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.