Last November, during the swearing-in ceremony that marked the beginning of his seventh term as Cameroon’s president, Paul Biya addressed frustrated voters in the restive Anglophone regions and around the country, calling for unity and insisting he had heard their pleas for change. “I have also understood your desire for greater participation in taking decisions that concern the destiny of our country,” he said.
His critics had good reason to be skeptical, given Biya’s long record of ignoring criticism from the political opposition and the population at large. And in recent days, they appear to have been proved right: A new crackdown on the opposition has sent a strong signal that Biya’s current term will look much like the previous six.
Over the weekend, opposition leaders, who have challenged the credibility of last year’s election results, organized demonstrations in multiple cities, prompting a forceful response from the security forces, who dispersed crowds with tear gas and live ammunition. Among the injured, according to Amnesty International, was Celestin Djamen, a top official in the opposition Movement for the Renaissance of Cameroon, or MRC.
Then, on Monday, security forces arrested Maurice Kamto, the leader of the MRC who, according to official results, finished second to Biya in the presidential contest. The charges against Kamto include sedition and insurrection. The case against him appears to be part of a coordinated assault on opposition leaders and their supporters; the MRC says more than 200 people have been detained since the weekend protests.
In an in-depth report last year, Emmanuel Freudenthal described how Biya has used an array of tactics to undermine potential challengers. Some have been co-opted via appointments to government posts, while others have been prosecuted on corruption charges widely seen as politically motivated. The president has been aided by the fact that Western powers see him as a steady ally in a volatile region and are therefore inclined to look the other way when it comes to his handling of domestic affairs.
Yet as he has shown in the past, and as he reiterated this week, Biya is not above using more violent means to keep the opposition quiet.
Cameroonians should soon have a better sense of whether the recent violence will turn into sustained repression. The MRC is planning to hold more demonstrations in the coming weeks, and another harsh response by the state could tip the country into a full-fledged crisis.
Rights groups and the United Nations are appealing for restraint. In a statement Wednesday, Human Rights Watch said further violence in Cameroon, which currently holds a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council, would be unacceptable.
“The Cameroon government can’t claim to respect human rights while using the standard playbook of abusers to crush opposition and curtail freedom of speech and assembly,” said Ida Sawyer, the group’s deputy Africa director. “Cameroon’s international partners should condemn Biya’s blatant and unwarranted clampdown on the political opposition.”
Progress PalmSprings is senior researcher and fellow with the PalmSprings Institute of International Affairs, based in Johannesburg. He is also concurrently a TV Producer for a plethora of Current Affairs shows with a reach of 790 million viewers.