Thus, unable to force the government’s hand on the issue of a national conference, the opposition’s hope was that the tripartite conference could be transformed into a conference whose decisions on the access of political parties to the official media, the electoral code and a revision of the constitution would be binding and have the force of law – far short of the NCOPA’s initial demands, but a “mini sovereign national conference” of sorts…
On October 11, 1991, President Biya announced during a nationwide address that multiparty legislative elections would take place on February 17, 1992.
United before the fall: Opposition leaders during a rally in Yaoundé in 1991.
He also announced that a tripartite meeting between the government, opposition parties and members of the civil society would take place in Yaounde, under the patronage of the Prime Minister, to discuss the draft electoral code and the draft decree on the access of political parties to the official media. He declared that the decisions of the meeting would be binding on all.
By the time President Biya addressed the nation, the Ghost town and civil disobedience campaign initiated by the National Coordination of Opposition Parties and Associations (NCOPA) had taken a heavy toll on the country’s economy with the state suffering a severe financial hemorrhage.
- 90 billion FCFA for overtime pay to the military
- About one billion FCFA for consultations, wisemen committees, commissions of inquiry, etc.
- 20 Billion FCFA on the provincial tours by President Biya.
The state had also lost about 90 billion FCFA of customs revenue from the Douala seaport. According to figures from the taxation department, the state collected only 20 billion FCFA of tax revenue between July 1991 and October 1991 instead of the expected 196 billion FCFA. Jeune Afrique Economie estimated on its part that the government was losing five billion FCFA daily as a result of the Ghost Town, and that by November 1991, this amounted to 750 billion FCFA.
A Flagging Campaign
In spite of this catastrophic economic situation and the huge strain on national coffers, the NCOPA’s influence was paradoxically waning and it was losing the ground that it had gained even before the official launching of the Ghost Towns. As a Radio Deutsche Welle news report of October 4 succinctly put it, the ghost town campaign had become “a flagging campaign, nothing more than an embarrassment in some parts.”
On October 25, Prime Minister Hayatou announced on Radio France International that the tripartite conference would hold from October 30 to November 9, 1991 and that he would chair the conference. He stated that the number and type of participants would be determined solely by the government. Most significantly from the opposition’s point of view, the Prime Minister emphasized that there would be no additions to the proposed conference agenda, and that contrary to the opposition’s claims regarding the “sovereign character” of the decisions from the conference, the tripartite meeting was merely a consultative forum whose decisions would be non-binding and, therefore, not have the force of law.
Divisions Emerge within the NCOPA
The members of the NCOPA) met in Yaoundé on October 26-27 to discuss the regime’s stance on the format and agenda of the tripartite conference. During the very stormy meeting, sharp disagreements emerged over the appropriate strategy to adopt towards what NCOPA members considered the government’s bad faith regarding the conference. A hardline group led by Gustave Essaka of the DIC argued that the conference was a farce and a trap for the NCOPA, and demanded that the Coordination simply boycott the conference since its decisions would not have the force of law. A second group led by Yondo Black proposed that the NCOPA go to the conference with a list of preconditions, present these preconditions on the floor, and then walk out if the government refused to meet them. A third option was defended d by Jean-Jacques Ekindi who proposed that the NCOPA send a memorandum to the Prime Minister outlining preconditions for taking part in the conference, and that if the Prime Minister did not respond favorably by the time the conference began, the NCOPA would boycott the event. The fourth position was defended by Nsame Mbongo of the PSD who urged NCOPA members to go to the conference with the sole aim of using it as a platform to initiate a debate on the sovereign national conference.
Although the final communiqué from the NCOPA meeting described the tripartite conference as a make-believe event and a crude trap which once again demonstrated “the duplicity and bad faith of the Biya-Hayatou duo,” the majority of NCOPA members eventually agreed to send the Prime Minister a “memorandum of preconditions” outlining conditions to be fulfilled before they could take part in the conference. They also agreed to boycott the conference if Prime Minister Hayatou did not respond favorably to their demands by October 30. The conditions set forth in the memorandum of preconditions included the following:
- Each political party shall be represented by five members, each major association by five members; the government and opposition would jointly select 20 independent personalities. No more than five personalities shall represent the government;
- Only political parties and civil society organizations shall have voting rights. They will each have one vote and decisions shall be by majority vote. Government representatives and participants invited to the conference on an individual basis shall have a purely consultative role with no voting rights;
- Conference decisions shall have the force of law to avoid any future tinkering by the single-party national assembly;
Thus, unable to force the government’s hand on a national conference, the NCOPA’s hope was that the tripartite conference could be transformed into a conference whose decisions on the access of political parties to the official media, the electoral code and a revision of the constitution would be binding and have the force of law – far short of the NCOPA’s initial demands, but a “mini sovereign national conference” of sorts…
On October 28, an NCOPA delegation led by Hamani Bieuleu of the UFDC handed the memorandum to the Prime Minister. However, by the time the tripartite conference began, the Prime Minister had not responded to the memorandum, thereby raising the specter of a boycott by the NCOPA as promised.
The Tripartite Talks Begin
As participants trooped to the Yaounde conference center on October 30 for the tripartite conference, the million-dollar question was whether any NCOPA members would break ranks. This question was soon answered when Samuel Eboua of the UNDP along with Adamou Ndam Njoya of the UDC and Henry Fossung of the NDP were spotted at the conference center during the opening ceremony. The presence of Adamou Ndam Njoya was not a surprise because he had increasingly become uncomfortable with some of the hardline positions of the NCOPA and had publicly called for a softening of the NCOPA’s stance on the sovereign national conference even before the President announced the convening of the tripartite conference. However, the presence of Samuel Eboua, President of the Directorate, was a major surprise.
Eboua's presence at the conference center had less to do with NCOPA politics and more to do with the a budding crisis within the UNDP. He had hastily made the trip to Yaounde, in violation of the NCOPA position which he championed, in a desperate attempt to forestall a palace coup being mounted by a renegade group within the UNDP. The group, which was led by the party’s Vice President Hamadou Moustapha and Secretary-General, Issa Tchiroma, had devised a plan whereby Bello Bouba Maigari, who had been invited to the conference as an “independent personality,” would replace Eboua as leader of a UNDP delegation if the UNDP president failed to show up. As soon as Eboua got wind of the plot, he headed off for Yaounde in a bid to foil what had the hallmarks of a palace coup.
The Opposition in Disarray
Eboua’s presence in Yaounde had a domino effect on NCOPA members who, not wanting to be left on the sidelines while major decisions were being made at the conference center, rushed to Yaounde in dispersed ranks and with no unified strategy. By the end of the day, 14 of the 21 members of the Coordination had arrived at the conference hall.
Together, the opposition parties faced a classic cartel dilemma. The efficacy of any cartel depends on the willingness of its members to play by the rules, but there is a tremendous incentive for each member to cheat and look for a "free ride" on the others' efforts. Usually, as soon as it is discovered that one member has been opportunistic, others quickly follow suit so as not to be left behind.
In Cameroon, the strength of the opposition depended on its ability to hold its various members together. Its main weakness was that one or two opportunists among the coalition membership could unravel the whole group's effort. (Gros, 1995: 119)
One of the last NCOPA members to arrive in Yaounde was Ni John Fru Ndi who told reporters that SDF militants had pressured him to make the journey to Yaounde because they feared that the SDF would be marginalized if it stayed away. Fru Ndi, however, tried to make the best out of a bad situation by insisting that:
Nonetheless, we are now happy that we came… it is not a betrayal. Our presence here should demonstrate to the Cameroonian people and to the international community that we did everything to preserve peace in Cameroon, that we are open to dialogue, that we did everything, without much success, to talk with President Biya in the interest of the Cameroonian people.
To proponents of the sovereign national conference, however, the tripartite conference was the death knell to the idea: “In reality, the famous tripartite [conference] is nothing but an attempt to definitively circumvent the unavoidable sovereign national conference which is now a taboo word for the political class convened for the great staging,” bemoaned Vianney Ombe Ndzana one of the “theoreticians” of the civil disobedience campaign. To them, the presence of the NCOPA in Yaounde in violation of the Coordination’s own resolutions was an unpardonable betrayal:
Whatever the outcome of the Yaounde meeting, Cameroonians now know that the leading figures of the coordination are men capable of changing opinions in less than 24 hours, to auction the demand for a national conference in exchange for a few handouts.
To the handful of NCOPA members who stood by the Yaounde declaration and refused to attend the conference, the presence of the majority of their colleagues in Yaounde marked the end of the NCOPA as an effective political force whose members could collectively resist the machinations of the Biya regime. As Nsame Mbongo pointed out, by going to the conference in dispersed ranks and without a concrete strategy, the NCOPA members risked leaving themselves wide open to the CPDM’s political tricks.
History would prove the sceptics right. By the time the tripartite ended some three weeks later, the NCOPA, that erstwhile formidable opposition alliance that had brought the Biya regime to the brink, was history, a victim of its own internal contradictions and divisions, the betrayal of some its prominent members, and the machinations of the Biya regime.
The fallout from the Tripartite are still being felt 25 years later...