President Paul Biya’s government is trying to sway voters ahead of elections planned for later this year as a new face emerges at the largest opposition party
Against the backdrop of security crises, four elections are due in 2018 in Cameroon. The opposition, led by the Social Democratic Front (SDF), hopes that new blood will improve its chances against an opponent that uses the powers of incumbency to its electoral advantage and blurs the line between the ruling party and the state.
Senatorial elections are planned for 25 March, and some 10,000 municipal councillors will elect the country’s 70 senators. The presidency will then get to choose the 30 remaining senators. The ruling Rassemblement Démocratique du Peuple Camerounais (RDPC) is set to take a vast majority of the seats.
The three other elections – municipal, legislative and presidential – will take place later in the year. While the ends of long-standing regimes led by strongmen – like that of Gambia’s former president Yahya Jammeh – are hard to predict, analysts say that they do not expect any major changes in leadership as a result of those three polls.
But Stéphane Akoa, a political scientist and researcher at the Fondation Paul Ango Ela, says the 2018 elections will be important for another reason: “There is an interesting generational shift taking place […]. The renewal of the political class has begun,” Akoa says. But so far, this is mostly limited to the opposition. Akoa argues that this will put pressure on the RDPC to “change its plans” and name younger people or new faces as its candidates in the upcoming polls.
Veteran SDF leader John Fru Ndi, 76, will not be facing off against 85-year-old Biya again this year. While Biya has yet to announce if he will run again in 2018, Fru Ndi said on 22 February that he would no longer be a candidate, respecting the promise that the 2011 race would be his last. He told the SDF congress in Bamenda, in the Anglophone North-West Region: “I will not present my candidature for the presidential election. I want you to choose who is best to be the flag-bearer.” Fru Ndi remains the chairman of the party, which he has led since its launch in 1990.
YOUTH TRUMPS EXPERIENCE
The SDF chose Joshua Osih, a 49-year-old member of parliament, to lead the party in the presidential race. Osih’s background and relative youth are winning over new supporters. He is from South-West Region, which is Anglophone. But unlike Fru Ndi, former party vice-president Osih is comfortable expressing himself in French. An investor in the transport sector, Osih says that his focus is going to be on grassroots mobilisation ahead of the vote, which is likely to take place in October.
Cameroon’s opposition has not yet found a way to work together to present a united front against the RDPC. There are going to be other Anglophone candidates in the race too: lawyer Akere Muna says he is going to run as a member of the opposition. Muna’s father, Salomon Tandeng Muna, was a former vice-president, and Akere Muna himself has connections in the presidency. He is making the fight against corruption a centrepiece of his strategy, and he was involved in the trial relating to the controversial 2001 purchase of a presidential airplane.
Another figure likely to split the opposition vote is Maurice Kamto, 64, who helped to resolve Cameroon’s conflict with Nigeria over the Bakassi Peninsula and was a former minister. A year after stepping down from a ministerial post in 2011, he founded the Mouvement pour la Renaissance du Cameroun (MRC). Kamto is likely to be chosen as the party’s presidential flag-bearer at the MRC congress in April. The MRC wants to challenge the SDF for the dominant position in the opposition, but it has yet to win many positions in government.
Other opposition forces have even smaller support bases. Farmer-focused Bernard Njonga has made agriculture the centrepiece of his campaigning. Journalist Cabral Libii, 38, wants to be an upstart like France’s President Emmanuel Macron and is very active on social media. Libii has called for the opposition to organise a coalition and hold a common primary to choose a joint candidate, but so far no one is paying him much mind. However, upon his nomination as SDF presidential candidate, Osih said that a single opposition candidate is a possibility: “Our doors are wide open. We are not opposed to alliances or coalitions.”
Political analyst Akoa says: “Osih has an interesting strategy. With him, there is more of an opportunity for cooperation because he has shown that he is much less radical” than many of the hardliners in the SDF. The SDF’s history of being unable to build internal unity led many of its supporters to leave and form their own parties, ones that are unlikely to want to be subsumed by the largest opposition group. Political scientist Mathias Eric Owona Nguini says it is “impossible” for agreement on a single candidate to be reached in the opposition.
Without regular political polling, it is difficult to know voters’ intentions. The RDPC paints Biya as its ‘natural candidate’. Akoa says: “His staff are already campaigning for him.” A women’s group supporting Biya’s campaign has put out the message: “The artisan of peace, builder-in-chief, uniter: Paul Biya is without equal.” Biya has launched a flurry of programmes to win over voters: a project to give 500,000 free computers – with his name on them – to some of the country’s students (see page 58); the inauguration of a medical school in Garoua, in northern Cameroon; and the setting up of a teachers’ training school in Bertoua, in the east. The government has rolled out massive publicity for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations football tournament, and most of the posters feature pictures of Biya.
PACKED WITH FRIENDS
In February, he nominated the first members of the Conseil Constitutionnel, a legal body created 22 years ago to handle electoral disputes and announce the winners of the polls. Of the 11 people nominated, most are Biya stalwarts, with just one member of the SDF.
Security will be a hot topic during the campaigns. Hans De Marie Heungoup, a researcher at the International Crisis Group think tank, says: “With the problems in the Anglophone regions and the persistent threat of Boko Haram, the 2018 elections will have higher stakes than normal.” Some separatist groups say they will not let the vote take place in South-West and North-West regions. Yaoundé has been sending reinforcements to the area, and the security situation has been more tenuous since Nigeria arrested 47 Anglophones, including secessionist leader Sisiku Ayuk Tabe, and sent them back to Cameroon in late January. The government is not allowing them to see their families or their lawyers.
The new interior minister, Paul Atanga Nji, is already unpopular in the marginalised Anglophone regions after proclaiming: “There is no Anglophone problem in Cameroon.” The new decentralisation ministry and the naming of an Anglophone as secondary education minister are unlikely to defuse the crisis. More Anglophone, and Francophone, voices are calling for federalism. Yaoundé does not want federalism or the secession of the Anglophone regions, so the structure of the state is set to be another key issue that will shape Cameroon’s four elections this year.
From: The Africa Report