Cameroon Election, President's Victory Called a `Mockery of Democracy'

Washington Post Foreign Service
By James Rupert
Saturday, October 25, 1997

According to the government and political party of President Paul Biya, Cameroon's voters overwhelmingly turned out this month to applaud his 15 years in power and elect him to seven more. According to virtually everyone else, Biya's proclaimed reelection is the Big Lie that deepens political frustration and nudges Cameroon toward the sort of violent upheaval seen recently across much of Central Africa.

In the 1990s, African governments have faced their greatest pressure ever to democratize their countries' politics, or at least pretend to do so. Many Cameroonians and analysts of Africa say the pretense here is one of the continent's greatest.

"We are making a mockery of democracy," said Cameroon's Roman Catholic cardinal, Christian Tumi, during one of many interviews he gave denouncing the election. "Many Cameroonians think democratic change is not possible, and I think we are going back to the one-party system."

Cameroon's Supreme Court declared Thursday that 81 percent of Cameroonian voters cast ballots on Oct. 12 and that Biya won 93 percent of the vote. Yet polling stations visited by foreign and Cameroonian journalists were nearly empty that day.

Biya insists that his administration, rather than an independent election commission, run all voting. Largely for that reason, international monitoring groups refused to take part in this month's election.

So did most Cameroonians. Only 3 million Cameroonians -- of a voting-age population estimated from 6 million to 8 million -- registered to vote, about half as many as in the 1992 presidential election. The main opposition parties called for a boycott -- motivated partly by their failure to agree on a single candidate to challenge Biya, analysts said.

The evening before the vote, state-run television announced that the opposition had canceled its boycott. It showed what it said was a flier signed by opposition leaders announcing the reversal. Those leaders denounced the document as a forgery, and state television proved unable to say where it had come from.

With polling places quiet on election day, a Sunday, state radio explained at midday that the people spent the morning at church services and would vote in the afternoon. This was repeated soberly even by the radio's correspondent in the north, whose Muslim population does not hold Sunday services.

On a bus ride last week from Douala to Yaounde, passengers listened to the news on Radio France Internationale and dismissed the idea of listening to the government station. "We're not fooled by their efforts to convince us this is an election," said a French-speaking student from Douala who gave his name only as Thierry. "We're just waiting for the chance to get rid of this guy."

Biya, 64, is Cameroon's second president, after Ahmadou Ahidjo, who led Cameroon to independence in accommodation with its colonial ruler, France. In 1982, Ahidjo -- reportedly believing himself terminally ill -- handed power to Biya.

Biya briefly appeared to be a liberal reformer, promising to open up Ahidjo's single-party rule. But after a 1984 military coup attempt, Biya lost direction, sometimes relaxing, sometimes tightening repression. The State Department and human rights groups such as Amnesty International say Biya's numerous police forces routinely suppress dissent with arrests and torture.

Biya has kept an alliance between his southern-based tribe, the Beti, and the northern Muslims, including traditional chiefs who run personal fiefdoms in exchange for fealty to Biya, Cameroonians said. The state is "dominated by . . . a circle of advisers drawn largely from [Biya's] own ethnic group and from his party," said the 1997 State Department human rights report.

This tends to exclude one of the country's largest tribes, the Bamileke, and the 20 percent of Cameroonians who speak English rather than French. Cameroon's two Anglophone provinces were colonized by Britain rather than France and, 35 years after the country was united, they retain a distinct identity.

Biya's office authorizes the appointment of virtually all government officials, down to village police officers and school principals, said Charles Taku, a human rights lawyer in Buea, a provincial capital. "To get such a job . . . or a business license . . . you have to show that you support the president actively, that you love him and his party."

Cameroonians and foreign economists said Biya finances his political machine -- and, reportedly, a personal fortune -- with oil revenues that he has kept off the state budget for years. The cash-strapped government in recent years has made and broken four loan agreements with the International Monetary Fund. It signed a fifth agreement in August, with the IMF insisting that all oil revenues be accounted for, a foreign official said.

By 1990, after the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, Cameroonians, led by those in the Anglophone west, joined a wave of protest across Africa and demanded democratization. Strikes and demonstrations forced Biya to declare military rule in 1991 and, finally, to accept multiparty elections.

In 1992, Anglophone leader John Fru Ndi challenged Biya, but the government announced a narrow victory for Biya. International monitors declared electoral fraud, and "we came close to civil war," said Pius Njawe, publisher of the independent weekly Le Messager.

Biya's opponents, notably Anglophones and Bamilekes in the west, protested violently, and government radio in the Beti region urged Biya's tribe to arm, said Njawe. There was a run on machetes, he said, and groups attacked their opponents' homes and shops. Njawe and others said Cameroon resists violence because of memories of destruction in 1958, when French troops crushed an uprising by anti-French nationalists before granting independence.

But many Cameroonians say the danger of a real civil war is deepened by Biya's grip on power. Biya is "callous regarding the potential crisis or explosion of his own country that everyone else seems to see coming," said Chris Fomunyoh, a Cameroonian who heads the African program of the Washington-based National Democratic Institute.