Cameroon's incumbent president seems poised for reelection, but not without tension

Cameroon's President Paul Biya removed a two-term limit so that he could run for reelection. He's likely to win, but recent angry rhetoric and violence hint at significant discontent.

Cameroon will hold presidential elections on Oct. 9. Over 20 challengers are facing off against President Paul Biya, who has held his post since 1982. Biya won elections in 1984, 1992, 1997, and 2004, and is running again after removing a two-term limit imposed by the 1996 constitution. Almost all observers expect Biya to win re-election this time as well. Official campaigning, which Voice of America describes as “sluggish,” only began recently, but on a rhetorical and now physical level, the process has been punctuated by violence.

In terms of rhetoric, the major opposition candidate has used highly inflammatory language to describe other contenders:

The chairman of Cameroon’s main opposition party, John Fru Ndi, said Monday that the other opposition parties competing in October’s presidential race are “maggots.”

Fru Ndi told supporters at a rally in the opposition stronghold of Bamenda that nearly all the parties running alongside his Social Democratic Front were set up by President Paul Biya as a ploy to fracture the main party.

Fru Ndi has also made vague threats of protests and boycotts:

“I would not opt for youths to take to the streets in protest like that of the Arab Spring, but if Mr. Biya’s regime this time violates a free, fair and transparent election as he has always done, I would change my mind,” he told supporters.

Amid this heated rhetoric, now there has been a flash of physical violence as well:

Witnesses report a heavy military presence in Cameroon’s commercial hub, Douala, after gunmen dressed in military uniform opened fire on a major bridge to protest the country’s longtime president.

Officials say at least five gunmen blockaded the busy Wouri Bridge early Thursday and exchanged gunfire with security forces for about three hours. No injuries were reported.

Authorities say four suspects were taken into custody and another one plunged from the bridge into the river below. Cameroon police said they were interrogating the suspects to determine if they were soldiers.

Five men is not so many, but the dramatic action they took certainly attracted attention and increased the level of tension in the country. If the men turn out to be soldiers, that could raise questions about how widespread such discontent is within the security forces.

None of this directly threatens Biya, but the rhetorical and physical violence does point to underlying political strains in Cameroon. The big question will not be what happens during the election, but what happens afterward, especially as politicians, soldiers, and other powerful forces in Cameroon look toward a post-Biya future.

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

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