- The Hard Lessons of Cameroon
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Five years after the emergence of a promising trend toward multiparty elections in sub-Saharan Africa, a number of countries are in danger of slipping back into outright authoritarian rule. Worse yet, some members of the international community appear to be offering at least tacit consent to such a reversion, while others assume a posture of cool indifference. Such is the case with Cameroon today, where the ruling Cameroonian People’s Democratic Movement (CPDM), strongly backed by France, seems set to recapture the ground that it lost during the tumultuous two years preceding the 11 October 1992 presidential election.
At that time the ten-year-old regime of President Paul Biya appeared headed to almost certain defeat, but partly owing to widespread election fraud the incumbent gained a narrow victory. According to the official results, Biya won 40 percent of the vote, John Fru Ndi of the Social Democratic Front (SDF) 36 percent, and Maïgari Bello Boúba of the National Union for Democracy and Progress (UNDP) 19 percent. Biya’s party had also gained a substantial plurality in Cameroon’s National Assembly in March 1992 elections boycotted by the SDF.
Today the country’s unicameral legislature is a rump parliament overwhelmingly dominated by CPDM deputies, as the opposition UNDP delegation walked out in October 1994 to protest the arrest of UNDP activists in Far North Province. The municipal elections expected for later this year have been indefinitely postponed. The exaggerated presidentialism of the 1972 Constitution, adopted under President Ahmadou Babatoura Ahidjo, the founder of postcolonial Cameroon, has yet to be revised. John Fru Ndi, leader of the SDF and probably the [End Page 112] real winner of the October 1992 presidential election, is subject to government-inspired harassment whenever he dares to venture outside of his stronghold in English-speaking North West Province. Finally, the long-awaited “democratization” of the media (radio and television particularly) remains an increasingly remote possibility. The resurgence of authoritarianism, disarray within the opposition, continued economic decline, and the malign role played by the country’s main foreign patron (France) make Cameroon a rich source of hard lessons about the pitfalls that await democratic transitions throughout Africa and the developing world.
In order to achieve a fuller understanding both of the factors that have undermined Cameroon’s democratic transition and of its future prospects for democracy, it is necessary to look at the country’s postcolonial history, social structure, and political dynamics. Cameroon is the only African state where the respective colonial legacies of Britain and France have had to coexist, however awkwardly. Cameroon is also exceptional in another respect, for while the transition from colonial status to statehood was generally peaceful in much of French-speaking sub-Saharan Africa, Cameroon’s independence in 1960 came amid a violent uprising by the left-wing nationalists of the Union des Populations du Cameroun (UPC) that was not decisively defeated until the early 1970s. Both of these circumstances—or, more precisely, President Ahidjo’s response to them—left an imprint on Cameroonian political life that endures to this day.
Technically, Cameroon was never a French or British colony. The Germans had made it a protectorate in 1884; after their defeat in the First World War, the newly formed League of Nations ceded roughly 80 percent of Cameroon’s territory to France and 20 percent to Britain to be administered as a mandate. With the close of the Second World War, Cameroon’s status changed again, this time to that of a French and British trust under the tutelage of the League of Nations’ heir apparent, the United Nations. Such technicalities meant little, however. For all practical purposes Cameroon was a colony with two masters, although the superior resource endowment of French East Cameroon meant that Paris took a keener interest in its “trust” than London did.
France administered East Cameroon as part of the larger territory of French Equatorial Africa (comprising also present-day Chad, the Central African Republic, Congo, and Gabon). The excellent deepwater port of Douala at the mouth of the Wouri River...