With the terrifying exception of overloaded trucks speeding vast tree trunks from forest to port, things tend to move slowly in Cameroon. In fact, in many ways it feels like a country in a deep sleep, cobwebbed with bureaucratic inertia, corruption and nepotism. In Paul Biya, it has had the same President since 1982, and is dominated by an interwoven elite – political, commercial, religious and traditional – drawn from a single post-independence generation, locked into atrophied patterns of informal power-sharing and patronage that have shaped the country since the 1960s.
This elite is increasingly elderly. President Biya will be 85 when his current term of office ends in 2018. His longest-standing political opponent, John Fru-Ndi of the Social Democratic Front, is 74. In the event that Biya dies in office, the interim President will be the leader of the Senate – who is himself 82. From ministers to traditional chiefs, Cameroon’s rulers are approaching dotage. With age has come conservatism, caution to the point of paranoia, and insularity. Biya has remained resolutely distant from regional politics and didn’t even attend the event to celebrate his 30th year in office. Social and economic stagnation have followed.
But one virtue – perhaps the only virtue – of an entrenched gerontocracy is stability. Cameroon remains relatively unscarred by the upheavals that have convulsed the rest of its region. Apart from a coup attempt in 1984 and, in recent years, the encroachment of Boko Haram into Cameroon’s remote north, it has remained free from large-scale violence. There were riots in 2008, over constitutional change to lift presidential term limits, and there have been sporadic protests and strikes since, but nothing to threaten the status quo.
Yet Cameroonians are acutely aware that it could, and perhaps should, be a deeply conflicted country. It is home to profound social faultlines: between the anglophone peripheries and the French-speaking majority; between the Muslim north and Christian south; and between a bewilderingly complicated array of some 250 ethnic groups. That the post-independence consensus, for all its failings and frustrations, has held so long is in part testament to the commonly held fear that the alternative could be far worse.
However, this status quo is under increasing strain. On top of long-standing divides of language, ethnicity and religion, newer faultlines are opening – most importantly between rich and poor, young and old. Like much of the rest of Africa, Cameroon faces the dual challenge of an enormous youth population and sky-high unemployment. Social discontent is to some extent mollified by government fuel subsidies – a constant drain on public finances – and is hard to judge in a context of state harassment of journalists, activists and opponents. But it is real, and growing. Add in fears of religious extremism, notably in the Muslim communities exposed to Boko Haram brutality, rumours of division in the armed forces, and a deeply unstable regional neighbourhood, and the mix becomes more volatile still.
For now, these grievances have no real avenue for expression. Politics is comprehensively dominated by Biya’s Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement, which won 82 per cent of seats in the last National Assembly elections. While Biya remains in office, they are likely to remain latent. But when he goes, as, sooner or later he must, the tensions that his long rule has kept in suspension may bubble to the surface. It is an open question whether the remaining guardians of the status quo will be able to manage them. Cameroon’s long sleep continues, but the alarm clock is ticking. It is difficult to say what mood the country will be in when it finally wakes up.