It took fifteen days, but on October 22 the Constitutional Council of Cameroon finally declared incumbent Paul Biya the victor of the presidential election with 71% of the vote. Maurice Kamto took second place (14%), while Cabral Libii came in third (6%) and Joshua Osih a surprising fourth (3%). 85-year-old Biya will start yet another seven-year term and mark his 36th year in office. He is the oldest president in Africa, and the second longest ruling chief executive in the world, eclipsed only by Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang (who congratulated Biya on his victory before the results were announced). For many in the Cameroonian opposition, the election was a sham. Turnout in conflict areas was abysmally low at 5% to 10%. This reinforced a sense of malaise and decline that threatens to further destabilize the country.
While there were no surprises, the election was not without some drama. Supposed preliminary results were leaked on social media, and Kamto and Libii stirred controversy when they both claimed victory without any real evidence. Cameroonian national television reported that Transparency International had given the election high marks. This turned out to be a “ghost” observer, and the Cameroonian government never clarified the issue. Opposition parties filed 18 complaints with the newly formed Constitutional Council. But, since petitions had to be filed within 72 hours of the poll and without any official results, they were all unsurprisingly rejected. The government then banned Kamtoand Cabril from holding press conferences, and imposed a lockdown in major urban areas in anticipation of public demonstrations.
This election is a good moment to take a step back and assess what has sustained the Cameroonian regime for so long, despite the utter disillusionment of large swaths of its citizens with the current political reality. The election also revealed some new information about the regime and its opponents, which will reshape political dynamics for the next coming years, especially as the Biya era reaches its ultimate end. What all this means for the future of Cameroon, and especially the brutal conflict in English-speaking areas is unclear, but observers should not conflate the persistence of the Biya era with some sense of political stability. Indeed, if I were to try and read the tealeaves, both the regime and opposition have some critical decisions ahead of them that could spiral Cameroon into even more serious crisis.
Why Biya Won: The Persistence of Electoral Authoritarianism
Biya’s slogan this election, which had a very different connotation in its English translation, La Force de L’Expérience, is actually quite apt. Over three decades of rule, the Biya regime has learned to manage a fractious ruling coalition, to counter political opposition, and skirt large-scale international scrutiny. I think of Cameroon as emblematic of electoral authoritarianism, propped up by the centralized power of the president, the range of patronage positions available to the regime, and a fairly powerful security apparatus.
President Biya’s stronghold is in the South, but he has been able to retain the support of key political elites who otherwise would be his rivals, in particular in northern areas. Without term limits, and with Biya as the coalition kingmaker, there have been few incentives for individuals to challenge him from within. Moreover, those who have done so in the past have found themselves tangled up with law enforcement. I predicted that as long as Biya maintained a sufficiently wide elite coalition, the numbers were just not there for the opposition to win.
Over the past decade Cameroon has also become a much more restrictive place. Presidentially appointed governors and senior district officers (SDOs) use their authority to limit political organization by denying permits for the sake of public order. They have also been able to declare states of emergency and impose curfews on large territories. Since a poorly written anti-terror law passed in 2014, security forces have launched raids and charged individuals in opaque military tribunals. Public demonstrations are often violently dispersed, and dozens of participants randomly arrested and held for lengthy administrative detention.The senior leadership of opposition parties has been arrested, and media outlets are censored for dissemination of false information and slander.
International actors have also played an instrumental role here too. Since the transition to multipartyism, Biya has been able to depend on French fiscal and rhetorical support. Likewise, the French have used their influence with multilateral lenders, who have continued to lend money to Cameroon despite severe fiscal mismanagement and a bloated state sector. Since 2001, the United States has also sought Cameroon’s support on key issues in international forums, and now has 300 soldiers and a drone base in the north. American support for democracy and governance has been tepid, this election included. The lack of international pressure has shielded Cameroon, and importantly has allowed the regime to keep significant fiscal and coercive tools in its toolkit.
What We Learned from This Election
While Biya’s victory seemed written in stone before the election even took place, there are some novel developments worth noting. First, the creation of the Constitutional Council in March 2018 created yet another layer of democratic window dressing. There were plans to create this commission since the constitution was revised in 1996, and the timing of its creation this year is not coincidental. The president appoints all of the council’s eleven members for a six-year and non-renewable term, and the council is the final arbiter of all presidential election related disputes. The government has just announced plans to build a $475,000 mansionfor the commission chair Clement Atangana.
The legal pleas and demonstrations at the Constitutional Council made for some riveting news coverage, but also trapped opposition parties into a quasi-legal process that shielded the regime. Unlike the role of courts in other disputed elections as in Kenya, the Constitutional Council in Cameroon is much less independent. The fact that petitions had to be filed before there were any results meant that opposition parties had very little chance of gaining any actual legal ground. Instead, they were forced to participate in a process that gave the regime the façade of proceduralism. While the opposition received a platform to articulate their grievances, it also neutered some of the rhetorical leverage they sought. If the opposition had broken with the process, they would have been accused of being anti-democratic. But, by participating they angered some of their own supporters who demanded a more radical reaction.
This relates to broader divisions within the opposition that were exposed this election. There was a concerted effort in Anglophone areas to boycott the election, which contributed to the low turnout rates. But, Cameroon’s history of boycotts in 1992 and 1997 has been counterproductive. In the past shunning sham electoral processes only isolated the opposition, and did little to garner wider international focus. In a sense, one of the most pernicious aspects of electoral authoritarian regimes like Cameroon is that it traps opposition parties into participating in quasi-democratic processes despite their substantial flaws. This has widened the gap between the political aspects of the current opposition and it societal base, which appears to be much more committed to a more radical and starker opposition.
New alignments among the opposition were also revealed (see Table 1). Joshua Osih, who was at one point seen as the key opposition figure, performed surprisingly poorly outside of the SDF’s strongholds in North West and South West. But, votes from North West and South West were inconsequential given the atrocious turnout levels. By contrast, Kamto won Littoral region and took 30% of the vote in West Region (his home area). Kamto might have enjoyed a slight bump when Akere Muna dropped out at the last minute and endorsed him. Osih also did not capture the youth vote, which went to Cabral Libii instead. At 38 years old, Libii was the youngest of the candidates, and was referred to as a Cameroonian Emmanuel Macron. Libii is from Francophone Cameroon, and took advantage of a savvy social media campaign to reach a large number of youth voters.
A final noteworthy change this year was the inclusion of a diaspora vote in the presidential election. Cameroonian citizens living abroad could vote at their consulates and embassies, and votes were tallied by region (see Table 2). Notably, the ruling CPDM party has made some significant efforts over the past decade at bolstering its branches abroad, in particular in Washington DC and Paris. However, by the same token diaspora communities have organized real political opposition. There are substantial Anglophone communities who reside in Washington DC and Nigeria. Registration rates were quite low in Asia and the Americas, but approximately 14,000 Cameroonians registered from other African countries. According to these results, diaspora voters in Africa are evenly split between Biya and the opposition.
What this Means for the Future of Cameroon?
Reelecting Biya was an endorsement of the status quo, and provides the regime with some more lead time to figure out solutions for the major issues it faces. First and foremost, does Biya’s continued rein increase or decrease the odds of resolving the Anglophone crisis? Biya’s response so far has been to offer symbolic reconciliation while simultaneously cracking down on the opposition. This has led to mutual escalation that is difficult for any side to back down from. There is a ripe moment here for Biya to take advantage of his new term and launch an internationally supported process that would bring reasonable voices to the negotiating table.
However, it is also difficult to imagine serious negotiation that would end with a settlement acceptable to all parties. As noted above, there is acute disagreement in the Anglophone opposition over whether to even participate in the available channels of politics. Likewise, many of the more moderate voices in civil society have been pushed to accept federalism as a starting point for negotiations. On the other hand, Biya might feel more secure now, and feel like he does not have to negotiate from a position of weakness. A possible, and perhaps more likely outcome, is that both sides will continue to dig their heels in. This would mean a prolonged crisis that further escalates an already devastating situation.
The election also has consequences for the 2019 parliamentary election. Legislative contests are often much more localized, which means that opposition parties have to be able and actually nominate candidates. While Osih only came in 4thplace, the SDF is still the primary opposition party. Both Kamto and Libii do not have robust political organization behind them that can run candidates in multiple districts. Other parties like the UPC and NUDP have largely been coopted by the regime. Issues of participation will persist in this election, especially in Anglophone areas, as will questions of opposition coordination. Only a concerted effort by the major opposition players stands a chance at chipping away at the CPDM’s overwhelming legislative majority.
Finally, another Biya term delays what is perhaps the greatest challenge for the regime – what comes after Biya? It is not impossible that he will run again at age 93 (see Robert Mugabe), but there is a strong likelihood that Biya will either not end his term or will not run again in 2025. In fact, there were rumors prior to this election that Biya would make a dramatic last-minute announcement and step down from power in favor of an appointed successor. The logic was that the timing would preclude any opposition from within, and make the successor an established fact that no one could contest.
Biya has seven years to design an exit strategy, but the problem is that there is no agreed upon process for choosing a successor. The CPDM has never held a credible presidential primary, and given the multi-ethnic and coalitional nature of the regime, many groups feel that it is their turn to helm the ship of state. This is true in the cabinet and in the military and security services as well, where there is fairly strong inter-unit rivalry and jealously. Many incumbents also fear legal retribution if the ruling coalition is reoriented in a new direction. The stakes are very high, which is why the status quo served the regime so well in the past. But, the clock is running out and absent some credible process or system of guarantees, the question of succession in the next few years has the real potential to devolve into conflict.
Table 1 Election Results by Region
|Reg. Voters||627, 068||266,194||374,227||726,351||6,667,754|
Note: AD=Adamoua, CN=Center, EA=Eastern, EN=Extreme North, LT=Littoral, NO=North, NW=North West, SO=South, SW=South West, WE=West; Source: CRTV
Table 2 Diaspora Election Results
|Serge E Matomba||1.7%||0.8%||0.6%||0.2%||0.6%|
Note: Source: CRTV