December 5, 2022

Four decades into Paul Biya’s reign, Cameroon trending deeper into authoritarianism

Paul Biya, President of the Republic of Cameroon, addresses the general debate of the sixty-fourth session of the General Assembly. 25/Sep/2009. United Nations, New York. UN Photo/Marco Castro.
Paul Biya, President of the Republic of Cameroon, addresses the general debate of the sixty-fourth session of the General Assembly. 25/Sep/2009. United Nations, New York. UN Photo/Marco Castro.

Paul Biya has been President of Cameroon for nearly 40 years. He first took power as the second President of Cameroon in 1982 and is the oldest head of state in Africa.

During Biya’s rule, repression and corruption have become systematically entrenched in the Cameroonian government. In 2022, Freedom House gave Cameroon an overall freedom score of just 15 out of 100.

There are many systematic issues that face Cameroon including government corruption. Additionally, human rights organizations have raised many concerns over the state of individual liberties and freedoms in Cameroon.

Last March, at least 18 U.S. senators urged President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to designate Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Cameroon to provide “lifesaving protection to Cameroonians in the United States.”

President Joe Biden, joined by Vice President Kamala Harris, delivers remarks on the passing of his bipartisan infrastructure bill in the House, Saturday November 6, 2021, in the State Dining Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

“The insecurity in nine of ten of the country’s regions and nationwide government repression of political dissent and use of torture and incommunicado detention make safe return for Cameroonian nationals in the United States impossible,” the Senators wrote in their March 23 letter to Biden.

“In light of the armed conflict and other extraordinary and temporary conditions engulfing the nation, American principles and international law compel the United States to protect the safety of Cameroonian nationals present in this county by ensuring that they are not forced to return to Cameroon. Only a limited number of individuals will be eligible for TPS: an estimated 40,000 Cameroonians, over 7,000 of whom are children, are currently in the United States,” the Senators wrote.

The letter was signed by Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Chris Coons (D-DE), Raphael Warnock (D-GA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Ed Markey (D-MA), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Alex Padilla (D-CA), Tina Smith (D-MN), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Senator Tim Kaine and Tammy Baldwin.

The letter was supported by the Cameroon Advocacy Network, Haitian Bridge Alliance, Amnesty International USA, Human Rights Watch, and Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights.

The Senators asserted that the conditions in Cameroon warrant an initial 18-month Temporary Protected Status designation. TPS is a form of statutory relief made available to nationals of a designated country living in the U.S. when return to their home country would be unsafe due to ongoing armed conflict, the temporary effects of an environmental disaster, or other extraordinary and temporary conditions. TPS provides life-saving protection from deportation and permission to work in the U.S. for the duration of the designation.

President Biya and the Cameroonian government consistently silence dissent and political activism. In September of 2021, journalist Sébastien Ebala was sentenced to two years in prison for “contempt” of the president. This is just one instance of a troubling pattern of Biya’s administration punishing its critics.

Biya has publicly rationalized his crackdown on speech, saying, “Democracy must not breed hatred, demagogy, and factionalism which corrupts and perturbs social peace. Democracy is a spirit of criticism, and not criticism for its own sake.”

While President Biya leads Cameroon’s ruling political party Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement, it would seem that he is democratic in name only. His actions and practices characterize him as an authoritarian and a dictator.

Despite the official existence of hundreds of political parties, Cameroon functions as though it is effectively a one party state. According to Human Rights Watch and other human rights organizations, the Cameroonian government has taken steps to undermine and punish opposition groups by regularly prohibiting rallies and arresting protestors.

Having ruled for over 39 years now, it is unlikely that Paul Biya will ever be unseated by election. Additionally, the CPDM has held a supermajority in parliament for decades. Opposition parties have been unable to gain significant power due in part to frequent harassment, intimidation, and arrests.

Elections have become hallmarked by low voter turnout and questions of legitimacy, as many argue that electoral integrity has been compromised by partisanship and a lust for power.

As concerns over abuses in Cameroon continue, it was announced Thursday that Cameroon has signed a military cooperation agreement with Russia. The two nations agreed to exchange opinions and information on international defense, security policy, training troops, military education, medicine, and topography.

The growing ties between Cameroon and Russia are potentially worrisome in regards to the democratic development of Cameroon. Rather than embracing democratic values such as free speech and expression, the government of Cameroon is aligning itself with the Russian military and Vladimir Putin.

In recent months, Russia has been the focal point of international discourse as its invasion of Ukraine brought increased attention to its authoritarian and oppressive ways. The government of Cameroon’s willingness to partner with such a regime reinforces existing concerns over President Paul Biya’s lack of commitment to freedom and democracy.

President Biya is not limited by many substantial checks or balances. He has extensive executive authority and control over most segments of government. Parliament has very little involvement with many policies, decisions, and actions.

According to Freedom House, when parliament is involved in decisions, “Parliament shows little independence and largely acts as a rubber stamp for the president’s policy initiatives.”

Questions and concerns about what direction the nation of Cameroon is trending have been ongoing for quite some time and it is a critical time for Cameroon to choose to embrace democracy over authoritarianism with assistance from the international community.

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