Another Failed State? Cameroon's descent
Central Africa cannot afford another failed state - but it may get one nonetheless.
Leaving Yaoundé, Cameroon's capital, after a recent business trip, my colleagues and I settled into our airliner's seats and breathed a sigh of relief. We had planned a retreat for emerging African leaders to devise practical ways to produce change within their individual countries and institutions. We had selected Yaoundé as the meeting place because of Cameroon's presumed political stability, relatively reliable infrastructure and easy access.
But within days of our arrival in my country, riots and protests ignited by the rising costs of fuel and food resulted in a nationwide lockdown.
Much of the public's frustration is due to the stark need for political reform. Cameroon's 75-year-old president, Paul Biya, suggested in his New Year's address that he intended to modify the Constitution to extend his term in office beyond 2011. Biya has been in power almost as long as Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe. Under his rule, Cameroon has endured endemic corruption, weak institutions, official impunity and fraudulent elections.
During our trip, I found the presence of armed security forces across the capital's hilly landscapes frighteningly reminiscent of the atmosphere in Rwanda and Burundi in the mid-1990s. Thousands of ordinary citizens suspected of participating in the protests were arbitrarily rounded up and detained, subjected to summary trials and harsh sentences, some for up to six years in prison. Witnesses reported that many people in custody were beaten, tortured and abused. There were also reports of dead bodies floating on the Wouri River in Douala, the country's economic capital, although it is unclear how many people died.
Even more disturbing is the inflammatory and divisive rhetoric by some high-level government officials seeking to incite hatred and manipulate ethnic differences. In a country with over 125 different ethnic groups, this is a sinister game that could trigger inter-community conflict.
The president recently made good on his New Year's promise. The ruling party has formally introduced a bill that would amend the Constitution to allow Biya to run for another seven-year term after his current mandate ends in 2011.
It is unclear what may happen next. Resentments were simmering long before Biya's New Year's speech - resentments that could have been addressed, but weren't. Instead, the president ignored all warnings in his bid for increased power. The outcome could be very scary indeed.
Although calm appears to have returned, for now, the human rights situation is seriously deteriorating. The few human rights lawyers in the country are overwhelmed. Intolerance and hate speech are rising. Campaigners for a civil society report that the government has them under surveillance and that their family members do not feel safe.
There also are reports of increased arms trafficking into the country, with ordinary citizens buying and burying guns in their backyards - "just in case."
The international community could take steps to help prevent a crisis. Unfortunately, promises of preventive measures and "never again" rhetoric regarding Africa rarely translate into action on the ground. I fear that the international community will wait until it is too late to prevent a major conflict in Cameroon - and will then have to spend massive resources in response to a humanitarian crisis.
Today, many people are trying to leave the country. But most of Cameroon's neighboring countries are themselves collapsing states and cannot provide a safe haven.
Unless there is clear political reform that will allow citizens to finally enjoy basic civil liberties - including full freedom of expression, free elections and the rule of law - a crisis is inevitable.
Cameroon is another Central African country where time is running out.
Ozong Agborsangaya-Fiteu is senior program manager for Africa at Freedom House.
Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.