Cameroon’s Presidential Election: Will the Votes Count?

On October 9, Cameroon will hold a presidential election. The agency entrusted with this task is Elections Cameroon (ELECAM) established in 2006. The question on the minds of many Cameroonians is whether ELECAM will deliver a fair election as a first step towards substantive democracy, but many fear that a rigged campaign will trigger a bloody civil unrest.

There are several reasons for this apprehension. Since independence, Cameroon has been led by two presidents, Ahmadou Ahidjo, for 21 years, and Paul Biya, for 29 years. Ahidjo, who was designated by the French to take over Cameroon at independence, held five terms as president of a single-party democracy with no political rivals. In November 1982, due to ill health, Ahidjo transferred power to his constitutional successor, Paul Biya. Since 1982, five Presidential elections have taken place in Cameroon—two under a single-party system and three under a multi-party system—all of which were won by Paul Biya. The last two presidential elections in 1997 and 2004 witnessed extraordinarily low voter participation, partly reflecting voter apathy with the previous government body, the Ministry of Territorial Administration, charged with organizing these elections. The October 2011 Presidential election will be the first test of ELECAM’s ability to conduct elections in Cameroon; Cameroonians and the global community are paying very close attention to the process as it unfolds.

In Cameroon, the political system is relatively open. In fact, the system as it currently exists, has been criticized for its ultra-openness by setting a low bar for individuals and parties to vie for elected positions. Critics argue that it has been deliberately designed to engender too many political parties, which results in a highly fragmented opposition. Therefore, the system cannot be faulted on the basis of erecting discriminatory barriers to entry. I will examine several other aspects of the process that result in unfair campaigns, as entry is just the first step.

Although the freedoms of expression and assembly are enshrined in the constitution, these guarantees are frequently abridged by the state’s restrictions on political content and assembly. The State owns all advertisement billboards and charges exorbitantly for their use. In Cameroon, billboards are a crucial campaign apparatus because they are highly effective in their reach, providing impressionable alternatives in environments where television set ownership and electricity distribution is very limited. Furthermore, the government imposes restrictions in urban areas with regard to where campaign posters can be posted. Campaigning is a crucial aspect of any party competition. If some contestants are de facto blocked because they are not able to campaign freely, supporters of those groups may feel despondent and, thus, opt not to participate in the voting process. Schemes that induce low voter turnout reinforce existing patters of participation and favor incumbents.

Intimidation of political opponents mainly through kidnappings and arbitrary arrests by the state often occurs; well known cases are Jean Jacques Ekindi and Kah Walla, both who were presidential contenders. Generally, when people cannot make their views known or voices heard because civil rights —­ freedom of speech, assembly and press ­— are abridged, the information necessary to induce widespread voter participation is again diminished.

Although many apparatus exist that inhibit voter turnout, political patronage can encourage voter participation, although for the wrong reasons. A democratic process is not inclusive when it is embedded in socioeconomic arrangements that control resources needed for basic survival. Patronage politics is pervasive in Cameroon, which is regularly ranked as a highly corrupt country by Transparency International in its annual TCI index. Therefore, it is easy to understand how 50 years of patronage politics in the midst of economic vulnerabilities can force people to use voting as a means of accessing resources. The political parties understand this game; in West African parlance: “You vote for us, you eat; no vote, take your chances; wrong vote, no chop money”. In such a setting, votes count for something other than electing officials ­ food. However, one can argue that such an outcome, which may seem as hopeless at face value, has long run benefits because it carries the seeds of liberation. Over time, the strategy of selling votes for bread will backfire because it unwittingly provides incentives necessary to achieve broad voter participation ­one credible way to change the corrupt cycle.

In addition to poor voter turnout and patronage politics, the integrity of institutions, determined by laws and administrative arrangements that underpin the electoral process, are inherently flawed. ELECAM may not have been set up to deny Cameroonians a fair selection process for their elected representatives, but it certainly has enough loopholes to allow for abuse. There are at least three ways in which this key institution can be exploited by the government: (i) Membership appointments to the election board are made by the president of Cameroon, who can deliberately frustrate any member who refuses to protect his interest in the board. This is made possible by the fact that all remuneration and allowances for ELECAM board members are discretionarily determined by the President of Cameroon. Furthermore, should any ELECAM board member resign for whatever reason, the law allows the president to fill such vacancy without any consultation with political parties. (ii) Reassignment of civil servants to ELECAM on the request of the Director General can be another avenue for interfering with ELECAM’s autonomy, although ostensibly it can also be a source of strengthening ELECAM’s administrative capabilities. However, if this were to be the true intention, a clear strategy for stopping this practice when ELECAM stabilizes needs to be in place. (iii) Through the strategic supply of information, ELECAM autonomy is reduced by its close association with the Territorial Administrative Authority (MINATD). According to Section 40(2) of Law N° 2006/011 of 29 December 2006 establishing ELECAM, “The minister in charge of territorial administration shall ensure permanent liaison between government and Elections Cameroon… the latter shall submit copies of minutes and progress reports to him.” As the state security apparatus, MINTAD’s numerous functions include “drafting and implementation of rules and regulations relating to civil liberties, the monitoring of political organizations, religious movements, and public order maintenance together with specialised forces.” These powers make the Territorial Administrative Authority’s permanent liaison with the Electoral Commission a concern, as those powers could be abused to influence election outcomes. 

Through clever administrative arrangements in structure and process, the Government of Cameroon has morphed ELECAM into an instrument of political control over the democratic process. As section 40(2) of the enabling legislation shows, ELECAM is not structurally independent. Furthermore, those running the agency have no autonomy from powerful political parties. Their career incentives align with that of political leaders. For example, they hold a four-year term with an option to renew indefinitely, only at the behest of the president. However, a single term of the ELECAM chairperson does not span the term of a president, meaning the chairperson’s position is subject to the president’s discretionary appraisal. Additionally, the internal rules of the agency make it easy for the chairperson to rule all board decisions, which are determined by a simple majority vote. 

So, what can be done to reduce the anxiety over the integrity of the electoral process? First the electorate must make their voices heard—go out and vote on election day. As part of the government’s strategy of intimidating voters and inhibiting the free exchange of information, the Cameroon Minister for Communications has banned twitter as of February 2011 and threatened to block other social networking devices. By this panicky reaction to voter awareness, the government clearly signals its alarm at the implications of democratic consciousness and vigilance—vox populi. Therefore, continued vigilance over the activities of ELECAM and cognate agencies such as Territorial Administrative Authority (MINATD) is an important monitoring role, which also empowers the public.

Given the institutional set-up that confers decisive advantage to the incumbent president, it is unlikely that the election will be fair, resulting in the reelection of the incumbent. Assuming the 2011 race is a lost cause, what further steps can ensure future fair elections? Two issues must be addressed: The institutional deterrents to voter turnout and ELECAM reform. 

By ensuring its independence, the following recommendations will strengthen ELECAM and enable the agency to deliver fair future elections:

  • Establish ELECAM’s independence from the state: Decouple ELECAM from MINATD by repealing section 40(2) of Law Nº 2006/011 (ELECAM enabling legislation).
  • Amend the conditions of service for electoral commissioners: electoral commissioners should be appointed for an irrevocable term of service which should span, at minimum, the length of a single term of the presidency.
  • Amend the appointment process for electoral commissioners: Appointments to the electoral board due to resignations should follow the same process as with initial appointments, instead of presidential discretion as is currently the case.
  • Amend the span of ELECAM’s mandate: A revamped ELECAM should be entrusted with the entire electoral process including the declaration of results currently vested in the Constitutional Council.

These recommendations can improve the electoral process in Cameroon. However, the commitment to a credible reform must originate from the people, as it is not in the interest of an incumbent government to initiate reforms that dilute its stronghold on power.