Cameroon: Elections Raise Prospect of Further Ruling-party Dominance

With a boycotting opposition and low expected turnout in conflict-affected Anglophone regions, Cameroon’s ruling party should win big in forthcoming elections. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Arrey Ntui explains why that result means dialogue about the country’s crises will have to happen outside parliament.

How are Cameroon’s elections likely to unfold?

In November 2019, President Paul Biya called elections for Cameroon’s National Assembly and local councils, to be held on 9 February. The elections should have been held in 2018, when these bodies’ five-year terms came to a close, but the government has put them off twice. In 2018, the government argued that it was logistically impossible to hold them at the same time as the presidential polls that year, and in 2019 it cited a tense political and security atmosphere, including in Anglophone areas, as justification for further delay. Now Biya is moving ahead with the vote, however, perhaps in order to keep up appearances after the national dialogue held in September and October 2019 (discussed below) failed to bring an end to the Cameroonian government’s conflict with Anglophone separatists. That conflict has claimed roughly 3,000 lives and displaced more than 700,000 people since 2017.

Conditions for the legislative and municipal elections are hardly ideal. Residents in Anglophone areas are unlikely to vote in significant numbers, given both the ongoing violence on the ground and their view that the government lacks legitimacy. Although the government has assured Anglophones that they will be able to cast ballots, and has deployed troops and clustered polling centres to better secure them, voters will still be unable to travel safely on election day. At the same time, separatists have stepped up attacks on election offices, contributing to a general sense of insecurity.

The Kamto-led boycott may be more important for the message it sends than for its impact on the polls.

Other developments are also undermining the elections’ legitimacy. Maurice Kamto, leader of the opposition Cameroon Renaissance Movement (known by its French acronym, MRC), has withdrawn his party’s slate and is now calling for a boycott of the vote. Kamto – who was runner-up to President Biya in 2018, an election he later claimed to have won, and was then jailed without charge for the first eight months of 2019 – argues that credible polls require electoral reforms the government has yet to make. These would include meaningful measures to prevent fraud and ensure that the national electoral commission is fully independent. Although he is French-speaking himself, Kamto also takes the position that moving forward with elections while Anglophones are unable to vote would strengthen separatist arguments that the country’s institutions represent only Francophones and a small, co-opted English-speaking elite. Finally, Kamto has recently suggested that he withdrew the MRC from the polls after its candidates were blocked from competing in various races by allies of the ruling party. (There have been similar reports about candidates from other parties.)

The Kamto-led boycott may be more important for the message it sends than for its impact on the polls. While the MRC leader’s move may appear to play into the hands of separatists who also call for a boycott, it is unlikely to affect the vote in Anglophone regions, in part because participation is already expected to be so low. Even in 2018, when Kamto was on the ballot, only some 5 per cent and 16 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot in the Anglophone North West and South West regions, respectively, due to the violence.

But whether or not the boycott has much impact on vote tallies, low Anglophone turnout is expected to hand the ruling Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (CPDM) a sweeping victory. The CPDM is the only party standing for all 180 National Assembly seats, and it is running unchallenged in about 20 per cent of these races. Consistent with Kamto’s complaints about impediments faced by MRC candidates, reports suggest that officials close to the ruling party have worked to ensure that many members of the 42 other opposition parties participating in the polls are unable to register as candidates, which skews the playing field further.

How is the biggest opposition party in parliament reacting?

The Social Democratic Front (SDF), whose electoral heartland has long included many parts of the Anglophone regions and which is currently the largest parliamentary opposition party (holding eighteen seats), officially opposes the boycott. But some SDF officials increasingly question whether that is the right position, given mounting pressure from Anglophone citizens who are turning against the party, saying it is too timid in furthering the Anglophone cause.

Moreover, even though the SDF is not participating in the boycott, its election prospects are poor. The party’s longstanding support for resolving the Anglophone crisis through federalism – rather than the creation of a new state – has been criticised by separatists, who have intimidated many SDF candidates for local councils, over a hundred of whom have decided to withdraw. The SDF cannot campaign even in some constituencies in its Anglophone strongholds because its candidates fear they may be attacked. These are not idle concerns: separatists have twice abducted the SDF’s leader John Fru Ndi, himself an Anglophone. Unable to travel to Anglophone areas because he fears for his own safety, he is now based in the capital, Yaoundé.

How has the Anglophone crisis played out since the national dialogue, and how is it affecting political dynamics?

The government-controlled national dialogue, which commenced in Yaoundé at the end of September 2019, has done little to prevent the Anglophone crisis from deepening. Separatists, most of whose leaders are based outside the country or are in prison in Yaoundé, took no part in the conference, which they viewed as a government ploy to deflect international criticism. Even those Anglophones who seek a federalist solution rather than their own state, and who largely eschew violence, were given little room to present their views. For example, the government offered participants no chance to discuss the recommendations that Prime Minister Joseph Ngute, who convened the dialogue, transmitted to President Biya. These included a recommendation to confer “special status” on the Anglophone South West and North West regions under the decentralisation provisions of the 1996 constitution.

As it stands, even the “special status” recommendation – which parliament approved in December and which President Biya has touted as a working solution to the crisis – seems destined to have limited impact. The new status would, on paper, provide for the central government in Yaoundé to consult Anglophone regional assemblies concerning decisions about the formulation of educational policy and the application of common law in their regions. But the provisions lack details on what kind of consultation is required or how the measures would be implemented, leaving many Anglophones frustrated, and bolstering the separatist narrative that division of the country is the only solution to English speakers’ marginalisation.

How are security risks evolving in the run-up to elections?

Violence in Anglophone areas has continued unabated. As noted above, the government has deployed additional troops to the Anglophone regions and tried to assure citizens there that they will be able to vote, including by sending teams of ruling-party campaign officials to engage with voters in some areas. But even these teams had to be guarded by heavily armed special forces, undermining the government’s narrative that peaceful polls are in the offing. While authorities have decided to group voting centres together to provide better security, this step does not address the question of how voters will travel safely on voting day. Separatists have accompanied their attacks on election offices with declarations of a “lockdown” – a tactic they use frequently, which consists of stopping all movement on roads and confining people to their homes – for the election period. As before the 2018 elections, thousands of civilians have fled Anglophone areas in the months leading up to the vote – into the bush, to Cameroon’s Francophone regions or to Nigeria.

Ethnic tensions have also risen in other parts of the country as the political crisis has deepened. In April and again in October 2019, tensions spilled over into minor clashes involving people of the Bulu ethnic group (to which Biya belongs), the Bamileke group (to which Kamto belongs) and others in the South and Centre regions. In Sangmelima in the South region , for instance, local Bulu attacked businesses belonging to Bamouns and Bamilekes, hundreds of whom fled the area. The violence did not directly result from an electoral or party dispute but appeared to be part of a pattern of intolerant rhetoric traded between the ethnic groups of rival political leaders, playing out in social media and, in some areas, on the street. On 30 January, a senior government minister, speaking on national television to victims of communal tensions in the Centre region, warned that violence might intensify unless action was taken to calm things down.

What are the implications for the country’s overall crisis?

An overwhelming CPDM victory in the forthcoming elections – which, as noted, seems to be a nearly foregone conclusion – will further bias the character of state institutions toward the views of a single party and seems bound to reduce prospects for frank discussions about resolving the Anglophone conflict and other brewing crises. The ruling party already dominates the upper house of parliament, the Senate, where it holds 87 of 100 seats. The 9 February elections are only for the lower house – the National Assembly – where the CPDM already holds 148 of 180 seats. That majority is likely to become even more lopsided.

Although the National Assembly usually complies with the government’s wishes on national issues, some deputies have expressed concerns about the situation in Anglophone regions and the SDF has tried (albeit unsuccessfully) to push for a full parliamentary debate on the crisis. Further ruling-party dominance risks muting the handful of voices that have been willing to challenge government positions on these issues.

The best approach for lowering tensions likely lies in dialogue outside parliament.

The best approach for lowering tensions likely lies in dialogue outside parliament. The CPDM and the major opposition parties – both the MRC and the SDF – need to talk about how to defuse the dangerous intercommunal dynamics that have become more pronounced over the past year. They should focus on how to contain the rising risk of political divisions and ethnic tensions fuelling each other in an escalatory spiral. As for the Anglophone crisis, a good next step would be for the government to have meaningful consultations with Anglophone representatives (beyond pro-government elites in Yaoundé) about the content of any political settlement – something it should have done in the context of the national dialogue – with the understanding that any durable arrangement will need to give sufficient weight to these perspectives.