As Cameroon witnesses the dying embers of the embattled Biya regime, questions abound about what the future holds for the Central African country. Beset by a violent separatist conflict in the Anglophone regions and the omnipresent scourge, Boko Haram, in the North, that Cameroon faces significant challenges ahead is an understatement. Yet slowly and very carefully, the potential for a more democratic future is emerging from conversations between leading Cameroonians.
President Paul Biya has effectively ruled Cameroon since 1982, with questionable elections returning him as President as recently as 2018. Biya, now a sprightly 87, will be a venerable 92 when his seventh term ends, and his health remains a popular topic amongst Cameroonians both at home and in the diaspora. Extended stays in Geneva and regular disappearances from the public eye have only furthered these discussions. Biya’s absence was particularly conspicuous this year at the start of the Coronavirus pandemic- even his reappearance at a meeting with French Ambassador Christophe Guilhou did little to stop them. Biya is apparently back at the helm now, but questions about his health abound. There is now a growing inevitability about the end of the Biya regime. Nobody lives forever, and Cameroonian eyes are starting to turn toward the future. Who will succeed Biya? What does the Cameroon of the future look like? More simply- what comes next?
Whilst Biya’s Cameroon Peoples Democratic Movement (CPDM) party may retain an overwhelming majority (139/180 seats) in the National Assembly, there is a degree of inescapability about the instability and potential power vacuum to come. This is the price any highly centralized country must pay for being ruled by a strongman with an iron fist for so long. Out of this change, however, arises an opportunity never truly granted the people of Cameroon since its formation in 1960, as the only previous president, Ahidjo, was also widely regarded to be dictatorial figure. It is remarkable that since 1960, Cameroon has had just two presidents. After sixty years of the rule of the Strongman and ultimately the cult of Biya, the people of Cameroon are approaching the greatest crossroads since federation in 1972, or perhaps in the country’s history. The people of Cameroon can allow the nation to continue down its current path, settling on a new ‘chosen’ leader in the mold of Biya, but they will also have the chance to effect the lasting political change that many desire. Leader of the Cameroon Renaissance Movement opposition party, Maurice Kamto, is the most prominent proponent of this view, publicly opposing an apparent transfer of power to one of Biya’s acolytes, as if the CPDM party itself had the divine right to rule.
On social media, he stated ‘We will not accept the mutual agreement succession in our country, nor new popular elections without consensual reform of the electoral system. Only the Cameroonian people will have to choose their legitimate leaders, in freedom and democratic transparency’. Kamto has paid and continues to pay the price for his opposition to the regime. He and his supporters were imprisoned from January to October 2019 in the notorious Kondengui Prison in Yaoundé. A rumored assassination attempt followed, and only this week was his compound attacked and death threats reportedly made against him. He recently also proposed a wide-ranging, representative committee to help resolve the Anglophone Crisis. It is somewhat symptomatic of the Biya regime’s extremities and decline that Kamto’s efforts to fundraise for the Coronavirus response were heavily suppressed- and even outlawed- by the government.
Yet whilst Kamto is indeed a key player, a drive for change is coming from some of Cameroon’s most revered figures. Politician and entrepreneur Kah Walla’s ‘20th of May Dialogues’, livestreamed simultaneously on Twitter [CS1] and Zoom, has brought some of the nation’s brightest minds together to discuss the future of their country. Speakers including journalist Mimi Mefo, once imprisoned by the Biya regime, the indomitable technology entrepreneur Rebecca Enonchong, surgeon Dr. Dennis Foretia and others have all voiced their thoughts on issues including the Anglophone Crisis, Coronavirus and political transitions. The value of these dialogues should not be underestimated, as they are introducing and highlighting new, exciting Cameroonian options for the country’s future, from some of the nation’s finest minds. The reaction to these dialogues on social media illustrates both the richness of Cameroon’s political sphere and the yearning for change- or at the very least, more discussions.
Although the Anglophone Crisis is oft ignored by the international community, it threatens the stability of the entire state of Cameroon and thus must form (and has formed) a key part of these discussions. The dialogues have hinted at how a solution to the Anglophone Crisis could be found, but longer-term thinking is required in order to produce a lasting peace – be it through a true federation or another mechanism. A weakness of previous dialogue efforts has been a lack of unity among Anglophone groups, with views varying widely. With a stronger coalition of Anglophone voices, a meaningful dialogue has more chance of success. The concept of a future Cameroonian state beyond the Biya regime offers a genuine opportunity for change, and for Cameroon to better reflect the demands of the Anglophone population. Of course, this will not satisfy everybody, particularly the most ardent Ambazonian separatists, but it would represent a significant improvement on the current situation. The Anglophone regions remain of vital economic importance to Cameroon, and so they would invariably be a major point of discussion, even if the crisis had never occurred.
Looking across Central and Francophone Africa, change is coming. Even Burundi’s Nkurunziza has handed power over to a successor, and more nations are supportive of Presidential term limits. France’s controversial and neocolonial CFA Franc is being replaced in West Africa by an exciting though arguably imperfect successor, the ECO. Central Africa’s CFA Franc, used in Cameroon, will surely follow, reducing the country’s dependency on its former colonial master. Coronavirus itself has also upset the world order, and what that fully means for Cameroon and Central Africa remains to be fully understood. The end of the Biya regime, then, may coincide with a changing of the guard on multiple fronts.
Whilst the Biya regime will invariably trundle on for a while to come, it feels more finite than ever before. Cameroonians have the rarest of opportunities to reform their state and to mold it to be ready for the next 100 years. That process starts with conversations like the ‘May 20th Dialogues’, led by so many brilliant Cameroonians. This progress will likely be contested fiercely by those in power by way of the Biya regime, and so there are tough political challenges ahead. Somehow though, in the unlikeliest of times amidst a terrible pandemic, there is an indelible source of hope in Cameroon.