11 April 2008

Cameroon: Parliament Extends President Paul Biya's Rule for Life

Yaounde — In yet another setback for democracy in Africa, Cameroon's parliament adopted a constitutional bill removing a two-term limit to allow President Paul Biya to extend his 25-year rule on Thursday, despite opposition to the extension which caused of riots that killed dozens of people in February.

The bill, submitted just a week ago, was approved on Tuesday by the assembly's constitutional law committee which dismissed more than 20 opposition amendments. Opposition lawmakers, who criticised the bill stormed out of the chamber before the vote, Reuters reported.

Biya's Cameroon People's Democratic Movement (CPDM) enjoys a huge majority, controlling 153 of 180 parliamentary seats. The CPDM oversaw the introduction of a new constitution in 1996 which limited presidents to two seven-year terms. Biya's second term under that constitution expires in 2011, but he made it clear in a New Year speech that he would like to stay on.

Parliament members from the Social Democratic Front (SDF), the main opposition with 15 seats, walked out of the assembly in protest, saying parliament should not amend a constitution that emerged from cross-party negotiations in the early 1990s.

There was little visible reaction in the capital Yaounde, whose streets were empty late on Thursday due to heavy rain. A Reuters reporter saw members of Cameroon's military rapid reaction force patrolling parts of the city on Wednesday night.

"It is common knowledge that incumbent presidents in Africa use the government machinery and all the powers at their disposal to manoeuvre the electoral process," SDF parliamentary chief whip Joseph Barnadzem told reporters outside the chamber.

"To try now to amend this article only through the National Assembly, for us is tantamount to a hold-up," he said. CPDM chief whip Jean Bernard Ndongo Essomba said the bill, which also reduces presidential terms to five years, "will enhance democracy, maintain political stability, national unity and territorial integrity" of Cameroon.

"It is in tune with international accepted standards as practised in old democracies such as France and the United Kingdom. It therefore warrants the enthusiastic support of all Cameroonians of good faith," he said.

A number of African presidents have abolished two-term limits introduced in the 1990s in a wave of multi-party rule after the end of the Cold War. But efforts to do so in Nigeria, Zambia and Malawi have been blocked in recent years.

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