Interview by Innocent Chia
Other than the silly rumor of the improbable escape of First Lady Chantal Biya, allegedly and uncharacteristically disappearing from the national spotlight for a jiffy last year, little else has in recent times, sparked as much conversation as Biya’s precipitated Senatorial Elections in April. Without any rhyme or rhythm for such a short calendar, the President Decreed an election less than 60 days from his announcement. Whilst most observers are still scratching their heads over this decision, there are those who see no value in the exercise and are making calls for any legitimate opposition to refrain from it.
But there are those who say not-participating is not an option because the Biya regime has never lacked takers (fake "Opposition" that it creates) to fill up seats in the Parliament when the “real” opposition seats out. The problem for proponents of participating is that the record of achievements for the “real” opposition over the last two decades has been abysmal. Their greatest failure was strategic foresight because they underestimated the resilience of the CPDM; did not factor the capacity of their own leadership to withstand corruption; and overestimated the tenacity of the general population. In this exclusive interview with The Chia Report, Chris Fomunyoh, Ph.D - Senior Associate for Africa at the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI) in Washington DC and Cameroonian - delves into the why's and why not's of this charade.
Dr. Chris Fomunyoh: Article 14 of the constitution of our country as adopted in 1996 provides that Cameroon shall have a bi-cameral legislature or parliament made up of the National Assembly and the Senate. Article 20 stipulates that that second body or upper chamber will have 100 Senators, 10 from each region of the country, seven of whom would be elected and three others appointed by the Head of State. The same constitution and subsequent laws stipulate that the seven Senators shall be elected by indirect balloting through regional electoral colleges constituted of local councilors and regional councilors. These instruments also lay out that regional councilors derive from divisional councilors who are designated to represent administrative divisions (or prefectures) in their respective regional councils.
The outcry that you hear today across the country arises from questions about the legality of today’s electoral college and the fact that the legitimacy of Senators elected under these circumstances may be tarnished beyond repair: regional councils have not yet been created, and current local councilors are serving on bonus time as their fixed five year term mandates expired last year. Moreover, the electorate of 2013 is definitely different from that which participated in the local elections of 2007, and there are legitimate reasons to question the representative mandate of the councilors that will cast ballots on April 14.
CR: Presidential Decree N° 2013/056 is some 17 odd years late in application of the 1996 Constitutional provision that created an Upper House Chamber in Cameroon. From the date of his announcement to the date of elections there are 45- 46 days. Is there an urgency, you think, that has caused the convening of the Electoral College and almost immediate application of Decree?
Dr. Chris Fomunyoh: It is a shame that in our country, the population is ambushed at every election, including that for the Senate which under normal circumstances should be a very easy exercise given the small size of those called upon to vote. First, ELECAM (the lection administration body) was conducting voter registration outside of the January to August period stipulated in the election law, and Cameroonians were told that this was in anticipation of the election of local councilors and members of the National Assembly whose extended mandate would be ending soon.
Then comes the decree on Senatorial elections which forces political parties to scramble to meet deadlines for identification of candidates and submission of lists. This limited time frame does not allow any of the political parties, including the CPDM, enough time to organize public and transparent candidate selection activities with grassroots input, which means that this decree, like many others signed by President Biya, inflicts collateral damage on internal democracy within Cameroonian political parties. I do not see the urgency that a tainted Senate would address in the immediate term.
CR: Biya supporters are praising this initiative as another example of his stewardship and leadership as far as strengthening democracy in Cameroon. You care to say why they may be wrong or right?
Dr. Chris Fomunyoh: Unfortunately, over the past 30 years we have seen and heard the most unimaginable declarations from supporters of this regime. Cameroonians have become accustomed to such praise singers by day and critics by night. To extrapolate somewhat, the emperor could be standing naked in the street and his supporters would sing his praises for his new dress code, even as the rest of the world sees clearly that the emperor has no clothes.
Lest we forget, in the early 1990s, as other African countries were opening up their political systems and Cameroonian democrats were advocating for more freedoms and liberty, some of these same individuals marched in the streets of the capital saying “no to democracy and political pluralism.” The Cameroonian people will remember.
CR: Talk to the concerns that about 90 percent of the Electoral College of Municipal Councilors – 9032 of 10636 – are from Paul Biya’s ruling CPDM. Will this have an impact on the quality and quantity of representation in the Senate and how?
Dr. Chris Fomunyoh: The concerns are more serious than just a number’s game. The issue is that the demographics of the country and the electorate have shifted between 2007 and 2013, so much so that one couldn’t tell in advance whether credible local elections in 2013 would give the CPDM more or less local councilors. What about new political parties that have emerged or gained strength and increased membership since 2007? The main question is: if the country is this close to holding new local elections, why not hold those elections first in order to have councilors of irrefutable legitimacy and more equitable representation who would then be called upon to participate in the election of Senators?
CR: According to the same Decree of application, President Biya will be appointing 30 of the 100 Senators. What effect does this have on the national polity?
Dr. Chris Fomunyoh: The provision that allows the president to appoint 30 Senators is in the constitution, although many Cameroonians disagree with the concept of the head of the executive branch hand picking members of the legislative branch that are supposed to exercise oversight over his performance, as in every democratic society. With already so much power centralized in the hands of one individual in the Cameroonian context, giving that individual even more powers entrenches patronage and cronyism, and simply makes a mockery of the institutions and systems of checks and balances that every democratic society has, and that we as Cameroonians deserve.
CR: It has been said that the idea of a Senate was to mimic the US system. Why is this not a moment when the US is flattered that it is getting copied by Cameroon?
Dr. Chris Fomunyoh: Well, the United States can speak for itself, but for me as a Cameroonian who loves his country and cares about the future we need to build for our youth and future generations, this whole exercise about a Senate is a very bad joke at many levels. The United States has 100 Senators for a population of 300 million inhabitants and a GDP (gros domestic product) 600 times that of Cameroon; so our leaders hand pick their own 100 Senators for 20 million people, and we call that mimicking the US?
Perhaps some of our leaders think that by creating a Senate, they can brag about the democracy they practice just as they say unashamedly these days that Cameroon has more than 200 registered political parties, and therefore is freer and more democratic than countries such as the United States, France, Great Britain, Ghana, South Africa and Senegal that have less.
Many Cameroonians even question why have a Senate when the current National Assembly is understaffed and under-resourced to carry out fully its legislative and representative functions, and when we have other institutions such as the Economic and Social Council in existence for decades with no visible impact on governance and, worse still, no accountability for the annual budgets allocated to such institutions.
There is reason to be anxious about the future of our beloved country. We still have a long way to go and greater commitment needed to attain the appropriate democratic institutions and processes that many Africans now take for granted.
CR: The Law and Decree of Application both address Regional Representation. But they are both silent about demographic representation, including youth and women.
Dr. Chris Fomunyoh: To be honest with you, my feeling is that the current regime uses the words ‘women and youth’ as mere slogans. Besides getting women to wear party uniforms and dance at public events glorifying ‘the great leader’, I am still to identify specific government policies and actions that benefit the Cameroonian woman. Look at the placards carried by some women during the last March 8 ceremonies marking international women’s day.
We deny many young Cameroonians even the right to vote by crafting an artificial voting age at 20 years old whereas the age of maturity is 18 years; we create artificial statistics to hock wink young people into believing the government has their interest at heart: in 2011, Cameroonian youth were promised 25,000 jobs and for a long time it was unclear whether or how those jobs were all filled; then at year end 2012, youth were promised 300,000 jobs without stating clearly how that would be done in an economy that is stagnating and for which the regime itself promises economic emergence only in 2035, more than 22 years from now.
CR: Let’s talk some about the opposition in this process. What are the chances that the opposition stuns Biya and his cohorts and wins a majority?
Dr. Chris Fomunyoh: No chances for opposition parties at all! Zip! Zero! Left to its own devises, the regime that governs our country today seems intent on driving us back into the dark days of one party rule.
CR: Why do Fru Ndi and his nominal opposition not bear the credibility of yesteryears to pull it off?
Dr. Chris Fomunyoh: The deck is stacked against opposition parties in our country. The playing field is so tilted in many areas. Even then, and as I said during a public conference in Yaounde in November 2012, the opposition also needs to take stock of itself, recognize its strengths and weaknesses, size up its assets and liabilities, review its accomplishments and failures, in order to redefine the role its wants to play in shaping the country’s future.
The population has become disenchanted, apathetic and disrespectful of some of the opposition leaders and parties for good reason. In fact the frequent inconsistencies of some leaders deprive the people of the right to hope for change and a different and better tomorrow.
CR: Is it an accurate assessment that this Senatorial Body, if Cameroonians let the charade continue, is nothing but another rubber stamp masquerade for the Executive Branch, without a mandate to change the course of history for the development and prosperity of Cameroonians, and another foundation for the thriving plague of corruption?
Dr. Chris Fomunyoh: You captured it very well. I have even said, in dismay and disbelieve at the frivolous manner in which democratic institution building is handled in our country, that if the regime already has its list of 100 Senators, it should name them now and save us all the unnecessary expenditure from state coffers and further embarrassment before other Africans and the rest of the world. Thank goodness there’s precedence that in a country such as Senegal, President Macky Sall upon getting into office saw the futility of a Senate created under similar circumstances and scrapped it completely. Senegal’s democracy hasn’t lost a dent of its credibility.
CR: At the last Presidential Elections in 2011 there are many Cameroonians who strongly believed that your town hall meetings across North America were to explore the chances of running against Paul Biya. You care to explain why it was a no-go at the end?
Dr. Chris Fomunyoh: As I stated during a press conference in Douala on September 13, 2011, the town hall meetings across North America and Europe and the extensive consultations across the country were aimed at hearing from my fellow compatriots about their hopes and aspirations with regards to the political leadership of our country and the role we could play in bringing these expectations to fruition going forward. While some felt that one needed to take the bull by the hones, many others worried about being compromised by a flawed process that seemed pre-arranged for a predetermined outcome.
We therefore determined that we could not, in good conscience, become accomplices in the charade of an electoral process. Developments since then continue to prove us right; and when President Biya stated in Paris recently that his legitimacy could not be questioned because he won a competitive presidential election against more than 20 other candidates, whom by the way he treated with disdain as if they were stooges, many of our fellow compatriots were relieved that I was not one of them.
CR: Can you tell the disillusioned Cameroonian youth what, if anything, they can and should be doing to fend off this onslaught by the current generation of leaders?
Dr. Chris Fomunyoh: My piece of advice to the Cameroonian youth is ‘do not despair’! Leaders come and go, but countries leave on. So, the opportunity will come for our country to bounce back and regain its rightful place among the community of truly democratic nations. The clock turns in only one direction and, despite the challenges of the moment, that one direction keeps me hopeful for our youth and optimistic for the future of our resource-rich country. So, working with the youth, we must keep expanding and strengthening the networks of like-minded, committed and patriotic Cameroonians, so that once the opportunity arises and the stars align themselves, the youth will rise up and make their voices heard loud and clear, once and for all.