' Cameroon 's Failed Transition to Democracy: Which way forward?'

Keynote speech given by Dr Christopher Fomunyoh

Centre of African Studies, School of Oriental and African Studies
University of London

October 11, 2003

Thank you very much Lord Avebury for those very kind words of introduction. I commend you, Frank Russell, Sarli Sardou Nana, the Cameroon Campaign Group and other friends of Cameroon for helping draw attention to the challenges that Cameroonian democrats face, especially as we prepare for the October 2004 presidential election.

I feel honoured to have been invited as the keynote speaker. I am pleased to be here, and look forward to sharing my thoughts and perspectives with you all distinguished invitees and participants. Needless to say, I also look forward to learning from you.

Exactly 11 years ago, on October 11, 1992, Cameroon organised its first multiparty presidential election. Viewed by many analysts as an important benchmark in the transition from one party rule to genuine democracy, the 1992 election fell far short of expectations in terms of the legal framework and preparations leading up to election day, the conduct of polling activities, and the proclamation and contest of the election results. Overall, rather than serve as the springboard to democratic governance, the presidential election of 1992 cast a long shadow of doubt, questionable legitimacy, confusion and drawn out contestation over the country's nascent democratisation process; and it is fair to say that in many respects, Cameroon's democratisation efforts have still to recover from that near-death experience. Without seeking to re-hatch, unnecessarily, the shortcomings and failures of 1992, suffice it to say that in light of the prevailing circumstances, that poor outcome was to be expected. In fact, in its report on the 1992 election in Cameroon , the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI) -- the organisation that I work for -- concluded " Cameroon 's election system seemed designed to fail."

In the period between 1990-92, we witnessed several actions that seriously undermined the emergence of genuine multiparty democracy in Cameroon . These included: government-sponsored demonstrations by leaders and supporters of the ruling party (including Cabinet Ministers) against "multipartism and imported democracy"; the refusal to allow opinion leaders and political activists such as Yondo Black and Albert Mukong to form political parties, and the subsequent forced launching of the lead opposition party -- the Social Democratic Front (SDF) -- during which occasion six people were shot to death; and a boycott by the SDF of the legislative elections of March 1992. We also witnessed a snap presidential election that was hastily called even before the electoral framework had been adopted, thereby creating room for administrative authorities to influence the process with election-related decisions being made up until the eve of polling day.

Immediately following the October 1992 election, Cameroonians lived through a very tense period of excessive civil strife and political polarisation. Then came the local elections of 1996, in which opposition parties performed very well with victories in major cities across the country only to see their electoral victories undercut by President Biya's appointment of hand-picked "Government Delegates" to oversee democratically elected mayors and councillors. All of the "Government Delegates" were cronies of the Biya government, and their appointment to oversee mayors even in opposition strongholds such as Douala , Bamenda, Bafoussam, Nkongsamba and Garoua was a calculated and vicious move to weaken opposition political parties in Cameroon . It also was a major setback to the much desired decentralisation of government in the country.

Wrangling over the administration of local government after the 1996 local elections spilled over into 1997, and, combined with disagreement over the legal framework (especially around the thorny issue of an independent election commission) led the main opposition parties -- SDF, National Union for Democracy and Progress (UNDP) and the Cameroon Democratic Union (CDU) -- to boycott the presidential election of that year.

Five years later in 2002, the conduct of the combined legislative and municipal elections did not provide any comfort as the Cameroon government failed, woefully, in its first attempt to hold those elections on June 23, 2002. Many opposition leaders and critics of the Biya government doubt that the shortcomings of June 23, 2002, could have been remedied in time to hold credible elections one week later on June 30, 2002. So, in my opinion, it is difficult to assert, authoritatively, that the current representation of parties in the National Assembly and in local councils in Cameroon is a true reflection of the partisan political landscape of the country.


Overall I would say the political context is blurred.

Firstly , there is the ambiguity created by the dual constitutional framework under which Cameroon is administered. As far as I know, Cameroon is the only country in the world functioning under two constitutions -- the constitution of 1972 remains valid even though replaced by the new constitution promulgated into law in 1996. At the same time, only the one main provision of the new constitution of 1996 that extends the presidential term from five to seven years has been implemented. Decentralisation and the creation of regional entities in both executive and legislative branches of government have been ignored, so has the creation of national institutions that could provide necessary "checks and balances" such as the Constitutional Court and the Senate. The Constitutional Court is supposed to adjudicate election-related disputes, and its absence means that any such disputes as may arise would be adjudicated by the Supreme Court which many analysts fear would perform a "Pontius Pilate" as it did in 1992 -- list and deplore all irregularities, but lament that its hands were tied. God forbid, but were anything to happen to President Biya prior to the putting in place of these new institutions, the very blurred and byzantine constitutional line of succession will only breed confusion and potential conflict.

Secondly , the electoral framework needs to be amended and strengthened. For the first time that the National Elections Observatory (NEO) functioned side by side the Ministry of Territorial Administration during the legislative and municipal elections of June 2002, a new group of individuals were able to ascertain firsthand complaints of citizens, voters and political parties in Cameroon . I understand that in submitting its report to the president's office, NEO made specific recommendations on how the electoral framework could be strengthened. If the NEO recommendations would require changes to the election law, it is imperative that the legislative calendar between now and October 2004 be factored into the government's thinking to allow enough time for draft bills to be submitted to parliament for debate and adoption prior to being enacted and implemented.

Without being privy to the recommendations of NEO, let me comment on what I consider to be two of the most crucial issues pertaining to the Electoral framework and prospects for a credible presidential election in October 2004 -- the election administration authority and the voter register. I use the phrase 'election administration authority' because I realize the government seems to be allergic to the term, 'Independent Electoral Commission' and so for me, no matter what the entity is called, I just hope the Biya government gives this issue the urgency and importance it deserves. Given the fact that the Minister of Territorial Administration is a high level official of the Biya government and the ruling party, and knowing how the patronage system works under the current regime, it is extremely difficult to expect that individual to conduct the election in a neutral manner. It is humanly unfair to ask one individual to criss-cross parts of the country campaigning against the memorandum of grievances published by opposition leaders from the Northern provinces and asking traditional leaders and ordinary citizens to stay loyal to the ruling CPDM and President Biya, and then have the same individual go back a few months later to organise a competitive, free and fair presidential election. As fine and as honest as that individual is or can be, the perception of partiality is extremely high -- and we all know that in politics "perception is reality!"

The second crucial element of the electoral framework has to do with the state of the voter registry and the issue of voter registration. For a total population of 15 million inhabitants and given the country's demographic trends, one can estimate between seven and eight million Cameroonians of voting age (i.e. aged 20 or older). Past elections have kept this figure down around three million registered voters with only a fraction of that number actually voting. This is a serious impediment to participatory democracy in Cameroon , because the very basis of legitimacy for the government is predicated on its support among the citizenry. In every election that has taken place in Cameroon from 1992 till date, we have heard complaints about poor voter registration, lack of voter cards, names of voters purged from voter lists, etc. These complaints explain in large part, the level of voter apathy and political disengagement that we now see in Cameroon . This is a dangerous trend that must be reversed else we leave the populace with the impression that political participation is a privilege for the select few, and even worse, that genuine, meaningful change cannot come about through the ballot box.

After the Constitutional and Electoral framework issues, the third indicator of the current context is the very disconcerting state of political parties. The ruling party, the Cameroon People's democratic Movement (CPDM) with its 'majority' could show more instances of internal democracy and dialogue, yet it is plagued by very nasty infighting between the so-called 'progressives' and 'conservatives' not within party sittings, but rather via the public media. And then there are the motions of support from the provinces all well crafted and spearheaded by regional elites, as was the case in the one-party days, asking 'the natural candidate of the party to become presidential candidate' in October 2004. At the very least, this is poor taste or simple incongruity because the Constitution of the ruling CPDM party already provides that the Chairman of the party is the presidential candidate. Many an observer do ask, . "If he were the natural candidate, why drag the entire country through the emotions of these motions of support?" There is also a lingering question about how much the CPDM depends on its party members, and how much it relies on cabinet ministers and civil servants who, around election time, are known to abandon their professional responsibilities in the public service to campaign for the ruling party in their respective provinces or constituencies of origin.

Opposition parties are not necessarily better off as their strategies and tactics seem to go contrary to the objectives that one would expect them to have set for themselves at this time barely 12 months before the presidential election. Cameroonian opposition parties remain fragmented and are very personality driven. Despite multiple calls for more opposition unity and perhaps a unique opposition candidate as has been the case in countries such as Kenya , Zimbabwe and Senegal , some of the opposition leaders show very little commitment to bringing about such a broad-based coalition. The current initiative between the SDF and the CDU headed by Fru Ndi and Ndam Njoya, respectively, is a laudable first, but I would have wished to see that process speeded up both horizontally in reaching out to other parties, and vertically in moving to the next stage of voter education and resource mobilization, in preparing for October 2004.

The last contextual indicator for me is the state of political attitudes in what I consider to be the three geo-political zones of the country. In the 'Grand West' one hears complaints that no one from this part of the country has ever been Head of State of Cameroon. This is the opposition stronghold that overlaps with the two Anglophone provinces (Northwest and Southwest) where citizens generally feel marginalized after 43 years of independence. In the 'Grand North', frustrations also run deep as illustrated in the recently released memorandum in which opposition elites from the Northern provinces listed grievances of the population in that part of the country. Many northerners would admit that they have been alienated from the reins of power since Ahmadou Ahidjo handed power over to Paul Biya in 1982 - a situation that was exaceberted by the attempted coup d'etat of 1984, and Ahidjo's condemnation and death in exile. So it is that hard feelings run deep, even if they haven't surfaced in broad view.

One must also recognize that even in Biya's political base of the Centre, South and East provinces, there are noticeable signs of uncertainty about the future. Even some of Biya's supporters question whether Beti elites currently being detained or serving prison terms such as former Minister Edzoa Titus and Paul Engo will be released anytime soon. Others worry that there could be a witch-hunt if the opposition won the election. Yet others are bitter for not having seen any improvements in their own wellbeing under the current government.

These are not healthy signs in the period immediately preceding a major presidential election. Given the volatility and fragility of African states, the high levels of poverty, crime and unemployment, as well as the porous borders and easy trafficking of small arms on the continent, there is reason to believe that extra-ordinary and very concerted steps must be taken, in a timely manner, for Cameroon to hold a credible, transparent, free and fair presidential election in October 2004. The Cameroonian people deserve no less. The African continent can do with one less crisis ignited by bad governance and failed or fraudulent elections.


I would say, as a pre-condition, that one must acknowledge that it will take the involvement or contribution of multiple actors to obtain a credible presidential election in Cameroon in October 2004, with each actor playing their part as strongly and as forthrightly as possible. There are four categories of such actors:

First, The Government of Cameroon

The Cameroon Government needs to be prepared to rise up to the dual responsibility of governing as well as contesting the election on the platform of the ruling party. That the ruling party and the government have been indistinguishable in the eyes of many Cameroonians and independent observers creates very negative impressions about excessive use of public resources (both material and human) for individual and partisan interests. As a result of this perception (and indeed this reality) the incumbent could very well win the election and yet see the legitimacy of his victory called into question.

Along those lines, the following seven steps would appear crucial in setting the stage for a credible presidential election in Cameroon :

  1. A new and improved legal framework that takes into consideration the shortcomings of the past and a clear demarcation of roles between the Ministry of Territorial Administration and the Observatory or other more independent entity, so as to generate increased voter or citizen confidence in the electoral process. At the latest, changes to the electoral framework must be finalized by end of Spring 2004 to allow enough time for voter education and subsequent implementation.

  2. A clear timeline of the electoral calendar with specific benchmarks on reforms that may be envisaged and the expected time of implementation in order to enhance public confidence and civic awareness. This is extremely important in making sure that whatever reforms are adopted or agreed upon will be implemented in time prior to Election Day.

  3. Concrete steps to conduct a proper and thorough voter registration exercise. Even in the best of circumstances, the seemingly all year round registration provided in the Cameroonian election code does not guarantee voters the possibility of verifying or ascertaining the status of their registration prior to election day. Computerization is only one aspect of the solution; the other aspects include intense voter education, proper data collection and a transparent use of collected data. All major political parties -- ruling and opposition -- should be associated in this endeavour and should obtain access to electronic versions of voters rolls for verification and education of their supporters. With today's advance technology of CD-ROMS, that is not much to ask. Voter confidence and participation will benefit tremendously from such an initiative.

  4. Specific and well-targeted measures should be taken to ensure the neutrality of individuals involved in administering the election. Such measures should include, for example, proper training and polling officers sworn to oaths of neutrality and professionalism before courts of law. Targeted individuals in this regard must include all polling officers as well as Divisional and Senior Divisional Officers.

  5. Efforts should be made to guarantee equitable access to state owned and state-controlled media.

  6. Rather than serve as a mere propaganda tool, as is currently the case, state-owned media should be used for extensive civic and voter education of Cameroonians. Special programs should be created beginning as early in the year as possible that can focus on providing citizens with useful information on provisions of the election law and important aspects of the electoral process including voter registration and the rights and obligations of political parties and non-partisan domestic civil society organisations. Because of its outreach capabilities, national radio remains the medium of choice for such intensive civic and voter education programs.

  7. The Cameroon Government must take the initiative to promote genuine dialogue, citizen participation and more engaged civil society involvement in the electoral process. Structured, formal and frequent inter-party meetings should be organized for the Ministry of Territorial Administration, the National Election Observatory or other election administration entity to brief and update ruling and opposition political party leaders on steps that are being taken to strengthen the electoral process in Cameroon . Their buy-in and confidence has to be earned and not just taken for granted. They are legitimate stakeholders in Cameroon 's democratization process and should be treated as such.

Second, Opposition Political Parties

  1. Opposition party leaders need to recognize that political attitudes have evolved, even among the masses in Cameroon . Protest movements that were the methods of choice in the early 1990s have become less attractive as citizens now look out for alternative platforms and programs.

  2. Opposition parties will need to synchronize their demands and approaches to democratization in Cameroon and hopefully craft holistic strategies that can respond to constituents at the national level as opposed to some kind of regional, fragmented and divisive approaches such as presenting 'Northerners' Candidate', Anglophone Candidate' etc.

  3. Opposition political parties need to educate and sensitize their members and supporters on concrete actions that they have to take to secure meaningful participation in the process, such as those pertaining to voter registration, election monitoring, and coordination of the collation of election results or parallel vote tabulation (PVT).

  4. Party leaders would have to commit publicly to non-violence and playing by the rules if a credible system is in place for transparent elections in October 2004.

Third, Civil Society Organisations (Including Cameroon Media)

Unlike in countries such as Nigeria , Kenya and Senegal , where tens of thousands of ordinary citizens have been recruited and trained by domestic civil society organizations to monitor national elections, in Cameroon the impact of domestic monitoring has been little felt. Domestic observers from civil society organizations still experience difficulties obtaining accreditation, and on the other hand they have had little success aggregating or harnessing their efforts into a broad-based coalition as has been the case in other countries. Conscience Africaine, Le Comite Citoyen or even the Catholic Church's Justice & Peace Commission, just to mention a few, can form a coalition with the media. There is strength in collective coordination. If Cameroonian civil society organizations are to contribute to the conduct of a credible presidential election in October 2004, they must start right away to take some of the following actions:

•  Civic and voter education, including in local languages for illiterate populations in rural areas;

•  Monitoring and reporting on all facets of the electoral process and not just the campaign period and polling day activities; and

•  Coordinating activities and sharing information to cover the national territory or at least a sizeable and representative geopolitical spread. The private media experimented with such a strategy in June 2002.

Fourth, Donors and Friends of Cameroon

Finally, I believe Donors and Friends of Cameroon have a role to play in providing expertise and technical assistance.

I would simply hasten to say that dealing with political elites in the polarized and highly suspicious environment that Cameroon politics have become, donors need to not loose sight of the fact that public diplomacy counts! While we understand that certain negotiations may require quiet backroom diplomacy it still is important, for purposes of building public confidence in the democratization and electoral process, that donors clarify their roles, their stated objectives and results obtained each step of the way so as not to become 'unwilling' or 'unknowing' accomplices of the regime's tactics of stringing the population along.

It will be a shame if various international conventions and the high standards that African democrats have come to hold their elections to, were to be lowered simply on the basis of verbal promises of reforms that are never respected or implemented.

Ultimately, the responsibility for conducting credible elections in Cameroon rests with the government of Cameroon and its citizens, but if friends of Cameroon can assist or facilitate the process of achieving this noble goal, the African continent will be all the better for it. Cameroon is one of those African countries that has great potential and the resources, human and material, to achieve sustainable development in both the economic and political arenas. A credible presidential election in October 2004 will allow the country to move closer to that goal and to contribute its fair share to the development of the African continent. I know it will require a heavy dose of political will and a grasp of the subject matter or expertise on the part of the current leadership of the country. I am hopeful that this initiative by the Cameroon Campaign Group is a major first step in drawing international and national attention to the task ahead; it provides an opportunity for each one of us to make our contribution so the aspirations of the Cameroonian people to live in a genuine democratic society are met, beginning with the October 2004 elections rendezvous.

Thank you for your kind attention, and I look forward to answering your questions.