Cameroon: Another seven years for the "absentee captain"

Yaounde - A distinct sense of "déjà vu" surrounds the announcement this week of results for Cameroon’s presidential poll, held Oct. 11.

Paul Biya was re-elected with a comfortable 70.9 percent of the vote, echoing his victory during the last election in 1997 when he received more than 90 percent of ballots cast. Biya was the candidate of the Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement.

John Fru Ndi, head of the Social Democratic Front (SDF), came second with 17.4 percent of the vote, while Adamou Ndam Njoya took third position with 4.5 percent. Ndam Njoya stood as the candidate for the Coalition for National Reconciliation and Reconstruction, which groups several opposition parties.

Opposition claims of widespread vote rigging were dismissed by the Supreme Court, which announced the outcome of the poll on Monday in the capital – Yaounde.

Observers from the Commonwealth voiced concern at the fact that "many people who wished to vote were not on the Voters’ Register, so were denied the right to vote." However, the observers also believed the result of the poll reflected the will of those who managed to cast ballots.

Of Cameroon’s 4.6 million registered voters, 3.8 million cast ballots. About eight million of the 16 million people in the country are apparently eligible to vote.

A 1996 constitutional amendment extended the term of the presidency to seven years, and set a two-term limit for heads of state. However, this provision was not retroactive.

As a result, Biya – who came to power in 1982 – was able to stand in the 1997 presidential election. This poll was boycotted by the opposition, which had also alleged vote rigging in the 1992 presidential election – the first to be held in Cameroon after the change to multi-party politics in the country. Observers failed to give the 1992 poll their blessing.

A celebratory atmosphere was reported amongst Biya supporters who were present at the Supreme Court on Monday when the final results were delivered.

Certain persons have also expressed optimism about what another seven-year term under the veteran leader would bring.

"During the next seven years, the accent will be on communication, health, education, and anti-poverty infrastructures," Andre Siaka, president of the Cameroon Employers’ Group, told IPS.

"But also, like the president promised, the emphasis will be on construction of new hydroelectric dams – especially at Lom-Pangar and Natchigal by 2008 to curb the electricity crisis," he added.

Power cuts have become a serious problem in Cameroon, with businesses complaining that electricity shortages are eating into their productivity. IPS reported in August that the cuts are being blamed on the fact that power plant equipment has become dated – and on the low water levels in Cameroon’s two hydro-electric dams.

However, news of Biya’s victory was greeted with pessimism in other quarters.

"President Biya’s societal plan will remain an illusion. In two decades he’s done nothing, so another seven years will not make a miracle," Abdoulaye Math, president of the Movement for Human Rights, told IPS. This non-governmental organization is based in the northern town of Maroua.

While Cameroon enjoyed relative prosperity at the start of the 1980s, falling commodity prices brought about an economic crisis from 1985. This situation was worsened by economic mismanagement, and an over-valued exchange rate for the national currency, the CFA franc (ultimately devalued in 1994).

According to the 2004 Human Development Report, produced by the United Nations Development Programme, about 17 percent of Cameroonians live below the poverty line of a dollar a day. (Cameroon’s Central Bureau for Census and Population Studies puts this figure at more than 50 percent, however.)

The country is also saddled with over two billion dollars in foreign debt, although Yaounde is benefiting from debt relief accorded under the Initiative for Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC).

This programme was launched by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in 1996 in recognition of the fact that overwhelming debt undermines the development of poor states. Qualification for HIPC is conditional on countries introducing economic and social reforms.

In addition, corruption is said to be rife in Cameroon. In the 2004 ‘Corruption Perceptions Index’ – launched last week by graft watchdog Transparency Interantional – the country was ranked 129th of the 146 states surveyed.

"The economic crisis will worsen (under Biya). Political predation will continue. The powerful will benefit from the uncontrolled deregulation of the productive sectors and commercial networks, and the little people will try to manage to survive," political analyst Celestin Bedzigui told IPS.

"Led by an absentee captain,...our country will continue its descent into hell once that October 11 charade is legitimized," he added. Biya made few appearances during the election campaign and, according to one report, has held only one cabinet meeting during the past six years.

A student further noted, "In the end, Biya won the election – but it’s Cameroon who loses."

In the run-up to Oct. 11, the opposition was criticised for failing to present a single candidate who might have mounted a credible challenge to Biya. As voting got underway, the incumbent was expected to carry the day.

Since last week, reports of a strong police presence in north-western Cameroon – an SDF stronghold – have surfaced.

A party official, John Nkonteh, was killed there on Aug. 20, apparently after he complained about irregularities in voter registration. Inquiries into his death are still proceeding.

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Source: Sylvestre Tetchiada, Inter Press Service |http://www.ips.org/

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