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African incumbents face public anger in upcoming votes

Although African incumbents facing reelection have so far performed well, those still facing votes will need to tread carefully amid rising public anger.

By Alex ThurstonGuest blogger / June 30, 2011

Cameroon President Paul Biya, center, arrives with his wife Chantal for the opening session of the 17th African Union Summit, at the Sipopo Conference Center outside Malabo, Equatorial Guinea on June 30, 2011.

Rebecca Blackwell/AP

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If I were an African incumbent facing reelection, I would feel pretty good about my chances: in the past year, presidents like Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaore, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, and Nigeria’s Goodluck Jonathan have won solid victories over divided oppositions. But I would not be eager to face the popular anger that has dogged incumbents this year. In Burkina Faso, civilian protests and soldiers’ mutinies shook Compaore’s regime from late February through early June. Museveni cruised to re-election in February only to see the world-famous “Walk to Work” movement spring up weeks later. Jonathan’s April electoral triumph was followed by riots in Northern Nigeria. In Senegal, incumbent President Abdoulaye Wade last week withdrew a set of proposed constitutional changes because of the backlash they generated.

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Cameroonian President Paul Biyais a veteran politician. But at 78 years old, and with over twenty-eight years in power, he is the type of figure that protesters, especially in Senegal and Uganda, have been rejecting in 2011. That does not mean Biya will lose when Cameroon holds its presidential elections in October – after all, he has won three multi-party elections (1992, 1997, and 2004), including a close contest in 1992, and he maintained power through the mass protests of 2008, which concerned high costs of living as well as Biya’s decision to remove constitutional term limits on his tenure. Biya is still the favorite to win. But if the current wave of dissatisfaction with (in particular West) African incumbents lasts through the fall, Biya’s victory might come at the price of serious popular anger.

US officials recognize this potential. While calls from Washington for African countries to hold free and fair elections are pretty standard, I find it noteworthy that Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson has taken pains, over three months before Cameroon holds its elections, to raise concerns:

Carson met with Cameroon president Paul Biya and the country’s prime minister during a visit and urged the leaders to hold a free and fair election, a statement from the US Embassy said.

[...]

“He (Carson) said…that any intimidation of presidential candidates and leaders of civil society by governmental authorities in the run up to the elections will be viewed by the international community as having a negative impact on the credibility of the electoral process,” [the statement] said.

With political tensions swirling, Cameroon’s external borrowing increasing, and inflation mounting across much of Africa, Cameroon has many of the ingredients that produced protests elsewhere. That possibility has clearly already occurred to officials in Washington, and likely it is a topic of discussion in Yaounde as well.

Alex Thurston is a PhD student studying Islam in Africa at Northwestern University and blogs at Sahel Blog.

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