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Paul Biya heads confidently towards re-election

[Cameroon] Cameroonian President Paul Biya.
Will President Paul Biya stand for a new term? (UNDP)

President Paul Biya appears set for victory in Monday's presidential election in Cameroon. The long-serving head of state faces a divided opposition which has already accused him of preparing to rig the poll.

"No transparent elections have taken place in Cameroon since independence. I don't even think that President Biya's generation of African leaders can leave power through the ballot box," Cardinal Christian Tumi, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Douala and a long-time critic of the government, told IRIN.

"Mr Biya is simply organising elections because he wants to give an impression to the world that he is democratic," said Shande Tonme, a Cameroonian political scientist, who was equally sceptical that Monday's poll would be free and fair.

Biya, 71 has ruled this West African country for the past 22 years and has so far treated the presidential election more as a formality than as a serious fight for political survival.

Always a secretive figure, the president has spent much of his time abroad in recent months.

Indeed, his prolonged absence from the country even led to speculation last June that he had died in a Geneva hospital.

But the government denied these rumours and 48 hours later, Biya turned up smiling at Yaounde airport, insisting that he was in good health and that he had simply enjoyed a good holiday in Switzerland

The 11 October election date was only announced in mid-September while Biya was on an extended visit to France. The president only confirmed that he would be seeking a further seven-year term on his return to Cameroon four days later.

Although the ruling Cameroon People's Democratic Movement (CPDM) quickly put Biya's re-election campaign into motion, taking full advantage of its control of the state media and erecting huge portraits of Biya on billboards across the country, the president himself did not bother to address a campaign rally until 5 October - less than a week before polling day.

Speaking on the same day that teachers launched a nationwide strike for higher pay, Biya told a crowd of 50,000 people bussed into the small town of Monatele, 70 km northwest of Yaounde, that he would stimulate the economy, create more jobs and bring more water and electricity supplies to rural areas.

Although his government is view by the Berlin-based corruption watchdog Transparency International as one of the most corrupt in Africa, Biya promised to fight graft. "We will mercilessly sanction fraud and corruption which are the main obstacles that are largely responsible for our difficulties," he said

Pointing out that he had managed to keep Cameroon, a country formed by the union of former French and British colonies, stable and peaceful, Biya derided his opponents as a bunch of opportunists, full of unrealistic promises.

"Who are these magicians who wannt to transform Cameroon with just one stroke of their magic rod?" he asked, "dismissing all the opposition candidates as "political amateurs."

This was a charge echoed by Cardinal Tumi, who accused the opposition of lacking clear alternative policies. "They would rather spend their time criticising the regim without any clear programme for the future of the country," he said.

The opposition insists that the only way to bring progress to Cameroon is boot out Biya and the CPDM. Under different names, this party has ruled Cameroon ever since independence in 1960.

However, the opposition is dangerously split in the presidential election between two main contenders.

John Fru Ndi, 63, a veteran opposition leader from the Anglophone southwest of Cameroon, who ran Biya a close second in the 1992 election, has decided to challenge his old rival once again. His Social Democratic Front is the largest opposition party in parliament, drawing most of its support from the Anglophone highlands of Southwestern Cameroon

However, Fru Ndi, refused to stand down when the Coalition for National Reconciliation and Reconstruction (CNRR), an alliance of Cameroon's 10 main opposition parties, including Fru Ndi's Social Democratic Front, decided to choose Adamou Ndam Njoya, a 62-year-old Francophone, as its presidential candidate instead.

Ndam Njoya is a devout but liberal Muslim with a reputation for integrity, who served as a minister between 1975 and 1982 under Cameroon's first president Ahmadou Ahidjo.

Diplomats and Cameroonian political commentators said the split between the two men was likely to perpetuate the long-standing divide between Anglophones, who comprise 20 percent of Cameroon's population, and the country's Francophone majority.

There are a total of 16 candidates on the ballot sheet, but Biya, Fru Ndi and Ndam Njoya are expected to take the lion's share of the vote.

However, there are widespread fears that the government will rig the election anyway to ensure that Biya remains in power.

The opposition has complained that only 4.6 million people - about half the country's adult population - has been officially registered to vote and that the government has issued more than one voting card to many of its supporters.

"We are out for transparent, free and fair elections, but something tricky is certainly going on," said Charly Gabriel Mbock, spokesman for the Ndam Njoya's CNRR. "We have noticed that many people are getting four or five (voter's) cards with the same identity card in the same polling station," he told IRIN.

These charges are not new.

Fru Ndi cried foul when he was beaten by Biya in 1992 and along with Cameroon's other heavyweight opposition figures, he refused to contest the subsequent presidential election in 1997, allowing Biya to romp home with an official majority of 92.6 percent.

Tonme, the political scientist, said most Cameroonians no longer cared about elections, because they could guess the official results in advance. This, he said, had created voter apathy.

"Between 70 and 80 percent of Cameroonians of voting age don't care about elections in the country," Tonme told IRIN, predicting that only 15 percent of the country's adults would bother to cast a vote on Monday.

"How many people truly have voter's card to vote when about a million fake voters have already been discovered? The elections on Monday are not going to be transparent and credible," he added.

No-one knows for certain how many fake voter's cards are in circulation. Opposition estimates go up to 1.5 million. But there is a general consensus that there are many.

The National Election Observatory, an independent body set up to supervise national elections in 2001, said last week that it had disqualified 4,867 non-existant voters detected in the English-speaking Northwest Province, a stronghold of opposition leader Fru Ndi.

Several individuals in the capital Yaounde meanwhile told IRIN they had been issued with more than one voter's card.

However, last Wednesday, Communications Minister Jacques Fame Ndongo categorically denied allegations that the government was rigging the poll to secure Biya's re-election.

A 16-man Commonwealth observer team, lead by former Canadian prime minister Joe Clark, has said it will keep an open mind about the election until it sees how polling is actually conducted.

"Our purpose will be to arrive at a broad overview of the democratic environment and the electoral process as a whole, rather than the outcome," the mission said in a statement, stressing that it would be "neutral, impartial and objective throughout."

But Tonme said the Commonwealth team and other groups of international observers monitoring the poll would have no effect on its final outcome. "None of their opinions about past elections in Cameroon have ever been implemented," he said.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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