"But, dear comrades, it should also be observed that one man's meat is another man's poison. It should also be considered that other reference values can exist... Our party is strong no doubt, but henceforth, it must be prepared to face possible competition." Paul Biya, CPDM Congress, June 28, 1990
Exactly 20 years ago, on June 28, 1990, President Biya, in a memorable address to militants of the ruling party who were holding out against the reinstitution of multiparty politics in Cameroon, asked them to be ready for “eventual competition.” This was the culmination of a multiparty debate which began early that year with the Yondo affair, and reached its violent apogee with the death of six teenagers who were “trampled by bullets” in Bamenda during the launching of the Social Democratic Front (SDF). After the May 26 launching of the SDF and the subsequent smear campaign against the party and its sympathizers, Cameroon seemed to be on the verge of a major conflagration which had been looming in the horizon since the Yondo affair.
Within the CPDM itself, the battle between conservative and progressive forces which had been brewing for months burst to the surface as the first national congress of the ruling CPDM, which was scheduled for June 28, approached. Pro- and anti-multiparty camps went on the offensive with hopes of influencing the outcome of the multiparty debate which many expected would be high on the congress agenda. According to Cameroon Tribune, three main factions emerged within the ruling party; a progressive faction led by Jean Jacques Ekindi which was in favour of multiparty politics, a conservative faction led by CPDM Member of Parliament Mballa Bounong which categorically rejected multipartyism, and a third faction led by Emah Basile, the Mayor of Yaounde, which believed in eventual multipartyism but felt that the country was not yet ready for it.
The majority of Cameroonians, however, vigorously challenged the notion that Cameroonians were not yet ripe for multiparty politics. Others argued that multipartyism was a historical imperative because the CPDM alone could neither contain nor synthesize the divergent political views of a new generation of Cameroonians who did not identify themselves with the historical constraints that gave rise to the single party in 1966. The President on his part seemed to defy the pro-democracy crowd with pronouncements that seem to indicate that he shared the view that Cameroonian democracy was doing just fine:
In a nationwide address in early June 1990, he claimed that Cameroonians had nothing to learn from abroad with regard to democracy. He himself had initiated perestroika and glasnost in his country long before Gorbachev did in the Soviet Union. (Konings, 1996: 256)
Mounting International Pressure
As internal pressure increased on the Biya regime to accept multiparty politics, western governments and international donor organizations also began pressuring African regimes to liberalize national politics. Prior to 1990, western aid was largely based on the strategic imperatives of the cold war. However, with the collapse of the Soviet empire and the end of the cold war, there was a shift in strategy: “No longer in grave need of strategic alliances in the developing world, donors became more closely involved in the domestic matters of weaker states” (Brown, 181-182: 2005). Increasingly, therefore, western countries began linking aid to their erstwhile allies in Africa to democracy, good governance and the respect for human rights.
In April 1990, Herman Cohen, the United States Assistant Secretary of State, announced that the United States would henceforth tie its aid to democratic reforms. Cohen revealed that "Very important members of the Congress . . . are saying we should direct our assistance to emerging democracies," and warned that "Democracy is not a condition of assistance now, but I think it will be in the not-too-distant future.” A few moths later, Cohen stated in a speech to the African American Institute that:
Africans, too, have come to realize that development and democracy go hand-in-hand, and that is one of primary reasons for the wave of democratic reform that is sweeping the continent today...
Like people everywhere, Africans want and need freedom. And they want what the one-party model has so singularly failed to provide: government based on the equality of all groups rather than dominance by or favoritism toward one; leaders interested in national development rather than the limited perspectives of patronage politics; economic policies that promote rather than preclude individual enterprise.
The Soothing Effect of the World Cup
The Biya regime got a much-needed respite from the domestic and international pressure thanks to the FIFA Football World Cup tournament which opened in Italy on June 8. In the tournament’s opening game, Cameroon’s national team, the Indomitable Lions, obtained a historic 1-0 victory over reigning champions Argentina. The Lions eventually became the first African team to reach the quarter finals of a world cup tournament. During Cameroon’s magnificent run in Italy, ethnic, regional, linguistic and political differences and antagonisms were temporarily cast aside as Cameroonians savored the dazzling performance of their team and basked in the fame and international sympathy that ensued. Prof. Pierre Tsala Mbala, the national team's physiologist highlighted this fact in an interview with The New York Times:
We have so many tribes in our country. Football is one way to unite our country, the only way to have our people fit together. I don't know of another event to mean more to our people than football. Football is a big unifier in our country.
Cameroon’s Cinderella story captured the imagination of football fans across the globe and generated huge amounts of sympathy for the country which the government tried to exploit politically as much as it could. As Mesumbe Mbwoge put it in Cameroon Life Magazine, “The lions have acted like a clog on the wheels of political agitation in Cameroon.”
The CPDM Congress of Democracy & Liberty
The country was still basking in the glorious performance of the Indomitable Lions in Italy when the much anticipated CPDM Congress of Democracy & Liberty opened at the Yaounde Congress Hall on June 28, 1990. In his keynote address, President Biya defined democracy as “over and above all, freedom; freedom of the press, of opinion, total freedom of expression, of association, free elections… independence of the magistracy, respect of human rights...” and insisted that:
We are not so far from our ideals of democracy and freedom, but, we must also forge ahead and ensure that what is an ideal should become reality.
It is on this basis that most of the people involved in the events of April 6, 1984 have been freed. And, in the near future, we will make further strides towards greater democracy. Thus, freedom of the press will be reinforced; deregulation is already in place to liberalise economic and labour activities in the country.
In an allusion to the events of May 26 in Bamenda, President Biya emphasized that:
For our democracy to survive long, it needs to have a strong foundation. Its construction must be done by preserving the achievements of national unity, in peace and stability, by respecting law and order and by maintaining our customs and traditions...Freedom has its limits and constraints. One cannot just do anything or steer a country to anarchy in the name of freedom. We do not have that right. Democracy is also: respect for the law, because a people and a state can be strong only if the laws are firm, applied strictly and respected by all.
To militants of the CDPM, he defined their new role within the context of a new democratic framework:
In this new situation, the role incumbent on the party will be essential. The CPDM must be the crucible that would engender major ideas that would permit our country to develop harmoniously. As the guarantor of democracy before the people, it will be responsible for national unity… As the symbol for the ideals of our entire people, it will operate as a school for democracy in which everyone will personally put himself to question and improve himself… We should never hesitate to indulge in self-criticism or to question certain structures that no longer are adapted… Our party must be made a dynamic party, and strive to do better and to be ever far-sighted. Each and every one of us must be an example to the Cameroon people. Then and only then will democracy be achieved and will future generation be proud of us.
Without mentioning the word “multipartyism, the President informed CPDM militants that the era of the single party was over:
But, dear comrades, it should also be observed that one man's meat is another man's poison. It should also be considered that other reference values can exist. Consider also that other schools of thought exist which must be taken into account, fought against or integrated. Our party is strong no doubt, but henceforth, it must be prepared to face possible competition. Be prepared for it by defending your ideals of peace, freedom, and tolerance.
The President also announced during his 34-minute speech that the 1962 emergency laws would be abolished, that a human rights commission would be created and that restrictions on the free movement of Cameroonians, such as exit visas for individuals traveling abroad, would be lifted.
To many Cameroonians, Biya’s speech had finally closed the chapter on the acrimonious multiparty debate which began with the Yondo affair and had culminated in the death of six people in Bamenda. As the Le Messager stated, the speech “marks a watershed in the history of Cameroon’s political development… Cameroonians now expect to see a clear distinction between genuine democracy and the thinly veiled autocracy they have been experiencing in recent years.” The SDF on its part stated that it was “greatly satisfied with its achievement in waking up the CPDM government from its long deep slumber and do hope that the CPDM government will remain awake and active for the interest of Cameroonian nation.”
Beyond the widespread euphoria in the pro-multiparty camp, there were those who called on the Biya regime to immediately authorize multipartyism if it hoped “to retain the slimmest glimmer of hope in the impending multiparty competitions.” Others were visibly uneasy with the lack of specifics in the President’s promises. Thus, while conceding that “Mr. Biya’s nimble performance last June 28 nipped the bud of murmur that would have turned into a roar with obvious consequences for all of us”, Ngoh Nkwain nonetheless questioned in Cameroon Post,
How will press freedoms be reinforced? Who will revise the law on associations and just who will determine that it is liberal enough to stand the single-minded zeal of CPDM Stalwarts? Who will set up a human rights commission and who will ensure that it is not another CPDM-run National Union of Cameroon Workers, with the Government of the day pulling the strings, as usual with insulting impunity? Who will ensure that the judiciary is independent and that government ministers will no longer wield the kind of clout that allows them to openly defy Supreme Court rulings?
Cameroonians would soon find out the regime’s answers to these pertinent questions; answers that would contain in them seeds of future political discord that still haunt Cameroon to this day...
Adapted from Reform and Repression in Cameroon: A Chronicle of the Smoldering Years (1990-1992), a forthcoming book by Dibussi Tande commemorating the 20th anniversary of the beginning of Cameroon’s tumultuous democratization process.