Cameroon: what future?

by Rodrigue Nana Ngassam*.

“Does not last in power who wants but can”. It is in these words that the president of the Republic of Cameroon Paul Biya answered a journalist’s question on July 3, 2015. Head of the State since 1982, “The lion man”, “the man of renewal”, “the man of 6 April 1984” as some like to call him, no longer wins unanimous support. After ruling for 33 years and aged 83, a large number of Cameroonians consider it time for him to hand the power over. Except that the chief interested party does not seem ready to give up. Discontent rumbling is rising about the political changeover and the country’s stability. Internal dissatisfaction and the combination of external threats form a destabilising cocktail.

After more than three decades under the presidency of Paul Biya, Cameroonian politics lies in a new configuration in which the socio-political challenge and the electoral game undermine the presidential position. Indeed, with as many years in power as his predecessor, the hopes awakened by the president were soon dashed. The renewal regime is no longer unanimous. Many consider that a new mandate would be one too many; useless while the regime is buckling under the weight of all the ills and subject to criticism. Maintaining the status quo is no longer acceptable by the new generation who calls for defiance toward this candidacy.

This mistrust is the result of a political regime suffering a crisis of legitimacy – marked by the breakdown of the political contract between ruler and ruled – a significant impoverishment and many dissatisfactions (notably by young people): the high level of corruption and the misappropriation of public funds by the political class, as well as the Government’s attempts to control the electoral process to remain in power. Disappointment is total and is expressed by inertia, a lasting impression that the system is frozen. The voting date sharpens appetites, revives disagreements and finally blows up dormant conflicts.

Political society, civil society and alternation

Political and civil society in Cameroon is on the agenda again. Censored for a long time and even subject to the power of Yaoundé, its players today would like to act as catalysts in changing politics. From now on, civil society is mobilising populations pending the 2018 elections. Except that this does not happen without its challenges, it has lost its ability to mobilise the masses. What’s more, opposition parties, associations, NGOs, as well as unions have been infiltrated and dismembered by the regime, therefore reducing their ability to get organised and to act. He makes mistrust towards others, which is so characteristic of authoritarian regimes, a culture found in all levels of society. A law for the suppression of terrorist acts even threatens of capital punishment those who may venture to “disrupt the proper functioning of public services” or “trigger a general insurgency in the country”. Similarly, all organised rallies or demonstrations are most of the time banned.

Paradoxically, the biggest unknown remains the population, indecisive, which is bullied by the regime. The ruthless clampdown of the events of February 2008 has not been forgotten by the Cameroonians. Especially since the opposition had played absentee. Therefore, despite their apparent differences, opposition and civil society no longer rally Cameroonians, who are disillusioned and even struggling to see how they belong. Today, many believe that time will do its work on the “old guy, no need to rush him” and others think, because of the threat of Boko Haram, that “he is the only bulwark that can maintain peace and unity”.

The Boko Haram imbroglio and the conspiracy theory

Long regarded as a haven for peace and prosperity, the geopolitical and strategic dimension of the country is at the centre of security constraints and multiple threats. Northern Cameroon is now a theatre for Boko Haram’s operations. Initially underestimated by the authorities which used to reduced it to Nigerian domestic issue, the cult’s foray has highlighted the threat of this terrorist group. A danger that the regime intends to recycle during the next elections. No other alternative than president Biya!

Many dignitaries put into perspective the Boko Haram threat with foreign policies and local stakeholders plotting against the head of State. This hypothesis feeds fantasies in Cameroon, where political theatre and media games allow to deliver the idea of a fragmented Boko Haram: a Nigerian and a Cameroonian one, with divergent visions and claims. The frustrations of some of the elites of the RDPC or the officers convicted under operation Epervier and their foreign accomplices could play a big role in this destabilisation attempt orchestrated by criminal groups acting under the Boko Haram label.

Depoliticised and disenchanted according to political scientist Eric Owona Nguini Mathias, for now youth has found other outlets: alcoholism, resourcefulness, emigration to Europe and locking themselves up in revivalist churches… Therefore the greatest challenge for the Cameroonian opposition is to re-enter into dialogue, including with civil society, and to strengthen its ties with the masses to regain some legitimacy and credibility. As for Paul Biya, he has already warned: “The Cameroonian presidential election of 2018 is going to happen”, but it is still distant. “We have time to think and, when time comes, Cameroonians and everyone will know if I’m a candidate or if I opt to retire”.

 

*Rodrigue Nana Ngassam is a doctoral student in International Studies at the University of Douala, a researcher associated with the Groupe de recherche sur le parlementarisme et la démocratie en Afrique (GREPDA) [Research Group on Parliamentarianism and Democracy in Africa] and the Société africaine de géopolitique et d’études stratégiques (SAGES) [African Society of Geopolitics and Strategic Studies]. He is also a junior researcher at the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society (TSAS).

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