Cameroon - Government
Cameroon is a republic dominated by a strong presidency. The country has a multiparty system of government, but the Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (CPDM) has remained in power since it was created in 1985. In practice the president retains the power to control legislation. In April 2013 the country conducted the first Senate elections in its history, which were peaceful and considered generally free and fair. In September 2013 simultaneous legislative and municipal elections occurred, and most observers considered them to be free and fair. In 2011 citizens re-elected CPDM leader Paul Biya president, a position he has held since 1982, in a flawed election marked by irregularities, but observers did not believe these had a significant impact on the outcome. Civilian authorities at times did not maintain effective control over the security forces.
From 1961 until the spring of 1972, Cameroon was governed as a federation, with East (former French) Cameroon and West (former British) Cameroon having individual governments, each with parliament and ministries, in addition to the Federal Government structure. President Ahidjo in 1972 proposed abolition of the Federal structure, declaring that the cost and inefficiency of the system was slowing the country's progress toward national identity, and that in any case the 11 years' experience since independence had assured that regional interests were well protected under the national government. A referendum held on May 20, 1972, gave massive endorsement to the proposal, and a decree of June 2 proclaimed the United Republic of Cameroon in existence since the referendum of May 20, with the same date to be observed thereafter as the national holiday.
The Constitution which came into effect with the unitary state of May 20, 1972, provides for a strong exec- utive authority. The President is empowered to name and dismiss members of the Cabinet, negotiate and ratify treaties, accredit ambassadors, commute sentences, and exercise pardon. He is the head of the armed forces. When circumstances call for it, he can decree a state of national emergency and thereby become invested with special powers.
The 1972 constitution (amended in 1996 and 2008) provides for a strong central government dominated by the executive. The president is empowered to name and dismiss cabinet members, judges, generals, regional governors, prefects, sub-prefects, and heads of Cameroon's parastatal (about 100 state-controlled) firms, obligate or disburse expenditures, approve or veto regulations, declare states of emergency, and appropriate and spend profits of parastatal firms. The president is not required to consult the National Assembly.
The 180-member National Assembly meets in ordinary session three times a year (March-April, June-July, and November-December), and seldom makes major changes in legislation proposed by the executive. Laws are adopted by a majority vote of members present or, if the president demands a second reading, of total membership.
Following government pledges to reform the strongly centralized 1972 constitution, the National Assembly adopted a number of amendments in December 1995, which were promulgated in a new constitution in January 1996. The amendments called for the establishment of a 100-member Senate as part of a bicameral legislature, the creation of regional councils, and the installation of a 7-year presidential term, renewable once. One-third of senators would be appointed by the president, and the remaining two-thirds would be chosen by indirect elections. As of October 2010, neither the Senate nor the regional council had been created. In April 2008, the National Assembly acceded to constitutional changes proposed by the presidency that, inter alia, removed presidential term limits and provided the president with immunity from prosecution for acts committed while in office.
All local government officials are employees of the central government's Ministry of Territorial Administration, from which local governments receive most of their budgets.
The judiciary is subordinate to the executive branch's Ministry of Justice. The Supreme Court, in the absence of a constitutionally mandated Constitutional Court, may review the constitutionality of a law only at the president's request. While the president, the Minister of Justice, and the president's judicial advisers (the Supreme Court) top the judicial hierarchy, traditional rulers, courts, and councils also exercise functions of government. Traditional courts still play a major role in domestic, property, and probate law. Tribal laws and customs are honored in the formal court system when not in conflict with national law. Traditional rulers receive stipends from the national government.
The court system is subordinate to the Ministry of Justice. The constitution designates the president as “first magistrate,” thus “chief” of the judiciary, making him the legal arbiter of any sanctions against the judiciary, although he has not played this role publicly. The constitution specifies that the president is the guarantor of the legal system’s independence. He appoints all judges, with the advice of the Higher Judicial Council. While judges hearing a case should be governed only by the law and their conscience as provided for by the constitution, in some matters they are subordinate to the minister of justice. For example, the Special Criminal Court must have approval from the minister of justice before it may drop charges against a defendant who offers to pay back the money he was accused of having embezzled. Despite the judiciary’s independence vis-a-vis the executive and legislative powers, the head of the executive branch appoints all members of the bench and legal department of the judicial branch, including the president of the Supreme Court, and may dismiss them at will. In December 2014, for instance, President Biya replaced important members of the judiciary, including Supreme Court President Alexis Dipanda Mouelle.
The legal system includes national and customary law, and many criminal and civil cases may be tried using either one. Criminal cases generally were tried in statutory courts. Customary courts served as a primary means for settling domestic cases, such as succession, inheritance, and child custody. Customary courts may exercise jurisdiction in a civil case only with the consent of both parties. Either party has the right to have a case heard by a statutory court and to appeal an adverse decision by a customary court to the statutory courts.
Customary law is deemed valid only when it is not “repugnant to natural justice, equity, and good conscience,” but many citizens in rural areas remained unaware of their rights under civil law and were taught they must abide by customary laws. Customary law ostensibly provides for equal rights and status, although men may limit women’s rights regarding inheritance and employment. Customary law practiced in rural areas is based on the traditions of the predominant ethnic group and is adjudicated by traditional authorities of that group. Some traditional legal systems regard wives as the legal property of their husbands.
Customary court convictions involving alleged witchcraft are automatically transferred to the statutory courts, which act as the courts of first instance. The law provides for sentences of between two and 10 years’ imprisonment and fines of between CFA francs 5,000 ($9) and CFA francs100,000 ($173). There were no arrests or trials for alleged witchcraft reported during the year 2015.
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