Debate over Cameroon President Paul Biya’s eligibility in an October presidential poll is stoking tensions in the central African state that could boil over into protests like those seen in 2008.
Biya’s rivals say the 78-year-old, one of Africa’s longest serving leaders, is bound to a 1996 constitution that would make his current 7-year term his last — despite an amendment he orchestrated in 2008 that removes term limits.
Over 40 people were killed and hundreds wounded in 2008 riots after the constitutional rejig.
The debate in Cameroon started after scholar Alain Didier Olinga published an essay in April picked up in Cameroonian newspapers that argued the revised 2008 constitution does not annul legal effects of the previous constitution, according to the legal principle known as non-retroactivity, Reuters reports.
Many others have backed his argument, warning the country could be plunged into constitutional crisis if Biya insists on running — a charge Biya’s backers reject.
A similar issue in Senegal triggered riots last week, forcing octogenarian President Abdoulaye Wade to back down from proposed constitutional changes the opposition said would have eased his win in February polls.
“Just like in 2008, violent protests will probably be incited in the English-speaking regions of Cameroon, where Biya’s opposition is strongest,” said Oswald Felli, director of security risk assessments at Damina Advisors.
“A lot of Cameroonians feel President Paul Biya has outlived his usefulness and there is not much he can do for the country,” Felli said, but added that Biya may eventually manoeuvre his way into getting re-elected if he decides to run.
Biya has not said whether he will run but analysts say he is likely to try to extend his 29-year rule in the oil-producing state, a move that looks set to inflame public frustrations over his slow pace of reforms and tight grip on power.
Cameroon’s $22-billion economy is central Africa’s largest, but its 20 million people suffer from shoddy public services — including a lack of potable water and poor roads — and live on an average of around $3 per day.
“Cameroon appears especially susceptible to a massive popular uprising against its long-standing president,” Business Monitor International said in recent risk analysis.
“We believe the risks of a popular uprising…are still remote, but the government will nonetheless act aggressively to head off any potential ‘spark’ for unrest,” it said.
The ruling CPDM party is planning a congress in July when it is expected that Biya will accept the party’s nomination as the “natural candidate” for the October poll.
Joshua Osih, a vice president of the main opposition party, the Social Democratic Front (SDF), said his party would ask Cameroon’s highest court to rule on Biya’s eligibility if he eventually decided to seek another mandate.
“It is without a shadow of a doubt that we will exploit this possibility,” Osih told the La Nouvelle Expression newspaper.
But Biya’s backers have rejected arguments against his eligibility, saying the adoption of the 2008 constitution repeals the 1996 constitution.
Opposition threats to launch the legal challenge are also likely to go nowhere, as Biya is believed to have strong influence over the courts.
Roddy Barclay, London-based analyst at Control Risks said challenges to the legality of Biya’s candidacy are likely to stoke political tensions but they are unlikely to stop Biya.
“In the event that the case went to the constitutional court, the ruling would be highly politicised and the judiciary would come under heavy pressure from Biya’s influential allies.”
Top brass from the ruling party have also moved to push back on perceived foreign pressure ahead of the election — after U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton wrote to Biya in May urging free and fair elections.
“Cameroon has no lesson to learn from outside on how to solve its problems,” ruling CPDM party secretary-general Rene Sadi told a recent rally.