The iceberg of Opposition politics in Cameroon

Mwalimu George Ngwane*

Mwalimu George Ngwane
Mwalimu George Ngwane

The resignation of Dr. Elizabeth Tamanjong as Secetary General of the Social Democratic Front (SDF) on 12th February 2015 is not a novelty in the DNA of Opposition party politics in Cameroon. And that is where the problem lies. The resignation risks especially as she is the third Secetary General to resign since the party was founded on 26th May 1990 to be interpreted through the myopic lenses of a déjà vu, nuanced with spatial conversations of conscience or conviction buying or blighted by the current social media rebuttal of real or imaginary ruling party destruction intentions of the SDF.

Be that as it may, this resignation goes beyond the tip of the iceberg to buttress the urgency with which the SDF, which shall be clocking twenty-five this year and which still is the leading numerical Opposition party, needs to address the root and proximate causes of these serial resignations and defections as well as the imperative for political observers to initiate an appreciative inquiry discourse around the state of Opposition politics and the future of liberal democracy in Cameroon.

In a political treatise I wrote in 2004 captioned “Cameroon’s Democratic process, Vision 2020”, I argued among other things that for more than a decade, the goals of multiparty democracy still elude the masses and within the present political context of unbridled demagogy, multiparty may remain a façade and charade, promising much but delivering little. In short, democracy must be content-filled.

The circumstances that led to the emergence of Opposition parties in Cameroon were predicated on the twin phenomena of challenge and change. Challenge was based on the need for the establishment to reform itself and give access to alternative voices while change was the political agenda that meant to reverse the ruling oligarchy in favour of a new dispensation of duty bearers (regime change).

Initially, like in most African countries, the resurgence of Multipartyism in Cameroon was borne out of the hunger for change hence the liberation theology preached by most Opposition parties became the democratic mantra. Liberation theology according to Opposition parties in Cameroon meant that change could come to Cameroon only when the incumbent President Paul Biya was removed from power. To them Biya the person was the stumbling block to democratic development in Cameroon.

SDF Chairman John Fru Ndi and Former SG Elizabeth Tamanjong in happier days. Tamanjong recently became the 4th SG to depart from office since the party was launched in 1990
SDF Chairman John Fru Ndi and Former SG Elizabeth Tamanjong in happier days. Tamanjong recently became the 4th SG to depart from office since the party was launched in 1990

The slogan “Biya must go” was used by Opposition parties as a template for acceding power. But even the most radical of the Opposition failed to go beyond what Celestin Monga has termed “slogans in line with populist illusions”. In other words transforming the liberation theology into a structural ideological philosophy became a problematic among Opposition parties. As observed by Prof. Adebayo Olukoshi since the quest for political pluralism is reduced to Multipartyism, Opposition parties are expected to be distinct from and autonomous of the ruling party. Other opposition parties in Cameroon on the other hand believed that real problem towards change went beyond Biya the person (liberation theology) to a complete cleansing of the system which Biya had come to incarnate. To them structural ideological philosophy hinged on constitutional reforms and the putting in place of vibrant democratic institutions.

Therefore even with no clear constitutional provision on the status of Opposition parties in Cameroon (unlike a country like Mozambique where the Opposition is treated as a government in waiting) Dr. Tangie Fonchingong argues that Opposition parties in Cameroon have through various electoral processes given themselves a political identity.

The Opposition of liberation

It was the SDF initial approach that focused on a zero-sum arrangement. Referred to as “external” opposition, this category of Opposition is formed outside the ruling constellation and often within the background of deep-seated disagreement, conflict and protest. It sees itself as a symbol of change and fights to the end for a radically alternative system. Its political mindset is based on “Biya must go” strategy.

The Opposition of cooptation

It is characterized by the desire to share power and the prebends or spoils of power with the ruling party. Attracted by the negative peace notion of broad based governance or government of national unity, this category of Opposition poses no fundamental challenge to the regime. It shores up the regime and seeks mainly to ensure its own share of the spoils rather than presenting radically different proposals. The mind-set of such opposition is based on a win-win situation. All through the electoral process in Cameroon, the NUDP, MDR, MLJC and UPC (the latter being the only Opposition of liberation in Cameroon since 1948) and quite recently the Front for the National Salvation of Cameroon are Opposition parties that are of this nomenclature. Its political paradigm is based on “Biya must share” strategy.

The Opposition of proposition

It is characterized by a strong ideological outfit, working more on ideas rather than revolutionary propaganda. Emerging from the mass base within the same party, the Opposition of proposition seeks mainly for a redress of grievances either in terms of party policy or party performance. It may sometimes break away as splinter group but more often than not stays within as mainstream members disagreeing at their own risk and peril, with party focus. The case of the Progressive or Modernist wing of the Cameroon Peoples Democratic Movement (CPDM) with its lists of grievances presented in “The White Book” written by Chief Milla Assoute was a clear example. The postures by the CPDM Parliamentarian Honorable Adama Modi Bakary and the erstwhile CPDM Parliamentarian Honorable Paul Ayah now leader of People’s Action Party (PAP) to break ranks with apologists of a liberal peace system and hegemonic power structure (irrational obedience to party ideology) are cases in point. The political mindset of this group is based on “Biya must change” strategy.

In sum it has been easy to determine the Opposition of conviction from the Opposition of convenience within the democratic process in Cameroon with the latter always taking a strong numerical rise albeit with a weak ideological stance over the former. In the end we have witnessed an Opposition that has over the years become vehicles for the maximization of the interests of political opportunists and not frameworks for mobilizing popular forces for genuine change. This has had a toll on our democratization which according to Prof. Francis Nyamnjoh has served mainly as a face powder, used to justify reactionary propaganda by the ruling party and its acolytes and revolutionary propaganda by the Opposition.

Shortcomings of the Opposition

It is generally argued that the playing field in Cameroon does not militate in favour of Opposition parties winning elections. With no genuine independent/neutral persons within an Independent Electoral Commission (be it National Elections Observatory or Elections Cameroon), and with a contentious new electoral code adopted by a CPDM majority parliament in March 2012, the elections have been reduced to a two horse race between the CPDM and its French translation- RDPC. In effect according to Dr. Tangie Fonchingong, there are a lot of exogenous factors that deprive the Opposition from starting the election race on the same block as the ruling party- disenfranchisement, nonchalant international community, low civic participation, rigging, sterile political debates occasioned by the trading of accusations of illegitimacy between the ruling party and the Opposition parties etc.

But apart from these, and as can be seen below there are failures inherent in the modus operandi and structures of Opposition parties in Cameroon that have made them more of dividers and spoilers rather than connectors and drivers of our democratic architecture hence their vulnerability to internal cracks and external shocks.

Lack of internal democracy

The first thing one notices is that all Opposition parties have as Chairmen or Presidents those who founded the parties. So for close to two and a half decades the same people who created or founded these parties are in the helm of affairs. Paradoxically, most of these Opposition members were hell bent on pushing the ruling party leader Paul Biya out of power when he was “only” eight years as President of the country (1982-1990) and “only” five years as Chairman of his CPDM party (1985-1990). The case of the SDF is a cause for concern. Apart from the tenacity syndrome of its leader, Article 8.2 of the party’s constitution raises controversy on the notions of dissent versus debate and discipline versus dictatorship. Elected Mayors have been dismissed for not complying with the caprices of the National Investiture Committee. The axe or guillotine of Article. 8.2 has fallen on militants who oppose policies or performances of hierarchy .Yet it must be recalled that the SDF was founded “to rid the Cameroonian society of a system that deprives people from being free men or otherwise punishing them for daring to think freely, associate freely, assemble peacefully and freely”. This long stay of leadership at the helm of all Opposition parties has arguably resulted in party clientelism, personality cult, and the personalization of power.

Lack of an Opposition leadership consensus

Since the creation of Opposition parties, attempts at instituting an identifiable, credible and consensual leadership and program have failed. Unlike, other African countries that have a clear leadership within the Opposition (Gabon, Zambia, Kenya, Mozambique, Zimbabwe) the case of Cameroon in which according to Dr Tangie Fonchingong, Ni John Fru Ndi would have easily stood out as the rallying point Opposition leader owing to his mass grass roots support has been met with contempt for his relatively “low academic” baggage and mistrust for his Anglophone origin. Fru Ndi’s own inflexibility and temper tantrums have sometimes not helped matters.

Broken strategic alliances

Alliances formed before elections get broken even before the elections take off. The “Directorate” “Union for Change” Allied forces for Change”, “Coalition for National Reconciliation and Reconstruction” “G7” and ‘Republican Pact’ (2012), have not been as coherent and program-focused as for example that of the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) by the Opposition in Kenya, set up in the 2002 Presidential elections, resulting in a victory of 62.2%.
Disconnect from primal human needs

opposition SDF's John Fru Ndi and ruling CPDM's Paul Biya at a meeting in Bamenda, Cameroonians little faith in politicians across the board.
opposition SDF’s John Fru Ndi and ruling CPDM’s Paul Biya at a meeting in Bamenda, Cameroonians have  little faith in politicians across the board.

Most Opposition parties concern themselves with what happens during elections and not what takes place between elections. In other words, within the five years that span municipal/ legislative elections and the seven years that span Presidential elections, the Opposition parties do not connect with the population on their contradictions of cultural liberty (power cuts, fuel price hike, inflation, water outage, unemployment, industrial action etc) and on state policies that feed into structural violence. This is compounded by the poor performance of some of the elected Opposition party representatives in local councils and the National Assembly.
Therefore to quote Prof. Achilles Mbembe, it is necessary for the opposition to define a real strategy towards a social struggle (social democracy and democratic development) that is adapted to the present Cameroonian conditions.

Lack of linkages with political entrepreneurs of civil society.

One of the most important groups in the pro-democracy movement is the activist elements in civil society, which to quote Prof. Claude Ake include the human rights lobby, minority rights groups, movements for the empowerment and participation of marginalized groups such as women and youth, students and labour the Church and the media.

The Opposition in Cameroon built organic linkages with these political entrepreneurs in the early 90s but the relationship has strained due to so many reasons. Yet it was the youths that gave power to succeeding Opposition leaders turned Presidents in Senegal like Abdoulaye Wade in 2000 and Macky Sall in 2012; it is the feminization of power policy that Paul Kagame of Rwanda survives on, the former Opposition leader and former Prime Minister Morgan Tswangirai of Zimbabwe fed on workers union (himself a product of it) and on the church. The enigmatic Julius Sello Malema of the Economic Freedom Fighters party in South Africa has within a short period made inroads into South African politics through his robust and populist civil society engagement.
2018 Projection

In my opinion the real battle for the sustenance of democracy in Cameroon lies on what happens around the 2018 Presidential elections. Politics is the art of the possible and no one can rule out the possibility of the incumbent CPDM party Chairman’s voluntary disengagement from the 2018 Presidential elections. Were he to do so then the party would have to be jettisoned into searching from their pack a moderate yet benevolent disciplinarian leader whose mission should be to walk the talk of balanced development, equitable resource allocation and the open West Cameroon real or perceived identity of systemic victimhood. On the other hand, the “successor-ship” hypothesis provides the Opposition with a beacon of hope.

That is if the successor does not draw enough party consensus, it may force some of the Opposition of proposition militants in the CPDM to join camps with the Opposition of liberation, Opposition of cooptation and activist elements of the civil society to win fresh elections. If the successor does not command some charisma and aura, he (party successor) may lose elections to the Opposition Presidential candidate like it happened in Sierra Leone in 2007.

Were the incumbent CPDM Chairman to turn his back on the 2018 elections, he would have to assume a neutral statesman status (something which has been recurrent in his recent speeches) and not interfere with the electoral process. He has always wanted to be remembered as the person who brought democracy to Cameroon and it would be in his interest to leave the scene with that legacy. With a law that was adopted by Parliament in 2011 giving the President immunity from criminal procedure after office, the fear of quitting office and being pursued for criminal offences might have been allayed. Ahmed Tedjan Kabbah of Sierra Leone, in spite of his lackluster performance as President of Sierra Leone for over ten years has been praised for his non- interference in the 2007 electoral process which brought the Opposition to power. Mathieu Kerekou of Benin and Ould Ahmed Taya of Mauritania are of this same democratic school.

The second condition would be for the President in collaboration with all political beneficiaries to reform or reexamine elections in Cameroon.

Thirdly, the electoral law needs to be revised to allow Independent Candidates to run for Presidential elections without the infamous 300 signature clause. Related to this would be the need for a second round or run-off electoral process to be introduced during future Presidential elections. Still in this connection late statesman N.N Mbile was assertive to declare that the civil service, the judiciary and the army must be depoliticized.

Fourthly while the elite should resist the peddling of compensatory development advantages by parties, the Cameroonian electorate would have to rise above its present inertia blind party adherence and refuse to be cheaply bought over by allurements and material inducements (bags of rice and bottles of beer etc). The youth in particular must see the long term advantage of building a sustainable development policy for Cameroon rather than trivial immediate interests that border on greed and gluttony. This means constant political education should be provided by activist elements of the civil society with funding assistance from Development Agents.


In spite of all external odds, the Opposition in Cameroon still survives, albeit waning in numerical strength, controversial in ideological focus and riddled with leadership questions. This is symptomatic of the liberal democratic choice most African countries adopted rather than a peculiar disease with the Opposition in Cameroon. From all indications, the green tree of democratic entitlement has not yet yielded the yellow fruits of economic emporwerment. May be a new democratic transition bringing all active forces together in an ALL Cameroonian Congress may help chart a new course that would go beyond routine elections and usher in bold, creative and indigenous development programs that resonate with human and infrastructural development.

But before then it would be necessary for the Opposition in Cameroon to shed off their embedded shifting political predatory metaphors of grievance, greed and griotism to embrace a new political patriotic dispensation of values, views and vision. For indeed the endgame of any political activity is not only to help citizens cross the Red Sea of oppression but to accompany them in their long journey of freedom until they reach the Promised Land of democratic development.

*Mwalimu George Ngwane is presently pursuing a Fellowship on Peace and Conflict studies at the University of Chulalongkorn, Bangkok, Thailand

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