The Problem of Political Transitions in Africa: The Cameroon Question

Political transitions in francophone sub-Saharan Africa have consistently been problematic due in part to the fact that incumbent heads of state have been obsessed with retaining political power for life. For example, Omar Bongo (Gabon), Félix Houphouët Boigny (Côte d’Ivoire), Gnasssingbé Eyadéma (Togo) and Lansana Conté (Guinea) remained presidents of their respective countries until they died in office. Except in Gabon, where the death of President Bongo resulted in a peaceful transfer of power to his son, transitions in the other countries were accompanied by a significant level of political violence.

For example, in Togo, just hours after the death of President Gnassingbé Eyadéma, the military violated the constitutional provision requiring the Speaker of the Togolese National Assembly to take over power in the event of a vacancy in the presidency by appointing the late president’s son, Faure Gnassingbé, interim president. Faure later contested and won a highly controversial election later that year. An even more destabilizing scenario occurred in Guinea following the death of President Lansana Conté in 2008. Just a few hours after the announcement of the death of the president, the young soldier Moussa Camara seized power, dissolved the government, and suspended the constitution and all republican institutions. Guinea then plunged into deep political chaos for almost two years until the 2011 democratic elections.

Will Cameroon [1] be able to avoid the violent and contested transitions of these countries if current President Paul Biya, age 79 and in power since 1982, dies in office? In spite of his various public pronouncements that he would democratize Cameroon’s politics, Biya has twice (in 1996 and 2008) manipulated the constitution to allow him to prolong his term in office. Also, although Cameroon officially became a multiparty state in 1992, under Biya’s leadership the country has not conducted a presidential election in which the opposition has had a fair chance of defeating the incumbent. While the opposition bears some blame for its ineffectiveness, there is no question that Biya has used the power of incumbency as well as his control of various institutions such as the national media, the Supreme Court and the National Assembly to ensure his success at the polls. Thus, many observers believe that political transition in Cameroon is likely to result only when Biya dies or is removed from office by a military coup d’état. Each of these options, unfortunately, has extremely destabilizing consequences for Cameroon and the sub-region.

Given Cameroon’s current institutional arrangements, two major concerns regarding presidential succession exist. One of these concerns is legal and the other political. On the legal front, the Cameroon 2008 Constitution has a number of ambiguous provisions that could easily be exploited by opportunistic military officers. Take, for example, Article 6(4), which states, “Where the office of President of the Republic becomes vacant as a result of death, resignation or permanent incapacity duly ascertained by the Constitutional Council, the President of the Senate assumes function as interim president for a period not less than 20 (twenty) days and not more than 40 (forty) days, during which fresh presidential elections will be held, at which the interim president is not eligible to run.”

The problem here is that Cameroon has neither a Constitutional Council nor a Senate despite the fact that Article 6(4) has existed since 1996.

Later articles attempt to fill these voids: Article 67(3) stipulates, “[t]he National Assembly shall exercise full legislative power and enjoy all Parliamentary prerogatives until the Senate is set up,” while Article 67(4) states, “[t]he Supreme Court shall perform the duties of the Constitutional Council until the latter is set up.”

Yet, the nonexistence of the Senate and Constitutional Council does not play well for a country whose institutions lack legitimacy and where ethno-linguistic and regional tensions are rife. The distrust that the Cameroonian public has for the Supreme Court and the National Assembly increased significantly when the former failed to annul a glaringly flawed presidential vote in October 1992 and when the latter hastily amended the constitution in 2008 to allow Paul Biya to run for a third consecutive term as president. These concerns about the legitimacy of political institutions in Cameroon could encourage opportunistic military officers to declare a constitutional crisis in the event of a vacancy in the presidency and seize power. Such action could plunge the country into prolonged political violence as happened in Guinea.

On the other hand, the present latent struggles for capture of the presidency of Cameroon, notably between the Muslim-dominated North and the Christian-dominated South, coupled with secessionist threats by the minority English-speaking Southern Cameroons National Council (SCNC), which has been clamoring for independence from the rest of French-speaking Cameroon, add complexity to an already thorny political transition process.

The political transition process in Cameroon is further complicated by the absence of a validated country-wide electoral register. Following the controversial presidential elections of October 2011, the Cameroon government embarked on a reform of the electoral system, notably by dissolving the then-existing electoral register and replacing it with a biometric system. Yet Elections Cameroon (ELECAM)—the organ in charge of organizing elections in the country—recently claimed that it will take a minimum of one year to finalize the new biometric system for elections, which is why the tenure of legislators and municipal councilors scheduled to end in 2011 has been extended until late 2013. Given the current state of affairs, in the event of a vacancy in the presidency, and even if there is a peaceful transition to an interim president, Cameroon will face political crisis as a result of its inability to hold national elections within the short window stipulated by the constitution.

In many respects, political transition in Cameroon is too important to be allowed to go wrong given the wide-ranging implications that this transition might have for the entire Central Africa sub-region. First, Cameroon plays host to the central bank of the countries of the Central African Economic and Monetary Union (CEMAC). Second, Cameroon is a major exporter of food and energy to several neighboring countries, notably Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Central African Republic and Nigeria, which means that a political and eventual economic crisis in Cameroon would negatively impact these countries. Similarly, the Cameroonian port of Douala is the largest in the sub-region and serves Cameroon’s two resource-rich but land-locked neighbors, Central African Republic and Chad. Third, the war against terrorism and insecurity related to growing Islamic fundamentalism across central Africa would be much more difficult to manage if one of the few remaining politically stable countries in the region—Cameroon—also descends into political violence. It is important then, for the African Union and other global actors to take an interest in Cameroon’s transition and make certain that the process is undertaken democratically and peacefully.

To diffuse any eventual constitutional and political crisis in Cameroon, the Cameroon people should demand, first, that the government immediately provide the two institutions prescribed by the Constitution—the Senate and the Constitutional Council. In this light, the recent amendment of the constitution making it possible for senatorial elections to be held even without a complete country-wide electoral register is welcome. Second, the Cameroon people should intensify their demands for institutional reforms to provide the country with credible democratic institutions, namely, a truly independent electoral body and a constitution that effectively guarantees the rule of law and separation of powers. Such an institutional structure will ensure a peaceful transition and provide for the type of political stability that is critical for trade and economic growth not just in Cameroon but also in the sub-region. France and the United Kingdom—Cameroon’s historical and traditional benefactors—and the United Nations, should support the efforts of Cameroonians to force their government to effect the necessary reforms.

[1] Note that the polity that is Cameroon today is not strictly a francophone country. Today’s Cameroon is made up of the former UN Trust Territory of Cameroons under French administration which gained independence on January 1, 1960 and took the name République du Cameroun (Republic of Cameroon) and the former UN Trust Territory of Southern Cameroons under British administration which gained independence in 1961. Although the country’s present governance institutions are influenced significantly by the French constitutional model, which the République du Cameroun adopted when it gained independence in 1960, the country’s British institutional heritage remains strong and quite relevant.