Frontiers of dystopia

Cameroon claims to be a democracy. Then why are even moderates like Maurice Kamto in jail?

Military members from the Cameroonian Armed Forces (Kyle Steckler for the US Navy).

“President Biya cannot be considered an equal of Mr. Kamto, who is a citizen like everyone else, and must stop thinking himself otherwise,” René Emmanuel Sadi, Cameroon’s minister of communication and government spokesperson, told RFI (Radio France International) in an interview last month.

Maurice Kamto is a former distinguished law professor at the University of Yaounde, and, more importantly, leader of the Mouvement pour la Renaissance du Cameroun (MRC). The MRC was formed in 2012 and participated in legislative elections the next year. Despite performing dismally, winning just one seat in Cameroon’s National Assembly, Kamto’s emergence as an opposition figure has rankled the ranks of the regime in power. At present, Kamto and several MRC members are in detention at Yaoundé’s Kondengui prison. A military tribunal has charged Kamto and hundreds of his supporters with “rebellion,” “hostility against the homeland,” “sedition,” “incitement to insurrection,” “offense against the president of the republic,” and “the destruction of public property,” among other offenses. If found guilty, the accused could face sentences ranging between five years in prison to the death penalty.

Kamto and his comrades’ predicament is fascinating as his party’s demands are far from radical. In any functional democracy—what Biya claims Cameroon is—they wouldn’t be in detention today. Kamto, who by most standards is a political moderate, is a lawyer who served on an International Law Commission of the UN from 1999 to 2016, and one of two representatives who argued the Cameroon government’s position in the territorial dispute with Nigeria over the Bakassi peninsular. The International Court of Justice ruled in Cameroon’s favor in 2002. Kamto’s role led to his appointment to a senior post in the country’s Ministry of Justice in 2004. However, he would resign in 2011 without providing any singular reason besides stating that his was a patriotic act meant to signal his commitment to continue working for the rebirth of a more prosperous Cameroon. One year later, he launched the MRC as a convergence of a handful of small political parties.

The MRC leaders were arrested on January 29th this year, two days after dozens of his party members were targeted with live ammunition in the port city of Douala for participating in an unauthorized protest march against the stuffing of ballots and other irregularities that marred the recent presidential elections, which Kamto claims he won. In Cameroon, permissions for such public gatherings are granted by administrators appointed by the regime in power. Most of these administrators are card carrying members of the ruling Cameroon Peoples Democratic Movement (CPDM). Following the repression on January 27th in Douala, about 50 France-based Cameroonians vandalized the Cameroon embassy in Paris, replacing Biya’s portrait with Kamto’s. The Cameroon authorities are claiming the MRC directed their actions.

Facing the most sustained challenge to his 37-year-old reign, the 86-year-old Biya’s new mandate is marked by deteriorating security across the national territory, including though not limited to a three-year insurgency in the English-speaking regions where some Anglophones fed up with five decades of marginalization are fighting for secession; Boko Haram attacks in the Northernmost region and the Eastern region, rendered restive by armed groups from neighboring Central African Republic.

René Emmanuel Sadi, a veteran of the Biya administration who has held several portfolios in the last decade (if you follow Cameroonian politics, it’s him you’ll see defending Biya or pumping up his boss to Western media), was reacting to Kamto’s attorney, Eric Dupont-Moretti, relaying the request of his client to meet and discuss the country’s political challenges with President Paul Biya.

Kamto is the most recent figure in an exhausting list of political actors whose offer for dialogue with Cameroon’s president has been rebuffed publicly.

In his RFI interview, Sadi used the occasion to remind Moretti that his role in the matter was confined to representing his client against the charges he’s been accused of rather than “posturing as a mediator” and “making clumsy arguments and surreal demands” regarding the last elections. “Everyone knows, including Mr. Kamto, that he didn’t and couldn’t have won the presidential elections,” said Sadi.

Despite the massive boycott of the elections in most of the English speaking regions, low voter turnout in the rest of the country, allegations of ballot stuffing and ghosts voters, the elections were declared free by the country’s electoral commission, which is dominated by members of Biya’s ruling CPDM, and fake observers whose affiliation with Transparency International were discredited even before the final results were announced.

Sadi was speaking for a government that has returned to its pre-liberalization posture of the 1980s when state institutions like the judiciary and law enforcement were weaponized to silence political opposition to the increasingly repressive tendencies of Biya’s then young regime. Sadi was talking to RFI, the public broadcaster of France, the one permanent member of the UN Security Council that, many in Cameroon believe, holds the key to overcoming the country’s ongoing political and security impasse. France has repeatedly protected Biya’s regime. For Cameroonians, one phone call from the Élysée could possibly compel the regime to invite its opponents to the negotiating table.

The most amusing revelation in Sadi’s statement to RFI happened while he was elevating Cameroon’s president above his political opponent of the moment, calling him an “ordinary citizen.” With that he managed to confirm the long-held notion that President Biya views himself as a monarch.

Of course, Sadi sounded assured, but the reality is the country’s rising debt, rotting infrastructure, youth unemployment, ethnic and linguistic tensions, political repression, and increasing insecurity on multiple fronts does not persuade keen observers that all is well. Sadi’s boss might have scored another term under questionable circumstances, but Cameroon today remains what late Poet Bate Besong described as a country, “jolted by the rascality of government customized role models who have allowed the allure of office and filthy lucre to push them to do the most unlawful, most immoral, most indefensible.”

Indeed, Cameroon remains the post-colonial jigsaw puzzle that President Biya inherited from independence-era French ally, Ahmadou Ahidjo, who governed from 1960 to 1982. The similarities don’t end there, as Biya is certainly resorting to the repressive tendencies that characterized Ahijdo’s 22-year rule. If Sadi sounded like a relic of a bygone era, so, too, does the idea that dialogue with political opponents—be they Anglophone separatists, imprisoned former political allies, political opponents and ordinary citizens alike— diminishes the president’s standing and stature. Yet the spokesperson’s posture is emblematic of the country’s recent backslide to a repression that many Cameroonians once believed was entombed alongside the martyrs who fell on the frontlines of the struggle for a more tolerant and liberalized country.

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