable advantage. But, Osih could give the regime a real run for their money. Already, some media outletshave circulated reports that he is ineligible to run for election because he might hold a Swiss passport. Other rumors suggest that some CPDM insiders are considering fast tracking their own young Anglophone candidate to replace Biya.
The Senate elections held on March 25 do demonstrate the uphill battle facing the SDF, but should not be used to predict future performance. The SDF’s seat share was cut in half to just 7 seats (all in the North West region), and the party has called for the election’s annulment. However, these elections are indirect. Municipal councilors elect 70 of the seats, and the President appoints the remaining thirty. This gives the ruling party an enormous advantage, since they control the bulk of the municipal councils. Moreover, the Senate is constitutionally weak and a clear patronage tool used to rally a certain segment of the political elite. These factors, along with the still evolving security situation and question of presidential succession, make the fall elections potentially much more competitive.