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Paul Biya affords Cameroon's Anglophones too little, too late

On September 7, Cameroonian President Paul Biya signed a decree approving the country's first elections for members of regional councils in each of the country's 10 regions.

Essousse Erik, Director General of Elecam, the government-controlled electoral commission, described the preparations for the vote as follows: "The elections would be a historic moment and a turning point in our democracy." Indeed, the announcement comes that the government plans to hold elections for the regional councils to be governed over two decades after it first declared its intention to do so in 1996 as part of a broader decentralization plan that would allow significant autonomy in relation to the diverse population of Cameroon. Unfortunately it's too little, too late.

The announcement of the election and implementation measures comes as Cameroon is embroiled in a conflict in which separatist fighters in the Anglophone Northwest and Southwest are trying to create an independent state called Ambazonia. This conflict stems from the systematic marginalization of Anglophones, who make up almost 20 percent of the country's population, but was sparked by the repression of demonstrations by teachers and lawyers in the fall of 2016 demanding linguistic autonomy within their respective institutions.

Now, four years after these demonstrations and in the midst of a civil war that has killed thousands of people and displaced hundreds of thousands, Biya's government, consistently ranked as one of the most corrupt and authoritarian in Africa, is seeking decentralization measures. While such reforms at the beginning of the crisis may have addressed some of the protesters' demands, this is now just another effort by the Cameroonian government to present the image that it is responding to the crisis and the grievances of the Anglophone population without a meaningful dialogue or negotiate with civil society or separatist leaders.

Cameroonian opposition leader Maurice Kamto is greeted by hundreds of supporters after his release from Yaounde prison on October 5, 2019. AFP via Getty Images

In the regional elections, due to be held on December 6, a total of 90 council members will be elected to each of the regional bodies – 70 divisional delegates and 20 traditional rulers. The traditional leaders are selected by regional chiefs' bodies, most of which are dominated by supporters of the People's Democratic Movement of Cameroon (CPDM) in Biya and who have supported the party in previous elections.

The regional councils have their origins in a 1996 law that amended the 1972 Cameroon Constitution. This constitution was the second in Cameroon after the abolition of a federal form of government by the country's first president, Ahmadou Ahidjo. Federalism has existed since the merger of the former British colony of South Cameroon with the former French colony of Cameroon in 1961. The 1996 constitutional reform was heralded to curb dissent from ethnic and linguistic groups who had been excluded from Biya during the first decade of government as well that of his predecessor. Groups who suffered from such marginalization included those from the West and North regions, although the Anglophone minority of the Northwest and Southwest regions was the predominant group.

The discontent felt by the Anglophone minority was heightened by the first multi-party elections in 1992, in which John Fru Ndi of the Social Democratic Front (SDF) came second with 36 percent of the vote, while Biya won 40 percent. Allegations of electoral irregularities led to a prolonged period of unrest and a deep sense of marginalization within the Anglophone population.

In response, leaders from Anglophone Cameroon convened the All Anglophone Conference in 1993, which led to the Buea Declaration calling for a return to the pre-1971 Federation government. In 1994, the second All Anglophone Conference convened and issued the Bamenda Declaration. If Cameroon did not return to federal government, the Anglophone regions of Cameroon would demand independence.

Mostly in response to these growing demands from the Anglophone community of Cameroon, the National Assembly of Cameroon adopted constitutional reform measures to create a more decentralized state. At the time, the National Assembly was dominated by the ruling CPDM party, and reform measures were supported by Biya and the government. The amendment stipulated that regions would be responsible for land management, budgeting, education and other areas of governance. She also promised that the main body overseeing the decentralized form of government would be the regional councils established in the change. In addition to regional decentralization, the amendment also made the Cameroonian legislature two-chambered by creating the Senate with 100 members. 30 of the senators are appointed directly by the president, the other 70 are chosen by local councils across Cameroon.

Despite the fact that the constitutional reforms were approved by the National Assembly, the power to convene elections for both the Senate and the regional councils created by the change was given exclusively to the President. And although nationwide elections were held for both the presidency and parliament in the year after the amendment went into effect, Biya has not scheduled elections for the regional councils or the Senate, which means the new bodies were never created.

In essence, the Cameroonian government agreed to constitutional reforms that could shift governance to the regional level, but refused to implement them. By ignoring the demands of the two All Anglophone Conferences and not pushing ahead with the implementation of the decentralization policy of his own government, Biya signaled that he was not taking the demands of the Anglophone minority seriously.

The government's unwillingness to acknowledge the demands of the Anglophone population led to the emergence of several groups demanding the creation of an independent state, such as the National Council of South Cameroon and the Youth League of South Cameroon. The government pushed many of those who called for separation into exile, where they continued their advocacy and gained minimal traction in Cameroon. The events of the 1990s sparked deep resentment among Anglophone Cameroonians and other minorities across the country, which the government ignored.

Even when other constitutional reform measures were fully implemented – including lifting the presidential term limits to allow Biya, who took office in 1982, to remain in power – meaningful decentralization has consistently been avoided. It wasn't until 2013 that Biya called for Senate elections to be held, although the selection process for members through presidential appointments and selection by local councils, generally dominated by the ruling party, has resulted in the House of Lords being another institution that dominated by Biya's allies with no real power.

Police officers wait in the shade after the election meeting in front of posters for President Paul Biya in Maroua on September 29, 2018. ALEXIS HUGUET / AFP via Getty Images

So far, the Biya government has consistently refrained from holding regional council elections, likely for fear that the results could jeopardize the central government's monopoly of control over matters at the local level. Similarly, the government regularly appointed ministers and civil servants from marginalized groups, stating that this had fulfilled all demands for power-sharing. A prime example of this is the office of prime minister, which has been held by an Anglophone since 1991. In reality, such cabinet members are devout supporters of Biya and the ruling party and do little to address the marginalization of the groups they allegedly represent. In short, the status quo continued and marginalization across the country continued to increase.

The lack of real decentralization and persistently poor governance across Cameroon eventually shifted from being a purely political one to one that posed major security challenges for civilians and the legitimacy of the Republic of Cameroon itself.

This first became apparent in 2014 with the start of the attacks by Boko Haram, who set up a safe haven in the Far North region of Cameroon – for a long time one of the country's impoverished areas. In addition, the far north has been marginalized on almost all governance issues, allowing Boko Haram and related groups to recruit and embed themselves from local communities due to decades of socio-economic neglect by the Cameroonian state. Boko Haram remains a threat, as demonstrated by the government, which has been forced to close more than 60 schools over security threats despite claims the group has been defeated.

Similarly, the lack of decentralization and the violation of local educational and judicial institutions sparked massive protests in the Anglophone regions of Northwest and Southwest, which after tough government crackdown, led to a war of separation. When demonstrations broke out in autumn 2016, the government violently suppressed them and mocked the protesters' demands. Despite the fact that the leaders of the demonstrations, Felix Agbor Balla and Fontem Neba, sought negotiations with the government, they were arrested and imprisoned for months.

For many Anglophones, this was evidence that the Cameroonian state was not concerned about their grievances and that creating an independent state would be the only way to address them. Instead of addressing the grievances when the Anglophone minority's demand was real decentralization, the Cameroonian government responded with violence and escalated the situation.

Soldiers carry the coffin of one of the four soldiers who were killed in the violence that broke out in the north-west and south-west regions of Cameroon in Bamenda on November 17, 2017. AFP via Getty Images

By deliberately ignoring the need for decentralization for two decades, the Biya government overcame legitimate social ills, leading to widespread political violence that caused death, destruction and grave humanitarian challenges across Cameroon. As the country faces multiple political crises, the government is trying to implement decentralization measures that do not materially address the grievances of the marginalized population and are based on a law that was written before it even existed.

Instead of a real attempt to implement a negotiated solution to the Anglophone crisis and address the drivers of marginalization in regions including the far north, this is another attempt to present a reform facade. Similar to the national dialogue that took place in autumn 2019 and the so-called “special status” for the Anglophone regions that the elections will consolidate, it will do nothing.

The vast majority of political actors in Cameroon are now arguing that a return to a federal form of government is necessary in order to address the country's challenges. These include Maurice Kamto, himself a Francophonist and chairman of the main opposition party of the Cameroonian Renaissance Movement (CRM), and Fru Ndi of the SDF, who at times went so far as to say that the actions of the Biya government during the Die ongoing Anglophone crisis has sympathized with the demands for separation.

Both CRM and SDF have stated that they will boycott any vote to elect members to regional councils, which means that if councils are set up, they will have minimal legitimacy in the eyes of many Cameroonians. Even if the opposition parties did not boycott the elections, the victory of the CPDM party in Biya would be almost guaranteed as it controls the vast majority of the councils, which will act as indirect voters.

Ironically, the announcement of the regional council elections comes less than a year after the Cameroonian government announced a special status for the two Anglophone regions, in which regional legislatures would appear with some of the same responsibilities as the councils. When the special status was announced, the government claimed that it would give the Northwest and Southwest regions more autonomy than the other eight regions in the country, thereby meeting the demands of the Anglophone minority. However, the same reforms are being carried out nationwide in the creation of regional councils in all ten regions of Cameroon. This is yet another attempt by Biya and his government's hardliners to come up with an illegitimate effort to resolve the crisis and mitigate mounting international criticism.

While many of the challenges Cameroon faces today could have been prevented in the past few decades through real decentralization and better governance, solving them now requires a fundamental change in governance. For some, including Kamto, these demands are broadly centered on political transition and a loosely defined state. Many Anglophones look to the two-state federation that existed in Cameroon in the first decade of its independence and that gave Anglophones a greater degree of autonomy than the rest of the country. A return to the federation, where governors were elected by universal suffrage rather than the president's appointment as they are today, could, however, receive support.

A solution can only be reached through consultations with marginalized groups across the country and through negotiations with separatist leaders in the Northwest and Southwest. The overdue proposal to set up regional councils is just another fig leaf by the Biya government, ignoring the root causes of the grave challenges facing the country. Without real reforms emerging from consultation and negotiation, Cameroon will continue to experience political and economic turmoil, leading to increased violence and regional instability.

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