Cameroon’s Paul Biya Gives a Master Class in Fake Democracy
One of the world’s most experienced autocrats has clinched another seven-year term by bending the rules of the game in his direction in ways both old and new.
It’s no accident that Paul Biya is the second-longest-ruling head of state in the world who isn’t a monarch. Nor that Cameroon’s constitutional council confirmed today that Biya, who has been in power for 36 years, has won a seventh term in office and is set to lead the country until 2025.
By any objective standard, the Cameroonian election on Oct. 7 was a farce, according to outside observers. Voter turnout was marked by apathy, and in some regions, outright fear, with credible sources saying that less than 1 percent of voters cast ballots in some areas. In the country’s English-speaking regions, harsh crackdowns on an emerging secessionist movement kept many polling stations closed and left others mostly attended by soldiers.
But the country’s state media want you to know that the elections went just fine, and they can cite “outside monitors” to prove it.
On Oct. 8, state-run outlet Cameroon Radio Television (CRTV) interviewed a group of international observers who praised the country’s elections as credible and fair. One election observer, filmed by CRTV and identified as Nurit Greenger, a Transparency International observer, called Cameroon’s elections “extremely good.” She added, “I don’t think there is a way you can cheat.”
There was just one hitch: Transparency International has no election observers in Cameroon, and the organization has no ties to the group that appeared on CRTV.
“It’s still a bit of a mystery as to who decided to say that they were a Transparency International group,” Michael Hornsby, a spokesperson for the organization, told Foreign Policy. “But I think it’s very telling that one of the individuals kept repeating that they were trained by us—long after we had said we had nothing to do with them.”
The strange spectacle reflects what has become a growing trend of autocrats using new methods to add a gloss of legitimacy to elections that are deeply flawed. This particular tactic of using outsiders as props has cropped up with such frequency around the world—from Azerbaijan to Equatorial Guinea—that real election experts even have a name for them: “zombie observers.”
But of all the world’s autocrats who pretend to be democrats, Paul Biya is one of the most accomplished. And although experts agree that he may be making more mistakes than usual, this hasn’t undermined his hold on the presidency.
“What really stands out in Cameroon and elsewhere is the degree that highly abusive, repressive, and, in this case, dictatorial regimes will go to, to somehow get this stamp of approval,” said Jeffrey Smith, the executive director of Vanguard Africa, a nonprofit organization focused on democracy promotion in African states.
Part of that strategy involves doing just enough to keep the United States and other major Western powers from bothering to notice. In Biya’s corner is a small but powerful constellation of lobbying and public relations firms that the government has embraced in the buildup to the 2018 vote in an effort to buy the prestige of outside approval. These firms have shouldered the weight of managing the country’s media relationships and keeping in contact with U.S. lawmakers.
Documents filed under the Foreign Agents Registration Act show the Biya government is channeling upward of $184,000 a month to these firms. Squire Patton Boggs is currently receiving $100,000 a quarter from Cameroon. Glover Park Group—which just cut ties with the Saudi government—is providing public affairs and communications support to the Embassy of Cameroon in Washington for $51,000 a month, and in September, Mercury Public Affairs secured a media relations contract with the government worth $100,000 a month. Squire Patton Boggs and Glover Park Group did not return phone calls asking for comment, while Michael McKeon, a partner at Mercury Public Affairs, told Foreign Policy that the group “does not represent Cameroon” at present, despite his name being on a contract that runs until 2019.
“Biya in this case is really trying to play the PR game … they’re trying to somehow present this regime that has been in power for [nearly] 40 years as a credible guarantor of the democratic rights and aspirations of its people,” Smith said. “Once you start peeling back the layers, the opposite is true.”
Kah Walla, who became the first woman to run for president in Cameroon in 2011, calls the country an “electoral dictatorship.” She told FP, “Keep in mind in electoral dictatorships, the opposition is running against the incumbent, his party, the civil service, the state media, and even most of the private media, which tend to be run by party cadres, as well as the armed forces.”
In Walla’s run against Biya, she experienced the tampering firsthand. “On voting day, our party representatives were thrown out of polling stations, threatened, and bribed in various parts of the country,” she said. “As an opposition party, not only do all the existing rules apply to you, but they’ll make up other ones as they go along,” she added. That has continued in 2018 as well—leading opposition candidate Maurice Kamto alleged in front of the Constitutional Council that members of his party, the Cameroon Renaissance Movement, were chased out of polling stations this time around.
The country’s Constitutional Council offers a 72-hour window for candidates to lodge complaints about the electoral process. But Biya appoints the members of the council, and complaints have to be heard before official results are released, leaving candidates without any evidence to substantiate their claims.
Nkongho Felix Agbor Balla, a high-profile Anglophone human rights lawyer in Cameroon who spoke in support of Kamto at the Constitutional Council this week, said that Biya stacked the courts in his favor against any electoral challenges. He told FP that the judges “cannot bite the fingers that feed them, they can not go against their master. These are people that would never allow Mr. Biya to lose an election.”
The Cameroonian Embassy in Washington declined a request for comment.
For years, Biya has stayed in power by co-opting elites who could potentially challenge him, undermining a fragmented opposition, and bending state institutions—including those overseeing the election—toward his own interests.
In part thanks to Biya’s agile maneuvering, few in Washington were paying attention to Cameroon’s election. But the stakes are higher in Biya’s seventh presidential run: Even as the fight against the Islamist militant group Boko Haram is winding down, with reportedly fewer than 1,000 active fighters in the country’s north, Cameroon still has to confront the distrust and displacement caused by the insurgency. And it is now facing widespread political strife and conflict on another front that has taken aim at the country’s very foundation, the combination of French- and English-speaking regions into a single state.
These deeper demographic divisions could eventually undermine Biya’s hold on power—though some experts expect the 85-year-old president to live out the rest of his life in office as the insurgency continues to smolder, given the strength of Cameroon’s military. Cameroon is fraying along a familiar seam—one that divides its 5 million English-speaking citizens and its Francophone majority, which makes up around 80 percent of the country. It’s an arrangement that has held since the creation of Cameroon—which emerged as an independent nation from colonial rule in 1961 when the area governed by British rule elected to join its French-speaking neighbors instead of Nigeria.
Experts say that in the decades since its independence, the government in Yaoundé has gradually chipped away at the rights and government support for its English-speaking citizens. “Since 1961, everything encompassing the Anglophone legal system, educational system, and identity has been diminished over time—to the point where Anglophones no longer recognize the entity in which they currently belong within the framework of today’s Cameroon,” said Christopher Fomunyoh, the director of the Africa program at the National Democratic Institute.
In the northwest and southwest of the country, what started off in 2016 as protests from teachers and lawyers in the Anglophone regions pushing for more rights and support has transformed into an armed separatist movement. Some Anglophones have gone as far as advocating for the creation of a separate state—Ambazonia—which they want to see split off from Francophone Cameroon entirely.
The Anglophone crisis intensified to the point where gunfire and threats have nearly emptied entire towns. “Displacement is a very good indicator of trouble—people are leaving these areas because there is a lot of violence,” said Richard Moncrieff, the program director for Central Africa at the International Crisis Group. The group, a nongovernmental organization that tracks conflict and crises around the world, has reported that as many as 300,000 people have fled their homes in the northwest and southwest of Cameroon.
The violent government crackdown, which has seen about 400 people killed, has had dramatic political impact. Voter turnout in the Anglophone regions fell to remarkable lows—to the extent that there was “nearly no election” in the northwest and southwest, according to autocratic politics expert Brett Carter—reflecting the almost universal distrust in Biya among the English-speaking population.
“I don’t really think the government made much of a legitimate effort to make sure that Anglophone citizens voted,” said Carter, a professor at the University of Southern California. “It’s important for observers to understand the extent to which government violence over the past year and a half has reshaped the Cameroonian political landscape.”
Balla described the atmosphere on election day as he monitored polling stations in the southwest region: “The security presence in town was very intimidating … most people, who were scared of the military, decided to stay at home.” He added, “in one polling station, close to my house in Buea, at least 300 members of the military voted there.”
“There is an emerging civil war. Anglophones feel completely disenfranchised, but they didn’t need the elections to tell them that,” Moncrieff added.
But the brewing crisis has hardly made a blip in Washington, outside of an Oct. 11 statement from the U.S. State Department reiterating America’s neutrality in the elections and calling for “calm and the careful [sic], non-partisan conclusion of the remaining phases of the vote tabulation process.”
The State Department has been treading lightly with its remarks about Cameroon’s election after a diplomatic uproar sparked by carefully couched comments from the U.S. ambassador, Peter Henry Barlerin, earlier this year. In June, Barlerin suggested in a meeting with Biya the president “should be thinking about his legacy and how he wants to be remembered,” citing George Washington and Nelson Mandela as role models. The government jumped on the comments, accusing him of criticizing Biya and trying to sway elections, and later several local media outlets alleged he paid $5 million to opposition candidates. The U.S. Embassy called the claims “entirely false.”
Violence and longstanding rampant corruption have taken a heavy toll on Cameroon’s economy. But the country remains one of Central Africa’s most stable and economically significant countries. And Biya has consistently emphasized the relative stability of the country in comparison to its neighbors like the Central African Republic as a key platform for his re-elections. “For decades, Biya has run on a campaign of, ‘Look at our neighbors. Look at Nigeria, what a mess. Look at Chad, what a mess. We’re stable, we’re unified. We’re a strong country to be proud of,’” said Natalie Letsa, a scholar on sub-Saharan Africa at Stanford University. “I think that the Biya government is trying to keep that narrative alive the best they can, which is relatively easy given the lack of access to information in parts of the country.”
But for Biya to emerge from the 2018 election with no coherent plan to resolve conflict in the Anglophone regions will have far-reaching consequences.
“Forty percent of the region’s economic output comes from Cameroon. It’s a highly important country in terms of its political influence and the influence that Biya has on neighboring countries,” Smith said. “I think as Cameroon continues to regress, it’s going to continue to drag the rest of the region down.”
Jefcoate O'Donnell is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @brjodonnell