Church vows to exorcise ‘demons of electoral fraud’

As candidates in Cameroon square up to each other for presidential elections in October, the Catholic Church is doing its best to ensure that the poll will not be an occasion for “politics as usual” in the West African country.

“We’re going to shine a spotlight on the need for free and transparent elections in order to catch the attention of political decision makers, especially those in power [at present]. No one should be able to say to the winner that he stole the election,” Joseph Tonye Bakot, the Archbishop of Cameroon’s capital, Yaounde, told the press recently.

Since the return of multiparty politics to Cameroon in 1991, there have been serious irregularities in the elections (one municipal and legislative, two presidential) that have been held in the country.

According to several NGOs that monitored the polls, vote-rigging tactics included the use of fictitious voter lists, secret polling booths, stuffed ballot boxes and false voter registration cards.

While courts have acknowledged the occurrence of improprieties, their statements have only recently been matched with efforts to correct the wrongdoing.

In April this year, the Supreme Court ruled that elections should be re-held in six council areas in Cameroon to rectify irregularities from the joint municipal and legislative election held in June 2002. (The country has 336 councils in all — and results were disputed in 17 of these.)

This decision upheld an earlier ruling by an administrative judge in September 2002. The 2002 poll was won by the Democratic Union of the People of Cameroon — formerly the National Union of Cameroon, which governed the country before the return of pluralism.

Pressure from civil society, opposition parties and foreign governments are all said to have played a role in bolstering the courts’ new-found confidence in taking action against electoral fraud. The head of state, Paul Biya — who won presidential elections in 1992 and 1996, and who has been in power since 1982 — also appears less inclined to interfere in the affairs of the judiciary.

Nonetheless, the fears of vote rigging sparked by previous events are not easily allayed, and the Catholic Church is pressing ahead with its campaign to prevent further instances of fraud come October.

“That’s why the church, which is concerned with preserving the civil peace, intends to involve itself more fully in the electoral process,” said Titi Nwel, coordinator for Catholic NGO Justice and Peace in Cameroon.

Speaking in a telephone interview, he said the church will “train electoral observers who will monitor the conduct of the elections”, as there had previously been “a lack of truly neutral observers in the Cameroonian election process”.

Nwel said the church will also “hold information, awareness, and educational sessions prior to the elections about the ways polls have been fixed”.

Fears about the efficiency of election observers — even those from abroad — appear to be widespread.

“The problem with foreign observers is that they don’t spread out enough in the back country where cheating takes place in plain view. For those among them who fall into the government’s trap of letting themselves be wined and dined during their stay here, they quickly become very biased. They become apologists for the government,” said Alain Didier Olinga, a professor at the Institute of International Relations of Cameroon.

In the face of the church’s campaign, Cameroon’s electoral commission — the National Election Observatory (Onel), created in 2000 — is doing its best to convince citizens that it has the best interests of the country at heart.

Onel vice-president Diana Acha Mofor said: “We are sworn to [uphold] transparency and equity … I understand that some compatriots think that cheating, which used to be the norm in elections, will recur. But, they must trust Onel to be the guardian of transparency.”

Although Cameroon is a secular state, the church exerts some influence in all 10 of the country’s provinces through its network of schools, training centres and a Catholic university. (Statistics on the number of people who are Christian — and Catholic — are hard to come by.)

Nonetheless, certain observers remain sceptical of the church’s power to affect political events in Cameroon.

“The functionaries, who are in charge of the electoral process, are mainly interested in their career profiles. They’re ready to provide complete satisfaction to the person who appointed them,” says Emmanuel Akika, a professor in the faculty of letters, arts and social sciences at Yaounde I University.

“The church knows that it can’t prevent police chiefs and assistant police chiefs from cheating.”

Akika adds: “The church knows quite well that politicians, from the party in power as well as in the opposition, will never renounce cheating in elections — even if it strongly believes that the foundation of peace and justice in this country depends on the ballot box.”

As a result, some are more willing to put their faith in the powers of digital technology than the moral sway of religion. They hope the proposed computerisation of certain aspects of the electoral process — the overhauling of the voters’ roll, for example — will limit opportunities for fraud.

“Computerisation would bring important improvements in costs and data reliability,” says Alain Nkoyock, an information technology expert at the Yaounde office of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa.

However, the Senior Minister for Territorial Administration and Decentralisation, Marafa Hamidou Yaya, warned after a recent tour of the provinces that putting such a system in place might be too expensive. The cost of the system is put at about $14,8-million. This exceeds the $11-million spent on the entire presidential election in 1997.

For Frederic Onguene, a priest in Melen, a suburb of Yaounde, computerisation is a false god.

“The demons of electoral fraud will have to be exorcised by prayer and continuous reminders to potential candidates,” he said. — IPS

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