07 Jul Popular Protest & Social Movements – Part 4
In the latest installment of the Popular Protest and Social Movements project for ROAPE David Seddon profiles Equatorial Guinea, the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic and Cameroon, to look at those already long in power who have sought to extend their term of office, either successfully or not, either through the ballot box or by other means. Seddon examines the political response to these moves, and attempts to draw some general conclusions.
By David Seddon
Our introductory piece in this series (1) ended with a comparison of three countries – the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Burundi and Burkina Faso – in which the president had recently tried to extend his period of office and there had been significant popular protest against this move from democracy towards dictatorship.
In our second piece (2), we examined recent events in those three countries in particular and then began to consider the wider implications of the erosion of democracy where elected presidents have extended – or attempted to extend – their term of office beyond the limits defined by the Constitution, as is the case in all too many African countries, drawing attention to the large number of African heads of state who have remained in power for far longer than anticipated, often by authoritarian and repressive measures
In the third (3) piece in the series, we returned again to the three countries initially considered, to examine the very different trajectories followed by them over the last six months, and extended the comparison to include two others – Congo (Brazzaville) and Rwanda – also in Central Africa.
In this piece (no. 4), we extend the comparison still further to three more of those Africa countries or territories in which the head of state has exceeded two decades, and consider the political dynamics that have allowed this to occur. I am particularly interested to examine the popular response to what might be seen as a gradual slide towards de facto and often (where supine or acquiescent legislatures have agreed to change national constitutions) de jure one party states and dictatorships in these countries, even if many of them retain a notional multi-party regime.
As we remarked at the end of the second piece in this series (no. 2): ‘these three cases (DRC, Burundi and Burkina Faso) reveal three very different processes in the way in which attempts by African presidents have sought in recent years to extend their period in office and thus their power, and in the way popular protest at this has emerged and evolved, and three very different outcomes. It would be premature … to try to draw too many conclusions from these three cases, although two things are clear: first, that there has been in recent years a general tendency for presidents and prime ministers in African countries, whether elected or not in the first place, to attempt to over-ride or change their country’s constitution if necessary, to enable them to extend their period in office and so in power; and second, that there will be popular protest, in a variety of forms, by various sections of the population in opposition to these efforts to move from democracy to effective dictatorship.’
We drew attention (at the end of no. 2) to the large number of African countries whose rulers have been in office for more than ten years, many of them with questionable legitimacy. We did not include in this list a number of other African rulers of shorter duration but who have attempted to extend their period of office beyond what is permitted by the constitution of the country concerned. These include President Nkurunziza of Burundi, who has recently attempted to extend his period of office beyond the two terms allowed by the constitution of Burundi, with the consequences we have described in previous pieces in this series; and President Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso, who also tried to extend his period in office, again with the consequences described above and in previous pieces in this series.
Other rulers of Central African countries who have attempted recently to extend their periods of office, include President Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville), who received the go-ahead, from a political forum on the future of the country’s institutions held in July 2015, to run for president in elections to be held in 2016, and President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, who, in the same month as Sassou Nguesso was able to gain the support of virtually all of the members of the Rwandan parliament for a further term in office. In the third piece (no. 3) in this series, we considered recent political events in these two countries – Congo Brazzaville and Rwanda – and concluded with a quotation from The Economist (12 December 2015) which said, of the DRC, that ‘Congo’s problems are a grander, more dangerous version of what is happening in neighbouring countries’ and referred to both Congo Brazzaville and Burundi.
The Economist failed – strikingly – to mention Rwanda, or indeed any of the other countries where we believe a broadly similar process is occurring albeit with different trajectories and outcomes. We now turn, therefore, to a broader consideration of other African states in which those already long in power have sought to extend their term of office, either successfully or not, either through the ballot box or by other means, examine the political response to these moves, and attempt to draw some general conclusions.
Long Serving Heads of State
The list of long-serving heads of state is indeed itself remarkably long. In this issue of the ‘popular protest’ project we will consider the cases of Mohamed Abdel Aziz of the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), who assumed office as President in 1976, remained President until his recent death at the end of May 2016; Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea (who assumed office in 1979 as Chairman first of the Revolutionary Military Council and then of the Supreme Military Council before becoming president in 1982) has been in power for 37 years; and Paul Biya of Cameroon (who is 83) has been in office (first as Prime Minster from 1975 to 1982 and then as President since 1982) for more than 40 years.
Mohamed Abdel Aziz of the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic
Mohamed Abdelaziz, who died on 31 May 2016 at the age of 68, was for 40 years – effectively without challenge – president of the self-declared Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) and leader (secretary-general) of the POLISARIO (Popular Front for the Liberation of Western Sahara and Rio de Oro). The POLISARIO has now fought – unsuccessfully as yet – for Saharawi independence for 43 years since its formation in 1973, during the Spanish colonial occupation, when the territory was known as ‘the Spanish Sahara’.
Born in 1948 in the town of Smara, which currently lies in the Moroccan-occupied part of Western Sahara, Abdelaziz joined the POLISARIO Front movement as a student and was elected to its political bureau at its founding congress in 1973. After 1975, when Spain abandoned its colony, independence was declared and the SADR was established in 1976. Almost at once, however, Morocco invaded the territory and attacked the POLISARIO, forcing many Saharawis to flee east across the desert to set up refugee camps near Tindouf in Algeria. The POLISARIO continued to resist, through its People’s Liberation Army (PLA), interventions by Mauritania (from 1976 until 1978) and Morocco (from 1976 until the present day). Abdelaziz was selected as its secretary general in 1976, after the death in combat of the front’s founder and military leader, Al Ouali Mustapha Erraqibi. Later that year, he was elected president of the self-declared Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.
Backed by Algeria and with support from Cuba, and at one point up to 70 other developing countries, the POLISARIO and the PLA continued to fight for Saharawi independence over a period of nearly 15 years until 1991, when a ceasefire was agreed between Morocco and the POLISARIO after the UN promised a referendum on the issue of independence. In 1982, the SADR became a member of the African Union, at which point Morocco withdrew from that organisation. By the 1980s, however, Morocco – which claimed Western Sahara as an extension of its national territory – had already effectively occupied a significant area in the west and constructed a fortified wall across the desert to protect its occupation. (The similarities with the case of Israel and Palestine are intriguing and little discussed).
The Saharawis were now divided geographically between the Moroccan-occupied territory in the west and the area to the east along the borders with Algeria and Mauritania that the POLISARIO claimed to be ‘liberated’. The Saharawis in the east were obliged to live in tented camps in the vicinity of Tindouf in Algeria after they were forced out of the western territory in 1976 by Moroccan armed forces. Their economic life was of the most basic, relying on international and foreign aid to supplement pastoralism and the very limited cultivation that was possible in the central Saharan desert. They have now lived there, under the most inhospitable conditions and with limited support from the outside, for 40 years.
The POLISARIO was – and still is – the only political organisation of the SADR, making SADR, in effect a one-party state. Early POLISARIO propaganda portrayed it as a secular modernist movement along the lines of Algeria’s early democratic-socialist nationalism, with aspects of 1950s pan-Arabism, not unlike the original PLO, and some similarities to Qaddhafi’s unique brand of ‘socialism’. Many sympathetic commentators compared POLISARIO with the early FRELIMO under Eduardo Mondlane or with Amilcar Cabral’s PAIGC. Significantly, POLISARIO’s founder, El-Ouali Mustapha Sayed, was influenced while studying in Morocco by the writings of Frantz Fanon.
The political, diplomatic and material support provided by Algeria and a number of other radical/socialist states, including Libya, Cuba and Vietnam, tended to alienate the West and the more conservative Third World countries. POLISARIO never identified itself as ‘Marxist’ or indeed anything of the kind, and preferred to argue simply that as a national liberation movement it had to be unified – as a broad church but one which did not allow the kinds of political division that the leadership, including Abdel Aziz believed would develop under a multi-party regime. Democratic representation has been assured by elections to the 53-seat Saharawi National Council and by the regular General Popular Congress, which is held every four years, and by a structure which reaches down to people’s cells at the grass-roots.
This structure has been largely maintained over the entire life-time of the SADR, although a political crisis in the top leadership and discontent in the camps in the late 1980s generated a concerted effort at the 8th General Congress in 1991 to reduce the ‘distance’ between the grass-roots and the executive. This Congress also, significantly, was the first to include representatives from the Moroccan-occupied territory. It adopted a new Constitution, replacing the Executive Committee, the Political Bureau (politburo) and the Council for the Command of the Revolution (CMR) – which often included the same personnel – with an elected National Secretariat. It also called for a multi-party democracy and free market economy after independence.
The internal political crisis was weathered in part it must be said by new hopes aroused by the UN, which managed to achieve a ceasefire in 1991, based on the promise of a referendum. Successive Congresses, however, continued to elect Abdel Aziz as leader of POLISARIO and President of the SADR. Externally, President Mohamed Abdelaziz was seen as a ‘moderate’ voice, who generally managed to reconcile differing tendencies within the POLISARIO, supported efforts by the UN to find a peaceful resolution to the dispute with Morocco, and overruled military hard-liners in the movement who pushed for a continuation of war. With the promise of a referendum, it seemed at the beginning of the 1990s that this strategy might prove effective.
But as the years have passed, with little progress achieved, there has been a decline in support from outside (apart from Algeria, which remains a key ally of the POLISARIO) and increasing concern among the Saharawi people with regard to the effectiveness of a diplomatic approach and the viability of the camp-based aid-dependent economy. There have also been indications of growing tensions along generational lines, as those who have lived all their lives in the camps begin to challenge the authority of their ‘elders’. The creation of a new body, the Consultative Council of Shaykhs, at the General Congress in 1999, reflecting the key role played by the shaykhs (traditional tribal elders) in the voter-identification process that was supposed to define the electorate for a referendum, had introduced a new bi-cameral structure, which some found problematic.
In mid-2004, a reform movement within POLISARIO, Khatt al Shahid (Line of the Martyr), became the first identifiable faction within POLISARIO. It was popular among young Saharawi militants in the camps, in the occupied territory and among the diaspora in Europe. There was evident frustration at the lack of progress in negotiations and towards a referendum. Khatt al Shahid called for a return to basic principles (‘all the homeland or martyrdom’), new faces in the political leadership and a complete separation of the POLISARIO (party) from the SADR (state).
It accused the leadership of ‘propagating corruption, clientelism, tribalism, and for bargaining with the sufferings of the Sahrawi people and the martyrs‘ blood’, of having ‘no strategies to respond to international developments’, of being ‘unable to implement internal reforms’, of having ‘insufficient contact with the Saharawis in the Moroccan-controlled part of Western Sahara’, and with simply exploiting their “intifada“’ and finally, for ‘refusing to hold the national congress demanded by Khatt al-Shahid, where the POLISARIO leadership would be held to account for its policy, seeing this as a sign of the undemocratic leadership of the POLISARIO Front’.
But despite these indications of internal dissent, Khatt Abdelaziz has always presented itself as a movement within and not opposed to the POLISARIO, and Abdelaziz has been re-elected by successive General Congresses (in 2003, 2007, 2011 and 2015 respectively). The influence of Khatt al Shahid remains limited, particularly as it suffered a major defection in 2006, by its former leader Mahjoub Salek, who in 2011 called for a boycott of the 13th General Congress, an expression of support for the ‘Libyan revolution’ and acceptance of the Moroccan proposals for autonomy rather than independence.
On 18 August 2015, however, the Sahara News online bluntly asked: ‘Will the 14th (General) congress, scheduled for the end of this year, be the last one to be attended by Mohamed Abdelaziz as the leader of the separatist front?’ It went on to report that ‘Abdelaziz, who is suffering from lung cancer, had called, according to a Sahrawi website, for “the election of a new leader and a new leadership” during the 14th Congress. In fact, despite his illness, he was, once again, elected as president. The death of President Abdelaziz on 31 May 2016 came at a time of renewed friction between Morocco and Algeria over the disputed region after the secretary general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, visited a Saharawi refugee camp in Algeria and rightly described Morocco’s presence in Western Sahara as ‘an occupation’. Morocco reacted by expelling 84 civilian members of the United Nations peacekeeping mission from its territory, and some Saharawi leaders have warned of a possible return to armed conflict.
The President of Algeria declared a week of mourning and the POLISARIO Front announced that Khatri Abdouh, president of the National Council, and one of Abdelaziz’s closest friends, would serve as interim leader. After a 40-day mourning period for the former President, a new secretary general will be elected at a special congress. The death of Mohamed Abdel Aziz comes at a critical time, when the people of Western Sahara wait for the restoration of MINURSO (the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara) and attempt to gauge the degree of commitment of the UN and the international community. There is a growing sense of frustration, particularly among the younger generation, with diplomatic negotiation – which they feel has brought little progress and obliged them wait a further 15 years for the promised referendum – and apparently a willingness to entertain a return to armed conflict.
At this point, the future of the POLISARIO and the SADR, and indeed of the Saharawi people, still remains unclear. A full assessment of Abdelaziz’s presidency – his successes and his failures – remains to be made. The relative lack of popular dissent and resistance to the highly centralised and arguably authoritarian structure of the SADR under his presidency is explicable in large part by the very particular and extremely demanding circumstances of the struggle for Saharawi independence, and the fact that he lived among his people – in a tent like them – in the harsh and demanding conditions of the refugee camps. Whether the new president manages to command the same degree of respect among the Saharawis and the international community remains to be seen.
Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Cameroon
Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo (born 5 June 1942) has been President of Equatorial Guinea since 1979. He joined the military during Equatorial Guinea’s colonial period and attended the Military Academy in Zaragoza, Spain. He achieved the rank of lieutenant after his uncle, Francisco Macías Nguema, was elected the country’s first president. Under Macías, Obiang held various jobs, including governor of Bioko and leader of the National Guard. He was also head of Black Beach Prison, notorious for the severe torture of its inmates. After Macías ordered the murders of several members of the family they shared, including Obiang’s brother, Obiang and others in Macías’ inner circle feared the president had become insane.
Obiang overthrew his uncle on 3 August 1979 in a bloody coup d’état, and placed him on trial for his actions, including the genocide of the Bubi people, over the previous decade. Macías was sentenced to death and executed on 29 September 1979 by the new Moroccan presidential guard (required to form the firing squad, because local soldiers feared his alleged magical powers). Obiang declared that the new government would be very different from Macías’ brutal and repressive regime. He granted amnesty to political prisoners, re-opened all closed places of worship, and ended the previous régime’s system of forced labour. His own role in the atrocities committed under his uncle’s regime was not mentioned.
The country returned officially to civilian rule in 1982, with the enactment of a slightly less authoritarian constitution, but with only a single party – the Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea (PDGE). Obiang was elected to a seven-year term as president; he was the only candidate. He was re-elected in 1989, again as the only candidate. After other parties were nominally allowed to organize in 1992, he was re-elected in 1996 and 2002 with 98 per cent of the vote in elections condemned as fraudulent by international observers. In 2002, for instance, one precinct was recorded as giving Obiang 103 percent of the vote. He was re-elected for a fourth term in 2009 with 97 per cent of the vote, again amid accusations of voter fraud and intimidation, beating opposition leader Plácido Micó Abogo.
Aside from the ruling PDGE, political parties in Equatorial Guinea fall into three categories: those aligned with the government to provide a façade of democracy; the Convergence for Social Democracy (CPDS), which is allowed to operate openly but is still repressed; and those parties which are not registered with the government and are therefore illegal. Genuine opposition is barely tolerated; indeed, a 2006 article in Der Spiegel quoted Obiang as asking, “What right does the opposition have to criticize the actions of a government?” The opposition is severely hampered by the lack of a free press as a vehicle for their views; there are no newspapers and all broadcast media are either owned outright by the government or controlled by its allies.
Although opposition parties were legalized in 1992, the legislature continued to be dominated by the PDGE, and there was almost no opposition to Obiang’s decisions within that body. There have never been more than eight opposition deputies in the chamber; at present, all of the deputies but one either belongs to the PDGE or is allied with it. The constitution grants Obiang sweeping powers, including the power to rule by decree. Most domestic and international observers consider his regime to be one of the most corrupt, ethnocentric, oppressive and undemocratic in the world. In 2008, American journalist Peter Maass identified Obiang as ‘Africa’s worst dictator’, worse than Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.
Like his predecessor Macías, and other African dictators such as Idi Amin and Mobutu Sese Seko, Obiang has assigned to himself several creative titles. Among them are ‘gentleman of the great island of Bioko, Annobón and Río Muni’; he also refers to himself as El Jefe (the boss). Obiang has encouraged his cult of personality by ensuring that public speeches end in well-wishing for himself rather than for the republic. Many important buildings have a presidential lodge, many towns and cities have streets commemorating Obiang’s coup against Macías, and many people wear clothes with his face printed on them.
In an interview on CNN, Christiane Amanpour asked Obiang in October 2012 whether he would step down at the end of the then-current term (2009–2016), since he had been re-elected at least four times in his reign of over thirty years. In his response, Obiang said he categorically refused to step down at the end of the term, despite the term limits in the country’s 2011 constitution.
Equatorial Guinea is made up of a mainland territory called Rio Muni, and five islands including Bioko, where the capital Malabo is located. An oil producing country since 1995, the country has a per capita gross domestic product of $37,478.85 – the highest wealth ranking of any African country and one of the highest in the world. GDP growth between 1996 and 2006 averaged almost 40 per cent a year; but little of this wealth trickled down. Equatorial Guinea ranks 144 out of 187 countries in the Human Development Index that measures social and economic development. As a result, it has by far the world’s largest gap of all countries between its per capita wealth and its human development score. Unemployment has hovered around 20 per cent for years and the World Bank estimates that some 78 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line on less than $2 a day, with many living on less than $1 a day (see The World Factbook).
Despite its resources and exceptional national wealth, government spending on health and education lags far behind most other African countries, with less than a quarter of public investment going on education, health and social services combined. Consequently a large portion of the population lacks access to quality healthcare, decent schools, or even reliable electricity. Net enrolment in primary education was only 61 percent in 2012. About half of the population lacks access to clean water and basic sanitation facilities, according to official 2012 statistics. Childhood malnutrition, as seen in the percentage of children whose growth is stunted, stands at 35 percent, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF. Equatorial Guinea also has very low vaccination rates, including the worst polio vaccination rate in the world – 39 per cent, according to the World Health Organization. As of mid-2014, five cases of polio were confirmed there, prompting a belated vaccination campaign.
Obiang and his large family, however, have managed to accumulate enormous private wealth. In 2003, Obiang told his citizenry that he felt compelled to take full control of the national treasury in order to prevent civil servants from being tempted to engage in corrupt practices. To avoid this ‘corruption’, Obiang deposited more than half a billion dollars into accounts controlled by himself and his family at Riggs Bank in Washington, D.C., leading a U.S. federal court to fine the bank $16 million dollars for allowing him to do so. Later scrutiny by a United States Senate investigation in 2004 found that the Bank took $300 million on behalf of Obiang from Exxon Mobil and Hess Corporation. Publicity regarding this relationship would later contribute to the downfall of Riggs.
Beginning in 2007, Obiang, along with several other African heads of state, came under investigation for corruption and fraudulent use of funds. He was suspected of using public funds to finance his private mansions and luxuries for both himself and his family. He and his son, in particular, owned several properties and supercars in France. In addition, several complaints were filed in US courts against Obiang’s son, Teodorín. Their attorneys stressed that the funds appropriated by both Obiangs were taken quite legally under national laws, even though these laws might not conform to international standards. In 2008, the country became a candidate for the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative – an international project meant to promote openness about government oil revenues – but never qualified and missed the April 2010 deadline. It has since re-applied.
According to Human Rights Watch, the ”dictatorship under President Obiang has used an oil boom to entrench and enrich itself further at the expense of the country’s people”. The corruption watchdog Transparency International has put Equatorial Guinea in the top 12 of its list of most corrupt states. The US Department of Justice has alleged that Obiang and his son have appropriated hundreds of millions of dollars through corruption. In 2011 and early 2012, many assets were seized from Obiang and his son by the French and American governments, including mansions, wine collections, and supercars. Obiang, his cabinet and his family are alleged to receive billions in undisclosed oil revenue each year from the nation’s oil production.
This has declined significantly in recent years (and slumped in the last three years) as oil prices have collapsed, but still enables the Obiang family to live relatively well. In 2013, Forbes estimated that, despite the Riggs Bank fiasco, Obiang retains some $700M of the money earned from his country’s oil wealth in American banks. In 2014, the US Department of Justice forced his son, Teodorín, to sell off a Ferrari, his $30 million residence in Malibu and six life-size Michael Jackson statues in a money-laundering settlement.
Despite all this, Obiang continues to enjoy the support of the USA. In 2006, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice hailed President Obiang as a “good friend” despite repeated criticism of his human rights and civil liberties record by her own department. More recently President Barack Obama posed for an official photograph with President Obiang at a New York reception. There is also relatively little criticism from other African heads of state, and Equatorial Guinea hosted the African Cup of Nations football championships in 2012. There is little scope for opposition within the country, which is heavily repressed; but Obiang faces a separatist movement and a ‘government in exile’.
Paul Biya, President of Cameroon
Paul Barthélemy Biya’a bi Mvondo, born 13 February 1933, has been the President of Cameroon since 6 November 1982. He rose rapidly as a bureaucrat under President Ahmadou Ahidjo in the 1960s, serving as Secretary-General of the Presidency from 1968 to 1975 and then as Prime Minister of Cameroon from 1975 to 1982. In June 1979, a law designated the Prime Minister as the President’s constitutional successor and, when Ahidjo unexpectedly announced his resignation on 4 November 1982, Biya accordingly succeeded him as President of Cameroon on 6 November. After Biya became President, Ahidjo initially remained head of the ruling Cameroon National Union (CNU). Biya was brought into the CNU Central Committee and Political Bureau and was elected as the Vice-President of the CNU. On 11 December 1982, he was placed in charge of managing party affairs in Ahidjo’s absence.
During the first months after Biya’s succession, he continued to show loyalty to Ahidjo, and Ahidjo continued to show support for Biya, but in 1983 a rift developed between the two. Ahidjo went into exile in France, and from there he publicly accused Biya of abuse of power and paranoia about plots against him. The two could not be reconciled despite efforts by several foreign leaders. After Ahidjo resigned as CNU leader, Biya took the helm of the party at an “extraordinary session” of the CNU, held on 14 September 1983. In November 1983, he announced that the next presidential election would be held on 14 January 1984; it had been previously scheduled for 1985. He was the sole candidate in this election and won with 99.98 per cent of the vote.
In February 1984, Ahidjo was put on trial in absentia for alleged involvement in a 1983 coup plot, along with two others; they were all sentenced to death, although Biya commuted their sentences to life in prison. Biya survived a military coup attempt on 6 April 1984, following his decision the previous day to disband the Republican Guard and disperse its members across the military. Ahidjo was widely believed to have orchestrated the coup attempt, and Biya is thought to have learned of a plot in advance and to have disbanded the Republican Guard as a reaction, forcing the plotters to act earlier than they intended, which may have been a crucial factor in the coup’s failure. Northern Muslims were the primary participants in this coup attempt, which was seen by many as an attempt to restore that group’s supremacy; Biya, however, chose to emphasize national unity and did not focus blame on northern Muslims. Estimates of the death toll ranged from 71 (according to the government) to about 1,000.
In 1985, the CNU was transformed into the Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement/Rally (RDPC) in Bamenda, the political capital of the north-west region, and Biya was elected as its President. He was also re-elected as President of Cameroon on 24 April 1988. He initially took some steps to open up the regime, culminating in the decision to legalize opposition parties in 1990. According to official results, Biya won the first multi-party presidential election, held on 11 October 1992, with about 40 per cent of the vote; the second placed candidate, John Fru Ndi of the opposition Social Democratic Front (SDF), officially received about 36 per cent. The results were strongly disputed by the opposition, which alleged fraud. In the October 1997 presidential election, which was boycotted by the main opposition parties, Biya was re-elected with 93 per cent of the vote; he was sworn in on 3 November.
Biya won another seven-year term in the 11 October 2004 presidential election, officially taking 71 per cent of the vote, although the opposition alleged widespread fraud; Biya was sworn in on 3 November. Elected National President of the RDPC in 1996, he was re-elected at the party’s second extraordinary congress on 7 July 2001 and its third extraordinary congress on 21 July 2006. In 2004, at the time of the presidential elections, annoyed by the criticisms of international vote-monitoring groups, he paid for his own set of international observers, six ex-U.S. congressmen, who certified his election as free and fair. After being re-elected in 2004, Biya was barred by a two-term limit in the 1996 Constitution from running for President again in 2011, but he sought to revise this to allow him to run again. In his 2008 New Year’s message, Biya expressed support for revising the Constitution, saying that it was undemocratic to limit the people’s choice. The proposed removal of term limits was among the grievances expressed during the demonstrations and violent protests that took place in Cameroon’s largest towns and cities between 25 and 28 February 2008.
The government claimed that it had learned in January 2008 that the Social Democratic Front (SDF), the main opposition party, had formulated a plan they dubbed “Operation Kenya” to bring instability to Douala, Cameroon’s biggest city and chief port. In response, the government indefinitely banned street demonstrations in the Littoral Province, where Douala is located. Undeterred, by this, it was claimed, SDF leaders met at the Bamenda home of party chairman John Fru Ndi in late January, with the aim of organising street demonstrations across the country, with party members from both the government and civil sectors participating in the protests. Meanwhile, the SDF allegedly offered training to young people in how to stage an effective street demonstration. Fru Ndi and the SDF rejected the government’s claims, citing several peaceful SDF-led protests in the past. Fru Ndi told the government to look at their own policies as the cause of the unrest and said that he had information that implicated government officials in ‘[manipulating] the State apparatus and its information system’ in a bid to deflect attention from their own corruption.
On 23 February 2008, an unauthorised protest by several hundred demonstrators in the Douala suburb of Newtown, opposing Biya’s proposed constitutional reforms, was broken up by police who allegedly turned tear gas and water cannons on the demonstrators, killing at least one person. Conditions in Douala were peaceful the following day until that evening, when gunfire was heard near Douala International Airport. Two days later, a strike by the urban transport union, which consisted of bus, taxi, and lorry drivers, angered over the rise in fuel prices and poor working conditions in Cameroon, took place as scheduled on 25 February 2008 and in the days that followed, large groups of mainly young men took to the streets of Douala, Yaoundé, Bamenda, and other major cities, looting and vandalising property.
The mass protests began on 25 February 2008 in Douala. Because of the transport strike scheduled for that day the streets were empty of all traffic but the transport used by government forces. Heavy gunfire was reported that morning, and youths burnt cars, tires, and vegetation to block off major roads and bridges; the city was filled with plumes of smoke. Meanwhile, groups of young people looted and vandalised property, including petrol stations and a retail store. Reports on national radio said that a finance ministry building, a town hall, and other government structures were aflame. IRIN reported seeing a firefight between protesters and police at the airport and witnessing victims of gunshot wounds in the city. Police responded with widespread arrests.
On 26 February, the government agreed to a reduction in petrol prices of 6 francs CFA (less than 1 US¢) per litre, and the transport union called off its strike that night. The head of the taxi union, Jean Collins Ndefossokeng, told Radio France International that ‘it is no longer a good time for the strike with the current vandalism’. On 27 February, the government reduced fuel costs. By then, however, the protests had spread to 31 municipal areas in five of Cameroon’s ten provinces: the Centre, Littoral, Northwest, Southwest, and West. The government claimed that the SDF collected and transported youths between hot spots, including Bafoussam, Bamenda, Douala, and Yaoundé. Government forces allegedly stopped such convoys outside major cities between 25 and 27 February.
The government flooded the streets of the capital with soldiers. In Douala, demonstrators threw stones and erected flaming barricades. Government forces responded with tear gas. Troops were stationed throughout the city and at petrol stations, and barricades were set up. Similar methods were used in other cities, and troops in Douala used water cannons. Meanwhile, looting and burning continued, and witnesses reported victims of gunshot wounds lining the streets. According to a BBC reporter, troops confronted about 2,000 demonstrators on a bridge in Douala, and some 20 individuals fell into the river.
Witnesses reported heavy gunfire in Yaoundé on 27 February. One resident reported rioters looting and burning a market. In Kumba, demonstrators marched with posters demanding Biya’s resignation and for the government to reduce the cost of fuel and petroleum products. In Bamenda, some protesters reportedly targeted boarding schools, where the nation’s elite send their children; allegedly armed with bottles of petrol, rocks, and sticks, they threatened to burn the school down unless the students came with them, possibly for use as human shields against government forces. One boarding school reported that 200 teenage boys were taken by the protesters but the rest of the children were allowed to stay. Reports indicate that similar scenarios took place at other schools. Most of the children managed to escape back to the school or their parents’ home. The government accused the mayor of the Njombe-Penja Council of leading a group of demonstrators in an attack on a gendarme station in his town. The mayor was later suspended for this act and for alleged mismanagement of council funds.
The government sent in troops to crack down on the unrest, and both protesters and troops were killed in the clashes that followed. The official government tally was 40 people killed, but human rights groups claimed that the total was closer to 100. Government figures place damage to property at tens of billions of francs CFA (15.2 million euros or US$23.4 million). Government forces also claimed to have arrested more than 1,600 people, including government officials, and to have prosecuted 200. Human rights groups and defense attorneys, on the other hand, claimed that more than 2,000 people had been arrested in Douala alone and decried the trials as overly swift, secretive, and severe. The government also cracked down on artists, media outlets and journalists it accuses of threatening national stability.
On 7 March 2008, in response to the protests, Biya suspended duties paid on basic commodities such as cooking oil, fish, and rice. He also declared a rise in pay of 15 percent for civil service employees to take effect from 1 April and raised the pay of military personnel. The government reduced the custom duty paid on cement from 20 percent to 10 percent to address a shortage of building materials. It also announced plans to look at bank and telephone charges. The political turmoil had been made worse, however, many argued, by President Paul Biya‘s announcement that he wanted the constitution to be amended to remove term limits; without such an amendment, he would have had to leave office at the end of his term in 2011. Nevertheless, on 10 April 2008, the National Assembly voted to change the Constitution to remove term limits.
Given the RDPC’s control of the National Assembly, the change was overwhelmingly approved, with 157 votes in favour and five opposed; the 15 deputies of the SDF chose to boycott the vote in protest. The change also provided for the President to enjoy immunity from prosecution for his actions as President after leaving office.
After this upsurge in protest in 2008, things went relatively quiet over the next year or so, although real GDP growth and income from remittances both declined, in part because inflation also decreased and earlier proposals to reduce subsidies on basic goods were not implemented, so that the cost of living remained fairly stable. Even so, the IMF noted in 2010 that ‘social discontent could re-emerge as in 2008, ahead of the presidential elections in 2011.’
In the October 2011 presidential election, Biya secured a sixth term in office, polling 78 per cent of votes cast. John Fru Ndi, his main rival, polled 10 per cent. The opposition alleged wide-scale fraud in the election and procedural irregularities were noted by the French and US governments. In his victory speech, Biya promised to stimulate growth and create jobs with a programme of public works which would ‘transform our country into a vast construction site’. On 3 November 2011, he was sworn in for another term as President – his sixth.
In his book ‘Tyrants, the World’s 20 Worst Living Dictators’, David Wallechinsky named Biya, together with Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea and King Mswati of Swaziland, as one of the ‘top 20’. He describes Cameroon’s electoral process in these terms: ‘Every few years, Biya stages an election to justify his continuing reign, but these elections have no credibility’. As Augusta Conchiglia remarked (in the New Left Review, no. 77, Sept.-Oct. 2012, p. 134), ‘in fifty two years, Cameroon has had only two presidents, who have held this country of 19 million in an iron grip: behind a fraudulent electoral façade stands a highly repressive regime which has imprisoned or killed its opponents, muzzled the press and salted away trillions of dollars in oil revenue. The balance sheet is catastrophic. Corruption is pervasive, from the apparatchiks of the ruling Rassemblement Democratique du Peuple Camerounais – until 1990 the only legal party – down to local traffic cops.’
David Seddon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a researcher and scholar who has written extensively on social movements, class struggles and political transitions across the developing world.