Cameroon rulers refuse to resign before elections

Lack of compromise may give fuel to tribal unrest, Mark Huband writes from Yaoundé

The Guardian, 24 April 1991

DESPITE months of violent unrest and pressure for political change, the ruling regime in Cameroon resisted the demands of opposition leaders this week for a national conference on the country’s political future and risked provoking further clashes in an increasingly tribal conflict.

Fear of the security forces has spread after they suppressed demonstrations in the northern towns of Ngaoundere and Maroua at the weekend. The continued detention of up to 60 students in Yaoundé provoked a crowd to kill a soldier.

The government of President Paul Biya has pursued its programme of reform, amid demands for it to hand over power to an interim administration in the run-up to elections due in 1993.

European Community officials in Cameroon were locked in negotiations with the government yesterday, after three students sought political asylum in the EC mission in Yaoundé, claiming their lives were at risk from the security forces.

Mr Biya, interviewed after meeting President François Mitterrand in Paris last week, inspired numerous humiliating cartoons when he described himself as one of the “best pupils” of the reform process which Mr Mitterrand has foisted on the reluctant one-party regimes of francophone Africa.

While Mr Biya has little choice but to reform the political system – 11 political parties have already been legalised – he remains determined not to hand over power until the future of the ruling CPDM is secure. Party members believe a national conference, which would appoint an interim Prime Minister, would give the opposition a chance to lay charges of corruption and authoritarian rule against the Biya regime which inherited power in 1982.

Responding to the government’s accusation that a national conference would be a “short cut” to power for the opposition, the leader of the main anti-government party, the Social Democratic Front, John Fru Ndi, said recently: “Sure it’s a short cut. We want a short cut to power.”

On Monday, the national assembly, which is made up solely of ruling party members, voted to allow the President to appoint a Prime Minister and granted an amnesty to all political prisoners.

Diplomatic attention has been focused on the fear of reprisals against those not satisfied with the government reforms so far introduced.

EC officials in Yaoundé said yesterday they had not yet received written assurances from the government that the three asylum-seeking students, Corentin Talla, Robert Waffo Wanto and Blaise Yinga Yotchou, would be unharmed if they left the mission which they entered on Friday.

The EC officials had been told that following the national assembly’s decision to free all political prisoners, the students, well known pro-democracy campaigners, could leave without fear of prosecution.

The EC is encouraging them to leave though the final decision will be for the students to take and they will not be forced out, the Dutch ambassador in Yaounde, Georges-Albert Wehry, who represents the EC Council of Ministers, said.

The granting of an amnesty to hundreds of political prisoners, many jailed since a 1984 attempt to overthrow the government of President Biya, is cited by both the EC and the government as grounds for the students to leave.

So far no list of those who are to be released from prison has been published, though the families of some of those imprisoned are drawing up their own list to ensure that the amnesty is applied to everyone accused of political crimes.

The 1984 coup attempt is generally regarded as having been master-minded by the former president, Ahmadou Ahidjo, who retired in 1982. Its suppression marked the ascendancy of Mr Biya’s Bulu Beti ethnic group – which dominates in the south of the country and holds most key positions in government – over the northern Muslim region where Mr Ahidjo had his power base.



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