The latest report from the International Crisis Group, examines Cameroon’s situation after 28 years under President Paul Biya. The ruling party is weakened by intense internal rivalries over control of resources and positioning for the post-Biya period. Having done away with the constitutional limitation on the number of presidential terms, Biya, who is at the same time feared and opposed within his own party, is deliberately maintaining uncertainty over whether he will stand again. It is likely that he will wish to stay in power indefinitely. His eventual demise could trigger a major crisis.
This may still be some way off, but, says Richard Moncrieff, Crisis Group’s West Africa Project Director, “the 2011 elections could easily lead to conflict if they are poorly organised or lack transparency. The organising body has no legitimacy and has already made a bad start in the preparations”.
The security forces, a pillar of support for the regime, are also divided. A small number of elite units have good equipment and training, while the rest lack resources. The military as a whole suffers from tensions between generations, not least because the refusal of older generals to retire blocks promotions for more junior officers. Some members of the security forces are also widely believed to be involved in criminal activities.
Constitutional and legal uncertainty; rivalries between the regime’s leading figures; the government’s attempts to control the electoral process; the rupture of the political contract between leaders and the population; widespread poverty and frustration; extensive corruption; and the frustration of a large part of the army all point to the possibility of a major crisis. To escape this, Biya and his government must restore the independence of the body responsible for elections; institutionalise an impartial fight against corruption and ensure the military’s political neutrality. Cameroon’s most influential partners, particularly France and the U.S., should actively support such measures to avoid unrest.
The long Biya era, his manipulation of ethnic identities and the corruption and criminality among elites have generated numerous frustrations. The serious unrest of 2008, when economic grievances, political protest and elite manipulation resulted in dozens of deaths, gives an indication of the risks of violent conflict. A chaotic situation could lead to a military takeover and would certainly have detrimental effects on the region. If there is no option for democratic political change, there is a good chance ordinary citizens, members of the political class and/or military elements will eventually choose violence as a way out of the current impasse.
“In the medium term, Cameroon faces numerous challenges to improve management of public resources, an issue which lies at the heart of its problems”, says Donald Steinberg, Crisis Group’s Deputy President (Policy). “But in the shorter term, urgent actions need to be taken to avoid a crisis around the 2011 elections”.
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