Africa’s oldest president, Cameroon’s Paul Biya, easily won a seventh term on Monday after a Constitutional Council that he appointed rejected all legal challenges to the election. The United States noted irregularities that “may not have affected the outcome but created an impression that the election was not credible or genuinely free and fair.”
Now analysts say the country threatened by separatists faces further turmoil if Biya, who will be 92 when the new term ends, doesn’t start preparing Cameroon for life without him after decades in power.
Major cities saw heavy troop deployment ahead of the election announcement as the government banned rallies by the opposition, which had alleged fraud. Biya received more than 71 percent of the vote, far ahead of Maurice Kamto’s 14 percent.
The Oct. 7 election saw few voters in English-speaking regions after nearly a quarter-million people fled unrest by Anglophone separatists. The turnout in the Southwest was 15 percent and in the Northwest 5 percent while Biya won in both regions with more than 77 percent of the vote. Overall election turnout was 53 percent.
Fighting between the separatists’ ragtag bands and security forces accused by rights groups of abuses has killed hundreds and posed a serious challenge for Cameroon, a close U.S. security ally against extremism and a new member of the U.N. Human Rights Council.
The U.S. statement did not give details on the “irregularities.” But the fraud allegations and low turnout mean a weaker mandate for the 85-year-old Biya, who has led since 1982. The government did away with presidential term limits several years ago, part of a trend in Central Africa that has dismayed many.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres took note of the official announcement of results and called for all disputes to be handled “through established legal channels,” U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said. He added that Guterres said dialogue is the best path to unity.
“What I can tell you is that Cameroon will never be the same again,” human rights lawyer Felix Nkongho Agbor Balla told The Associated Press. While legal options for challenging election results have been exhausted, Cameroonians are more aware of their rights after watching the Constitutional Council’s hearings, he said.
The fractured opposition brought well over a dozen legal challenges but all were rejected by the council, a collection of high-ranking magistrates and members of Biya’s administration. The election occurred largely without Western election monitors.
The council called the election free and fair despite security challenges. A close Biya aide, Dion Ngute, said he wasn’t surprised by the win because the president is “very persevering … who tells Cameroonians what can be done and what is not possible to be done.”
Opposition candidate Joshua Osih, who has compared the inability of English-speaking voters to reach the polls to South Africa’s former system of apartheid, accused Biya of using the machinery of the state to ensure another term.
Monday’s troop deployment was “intended to punish the majority of Cameroonians who are disgruntled with Biya’s long stay in power and want him out,” Osih said.
Troops were seen at the homes of opposition candidates Kanto and Cabral Libii, who had urged Cameroonians to defend their rights if they feel cheated.
The minister of territorial administration, Paul Atanga Nji, said the troops were not meant to intimidate people but rather protect them from “politicians who are pushing naive youth to the streets.”
Dissatisfaction has been high in the English-speaking Southwest and Northwest, where analyst Hans De Marie Heungoup with the International Crisis Group said only a few counties’ polling stations opened. Biya didn’t campaign there.
“Normally the head of state should be worried to be elected when two of the 10 regions of the country almost have not participated,” Heungoup told the AP. “But in the reality of Cameroon, the president doesn’t care.”
The Anglophone unrest began after lawyers and teachers in the English-speaking regions peacefully protested what they called creeping marginalization by Cameroon’s French-speaking majority. English-speakers make up about 20 percent of the population.
After the government cracked down, armed separatists emerged and declared an independent state of Ambazonia. Civilians caught in the fighting have pleaded for peace.
Now everything depends on how Biya interprets his new mandate, Simon Munzu, a former U.N diplomat and coordinator of next month’s Anglophone General Conference, told the AP. The conference organized by religious leaders focuses on a possible national dialogue.
If the president sees this as a chance to address Anglophone grievances “we should be optimistic,” Munzu said. But if Biya, influenced by hardliners, sees the vote as approval of the status quo, “it will be a disaster. It will mean he adopts a high-handed attitude, not wanting to talk to anybody … preferring to pursue the military approach.”
Biya, whom observers describe as a distant figure even to ambassadors and some of his ministers, will be invited to the Anglophone conference, Munzu said.
Munzu and Heungoup warned that Cameroon faces disaster if Biya suddenly leaves power without preparing for a transition even within the ruling party, with its own tensions along generational and ethnic lines.
“I can only hope he is thinking about the interests of the nation,” Munzu said. Cameroonians are hungry for a proper democracy, he added, noting the country’s colonial past and legacy of autocratic rule: “They didn’t think it would last this long.”