World Politics Review | When Cameroon’s 85-year-old president, Paul Biya, announced on Twitter earlier this month that he would be running for a seventh consecutive term in October, it was a chance for the world to marvel anew at his remarkable longevity.
Biya came to power 36 years ago, taking over for Ahmadou Ahidjo, Cameroon’s first president. Though the transfer was amicable, the two men were soon engaged in a power struggle that forced Ahidjo into exile. He would later be sentenced in absentia to life in prison for allegedly plotting against Biya, and he never returned, dying in Senegal in 1989.
The Ahidjo saga marked the beginning of a pattern in which Biya, who is sometimes called Cameroon’s “Lion Man,” has either co-opted potential challengers or found ways to defang them, often through criminal proceedings. Ten years ago, he also neutralized the main institutional threat he faced when he scrapped the presidential term limit, making it easier for him to rule as long as he desired.
As Reuters pointed out in its story about Biya’s latest campaign announcement, only one other president in Africa has served longer without a break: Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea. The New York Times, for its part, put Biya’s reign in context by noting that he took power the same year—1982—that Michael Jackson released the album “Thriller.”
Such observations are no doubt intended to call into question Biya’s legitimacy. But while presidents-for-life have fallen out of fashion in West Africa, they are still the norm in the center of the continent. In addition to Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon’s neighbors include Gabon, which has been ruled by the Bongo family since 1967; the Republic of Congo, where President Denis Sassou Nguesso first took power in 1979 and has ruled uninterrupted since 1997; and Chad, where Idriss Deby drove Hissene Habre from power in 1990 and has been president ever since.
Moreover, Biya’s government has worked hard to frame his longevity as an asset rather than a knock against him. By keeping Cameroon “stable,” he says, he has saved it from the type of turmoil that, given the country’s economic and geographic position, could wreak havoc in the wider region. This line is parroted not just by Biya loyalists but also by many diplomats posted to Yaounde.
Yet Biya’s particular brand of “stability,” which has always been marred by corruption and poor governance, is looking especially precarious these days. The country’s problems have only multiplied since Biya last ran for president in 2011. Several years ago, the Nigeria-based militant group Boko Haram started expanding its attacks in northern Cameroon, drawing Biya into the regional fight to defeat it. More recently, he has been forced to grapple with a surprisingly durable, and increasingly violent, rebellion in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions.
“The situation in 2011 is different from the one today,” says Akere Muna, who is among the most prominent and well-credentialed of the candidates vying to replace Biya, in an email. “Biya, in 2011, got elected by the total apathy Cameroonians had about politics. Today, the level of despair is so great that they understand that the upcoming elections are an opportunity to mobilize and get rid of Biya.”
The question to keep in mind in the coming months is whether Biya’s political opponents, Muna among them, can translate mounting public dissatisfaction into the type of electoral result that could shake Cameroon out of its political stagnation.
As challengers start to circle, the pro-Biya camp has become especially sensitive to suggestions that the president’s time might be short.
Before assessing whether that’s possible, analysts stress that it’s important not to get carried away. The ultimate outcome is all but preordained. Barring a political earthquake, Biya will be elected to another term—one that, if he were to complete it, would end when he’s 92. His advantages are just too formidable: He has all the funding and media access that come with incumbency, and he has stacked the most important administrative bodies, including the electoral commission and the Constitutional Council, with his loyalists, meaning he can manipulate the results as needed.
While his opponents might talk a big game about how change is coming, deep down they understand this reality. As Hans De Marie Heungoup, a senior analyst for International Crisis Group, puts it, “If they thought they could win, that would mean they don’t deserve to be president because they don’t know how Cameroon works.”
But victory for the opposition can take other forms. Officially, Biya won in 2011 with 78 percent of the vote; his closest rival, John Fru Ndi of the Social Democratic Front, or SDF, claimed just 11 percent. A feasible goal for the opposition would be to do so well that Biya can’t possibly claim such a lopsided margin. Driving Biya’s official tally down to 60 percent or so would send a strong signal that his popular support is evaporating. An even better result—say, depriving Biya of a majority of the vote—could “change the game,” Heungoup says. It would reinvigorate the opposition while likely causing the ruling party, which is already thinking about what will happen after Biya dies, to fracture.
There are signs that the more credible opposition candidates are working to make this kind of scenario a reality. More than 20 candidates have thrown their hat in the ring, and officials will decide in early August which of them are actually eligible to run. From there, negotiations to form an alliance will intensify. Reaching an agreement is a tall order, but one that could help the opposition present a united front and dent Biya’s margin of victory. “The pressure on all the candidates to have a joint strategy is mounting,” Muna says. “It is my belief that the way forward must necessarily include the creation of a coalition of the opposition forces.”
Settling on the leader of such a coalition will be the biggest challenge. Muna is a serious option, but he’ll likely face competition from Joshua Osih, this year’s standard-bearer for the SDF.
As the various challengers start to circle, meanwhile, the pro-Biya camp has become especially sensitive to suggestions that the president’s time might be short. Last month, when the U.S. ambassador in Yaounde, Peter Henry Barlerin, suggested in a meeting with Biya that he “should be thinking about his legacy and how he wants to be remembered in the history books,” the government cried foul and accused Washington of meddling.
In trying to paper over the incident, Barlerin fell back on language that likely made Biya smile. “We do not have a preferred outcome for the election,” Barlerin said in an interview with The New York Times. “We want a strong and stable Cameroon.”
It’s a remark that shows how Biya continues to set the terms of politics in Cameroon—and why he may not be going anywhere anytime soon.