Cameroon braces for presidential elections

The political and electoral landscape in Cameroon makes it impossible to defeat the ruling CPDM party in an election. Paul Biya's regime, in power for forty-two years, is exploiting civil conflict – the so-called Anglophone Crisis – to consolidate power. Despite this, Collins Molua Ikome argues that a coup in Cameroon remains unlikely

Paul Biya clings to power

As Cameroon prepares for the 2025 presidential elections, intelligence from ruling party elites suggest that 91-year-old President Paul Biya is set to extend his rule for at least another seven years. Since 1982, Biya and his Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (CPDM) party have clung to power, despite the reintroduction of multipartyism in the 1990s. In Cameroon, the president controls all branches of government; separation of powers is non-existent. A fragmented opposition, and a fragile civil society, have conspired to ensure Biya’s stranglehold on power.

According to the Reporters Without Borders Index, Cameroon ranks 138 for press freedom, and significantly below the African average of 49% for rule of law. Authoritarianism in the country is on the rise.

Social standards in Cameroon are declining, and the cost of living is rising. Recent incremental price hikes for petroleum products have been particularly damaging, and the country is experiencing frequent power cuts. The CPDM regime has done almost nothing to address the resulting plight of Cameroonians. Yet, the country’s territorial administration minister recently ruled out a proposed opposition alliance in lieu of the forthcoming presidential elections.

Cameroon's supposedly anti-corruption Operation Sparrowhawk was launched in 2004. Its true aim, however, was merely to coerce obedience from regime loyalists and weed out the unfaithful. Top government officials, including a former prime minister and a defence minister, were jailed for disloyalty. Biya's regime has also exploited an anti-terrorism law enacted in 2014 to counter the Islamist terrorist organisation, Boko Haram. Biya's regime has twisted the provisions of this law, using it instead to suppress public demonstrations.

Constitutionally, Paul Biya remains electable. However, the CPDM lacks a long-term vision beyond the elderly Biya's tenure. This risks Cameroon becoming embroiled in a post-Biya succession conflict among CPDM elites.

The personalisation of power and electioneering

Paul Biya and the CPDM have unfettered control of all government branches. The CPDM has personalised the assembly, meaning Cameroon's parliament merely rubber-stamps all proposed policies. Appointments to the judiciary, meanwhile, remain the sole prerogative of the president.

Paul Biya and the CPDM control all government branches, the judiciary, the state broadcaster, and all election regulatory bodies

Electoral malpractice is not unusual in Cameroon. The regime uses neopatrimonialism and elitism to put state resources at its disposal. State broadcaster Cameroon Radio and Television covers only CPDM activities.

Top administrative officials, including regional governors, senior divisional officers, and sub-divisional officers, are supposed to be non-partisan. This is not the case. The incumbent controls all election regulatory bodies. Members of the election management body, Elections Cameroon (ELECAM), are appointed by the president. Biya also appoints to the Constitutional Council, the sole judicial organ authorised to handle election-related litigations. The incumbent has thus created a comprehensive patron-clientelism system with the right to reward at his discretion.

Cameroon's fragmented opposition

The proliferation of political parties in Cameroon is in the CPDM's interest. More than 330 political parties exist in Cameroon. Yet most of these so-called parties are dormant and have no political structure. We know little or nothing about their political agendas. They have therefore failed to provide voters with a credible alternative to the CPDM. Cameroon's opposition parties are characterised by party nationalism, and factionalised along tribal lines. Their concentration along ethno-cultural cleavages prevents them from appealing to a broad voter base.

Most of Cameroon's opposition parties are factionalised along ethnic and tribal lines. This limits their appeal to a broad voter base

Moreover, competing leadership bids between Cameroon's main opposition parties has stalled the establishment of an opposition coalition. In 1992, the Social Democratic Front (SDF) abstained from the legislative elections. This changed Cameroon's political destiny, allowing the CPDM to modify the constitution by parliamentary majority. The Cameroon Renaissance Movement (CRM), a key opposition party during the 2018 presidential election, also abstained during the 2020 municipal and legislative elections. This lack of political vision from Cameroon's opposition parties continues to contribute to CPDM's consolidation of power.

Civil society suppression

The so-called Anglophone conflict is ongoing between Cameroon's Armed Forces and armed separatist groups. Violence has persisted for eight years, and there appears no political will to end it. In the 2020 municipal and legislative elections, the CPDM won almost all councils and constituencies in the English-speaking Northwest region, formerly an SDF stronghold. This suggests the regime is exploiting the Anglophone conflict to further consolidate power. Indeed, the government has banned an alleged opposition alliance, claiming it legitimises Anglophone terrorism.

The recent price hike in petroleum products and frequent power cuts have precipitated a drop in the standard of living in a country where the youth unemployment rate already stands at 6.6%. Public demonstration is legal in Cameroon. But demonstrations demanding measures that run counter to the regime's narrative are considered a threat to public security. As a result, the government refuses to authorise them. This explains why, during the president’s 91st birthday celebrations, motorcycle taxis, known as bensikineurs, staged a demonstration in support of the incumbent standing for next year’s election.

Public protest is legal in Cameroon. But the government will authorise only demonstrations that align with its own policies

Civil society suppression and police brutality are common practice in Cameroon. Universities are state controlled, and highly censored. The press is not free, and there are frequent reports of the brutalisation of journalists.

On the question of a coup in Cameroon

In the wake of the coup in neighbouring Gabon, Paul Biya carried through several shake-ups of Cameroon's military. This has prompted analysts to speculate that Cameroon itself might be at risk of a coup. A 2023 Afrobarometer survey revealed that 66% of Cameroonians would actually favour a military coup. This is not impossible, but it remains an unlikely scenario.

In Cameroon, long-serving regime loyalists control strategic military positions. The Army Chief of Staff and the Director of Presidential Security, for example, have been in office for more than two decades. Biya's regime has given the military the freedom to act without accountability. The military, in turn, is committed to upholding the CPDM regime's stability.

Extrajudicial killings by the military in the Anglophone conflict and the fight against Boko Haram in the northern regions suggest that Cameroon's military considers itself above the law. Elsewhere, there are reports of military brutality. So far, however, no soldier or commanding officer has faced trial.

The absence of a robust opposition and civil society in Cameroon undermines checks and balances. The government acts with total impunity. Can Cameroon cope with yet another Biya term in office?

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Collins Molua Ikome
Collins Molua Ikome
Freelance Civic Educator, Europäische Jugendbildungs und Jugendbegegnungsstätte Weimar

Collins is a Cameroonian national who has resided in Germany since 2019.

He gained a BSc in Political Science from the University of Buea, Cameroon, in 2016 and an MA in International Relations and Cultural Diplomacy from Furtwangen University of Applied Sciences, Germany, in 2021.

He is currently pursuing a second Master’s degree in public policy at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy, University of Erfurt.

His main research interests are in armed conflicts and democratisation in sub-Saharan Africa.

He is currently working on a research thesis on multilateralism and the future of UN Peacekeeping Operations in Africa: A Case Study of MINUSMA.

He tweets @IkomeMolua

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