The Election Gauntlet of Cameroon

Phillipe Nanga, head of an election observation NGO

Phillipe Nanga, head of an election observation NGO

Douala    Make no mistake. Any notion that Cameroon is a democracy is the same as believing that an obstacle course is the same as a straight road. Yes, there are parties. Yes, there are elections. But, there is no even playing field, so whatever one might want to call this form of government, no matter how you shake-and-bake it, there’s nothing particularly fair about it. It is no surprise that the existing president has been in office for more than 34 years, is 84 years old, and is expected to stand for another seven-year term in 2018.

We spent some time early in the Organizers’ Forum in a visit with Phillipe Nanga, the head of Un Monde Avenir, the World to Come, a fair elections NGO, and his staff, who gave us a good sense of the problem and a crash course in the election obstacles and voter suppression. They work closely with Elections Cameroon, called EleCam, a state agency that is responsible for registering voters. There is nothing easy about voter registration. I’m not saying that they invented difficult registration, but I will say that the system is reminiscent of the process used by many southern states even at the dawn of the 1970’s in the USA. A graphic illustration over his head went through their steps of training election observers down to protection of the ballot box. I asked Nanga if ballot box theft was common, and he answered without hesitation, yes.

difficult election process

difficult election process

To register you either have to personally go into the EleCam office nearest you and successfully present your documents or someone employed by EleCam has to somehow come to you in a meeting, rally, market, or some such. The reason EleCam is a good partner for Un Monde Avenir is that they are on a quota for registrations by the government so anything that is organized for them, makes their jobs easier, and allows them to keep their jobs. Voting of course requires an ID, but a national ID is required to do everything in Cameroon, so that is not an obstacle here since everyone has one. More than half of the population is under 19 years old, so, not surprisingly, you cannot register to vote until you are 20 years old. Un Monde Avenir has been focusing on registering youth. We were told by their staff that they had registered 100 people so far this year.

Of the 23,130,708 people in the population as of June 2015, 5, 981,226 were registered. There are no accurate figures but a solid estimate would mean that between 40 and 45% of the eligible voters in the population are not registered to vote: a very large voting pool! When those who are successful in registering are allowed to vote, a fair number do so. 68% of the eligible voters in fact did vote in the 2011 presidential election, the last time they had a chance.

leader of largest opposition party

leader of largest opposition party

We spoke to two leaders of parties in Cameroon, one was the leader of the largest, Elembe Lobe Abel. His party, SDF, has close to a score of national parliamentarians in each house and more than 800 local office holders in the country. I asked him how he saw his party’s prospects in the election expected sometime in 2018. He answered that for any opposition party to have a chance, the constitution would have to allow for a runoff. The winner is now “first past the post,” which always favors an incumbent. He felt the only way anyone would have a chance without a change in the no-runoff election would be if the existing president somehow declined to run. Interesting to the Forum delegates was Abel’s description of Bollore as a criminally, corrupt corporation in Cameroon.

head of the CPP party and Cameroon Obasso

head of the CPP party and Cameroon Obasso

We also spoke to the dynamic head of another large party CPP which is also interesting in that it has a political, but nonpartisan operation called Cameroon Obasso or Cameroon Let’s Go which operates almost like a community organization with various marginal populations. They are also part of an amalgamation called Stand Up for Cameroon, which has attracted wide support. She had run for president in 2011. She was more focused on the transition or, said another way, the inevitable death of the existing president, when the country would have the opportunity for change.

There are hundreds of parties in Cameroon. The law also prevents them from fusing or cross endorsing, so each is on its own in the fight for democracy against great odds in Cameroon.

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Bollore-Socfin Steals Liberian Land with Empty Promises and Government Help

dscn1740Douala, Cameroon   The Organizers’ Forum and ACORN International delegations spent an afternoon meeting in the cabaret of our hotel yesterday. We had finally come to the part of our agenda where we were hearing about the campaigns a number of our partners and organizing colleagues of recent days to stop land grabbing, particularly in their struggles with plantations and operations of Bollore, a French rubber and palm oil conglomerate, now owned by Socfin, a Brussels-based company. The Cameroon story featured a number of blockades in the five of the six plantations areas organized with the assistance of our partner, ReAct from Grenoble. We are visiting with leaders in several of these villages, so I will hold that story for later, and instead share what leaders and organizers from Liberia told me, and as importantly the written and executed document they copied for me.

In Liberia, the Bollore subsidiary, named the Liberian Agricultural Company and popularly called LAC, wanted to significantly expand its holdings in 2004. The expansion would involve the displacement and relocation of 419 families. Talking to the organizers, there was unhappiness about all of this, but given the threat of eminent domain that is enshrined in the Liberian constitution, the rubber and subsistence farmers felt that they had little to no choice, but to try and negotiate the best agreement they could.

It’s complicated, but my best understanding is that they were offered various prices, many of which they refused until they were able to get a better deal, as well as a sum of six dollars per rubber tree they were welling on their lands. Half of that sum was to be paid by the company and half was to be paid by the government.

The sweetener in the deal was what we would call a “community benefits” package of agreements that were also include in the financing and purchasing document signed by all parties and finally executed in 2007. This agreement committed to the hiring of an additional more than 700 workers, 500 of them from the local villages when the expansion of the plant was completed. It also committed to building a school for the communities impacted. The company had a school, but to attend you had to be employed or have a connection of some kind to the company. Otherwise your children had no school, but the agreement promised they would build a school so the displaced and others would have education. Playgrounds were promised and a number of other basic amenities, though that seems the wrong word since most were vital necessities.

All of this began in 2004 and now in 2016, this seems more like a treaty made with the Indians by the US in the 1800s. Virtually none of the promises were kept. The farmers had to go to court to get some of the financial payments, and have still only succeeded in getting the company’s half, not the government’s share. Absolutely none of the benefits promised in the agreement have been provided. The company doesn’t deny the agreement. They have met with LACDISFAC, the farmers’ organization numerous times after innumerable delays, but still have not implemented the agreement.

Reading the agreement was the kick in the gut for me. The financing and guarantees were underwritten for the company by the French Development Bank (AFD) to the tune of $22 million USD. They made the loan and warranted the agreement after it was executed by the company, the government officials, and the farmers themselves. They have done nothing to assure that the terms of the agreement were met.

I’m betting once I have better internet that I will find that the French Development Bank has continued to have a hand in financing other land grabbing deals by Bolliere-Socfin and land predators just like them in Africa without ever assuring that the interests of the parties were respected or that the priorities and objectives of the French people were honored either.

What impunity! The French Development Bank is the equivalent in Liberia to the look-out and bag man on a plain and simple grand larceny robbery.

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