Cameroon: “Zombie observers” confuse narrative of dubious elections

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Cameroon's President Paul Biya. Image: AP
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Cameroon has just endured one of its most controversial elections to date. Amidst accusation of vote rigging, human rights violations and fake election observers, Thomas Babila Sama puts the election in context.

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On Sunday 7th of October 2018, Cameroonians went to the polls to elect a new president. The elections marked the 7th time 85-year-old incumbent, President Paul Biya was contesting the elections since he took over power from President Ahmadou Ahidjo in 1982. Nine candidates were allowed to stand by the electoral management body, ELECAM out of the 28 who had submitted papers. This represented the smallest number of candidates running for the country’s highest office since 2004, when 16 candidates were approved. 

The candidates

For the very first time, the Social Democratic Front (SDF), the main opposition party was not represented by Ni John Fru Ndi, its founder and chair. Instead, Joshua Osih was picked as the party’s flagbearer to be the presidential candidate. Six of the 9 candidates were running for the first time. They included, Akere Muna, Maurice Kamto, Joshua Osih of the SDF, Cabral Libii of the National Union for Integration Towards Solidarity (UNIVERS), Ndifor Frankline of the Cameroon National Citizen Movement (CNCM), and Serge Espoir Matomba of the United People for Social Renovation (UPSR). The first-timers left many in doubt as to whether such inexperienced candidates could possibly unseat President Paul Biya. 

Maurice Kamto, a former Biya loyalist and leader of the Cameroon Renaissance Movement (MRC) once initiated a coalition process with Akere Muna and the main opposition political party, the SDF for a single candidate, but Kamto indicated that none of the parties was willing to cede power to the other. Akere Muna had earlier stated that he was ready to support any candidate whose ideas and vision was superior to his since his main goal was to end Biya’s rule. This is the reason why he asked his supporters to vote for Kamto at the last minute and withdrew his candidacy shortly before voting began. There was no female candidate as in the 2018 presidential elections because Edith Kahbang Walla who stood in the 2011 elections, had resolved not to run if President Biya failed to resolve the crisis in the Anglophone regions.

Unrest and instability

The 2018 presidential elections seemed to be different from previous ones because the elections were held amidst mounting insecurity due to the unrest in the Anglophone North West and South West regions of the country, where separatists were attempting to create the break-away State of Ambazonia. Their main grievance was that the two regions were marginalized by the dominant Francophone regions which make up 80% of the country’s population. 

Since the crisis broke out, the Cameroonian military has been accused of beating and arresting people suspected of being separatists, torching homes and killing unarmed protesters. Separatists have also taken up arms and turned to violence. Due to growing insecurity, thousands of Anglophones have found refuge in the predominantly French-speaking regions of Douala and Yaounde and also across the border in neighboring Nigeria. Propaganda and lies proliferate as both sides use incendiary rhetoric. The military calls the separatists “terrorists,” while the separatists and many Cameroonians in the diaspora accuse the military of “genocide”. So far, despite the degenerating of the situation from a “crisis to a conflict,” the government has refused to engage in meaningful dialogue with the separatists, largely because it rejects losing the Anglophone regions whose palm oil and agricultural produce are main contributors to the country’s economy. If nothing is done soon, this crisis may “turn into a civil war with grave consequences,” said Gaby Ambo, executive director of the Finders Group Initiative, a human rights group in Cameroon. Meanwhile, Issa Tchiroma Bakary, Cameroon’s information minister, has said “it is not possible to sit around the table with groups who would like to take the nation and cleave the nation”. He has also said secession “shall never, ever take place” – meaning the government will not enter into dialogue for a peaceful solution.

Election results & Zombie observers

“Leaked” election results appear to show that President Biya has won a landslide victory with 71% of the votes cast. However, critics have pointed out that some of the rumored vote totals are implausible – for example, overwhelming voters in favour of Biya in areas that are opposition strongholds or have witnessed unrest are difficult to justify. In these areas, there is a strong suspicion that either the president’s vote has been artificially increased, or opposition voters have were prevented from getting to the polls.

However, the quality of the election is hard to determine as a result of the compromised role played by international election observers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, while Amnesty International has been highly critical of the human rights situation in the country, African Union observers described the elections as largely successful despite minor irregularities and some election-related violence.

Bizarrely, the election was praised by a group of international observers who purported to be from Transparency International (TI), the anti-corruption organization. In reality, these were fake observers, and appear to have been set up with the specific intention of providing the election with a legitimacy boost. According to Patricia Moreira, TI’s Managing Director, her organization did not send any observers to the elections. 

This follows a growing pattern in which governments in authoritarian states set up “zombie” election observation groups which are designed to look credible but which solely exist to legitimize flawed elections. When some election observers praise an election and others criticize it, the resulting confusion creates a distorted narrative that means it is harder for journalists to tell a clear story, and for international donors to put the government under pressure.

Election complaints

Since the elections, Cameroon’s election management body – ELECAM, says it has received 25 petitions from candidates and voters calling for the elections to be annulled. Cabral Libii of the opposition Universe party and Joshua Osih of the opposition SDF Party are among those who want the polls annulled. They allege massive fraud and ballot stuffing in favour of President Biya’s ruling Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (CPDM) party. Cleric Rigobert Gabanmidanha of the Live and Peace Ministry has also petitioned for the cancellation of the polls with claims that, the constitutional council which certifies election results is controlled by President Paul Biya and that many opposition supporters like himself were not allowed to vote. Gabanmidanha says he went to his polling station with his voter card but was told that his name was not on the list of registered voters. Thirteen of the petitions to annul the elections also came from Bertin Kisob, who is on pre-trial detention for supporting the Anglophone separatists. Kisob, who was rejected as a candidate, says members of his Cameroon Party for Social Justice (CPSJ) reported irregularities and fraud that favoured President Biya which Cameroon’s minister of Labor and Social Security, Gregoire Owona, has described as distractions. 

Meanwhile, Maurice Kamto, who claimed victory on 8th October just a day after the polls, though without any evidence, has asked for a partial cancellation of election results. Kamto alleges that the military rigged polls in the restive northwest and southwest English-speaking regions, where they were sent to secure polling stations. Official results were not expected for two weeks. Maurice Kamto claimed victory in the presidential polls despite a government warning not to announce unofficial results. “I have received a clear mandate from the people and I intend to defend it until the end,” he said. “I invite the outgoing president to organise a peaceful way to transfer power,” Kamto added. The opposition candidate did not give results to justify his claim, which was greeted by loud cheers from supporters as he made his announcement. 

Outlook

Given how long he has been in power, the leaked results, and the presence of zombie observers, Biya is widely expected to win the polls and to secure another seven-year mandate. The constitutional court will announce the elections results on Oct. 22. But this is unlikely to do much for the legitimacy of his government internationally, or for political stability back home.

Thomas Babila Sama is a postdoctoral researcher and lecturer at the University of Helsinki.

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