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Democracy in Cameroon:  where does it stand?

In the early 1990s, many African countries adopted multi-party systems. One of them, Cameroon, soon had more than 130 political parties. But most didn't even make it to the first local elections. So how has multi-partyism evolved in Cameroon? Voice of America reporter Angel Tabe put the question to Francis Nyamnjoh, a university professor who has written substantially on democratization in Africa.

Nyamnjoh says Cameroon’s political situation has disillusioned citizens and created widespread cynicism, with even principled citizens adopting what he calls an “eat and let eat” attitude toward the country’s resources. He describes the evolution of the major opposition party, which he says began as a strong, promising force, but today is factionalized by serious infighting. Nyamnjoh attributes its condition to what he calls “the formidable ability of the ruling party to neutralize any meaningful multiparty politics. Even the university, where one could have some independence of thought, is subjugated – vice chancellors, deans, professors, are appointed by presidential decree. Scholarship doesn’t count; what counts is your loyalty, or semblance of loyalty.”

Nyamnjoh does not think press freedom, as it exists in Cameroon, has fostered democratization: “When Biya took over from [former president Ahmadou] Ahidjo, freedom of the press became the freedom to criticize Ahidjo and what he stood for…. That continues to be the case, despite [the so-called] democratic communication laws. Also, members have primary patriotism: first faithful to your home area, before the collective ambition that makes civic citizens of us.”

For Cameroon’s democracy to move forward, Nyamnjoh recommends an environment in which citizens feel free to make contributions that will seriously be incorporated into policy: “You want to add into the collective quest for betterment. Democracy shouldn’t just be token elections, it should be a daily existence, and accountable, not just double standards. The future of our democracy is to bring back the meaning to declaration, match principles with action.”

For a different look at democratization in Cameroon, VOA's Angel Tabe sought the views of Elvis Ngole-Ngole, Cameroon’s minister of forestry and wildlife, based in the capital, Yaoundé. Professor Ngole-Ngole says multipartysm in Cameroon has been very successful in promoting democratization: “First, the country experienced a change in legislation to permit vast laws on liberties and human freedoms. Parliament just adopted a criminal procedure code, which has vast rights and freedoms for all citizens, something which has never been the case, and Cameroon has accepted to undergo more reform of its electoral system – computerization [of] voter registration all the way to vote counting.”

Ngole-Ngole says most election observers have concluded that Cameroon has made advances in its political reform agenda and continues to do so.

Ngole-Ngole also says Cameroon’s laws are not responsible for the country’s weak opposition; rather, it is their lack of experience: “Most of the political parties are less than 15 years old and do not yet master the art. Secondly, I don’t think the system is set up for one person to win. As a matter of fact, the opposition won most of the major towns. Our observers, working with us, have concluded that elections so far have been a reflection of the will of the people of Cameroon.”