On the surface, Cameroon’s regime projects an image of stability. President Paul Biya, at 85 the oldest ruler in Africa, is rolling comfortably toward an easy victory in Sunday’s election, extending his 36 years in power after eliminating the term limits that could have forced his retirement.
But beneath this façade, Cameroon is sliding toward civil war, and the election is unlikely to change that path.
Violence and military atrocities are rising. A separatist movement is gaining strength. There are killings almost every day. And there are growing calls for countries such as Canada to take a stronger stand against Mr. Biya.
The President has scarcely bothered to campaign, attending only one campaign rally so far. The election on Sunday is expected to give him a seventh term in office. But it won’t solve a conflict that has already killed about 600 people and forced about 300,000 to flee their homes over the past year.
In the country’s far north, the military is fighting the Islamist militants of Boko Haram. In the anglophone regions in the northwest and southwest, a separatist insurgency has triggered new bloodshed, with an estimated 1,000 fighters joining militia groups, armed with rocket-propelled grenades and other heavy weaponry.
Of the 12 million eligible voters in Cameroon, only 6.6 million have registered to vote. Many people in the anglophone regions will boycott the election. Others will stay home for fear of violence. Vote-rigging is expected and the opposition is badly splintered.
“As election day approaches, tensions are growing and the government has become harder-line, opting for repression and peddling conspiracy theories in response to demands for social and political reform,” says a report this week by the International Crisis Group, an independent research organization.
Mr. Biya is showing little interest in seeking solutions. He routinely spends up to one-third of the year in luxury rooms at the five-star InterContinental hotel in Geneva, where he travels with an entourage of up to 50 bodyguards and butlers.
A growing number of U.S. officials and politicians have criticized Mr. Biya’s response to the crisis. But this has been outweighed by the support the Biya government has received from France and China, including investors from those countries.
The impasse could allow Canada to exercise some influence in Cameroon, analysts say. Cameroon is one of Canada’s oldest diplomatic allies in Africa, and Canada has sent it hundreds of millions of dollars in development aid. Since the 1960s, Cameroon has often ranked among the biggest recipients of Canadian aid in Africa. Cameroon’s diaspora community in Canada has been urging Ottawa to take action. And Cameroon’s Prime Minister Philémon Yang spent 20 years as the country’s ambassador to Canada, where he earned a graduate degree from the University of Ottawa.
Despite these connections, Canada’s public response to the worsening violence in Cameroon has been “surprisingly muted,” according to an analysis by Chris Roberts, an Africa politics scholar at the University of Calgary, in a report published by the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
“Canada’s limited response to the crisis this year comes across as either obliviousness or conscious avoidance,” he said.
On June 29, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke to Mr. Biya by telephone. But a statement issued by Mr. Trudeau’s office gave no indication that they discussed the political and military crisis in Cameroon.
Instead, according to the statement, the two leaders had “an in-depth discussion” about the Francophonie, the organization of francophone countries, and about the candidacy of former Canadian governor-general Michaëlle Jean, who is seeking a second term as Secretary-General of the Francophonie. The statement said Mr. Trudeau “reiterated to President Biya” that Canada is pushing for another term for Ms. Jean.
A spokesperson for the Prime Minister’s Office declined to say whether other subjects were discussed in the telephone call.
The statement “reinforced the outward appearance of status quo normalcy … despite the deteriorating situation,” Mr. Roberts said in his report.
Adam Austen, a spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, said Canada is “deeply concerned by the continuing violence in western Cameroon” and is “troubled” by the deaths there.
“We remain alarmed by repeated attacks, including those against schools,” he said in response to questions from The Globe and Mail. “We have raised these concerns directly with the government of Cameroon and will continue to do so.”