Cameroonians head to the polls Sunday to reelect Paul Biya as president — a foregone conclusion despite the country’s acute crisis. In the north, the government is still engaged with the terrorist group Boko Haram, while a devastating uprising in English-speaking areas in the northwest and southwest has enveloped the country’s politics.
Biya, age 85, has been in power for an incredible 36 years. He will win these elections — but not because he is the most popular candidate. Rather, Cameroon is one of Africa’s most enduring electoral authoritarian regimes. While multiparty elections exist on paper, these elections are not free and fair and are tilted in the regime’s favor. In my forthcoming book, “How Autocrats Compete: Parties, Patrons, and Unfair Elections in Africa,” I explore the factors that have sustained electoral authoritarianism in Cameroon.
Cameroon’s state apparatus was established right after the country’s independence in 1960 from French and British colonial rule. Today, Biya is able to use nearly exclusive control of political appointments and state institutions to both position supporters and punish detractors with ease. With Biya at the helm, the election result is mostly a foregone conclusion.
How to build an authoritarian regime
My research examines the historical origins of electoral authoritarian regimes in Africa. These regimes fall into two distinct camps: those that built extensive ruling parties to mobilize political support and regimes that created loose-knit coalitions with rival elites. Cameroon is a clear example of the latter.
The French colonial government had established far-reaching emergency powers, and subsequent presidents in Cameroon have made full use of these powers to create these coalitions. Cameroon’s first president, Ahmadou Ahidjo, dismantled rival political parties and centralized authority by offering elites government positions in a bloated state administration. He also curtailed political dissent, appointed regional governors and oversaw the Cameroonian military. For many years, even travel across Cameroon required special government permits. These features persisted when Biya became president; he declared nine states of emergency between 1982 and 1986.
This system did not encourage political elites to be particularly loyal to the regime. Ruling coalitions in Cameroon did not share a common ideology, but instead were representative of Cameroon’s multiple ethnic groups. Under Ahidjo, many believed there was bias toward his home region in the north.
Under Biya, many Cameroonians see disproportionate political representation in senior political posts from the south, his home territory. Other ethnic groups, and especially the English-speaking regions, have frequently complained of economic and political discrimination.
With the president as the gatekeeper to a tightly constrained political space, the system persisted. As one Cameroonian observer put it, elites protect their daily bread by not contradicting the president.
How an authoritarian regime competes
These features of the regime made the transition to multiparty elections challenging. In 1992, in the midst of economic crisis, many elites in Cameroon defected to form rival political parties. Significant election fraud, repression and an influx of international cash from France helped Biya eke out a narrow victory with just 40 percent of the vote.
Since that election, Biya has used the same tools to reconstruct a ruling coalition and win elections — including, for instance, offering opposition party leaders various positions of prestige. Today, Cameroon has the largest cabinet on the continent with more than 65 ministers, secretaries and special delegates. Similarly, Cameroon has not liberalized much of its state-controlled economy, leaving Biya with many fiscal tools to secure political support.
Cameroon’s emergency powers and state control continue to limit electoral competition. During elections, state officials constrain the opposition by limiting rally permits or restricting travel for security purposes. Similarly, the government uses libel laws to shut down media outlets for extensive periods of time. At times, outcomes have appeared so predetermined that Biya has not even campaigned.
What this means for political opposition now
Elites from Cameroon’s north and east regions have continued to hitch their future to Biya. In 2008, the constitution was changed to remove term limits and prevent a conflict over succession. The current opposition is mainly from English-speaking areas, and with elite support from key regions secured, there is no real pathway to defeating the incumbent president.
The regime’s continued control of the state machinery means any opposition is likely to fail. The security situation in English-speaking regions has been used as a pretense to impose curfews and limit movement. There have already been reported issues with voter registration, and the regime plans to limit the number of polling places in certain areas.
The current opposition, as in past elections, is split across numerous candidates. Some of these figures are simply clamoring for some time in the spotlight. Others, such as Joshua Osih, Akere Muna and Maurice Kamto, are more serious contenders — but they are competing against one another rather than Biya. In all likelihood, they know their chances of winning are nonexistent, which is why they might be thinking of 2025 rather than 2018.
Yonatan L. Morse is assistant professor in the department of political science at the University of Connecticut. He is the author of “How Autocrats Compete: Parties, Patrons, and Unfair Elections in Africa” (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming, 2018).