Biya clings on in Cameroon

The Cameroon National Assembly has adopted a government proposal to amend the country’s Constitution—a move that paves the way for incumbent President Paul Biya to continue in office when his term expires in 2011.

Six of the 70 articles that make up Cameroon’s Constitution were modified on April 10 by a vote of 157 in the 180-member legislature. The amendments introduced three major changes to the Constitution.

First, the two-term limit enshrined in the 1996 Constitution has been removed. This means that Biya, who has ruled Cameroon since November 1982 and whose second seven-year term is scheduled to end in 2011, is now eligible to run for office indefinitely.

Second, the president now cannot be prosecuted for any act performed in the exercise of his duties.

Finally, with regard to presidential succession, the Constitution now states that if the president is unable to perform his duties or the office otherwise becomes vacant, the president of the senate will serve as interim president of the republic and elections will be organised within 40 to 120 days.

But the senate exists only on paper. Since the creation of a bicameral legislature 12 years ago, senate elections have not been held, thereby allowing Cameroon to continue as a de facto unicameral state, with the National Assembly the country’s only legislative body.

The constitutional changes were rammed through the national assembly by the government, which has a big majority in the assembly. All but one of the ruling Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (CPDM) MPs voted in favour of the Bill, while another five dissenting votes were cast by MPs of the opposition Cameroon Democratic Union party. All 18 MPs of the main opposition party—the Social Democratic Front (SDF)—staged a walkout from Parliament to protest against the Bill, the adoption of which the party described as “the death of democracy in Cameroon”.

Reactions

The SDF, which is known for its recourse to street protests, simply called for last Monday to be observed as a “day of national mourning”, during which Cameroonians were urged to dress in black and stay at home.

The opposition’s largely symbolic reaction to the constitutional amendments is widely seen as a tacit admission by the country’s political elite that Cameroonians may be weary of demonstrations and civil disobedience, by which the president appears utterly unmoved. In February a heavy-handed crackdown on massive street protests against rising food and fuel prices resulted in 40 deaths and hundreds of arrests.

Heavily armed soldiers and police were deployed in the major cities ahead of the national assembly vote and this week continued to patrol the streets, particularly in the main towns of Yaoundé and Douala. Despite fierce criticism of the constitutional changes by civil society and the private press, the mood in Cameroon is one of resignation, as most people seem too busy struggling to cope with their dwindling purchasing power—the result of a weakening economy, stagnant wages, rising prices of fuel and basic consumer goods and high unemployment.

The government has strongly defended the constitutional changes. In an interview with the BBC last week Prime Minister Ephraim Inoni described presidential term limits as “anti-­democratic”, arguing that such a restriction denied the people the right to freely choose their leaders.

The lone dissenting vote within the ruling party was cast by Ayah Paul Abine (57), an MP and retired magistrate who, like the prime minister, hails from the minority anglophone South West province. He said that the amendments “take Cameroon 200 years behind”.

Zimbabwe parallel

The timing of the constitutional changes allowed critics to draw parallels between the situation in Cameroon and democratic setbacks elsewhere on the continent. On April 7 the French-language independent daily, Mutation, compared Cameroon with Zimbabwe and regretted the egotism of African leaders who would do anything to stay in power forever. In a caustic op-ed piece editor-in-chief Alain Batongue described the constitutional changes as tailor-made to meet Biya’s needs—namely, more years in office and a worry-free life thereafter.

Since gaining independence from France and Britain 48 years ago, Cameroon has been ruled by two presidents. Biya succeeded his predecessor and mentor, Ahmadou Ahidjo, in a peaceful hand­over in 1982. He survived a bloody coup attempt in 1984 and opened the country up to multiparty politics in the early 1990s. Supporters credit him with the stability this multi-ethnic Central African country of 20million people continues to enjoy, while critics worry that he has in the past decade strengthened his grip on power and reversed the democratic gains of the 1990s.

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