On the 9th of October last, Cameroonians took part in presidential elections to determine the next leader of the central-West African Republic. While some two weeks are needed to be sure of the result, all signs point to Paul Biya, the incumbent, keeping his post for another seven years. Leader of Cameroun for close to thirty years, since his rise to power in 1982, Paul Biya has cemented himself as the focus of all political power in the country. He has ruled the country through the ‘lost decade’ of African development, but has also weathered the changes brought by democratization in the following decade.
In many senses he is a leftover from another era, in which single party states and quasi-authoritarian rule were the norm rather than the exception. All signs point to this trend continuing for the next seven years, even as opposition groups and candidates, such as opposition favorite Edith Kabbang Walla (see above video; she is known to her supporters as Kah Walla) are maintaining that voting was heavily tampered with.
Le roi est mort, vive le Président !
However in many ways Paul Biya is part of a current trend of keeping the same leader from the authoritarian period of African history well into the 21st Century. This is evident in certain other countries and is evidence of a sort of political tradition: ‘façade democracy’. Authoritarianism has dressed itself up in democracy’s clothes, donning trappings such as elections, pseudo-freedom of expression and free open societies, all to hide the only too painful reality; that the people are not really in control of their destiny, nor are they being given the chance to become subjects in their own countries.
Cameroun, Burkina Faso and Guinea are three prime examples of this trend. The dictatorships of old have given way to something much more subtle. Guinea’s Lasana Conté took power through a coup d’état in 1984 and ruled until his death in 2008. Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaoré also took power in a coup, in 1987, and like Paul Biya, is still in office today. The three rulers in question were (and are) masters at using the carrot-and-stick approach to politics; banking on political stability and even on compromise, their main goal was to stay in power as long as possible. The transition to a multi-party democratic system in the early 1990s was therefore more a question of using the right political spin and influence, of trying to co-opt and control new institutions.
Stability, extreme action and institutional control
Looking a little further in Cameroun’s case provides more insight into these regimes meant to look like democracies, but not act like them. Recently, a very telling 'tweet' surfaced regarding the cameroonian elections: “The Biya regime has simply attempted to introduce the trappings of democracy without embracing the spirit”. Indeed, Biya seems to have followed three main strategies to maintain his power and influence.
The first is a focus on stability in the country. Biya has made of this concept his primary political strategy, in a regional environment not overly prone to stability. Political reform has ground to a halt, and the government has become nothing more than a large bureaucratic body, one of the country’s main employers and a machine to keep the protesters out of the streets. Moving slowly but surely is a strategy that has paid off, as it was able to stave off violent change or contestation of power. Related to this are certain trappings of democracy, freedoms and rights that can look like genuine progress in the country. Freedom of expression, freedom of the press and multipartism are a few examples one can readily find in Cameroun. The promise of prosperity is also an important factor. In the leadup to the election, Biya unveiled his plan to turn Cameroun into a 'construction site', filled with building and development projects that would ensure the country's economic prosperity.
Behind this veil however lies the real problem; the second strategy is one of swift repression and violence to exercise control over any movement that threatens political power’s monopoly. Guinea’s Conté suspended all rights and declared martial law in 2007, during nation-wide riots against the high cost of living. Biya has followed suit when necessary, having repressed similar riots just one year later. He has also survived a putsch to get him out of office in 1984, and in the early 1990s reacted to attempts at nationwide strikes by declaring martial law, establishing ‘operational military commands’, military units whose orders were to ‘pacify the public’, usually through summary arrests and beatings. All the trappings of order and democratic rule fade in an instant and the state springs to action to restore the status quo.
Of course these extreme actions are few and far in between, since the executive has created a legal and institutional framework propitious to its remaining in power. Biya did not hesitate in 1998 to change the constitution to make himself eligible for more terms in office. Furthermore, the elections are based on a single round of voting, which means that as long as the opposition is kept sufficiently divided, the incumbent can win elections without too much effort. It is the case of the 1992 Cameroonian elections, in which Biya was declared the winner, despite having garnered only some 40% of the vote. In these 2011 presidential elections the opposition fielded a total of 22 candiates. Incidentally the electoral oversight body, ELECAM, is entirely appointed by the incumbent president.
Beyond the ballot-box
Shortly put this Cameroonian election, while not yet over and not necessarily decided in advance, has become yet another notch in the Biya government’s façade democracy, one more story in the tragedy of African governance. Samuel Huntington’s ‘Third Wave’ of democracy affected the African continent in an unusual way. On one hand very real progress has been made in twenty years. Democracy and multipartism have given countless people a say in their own destiny, and certain examples of commendable governance stand out over the years. On the other hand, in many cases the transition to democracy is more the story of a compromise and cover-up, of rulers working to keep the real freedom and the real change from their people.
Simply because a state was once authoritarian but now has elections does not mean that it is moving towards democracy. Noticing the presence of the ballot box is as important as noticing who placed it there, and under what circumstances. Major donors, including the United States, would do well to take more notice of this and not simply content themselves with releasing official statements hoping for ‘free and fair elections’. While the situation on the ground in Cameroun is doubtlessly more complex, these elections should serve as a reminder to all of the danger of appearances.