Fanning winds of change

CAMEROONIAN President Paul Biya casts his ballot with his wife Chantal watching at a polling station during the presidential election in Yaoundé last week. Zohra Bensemra Reuters

Cameroon, with its appalling governance, rampant corruption and a dominant leader who spreads development only to himself, allies and favoured ethnic groups, risks a breakaway of regions which have been marginalised by central government.

Paul Biya, the 85-year old president of Cameroon, nicknamed “The Spinx”, is Africa’s second longest ruling dictator, has been in power for 36 years, and stood for elections in last Sunday’s presidential elections.

Opposition parties and leaders have approached the country’s Constitutional Court to cancel the outcome of the 7 October 2018 presidential elections. Opposition candidates have lodged applications calling for the cancellation of the results alleging widespread rigging, intimidation and threats opposition supporters.

The presidential elections saw the phenomenon of “ghost observers”, individuals masquerading as observers, declaring the voting free and fair. The country’s state broadcaster, Cameroon Radio and Television (CRTV), which is firmly controlled by Biya, days after the elections ran a report alleging that elections observers from Transparency International have endorsed the fairness of the election. Transparency International denied having sent observers.

The CRTV gave blanket coverage to Biya’s campaign. Biya has very little to offer in terms of fresh energy, development ideas and dynamic leadership in a country where 60% of the population are young. About 75% of the Cameroon population has during their entire life only experienced Biya as their country president.

The Biya government has cobbled together a Strategic Document for Growth and Employment which hopes that successive 10-year plans would reach middle income status, “to a socially acceptable level”, reduce poverty, become an industrialised country and strengthen democracy and national unity. The strategy calls for growth to be raised to 5.5% between 2010 and 2020; informal employment to be reduced by 50% by 2020 and monetary poverty to be reduced from 40% to 29% in 2020.

Implementation of the strategy has fallen short. The International Monetary Fund estimated a 3.7% growth rate for 2017. The IMF in 2016 approved a US$666m, three-year extended credit facility to Cameroon. Statistics from the country’s third national household survey showed that 7million people live below the poverty line. The International Labour Organisation estimated Cameroon has a 30% unemployment rate, but that 75% of the population is underemployed.

The state is the largest formal employer. Only 4 percent of people are employed in the private sector. The informal sector, which is includes subsistence agriculture employs 90% of the population. Over a third of the population is illiterate. There has been little infrastructure development since independence from colonialism, beyond vanity projects for the president.

Cameroon has vast unexplored mineral deposits, including oil, gas and iron ore. It produces agriculture products such as coffee, cotton and cassava. Oil exports are the country’s biggest income earner. It has made the mining industry as a priority to develop. However, the government has typically, like most African countries, have no industrialization strategy which clearly shows how it will add value to oil and gas exports, and how it will diversify its exports mix more broadly and how it will develop integrated infrastructure.

The government will have to make it compulsory that mining investors develop integrated infrastructure, including transport infrastructure, build industry relevant higher education institutions for the local economy and transfer business skills. Furthermore, the government will have to develop subsistence agriculture to upscale to produce a diversified mix of products for home and exports markets.

It must also develop a manufacturing sector aligned to agriculture and with the new mining envisaged activities – which would produce the inputs to both. It must also support and expand small businesses to provide services and products for local use. This will mean that government must ensure cheaper finance to subsistence farmers, small business and small manufacturers; and new industry relevant technical training institutions.

High levels of corruption undermine development. Last year Cameroon Transparency International’s Corruption Index showed that Cameroon is the world’s 28th most corrupt country.

The country is deeply patriarchal.  Customary law is the real law in most rural areas. Although officially disallowed practices such as child marriages, breast ironing and lack of pensions of for widows continues. Cameroon needs gender equality quotes for women, young people and disabled in politics, government, business and government.

Cameroon has a mushrooming civil society sector. One of these is the Dynamic Citizen (Dynamique Citoyenne) which monitors the implementation of public policies, fight corruption and pushes for good governance. The Biya have on a number of occasions arrested Dynamic Citizen activists.

Cameroon is divided into eight French-speaking regions and two Anglophone speaking regions. Poor governance, corruption and not spreading development widely have sparked secession calls in Cameroon from the Anglophone regions feeling excluded.

Teachers and lawyers in English-speaking regions have taken to the streets to protests the imposition of French-only schools and courts in the region. His autocratic leadership is one of the main reasons for the secessionist calls, and also for the rise of Boko Haram Islamist extremist in the country.

He is nicknamed “President of the Hotel Intercontinental” because of his extended stays at the Geneva five-star hotel. In March 2018, he held his first Cabinet meet since 2015. He travels with 50 staff members at any one time.

Cameroon’s notoriously fractious opposition parties must form a coalition and work closer. Cameroon needs a two-state federation to accommodate the English-speaking regions, more inclusive development and more democratic government, or face continued instability, violence and secession threats.

The government must immediately stop banning and arresting civil society and opposition activists.  It must also release those in imprisoned for opposing Biya’s leadership and others who have been arrested for fighting for the rights of Anglophone speakers. The government must also give an amnesty to government opponents who fled into exile.

For the long-term prosperity of the country, Biya needs to stand down, and allow for younger, fresher, more democratic leaders. Whoever governs Cameroon, must do so more inclusively, accountably and prudent.

William Gumede is Chairperson, Democracy Works Foundation (, and author of South Africa in BRICS (Tafelberg)