Following the presidential poll on October 7, 2018, largely boycotted by the country’s English-speaking regions, Cameroon’s constitutional court declared the long-term incumbent Paul Biya of the Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (CPDM) the winner on October 22. The official results indicated that Biya got 71.28 percent of the votes. He is currently serving his seventh term after thirty-six years in office.

Maurice Kamto of the Cameroon Renaissance Movement (MRC) received 14.23 percent, Cabral Libii of the Univers Party got 6.28 percent, while Joshua Osih of the chief opposition party, the Social Democratic Front (SDF), received only 3.35 percent. All the other candidates had less than 2 percent of the votes.

Biya, now 85 years old, was sworn in on November 6, 2018. He was first sworn in thirty-six years before on November 6, 1982, following the resignation of Cameroon’s first President, Ahmadou Ahidjo. His new mandate ends in 2025, by which time he will have been in office for forty-three years. Currently, he is the second-longest serving African leader, behind only Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema.

As expected, voter turnout for the election in the two Anglophone regions of the country was low (reportedly 5 percent in the North West and 15 percent in the South West) and the opposition deemed the election results fraudulent, calling for a re-run of the presidential poll. The constitutional court ruled otherwise, pronouncing the elections credible, free, and fair.

In his inaugural speech, Biya among other things vowed to deal with “terrorism,” a reference to both the challenge posed by Boko Haram and that of the separatist movement in the Anglophone regions. In spite of Biya’s approach to governance, underpinned by his strong grip on power, two critical challenges continue to face the country: the persistent economic crisis that began in 1986 and the festering “Anglophone question” that has defied all state efforts to repress the demand for self-determination by the English-speaking regions.

State Capture and its Impact on Elections

The centralization of power in the presidency, which often entails the capture of state organs by presidents, poses a challenge for democracy in authoritarian African states, especially those with longstanding leaders. Such presidents have mastered the art of manipulating the electoral, public, and judicial institutions to influence the outcome of elections in their favor.

The state capture of the electoral management institutions is exemplified by Cameroon’s recent elections and the rulings by its constitutional court. Despite the opposition filing no less than eighteen petitions against irregularities, fraud, and the conduct of elections, and asking for an annulment of the elections, the court threw out all petitions ruling that they were “unfounded” or “not justified”.

After the announcement of the outcome of the election by the constitutional court, Kamto, the  MRC candidate, rejected the results and instead produced figures showing that he won the election with 39 percent of the total votes cast, with Biya coming second at 38 percent. No independent body was on hand to investigate, verify, or dispute the discrepancy between the official results and those compiled by the opposition.

Although Cameroon’s constitutional court was prescribed by the country’s 1996 constitution, it was only established on February 7, 2018, by President Biya. The court is predominantly staffed with former members of Biya’s government who are thought to be aligned with him, casting doubt on its independence and neutrality. Where the line between the ruling party and the state has been blurred over a long period of time, the conduct of elections often limits the possibility for any transfer of power to the opposition through the ballot box. In such contexts, elections become a mere facade masking the pretense of a multi-party democracy.

Little hopes for reviving the economy

Before the discovery of oil in 1978, agriculture was the backbone of Cameroon’s economy. The combination of oil and agriculture enabled Cameroon to maintain a high per capita income and become a middle-income country in the early 1980s. However, by 1986, all key indicators had collapsed following an international crisis. For example, by 1993, “…per capita GDP [had fallen by]…over 40%, [and]…macroeconomic balances [were disrupted].

At the onset of the economic crisis, Biya’s regime turned to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank for aid, who in turn prescribed the Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) I and II. These programs failed in preventing Cameroon’s debt levels from skyrocketing. The country was then forced to seek admission into the Heavily Indebted Poor Country Initiative (HIPC-I) and continued to resort to financing through debt, borrowing close to 400 billion FCFA from the IMF and World Bank in 2016. Currently, Cameroon’s debt is equivalent to 35  percent of its GDP.

Cameroon is also beset with other economic woes such as high levels of unemployment, poor infrastructure, a “stagnant per capita income,” and “inequitable distribution of income.” Strategies like the Strategic Document for Growth and Employment (DSCE), Vision 35, and the Contingency Plan yielded little or no positive results.

Biya has maintained a core group of individuals in government for decades, most of whom have been accused of corruption and mismanagement. In recent years he has jailed former allies within the framework of the anti-corruption operation dubbed “sparrow hawk.” However, because several other long-term allies suspected of embezzlement and gross incompetence are expected to continue managing the economy, little is expected to change in terms of performance. The anti-corruption initiative is now widely viewed as a political weapon meant to present some semblance of good governance to western donors while eliminating potential political rivals.

Slim prospects for a peaceful resolution of the Anglophone conflict

The Anglophone Problem is the pre-meditated and systematic erosion of the Anglo-Saxon heritage…and systems… [of the people of the erstwhile British Southern Cameroons, (currently the North West and South West Regions of Cameroon, formerly West Cameroon under the de facto federal union of 1961-1972)], since independence by La République du Cameroun (LRC), [a situation] that has severely disadvantaged [them].

The Anglophone problem has been a challenge for Cameroon for decades. It took on a renewed urgency, escalating into armed conflict in 2017 in response to the brutal suppression of peaceful protests over policies undermining the common law system and the Anglo-Saxon education system, as well as the stark marginalization and neglect of the anglophones. As a result, some young anglophones are now fighting for an independent state called Ambazonia.

Biya has not engaged in discussions with the separatists, who he has called terrorists and secessionists. Instead, he has applied a heavy-handed approach based on the militarization of the area which shows no signs of abating, leading many to see little hope for a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

Biya’s regime has largely “allowed the situation to worsen as it hoped that protests would lose momentum,” alternating “between violent repression and cosmetic concessions.” For example, the government recently created a National Disarmament, Demobilisation, and Reintegration Committee without first establishing a ceasefire. Despite calling it a measure of “goodwill,” they appear to be using this tested conflict resolution method as leverage to dictate the terms of engagement.

Biya’s strategy—paying lip service to dialogue then setting up a DDR program prematurely—and his preference for deadly force, including excesses by Cameroon’s security forces in the Anglophone regions, is enabled by tacit support from regional neighbors, notably Nigeria. Unfortunately, mediation efforts by the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) have been weak and ineffective. Also noteworthy is French support for the government and the apparent indifference of the international community, notably Britain, which has proved unwilling to act to protect the rights of the people in the former British Southern Cameroons.

The United Nations, African Union, and ECCAS need to step up their preventative diplomacy and mediation efforts to address a conflict that is destabilizing an entire region and claiming many lives. Although the prospects for democracy, peace, security, and development in Cameroon look rather bleak, if the opposition parties are able to unite and join efforts with an empowered civil society and strategically engage with sections of the international community, they can significantly offset the status quo and begin to reset the democratic project in the country. Only a concerted internal people-centered democratic effort can result in sustainable political transformation and development in Cameroon.