Cameroon still paralyzed two years after riots

DOUALA, Cameroon — Two years after speculation on the price of staple foods stoked the fires of social unrest, the country remains both economically and socially stricken. Taking advice from Paris, Cameroon’s dictator Paul Biya has every intention of being his own successor.

“Dear Mr President, were you ever young? No, you must never have been, or you would listen to the fears of this country’s youth…” This quote is taken from an open letter addressed to Paul Biya in February 2010 by the Cameroonian writer Patrice Nganang in the United States, almost two years to the day since the repression (which left 100 to 200 people dead) of the so-called food riots, when clashes and demonstrations shook the entire country in a context of soaring staple food prices. Though he did not directly mention it in his letter, the author of Dog Days clearly had this anniversary in mind.

Paris pulls the strings

The riots of February 2008 had several causes, observes Samuel Mack-Kit, secretary-general of the Union of the Peoples of Cameroon (UPC, Union des populations du Cameroun, the oldest political party in sub-Saharan Africa after South Africa’s ANC), and all of them remain untreated. “The country was, and still is, economically stricken. A Canadian newspaper described Douala as the most expensive town in Africa. In addition, secondary education must be paid for and nothing even remotely resembling a social security system for healthcare exists. This situation is even more intolerable for the people because they know that the leaders of the regime are misappropriating millions, possibly billions of CFA francs. What happened at the beginning of 2008 was about young people expressing their frustration…,” he said.

To this one must add the political causes, involving manipulations of the constitution orchestrated by Biya in order to enable him to continue to succeed himself, which provoked outrage among the political class and the religious community (see comments made at the time by Cardinal Tumi in Douala).

Today President Biya is credited with the latest proposed amendment to the constitution, this time in order to create a vice presidency. “An idea suggested to him by Paris, which is concerned about the lack of an heir apparent”, continues Samuel Mack-Kit. “There are many of us here who still associate the French Government with the Cameroonian Government. The former wants to ensure that the departure of Biya, for whatever reason that might be, would not threaten French interests, which rule the roost.”

Early presidential elections

In its contact with the other opposition groups, the UPC maintains its long-held assertion that zero transparency is possible under the current electoral code. And the purely cosmetic solutions proposed by the government provide no solution. “All those who believe in the idea of a radical change designed to allow a peaceful change over of power should group together in order to force the government to accept a compromise electoral code – the creation of an independent national electoral commission (CENI). A large-scale popular movement aimed at changing the organization of the electoral process must be put in place. If we can encourage such a rallying of the people, even Paris would have to accept it, albeit grudgingly,” the UPC said.

Presidential elections are set for October 2011 but Cameroon has a curious tradition: the elections take place before or after but never on the date officially set.

According to Samuel Mack-Kit, “It is almost certain that the presidential elections will take place earlier than expected and happen this year. Possibly around May-June or in October. Paul Biya is in a hurry; he is even more determined to stay in power because doesn’t want to get caught up in the same kind of legal entanglements that befell the former Chadian leader Hissène Habré …”

Photo: A market in Douala, Cameroon. / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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