Cameroon's longtime strongman seeks another term

AP News
Posted: Oct 08, 2011 11:44 AM
Cameroon's longtime strongman seeks another term

Cameroon votes Sunday in a presidential election widely expected to take the Central African nation's longtime leader into his fourth decade in power amid rumblings of civil unrest.

A disjointed opposition, an aloof electorate and a ballot bursting with a record 23 candidates for a single-round poll make victory for the incumbent, Paul Biya, a foregone conclusion.

"The election will not change anything. Cameroon's future lies on the shoulders of Paul Biya. So long as he does not leave power, voting does not mean anything," said Douala resident Jacques Simo.

Biya's key challenger is Ni John Fru Ndi, who he has faced before and who runs the lead opposition party. Biya swept the last election in 2004 with a landslide 70 percent of ballots. Fru Ndi followed with a mere 17 percent.

Food and living costs continue to spiral in Cameroon, and unemployment has reached a crushing 60 percent, according to government statistics. However, Cameroonians say they have little taste for revolution as the election approaches.

"We know that we need change," said Douala resident Maureen Ndi. "The change is going to come, but do we need that change through the use of force or war? No. The incumbent, even if he still wins, he will not be there forever."

Rallies organized in the largest city, Douala, have attracted only handfuls of people, and candidates have instead taken their campaigns to markets and public places to try to reach the country's 7.5 million registered voters.

One of Africa's remaining strongmen, Biya has won every election since he was bequeathed power in 1982 by what was then the country's only political party. Since then, he has introduced modest democratic reforms, allowing multiple political blocs and some increased personal freedoms.

Taciturn and adept at outmaneuvering political opponents, Biya maintains a tight grip on power. He has also kept a lid on simmering ethnic, linguistic and religious rifts in Cameroon, no small feat in a neighborhood of Africa dominated by civil conflict and armed rebellion, analysts say.

Biya has been largely absent from the campaign trail, though giant posters with his image and slogan, "The People's Choice," dominate major highways and urban areas.

He has pledged to continue the realization of small and large-scale infrastructure projects begun last year, including a Chinese-financed deep sea water port and hydroelectric dam.

"We have regained our level of growth before the (global financial) crisis and resumed our march forward," Biya told supporters in Douala.

In 1992, Biya won Cameroon's first-ever multiparty presidential elections, but the ballot was internationally denounced as fraudulent.

The opposition this year has denounced alleged irregularities on the voter lists and difficulties obtaining voter cards nationwide. Fru Ndi has alluded to "Arab Spring"-like protests if the elections are not free and fair.

"We are calling on Cameroonians to take their responsibility in their hands because in other countries, the people have taken their responsibilities and they've changed their country," Fru Ndi said on a nationwide campaign tour.

Since last year, Cameroon has grappled with a nationwide cholera epidemic that has sickened thousands and killed hundreds, as most of the country's 20 million people do not have access to safe drinking water and sanitation, aid workers say.

"People are completely fed up with politics. They devote the last remaining energy they still have on the quest for survival," said Achille Mbembe, a Cameroonian-born history professor at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

Still, tensions have flared in the run-up to the vote. Ten days before the poll, unidentified gunmen in military fatigues blockaded a bridge in Douala and fired live rounds, while brandishing signs calling on Biya to step down.

Just two days later, police arrested 126 protesters seeking independence for the country's English-speaking regions. Activists have urged residents of those western regions to boycott the poll.

"Immediate resistance appears to be the only alternative. Moves for the liberation of Cameroon will begin without any prior warning and all must be prepared," said longtime Biya critic and head of the National Resistance Council, Chief Mila Asoute, in a statement dated September 23.

In the run-up to the vote, anxious residents of the capital, Yaounde, are thronging to the steamy Mokolo market to get supplies.

"There is too much tension. The future doesn't look bright at all for these elections," said 47-year-old Suzanne Ekobo as she stocked up on food and other necessities. The International Crisis Group expressed concern that public frustration with the government could spark election-related violence in Cameroon.

The government has deployed additional security forces nationwide ahead of the vote.

"I trust the Cameroonian people will show faith in their future and not run the risk of misadventure," Biya said Thursday at a campaign rally in Douala, an opposition stronghold.

The American embassy in Cameroon has warned of "heightened political tensions" during the electoral period.

"In the past, some demonstrations have turned violent and there have been severe crackdowns by Cameroonian security forces," the embassy said in a statement on its website.

In 2008, Biya eliminated term limits from the constitution to pave the way for his re-election bid, fueling already raging riots over soaring food prices that killed at least 40 people.

"It's economic rather than political factors which are the key driver of unrest in Cameroon," said Roland Barclay, West Africa analyst for consultancy Control Risks. "There are certainly a lot of grievances but I don't think that is going to lead to an outbreak of national unrest. It will however lead to localized protests which have the potential to turn violent."

The government has taken measures, albeit "piecemeal and unsustainable," to head off tensions, including putting subsidies on common foodstuffs and fuel and launching a recruitment drive to hire 25,000 youth into the public sector, Barclay said.


Associated Press writers Divine Ntaryike in Douala, Cameroon, and Anne Look in Dakar, Senegal contributed to this report.