Tag Archives: Cameroon

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.

New publications

Yonatan L. Morse, ‘Presidential power and democratization by elections in Africa’, Democratization, Online first pp. 1-19.

Yonatan L Morse, ‘Electoral authoritarianism and weak states in Africa: The role of parties versus presidents in Tanzania and Cameroon’, International Political Science Review, Volume 39, Issue 1, January 2018, pp. 114–129.

Marino De Luca, ‘The end of the French primary? Measuring primary election impact on electoral performance in the 2017 French presidential election’, French Politics, Online First.

Cynthia McClintock, ‘Reevaluating Runoffs in Latin America’, Journal of Democracy, Volume 29, Number 1, January 2018, pp. 96-110.

Fortunato Musella, Political leaders Beyond Party Politics, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

Battal Yılmaz, The Presidential System in Turkey: Opportunities and Obstacles. Palgrave, 2018.

Dan Slater, ‘Party cartelization, Indonesian-style: presidential power-sharing and the contingency of democratic opposition’, Journal of East Asian Studies, Online First.

Sarah Shair-Rosenfield and Alissandra T. Stoyan, ‘Gendered Opportunities and Constraints: How Executive Sex and Approval Influence Executive Decree Issuance’, Political Research Quarterly, Online First.

Gregory J. Love and Leah C. Windsor, ‘Populism and Popular Support: Vertical Accountability, Exogenous Events, and Leader Discourse in Venezuela’, in Political Research Quarterly, Online First.

Marina Costa Lobo, ‘Personality Goes a Long Way’, Government and Opposition, 53(1), 159-179, 2018.

Łukasz Jakubiak, ‘Formulas of cohabitation in rationalised parliamentary systems of government. The cases of France and Poland’, Journal of Comparative Politics, vol. 11, no. 1, pp. 51-65, Jan. 2018.

Rolando Tarchi, ‘La forma di governo del Messico: dal presidenzialismo imperiale alla “parlamentarizzazione” del presidenzialismo?’ [The Mexican form of government: from the “imperial presidentialism” to a parliamentarization of the presidential system?], Vol. 33, No. 4, (2017): DPCE Online 4-2017, available at: http://www.dpceonline.it/index.php/dpceonline/article/view/468

Machiko Tsubura, ‘“Umoja ni ushindi (Unity is victory)”: management of factionalism in the presidential nomination of Tanzania’s dominant party in 2015’, Journal of Eastern African Studies, Online first pp. 1-20.

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.

Yonatan L. Morse – The African State, Presidential Power, and Electoral Authoritarianism in Cameroon

This is a guest post by Yonatan L. Morse, Assistant Professor in Department of Political Science at the University of Connecticut. It is based on his recent article in International Political Science Review.
Africa is a fascinating testing ground for the study of electoral authoritarianism. While not clearly part of the Third Wave of democratization, in the early 1990s the continent was swept by a wave of economic and political reform. However, the continent’s democratic credentials are quite tenuous. There is a strong consensus that alongside a number of democratic success stories like Ghana or Nigeria reside a considerable population of electoral authoritarian regimes. These regimes combine regular elections with undemocratic practices that range from fraud, harassment, censorship, and state violence. Today, several African countries are entering their third decade of electoral authoritarianism.

The persistence of electoral authoritarianism in Africa is puzzling, especially considering the crucial role of the state. In many comparative studies of electoral authoritarianism, the state’s capacity to extract resources via taxation, administer territory, command personnel, and deploy coercive units is seen as paramount. However, African states generally rank low along these measures. Nor do differences in state capacity clearly explain the relative longevity of African electoral authoritarian regimes. Longstanding electoral authoritarian regimes in Cameroon, Ethiopia, Gabon, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zimbabwe do not have demonstrably more powerful states than short-lived ones in Ghana, or Zambia.

In recent research I argue that the endurance of electoral authoritarianism in Africa can partially be explained by reassessing state capacity in relation to contextual logics of state building. The African state is often referred to as neo-patrimonial. Faced with acute post-independence challenges, foundational leaders stabilized politics by brokering with other elites, who were often representative of politically relevant ethnic blocs. The persistence of this political order required resources, but also marginally more capable states and, importantly, the elevation of presidents as critical actors. I illustrate this with reference to Cameroon, one of Africa’s most resilient electoral authoritarian regimes.

Coercive Capacity and Presidential Power in Cameroon

At independence the state in Cameroon was by no means robust, but it possessed unique advantages compared to other African countries. The colonial territory was bifurcated between the French and British, and neither entity made real investments into a civil administration, tax authority, or traditional military. However, an uprising in French Cameroon (called the UPC Rebellion) compelled the French to create emergency zones and augment Cameroon’s military with a gendarmerie and small intelligence-gathering unit. These innovations proved influential and were bequeathed to Cameroon’s first president, Ahmadou Ahidjo.

Ahidjo used these tools to marginally expand the state’s coercive capacity and to elevate the presidency. By controlling the purse strings and threatening sanction, Ahidjo was able to coax other political parties into a singular entity called the Cameroon National Union (CNU). By 1972, federalism was abolished and Ahidjo stood virtually unchecked as the gatekeeper to state spoils. Throughout his tenure he maintained a careful balance of ethnic and regional interests in public appointment and spending. Other African regimes were built on similar principles, but not many were backed by the same threat of coercion against elites.

Ahidjo’s successor Paul Biya built on this system. Biya retained control over the powers of appointment, and much of Cameroon’s nascent oil wealth was managed for years in a secret account held by the president. Importantly, the orientation of Biya’s coalition was tilted toward his southern co-ethnics, while Ahidjo’s was toward the north. As one observer noted at the time, the essence of the regime relied on the “cohesion of a few important people.” This was not an authoritarian regime rooted in an objectively powerful state, but rather the support of a narrow political elite.

Electoral Authoritarian Resilience in Cameroon

This system came under severe duress prior to Cameroon’s foundational 1992 elections. Economic decline reduced Biya’s capacity to maintain elite support, while social grievances grew in the face of rampant public corruption. Opposition reached its apex during a six-month strike, which was matched by significant state violence. Indicatively, Biya eked by with just 40% of the vote, and the ruling party won just 49% of the seats. There were widespread accusations of fraud and repression by security services, the Ministry of Territorial Administration, and provincial governors.

With Biya’s near-term survival ensured his preeminence as the chief broker stabilized the regime. Biya quickly entered into coalitions with various small parties like the Movement for Defense of the Republic (MDR), the United People’s Congress (UPC), and the National Party for Progress (NPP). By 1997, he had coopted members of the larger National Union for Democracy (NUDP), and elements of the Bamileké community. Installing an Anglo Prime Minister bolstered support from English-speaking regions. Today, Cameroon has the largest cabinet in Africa with over 60 appointed ministers and deputies. Biya has also resisted privatization efforts and controls access to hundreds of patronage positions. Fraud and coercion still impacts elections, but in 2011 Biya won 78% of the vote, and in 2013 the ruling party won 82% of the seats.

Coercion has also helped the regime deter challenges to Biya’s position as president. In 1997 Biya faced two internal challengers – one died of apparent medical complications, while the other was charged with corruption and sentenced to 20 years in prison. In 2008, regime elites revealed their concerns in private that a post-Biya reality would undermine the delicate balance of power. Unsurprisingly, Biya amended the constitution to change term limits to run for election again in 2011. A year later two other likely internal challengers – Marafa Yaya and Ephraim Inoni – were both convicted for embezzlement. State coercion has been used against citizens, but it has a clear role in maintaining the elite coalition.

Much of this builds on Thomas Calleghy’s insight that many African states are “lame leviathans,” meaning they cannot be exploited for massive social and economic projects, but nonetheless provide the necessary scaffolding for patrimonial orders. This holds true during elections too. When electoral authoritarian regimes retain some comparatively basic coercive features that help them keep the president at the apex of political coalition making, they can persist for extended periods of time despite electoral and internal challenges.