Country profile: Cameroon

Cameroonian women

Women parade in the village of Kembong, near Mamfe in the southwest region of Cameroon. © George Osodi/Panos

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.

Autocracy or brave solution? Rwanda country profile

Women are putting beans out to dry at a coffee-bean washing station.

Photos by Sven Torfinn/Panos

Kigali is an extraordinary city, sprawled across tree-spattered low hills. Compared to the chaos and bustle of Nairobi or Kampala, it is calm, safe and remarkably clean, almost eerily so. There are few street children and no informal traders, the traffic lights work and motorbike taxi-drivers wear helmets. Neat new dormitory suburbs climb distant hillsides in orderly ranks, behind soaring new office blocks, malls and Ministry buildings. The government extols the fundamental unity of Rwandans, and the people live in peace. The transformation from the dark days of 1994 is nothing short of astonishing.

But it also feels slightly unreal. No country divides observers like Rwanda. To some, it is an unparalleled success story, a phoenix rising from the ashes of genocide. To others, an authoritarian regime, guilty of fierce repression at home and bloody military adventures abroad.

Rwanda’s progress has been driven by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a rebel group with its origins in communities of Rwandan exiles that fled anti-Tutsi violence around independence in the late 1950s. The RPF invaded from neighbouring Uganda in 1990, ultimately defeating the former regime four years later, amid the horrors of the genocide. They drove out the remnants of the genocidal forces, and took power.

Though Rwanda transitioned to multiparty democracy in 2003, there has been no real challenge to RPF control; President Kagame won the last two Presidential elections with more than 90 per cent of the vote, and the RPF controls three-quarters of the seats in the National Assembly. Opposition parties offer no more than a nominal challenge. More vocal opponents are arrested or driven into exile. Some, it is alleged, have even been killed, most recently former RPF insider Patrick Karageya, assassinated in South Africa in January 2014.

Control extends beyond formal politics. There is almost no independent media or civil society, and very little space for discussion of history or politics, particularly the contested genesis of the quasi-ethnic identities that once ordered Rwandan life. Instead of Hutu and Tutsi, seen as racist fictions imposed on the country by the colonial authorities, everyone is now simply Rwandan. This narrative is driven home, including at re-education camps known as Ingando, attended by many Rwandans, from schoolchildren to demobilized soldiers. All citizens are expected to join community work days, farming has been progressively collectivized and new villages created from once widely spaced rural populations.

The benefit of this discipline is manifest in Rwanda’s development successes. Rural poverty has been significantly improved, including access to education, healthcare and services. Rwanda’s economy has grown at an impressive rate. And Kigali, as noted, is a gleaming testament to the RPF vision of a modern, outward-looking economy.

But it’s hard to judge if the majority of Rwandans have actively consented to this vision. The voices of the rural majority are not often heard. Tight control of political space by an effective, often brutal security apparatus suggests, at least in the view of the government, that Rwanda remains a tinderbox of ethnic violence. Maybe – it is very difficult for outsiders to know. Either way, the resulting repression does not sit easily with the RPF narrative of a unified country moving forward together.

It is this tension that gives rise to the two starkly contrasting versions of Rwanda in the global imagination. Those with faith in President Kagame see his steely reordering of Rwandan identity and society as a brave solution to the impossible legacy of genocide. Those without, see it as contradictory at best, and cover for autocracy at worst. As with all questions of faith, middle ground is hard to find.

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