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Cameroon - Politics

Cameroon's government is a monarchy "dressed in the trappings of democracy". Cameroon is still a feudalist society as the relationship between the elites (ministers, senior officials, traditional) and the common people is more akin to lords and serfs than citizens of equal standing. Cameroon is "sitting on a volcano". The crisis is largely generational, with older elites seeking to maintain dominance. Highly centralized power structures and thoroughly corrupt officials at all levels of government have created a system of elite patronage which fundamentally fails to deliver services.

Cameroon is heading into a dangerous future. Outside intellectual circles, the arguments are usually less categorical and politically framed, but they generally point to the same conclusion: that President Paul Biya is very unpopular; that his government is run by a cadre of disconnected, self-serving elites; that corruption has withered the country's institutions; that average people are more poor and desperate; and that the future beyond Biya is fraught with uncertainty.

For all his faults, Biya succeeded in holding together the wobbly and uneasy architecture that has been Cameroon's stability. Nonetheless, that much-vaunted stability is at threat in the long term as a direct result of Biya's leadership over more than a thrid of a century, a leadership that systematically co-opted or undermined the independence of competing poles of power (from the judiciary and National Assembly to the media and opposition political parties). Against a backdrop of corrupt and dysfunctional institutions and widespread popular discontent and fear, Biya's eventual departure - whether by force of nature, his own choice, or popular demand - could bring a period of violence and instability.

Cameroon's human rights record has been poor but has improved recently. NGOs and the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture have highlighted extra-judicial executions, protracted detention without trial, torture of detainees and appalling prison conditions in recent years. In some rare cases the victims are political activists, but in many cases they are victims of racketeering by the security forces. It is probably fair to say that the number of cases highlighted has declined in the last 5 years.

Approximately 650 newspapers published at least once during the year, according to government sources, but only an estimated 25 had sufficient funds to publish regularly. Among the publications that appeared regularly, some had not paid their journalists for up to 10 months at a time, deepening the vulnerability of pay for coverage activities and thus undermining the credibility of private media. Also, the unreliable road infrastructure and the monopoly of Messa Press in the printing and distribution of newspapers contributed to delayed newspaper circulation, placing the print media in a disadvantageous position when competing against electronic media.

The government continued to disburse official funds to support private press outlets, although, unlike in previous years, there were no reports of disbursing funds selectively to outlets less critical of the government and with instructions to provide reporting favorable to the government. During the year some media professionals criticized the selecting and granting of public aid to private media. The amount disbursed to the media was not significant and barely covered a weeks printing costs. Government officials sometimes used expansive libel laws to arraign journalists who criticized them and to suspend some media outlets.

Approximately 200 radio stations officially operated, including 50 community radio stations and 150 commercial radio stations, three-fourths of them in Yaounde and Douala. Three private television and one radio stations were officially licensed to operate, in addition to the state-owned public television and radio. Overall, the government issued four licenses since 2007. All unlicensed private radio and television broadcasts operate under the governments policy of administrative tolerance. A cable distributor also had an official license to transmit, and many others transmitted programs through cable networks without official authorization. The government required nonprofit rural radio stations to submit applications to broadcast, but they were exempt from licensing fees.

Although there is a free press, journalists are often harassed. The international community (through the European Union, the Commonwealth, the United Nations, and bilaterally) has been pressing the Government of Cameroon to implement reforms of the judicial system and put an end to the culture of impunity in the security forces. The government set up a Human Rights Commission in 1992. A presidential decree, passed by the National Assembly in June 2005, confirms its official status and should ensure regular funding. The government has recently made other moves to improve the human rights situation, for example starting building new prisons to relieve overcrowding and implementing a new Criminal Procedure Code in 2007 which ensrines key legal principles such as habeas corpus and the presumption of innocence. Over time, one of the effects should be to bear down on the prison population since less people will be held on remand for such long periods.

The constitution which brought in a multi-party system was adopted in 1992, and substantially amended in 1996. It provides for a limit on Presidential tenure to 2 terms of 7 years, while the 180-member National Assembly is elected every 5 years. It also provides for an upper chamber, the Senate, which has yet to be set up. Cameroon has elected local councils, but constitutional provisions for Provinces to become Regions with their own elected regional councils have not been implemented.

In the early days of multiparty democracy the regime was seriously shaken by widespread protest and an emboldened opposition lead by the SDF. The first presidential election under a multi-party system in October 1992 were fiercely contested and controversial. President Biya was elected by a narrow margin (39-36%) over the leading opposition candidate, John Fru Ndi of the Social Democratic Front (SDF). However, since then, the CPDM and President Biya have managed to reassert their dominance over the Cameroonian political scene. The legislative elections of May 1997 were won by the CPDM and presidential elections of October 1997 were won by Biya with 81% of the vote according to the official results. Again the electoral process was denounced by the opposition.





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