So what explains the very high number of political parties in Cameroon, and their evident inability to take part in the political process?
According to the website of Cameroon’s Ministry of Territorial Administration and Decentralization (MINATD), 282 political parties are registered in Cameroon.
To the casual observer, this would seem like a lot of political parties for a country with the size and population of Cameroon.
Even though these political parties exist on paper, most of them are completely absent from the national and local political landscape. In fact, since the reinstitution of political pluralism in Cameroon in 1990, there has never been an election in which all registered parties participated.
Evidently, quantity is not a problem when it comes to the number of political parties in Cameroon. However, quality is a very scarce commodity with very few viable parties that can effectively compete and win elections at the national and local levels.
So what explains the very high number of political parties in Cameroon, and their evident inability to take part in the political process and compete in elections which is the essence of political parties?
The law governing political parties in Cameroon (Law no. 90/56 of 19 December 1990) allows for an unlimited number of political parties – what has been described as “Le multipartisme integral”. Creating a political party is a fairly easy and inexpensive administrative process in Cameroon. It is even less cumbersome than creating a Not-for-Profit organization. Officially, this is to give every Cameroonian the chance to have a voice in the country’s political process if he or she so desires.
Conventional wisdom, however, holds that the Biya regime crafted Cameroon’s multiparty law in 1990 with an eye on (opposition) party multiplication and fragmentation as a means to perpetuate the CPDM’s grip on the political process and system. As Francis Nyamnjoh has argued (in Africa’s Media: Democracy And The Politics Of Belonging), “The Multiplicity of parties, most of which had no existence outside the personality of their founders, can be explained partly by the government’s interest in dissipating real democratic opposition…” (113).
The CPDM is routinely accused of sponsoring the creation of dummy parties whose role is to muddy the political waters, serve as relay points for the government’s unpopular positions issues of the day, and dilute the strength and votes of the opposition. In fact, many of the political parties created during the early years of Cameroon’s multiparty experience (1991-1992) were suspected of being CPDM moles charged with either infiltrating opposition groupings such as the National Coordination of Opposition Parties (NCOPA), or passing off as the “responsible opposition” constantly challenging the “radical and irrational” policies of the “hard-line opposition”. Virtually all of these parties eventually joined what became known as the “Majorité présidentielle”. To this day, many political analysts still insist that Dakole Daisalla’s Movement for the Defense of the Republic (MDR), which teamed up with Biya in 1992 to give the latter a parliamentary majority in 1992, was in fact created by the regime.
Nyamjoh adds an ethnic explanation to the debate by pointing out that “in a plural society like Cameroon, it was difficult for any one political party, founded on ethnic, linguistic or religious lines, to cater for every group’s interest. (113). Hence every ethnic group or region sought to have its own political party which increased its chance of getting a share of the national pie.
No Independent Candidates
Other seasoned observers of the Cameroon political scene such as Churchill Ewumbue-Monono (in Men of Courage: The Participation of Independent and Civil Society Candidates in the Electoral Process in Cameroon) have attributed the plethora of political parties to (a) the “extreme partitisation” of Cameroonian politics symbolized by the rejection of independent candidates in municipal and legislative elections on the one hand, and the largely unfulfillable conditions for running as an independent in presidential elections on the other, and (2) the administrative and political harassment of civil society organizations that are interested in politics.
According the laws governing elections in Cameroon, independent candidates are barely tolerated (presidential elections) or simply outlawed (legislative and municipal elections). In fact, the conditions for running as an independent in presidential elections are so stringent that no candidate has ever been able to fulfill them since the reinstitution of multiparty elections. Candidates are required to furnish signatures from 300 “grand electors” (i.e., Members of Parliament, Councilors, First Class Chiefs, etc.), 30 from each of the 10 provinces.
Political parties are therefore the only form of legitimate political expression in Cameroon. And, individuals who would normally participate in the political process or contest elections as independents are forced to create political parties. Ewumbue-Monono highlights the fact that “the electoral behavior and capacity pf most of the political parties in Cameroon have been similar to those of independent candidates who could present lists or candidates in only one constituency” (p. 180). In short, the majority of political parties in Cameroon are “independents in party garments, and which cannot present candidates or lists in more than one constituency” (p. 181).
Little tolerance for civil society participation in political process
Ewumbue-Monono also points out that “In Cameroon, when a political party is criticizing the Government, it is seen as constructive, but when such criticism comes from the civil society it is seen as subversive”. A good example was the July 1991 banning of six civil society organizations for allying with the NCOPA to promote the Villes Mortes and support calls for a Sovereign National Conference. No political party suffered a similar fate for the same crimes. Ewumbue-Monono therefore argues that,
To avoid harassment, therefore, most civil society organizations have merely registered as political parties. In effect, over 70% of the registered political parties in Cameroon as of 2004 are nothing short of civil society organizations in scope of activities and objectives dressed in party uniforms. Many civil society organizations aimed at empowering vulnerable groups like the youth, women, children and the handicapped, the elderly, and workers have been registered pure and simple as political parties, which explain the high number of parties in the country. (p. 137).
The result has been the “partitisation” of the civil society as civil society organizations simply morph into political parties in order to survive. This is the case, for example, of Fritz Pierre Ngo’s Cameroon Ecological Movement (environment), Tchoungui Francois-Xavier’s, Movement for Justice and Freedom (human rights), and Boniface Fobin’s Justice and Development Party (Anglophone minority rights).
Whatever the original intentions of the various laws that govern political parties and elections in Cameroon, the outcome has been a political landscape that promotes the mushrooming of non-viable political parties, many of whose entire membership can fit in a phone booth, as they say in Cameroon. Worse, these laws exclude huge segments of Cameroonian society from the political process. As the head of the OAU election monitoring team for the 2002 municipal and legislative elections stated,
The texts of the law which do not permit independent candidatures have prevented many competent citizens of the civil and society from participating in the management of municipal and parliamentary affairs.
Churchill Ewumbue-Monono. Men of Courage: The Participation of Independent and Civil Society Candidates in the Electoral Process in Cameroon. A Historical Perspective, 1945-2004. Limbe; Design House, 2006. 237 pages.
Francis B Nyamnjoh. Africa’s Media: Democracy And The Politics Of Belonging. London, ZED Books; Pretoria, UNISA Press, 2005. 308 pages.