Cameroon: Divided opposition quashes hopes to unseat Biya
On September 22, hundreds of citizens in Cameroon’s Anglophone region took part in an organized anti-government protest. But the numerous opposition parties are under scrutiny for lacking clear leadership or a strategy.
Cameroon’s opposition parties have much in common with one another. They all agree that the political landscape is in dire need of change following President Paul Biya’salmost 40 years in power. They also wish to see an end to the ongoing Anglophone crisis in the country’s south and are pushing for a free and fair electoral system.
Despite this, however, the parties have consistently failed to present a united front in practice. A planned nationwide protest on September 22 organized by the leader of the Cameroon Renaissance Movement (MRC) party, Maurice Kamto, failed in its aim to facilitate the resignation or ousting of Biya.
Ako John Ako, the founder of the Cameroon Youth Movement Association (CYMA) says the opposition’s inability to come together is the main reason these demonstrations regularly unravel.
“The call for protest was unilaterally done by head of the MRC party, Maurice Kamto,” Ako told DW. “There should be a pre-consultation of all the opposition forces in Cameroon, before any nationwide protest is called.”
While the MRC branded the parties who did not join the demonstration as “afraid,” the president of the Cameroon People’s Party (CPP), Edith Kah Walla, says for her party “and several other organizations, it was a question of timing.”
Supporters of the Movement for the Rebirth of Cameroon (MRC) party put on a united front during a campaign rally for presidential elections in 2018
Bruised, but not beaten
With the much-anticipated September, 22 protests has come and gone, many opposition supporters are now feeling the anti-climax.
But the MRC party has taken an optimistic view of the situation, claiming it still succeeded in sending a “strong message” to the government. The party’s secretary-general, Christopher Ndong, has decried the heavy-handedness of the Cameroonian military and use of state intimidation to silence protesters.
“Over 300 people have been arrested, two people died in Douala, over a hundred wounded,” Ndong told DW.
While lawyers are beginning to galvanize efforts to ensure those who were arrested are soon released, the MRC says it will not give up its aim to unseat Biya from power and is urging other parties to join them at the forefront.
“Let other parties now come in and take the lead, we are ready to join them too, whenever they are ready,” Ndong added.
On the day of the protest, news quickly spread that Kamto and other MRC party leaders had been placed under house arrest.
The government’s swift attempt to quell the demonstration came as no surprise to many.
“Cameroon has for several decades been led by a repressive regime,” Ako said. “In the 1990s, more than six months of protests led by the opposition had a similar response – and they did not remove Biya from power.”
Cameroonian President Paul Biya has been in power since 1982. He has been accused of marginalizing the country’s southern Anglophone region
Observers have begun to question if Kamto has an alternative plan to delegate leadership of the opposition, should history repeat itself. The lack of a strategic, coordinated plan has been highlighted by some as one of the reasons why the wave of protests in the 90s faltered under Biya’s rule.
Ndong disagrees. Instead, he argues that the opposition “didn’t succeed because of the heavy presence of military forces, violating the constitution and rights of Cameroonians to march against Biya. People who are only fighting for change. Deploying soldiers to fight unarmed civilians was an intimidation tactic.”
Protests amid a divided opposition
A total of seven opposition political parties and civil society groups signed and endorsed the call for the latest nationwide protest. But with Kamto under house arrest, there was no obvious candidate to take his place as leader.
The MCR’s Ndong puts the blame on the Peoples of Cameroon (UPC) party and the CPP.
“We took the initiative to bring everyone on board, others are pulling us back,” he said.
Kah Walla agrees that finding a solution to the Anglophone won’t be found in the ballot box but through peaceful protest. But she believes that taking to the streets without a proper plan will prove futile for the opposition movement.
“We have to establish a clear strategy, we have to establish clear communication,” she explained. “All of this was impossible to do before the 22nd so our movement said, ‘please, go ahead. We will not be a part of it’.”
But opinions are also divided within the MRC party. Key allies including Paul Eric Kingue, Celestin Djamen, Michelle Ndoki – who were jailed alongside Kamto for challenging Biya’s 2018 presidential election victory – have remained curiously silent over the issue.
Cameroon opposition leader Maurice Kamto speaks during a press conference in Paris in January. Despite criticism within the opposition movement, he remains determined in his party’s goal to unseat President Paul Biya
Kamto remains defiant
Kamto – whose Yaoundé residence is still under military surveillance – has meanwhile taken to Twitter to celebrate the movement’s “victory.”
“The peaceful, patriotic, and republican Marches of 22 September 2020 were a resounding success. Warm congratulations to the Cameroonian populations who have gone out in large numbers,” he wrote.
While some observers believe the September 22 protest did manage to debunk myths surrounding the government’s invincibility, possibly emboldening civilians, Biya still remains in power, while the opposition has no apparent strategy going forward.
Ako warns that any protest perceived to be a “one-man-show” cannot succeed.
“If we honestly want change, there should be a better plan,” he explained. “We have a common problem as Cameroonians, whether you are of the ruling CPDM, SDF, or a soldier. We are struggling to get the tyranny out and put our institutions on track.”
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