Cameroon's apparent stability and recent government reforms can no longer hide its vulnerabilities. While the government of President Paul Biya has manipulated the electoral system to his advantage, options for effective political expression by the opposition are minimal, social discontent is widespread and new security threats are emerging.
The combination of external pressures (Boko Haram and the Central African Republic crisis) and long lasting internal social and political deadlock is a destabilising mix. Yet, ironically, for the moment, it is the principal source of support for the current regime; for the majority of Cameroonians, a preference for the devil they know - rather than any intrinsic appeal of the ruling party - is what seems to ensure a semblance of stability. To reduce the risk of violent crisis ahead of the next election in 2018, the government and opposition should set up a framework for dialogue and agree on a package of meaningful political and institutional reforms.
The key question for both local and foreign observers of Cameroon is always the same: how will the transition to a post-Biya political landscape play itself out? After 32 years as president, 81-year-old Paul Biya, reelected in 2011 for seven more years at the helm, does not seem ready to leave office in 2018. In 2010, the International Crisis Group outlined the weaknesses of Cameroon's non-violent status quo and the dangerous consequences of a growing rift between the regime and society at large. Since then, vulnerabilities have deepened.
Despite accepting demands by opposition and civil society for some institutional reforms (new electoral code, creation of the Senate), the governing Cameroon People's Democratic Movement (CPDM) party still dominates the political scene. Amid claims of electoral fraud, the outcome of the 2011 and 2013 elections resulted in only a residual role in parliament, towns and cities for opposition parties, reinforcing the notion that a change of power through the ballot box was improbable under the current dispensation.
Despite the proliferation of media and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), civil society has lost the influence it had during the 1990s. Some local NGOs are under the sway of the regime while others are dependent on financial foreign assistance. Due to corruption, unemployment, and poverty, much of the NGO sector has turned into a market and consequently civil society's influence on public policies is limited.
In addition, some pillars of the regime are cracking. Internal tensions are deepening in the CPDM while security forces are divided and under pressure. The expansion of attacks by Nigeria's extremist Islamist group Boko Haram into northern Cameroon and the spillover of the Central African Republic crisis into eastern Cameroon are increasing the fragility of the security apparatus and may feed internal discontent.
The mix of external security challenges with political and social stagnation could prove potentially dangerous if there is an unmanaged transition. As shown by the 2011 and 2013 elections, neither the opposition nor civil society can serve as vehicles for social and political change in a context of a widening generation gap and massive youth unemployment. The bulk of the Cameroonian population is young (the average age is nineteen), often jobless, and views the ageing elite as the main cause of stagnation.
Crisis Group's previous recommendations on the transparency of the electoral process, institutional reforms and the fight against corruption are still relevant and should form the thrust of an agreement on a post-Biya transition signed between the regime, opposition and civil society and guaranteed by an international witness (the African Union). This agreement should include:
- creating a dialogue framework between the opposition and the ruling party to negotiate and agree on institutional reforms;
- injecting new blood into the leadership structures of political parties through the implementation of age quotas;
- President Biya's promise not to contest the 2018 presidential election in exchange for a guarantee that no legal actions (excluding crimes under the Rome Statute) will be undertaken against him and that he can retain his assets;
- organising primaries in all political parties, including the ruling party, before 2018;
- changing the appointment mechanisms for the members of the Supreme Court, the Constitutional Council and the electoral commission in order to improve their independence; and,
- reducing discontent within the army by providing the same equipment, wage and financial benefits to the special and regular military units and rotating troops in the Far North.
Nairobi/Brussels, 4 September 2014