By Elah Geoffrey Mbongale
2018 will arguably be one of the most decisive years in Cameroon’s political history as the people will be called once again to go to the polls for the presidential, legislative and municipal elections. The stakes are all the more very high considering that many people have now stepped into the public political space in Cameroon. More citizens are using various mediums or avenues to speak out for their political, economic or even cultural rights and to demand greater accountability from the government, including elections that are free, fair and transparent.
The brunt of the responsibility to ensure that the upcoming polls are credible lies hugely on the shoulders of the election monitoring body, Elections Cameroon, ELECAM. The challenge that faces ELECAM is however not limited to election management and monitoring but to the body’s composition and set up.
A tainted composition
Many observers have decried the composition of Elections Cameroon board, whose members are appointed by the incumbent president and are mostly scooped from the ruling CPDM party.
According to Christopher Tambe Tiku, Elecam Board Member and human rights activist, “It is impossible to be independent as an ELECAM board member after being a member of the CPDM; the appointment of members is supposed to be done after consultations with the Electoral Board, but this wasn’t done. If the board was consulted, none of these members would have been selected.”
“It is impossible to have served the CPDM at the highest level and then say you are independent”, Tambe Tiku adds, “even the recruitment of staff was done on the merits of political godfatherism.”
According to John Mukum Mbaku of the Africa Growth Initiative, “In order for an electoral management body to operate efficiently and effectively, it must be staffed with individuals who are competent and have skills to manage elections in a fair and credible manner,”
At the very least, Mr. Mbaku notes, a credible electoral management body should be granted five things: decisional independence to decide freely, institutional independence to perform its functions without undue interference from the government, adequate resources, a system of accountability, and a procedure civil society can use to file complaints against members of the electoral body for illegal or unethical conduct.
He furthered that there should be an impartial disciplinary system that allows for a range of sanctions against wrongdoing and abuses by electoral commissioners and staff members, including removing from office.
The Electoral code however hands partial immunity from prosecution for members of Election Cameroon. In its Article 6(1), the Code states “Members of Elections Cameroon may not be prosecuted, investigated, arrested, detained or tried for their views expressed in the performance of their duties..(2) Save in cases of flagrante delicto, members of Elections Cameroon may not be prosecuted during their tenure in office.”
A waning trust in the electoral process
Despite efforts by the election governing body towards raising awareness of Cameroonians on their civic responsibility, particularly the need to not only get enrolled in the electoral registers, but to participate actively in the voting process, the body has failed to break the threshold of getting at least 12 million of the over 23 million Cameroonians registered.
This has been blamed hugely, by political pundits, on the growing distrust in the election process and the increasing voter apathy that seems to have gripped many Cameroonians. Many of them doubt the independence of a body that seems to be cloaked in the fabric of the ruling CPDM party since a good majority of its members were either bigwigs of the party or former state administrators.
Jean De Dieu Momo, National President of the opposition party, PADEC puts the blame of the waning confidence in the electoral process squarely at the doorsteps of ELECAM. He says despite its financial might and man power, the body failed to express the political will to get 12 million Cameroonians registered adding that as at now only about 6500 Cameroonians have enrolled on the electoral registers. Momo also expressed reservations with the composition and functioning of the election body.
Elecam Board Member, Tambe Tiku also expressed concerns of voter apathy during a talk with journalist in Limbe at a workshop organized by the United Nations Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Central Africa where he said “voter apathy is a real concern for us as even some of those we have managed to get registered abandon their voters’ cards at Elecam centres.”
Electoral calendar haze
Another huge concern for Elecam and the general public is the uncertainty of the electoral calendar. Some politicians have even stoked fears that the government is planning to postpone the 2018 elections. During a press conference he granted on April 10, 2017, the National President of the Movement for the Renaissance of Cameroon, MRC, Prof. Maurice Kamto accused the government of plotting to use the war against Boko Haram in the North and the current Anglophone crisis as reasons to push the 2018 elections thereby extending their stay in power.
The haze over the electoral calendar has also planted seeds of doubts and indifference in the minds of an electorate that is already on the jittery on the relevance and impact of an election.
Tambe Tiku assured that “The electoral calendar is purely at the discretion of the president of the republic but there is a limit to his discretion.”
The right to know
But according to the National Democratic Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that works with governments worldwide to strengthen and expand democracy, “The electorate ought to be adequately informed of voter rights and obligations, date and procedures of the elections, political party or candidate positions available, and above all, the importance of citizens participation in the exercise.”
This, according to them is very important because elections and political transitions have been amongst the threats to peace and security in Africa in the last 20 years.
According to the African Union, incidents on the actual voting day can trigger political violence, conflict and sometimes, full-blown war.
Election governing bodies are therefore carrying the huge burden and responsibility of ensuring that elections do not only serve as a mechanism for electing or replacing leaders, it should also be viewed as a tool for conflict prevention.
The case of neighboring Nigeria comes to mind when during the recent hotly contested presidential election pitting then incumbent, President Goodluck Jonathan of the ruling People’s Democratic Party, PDP against Muhammadou Buhari of the All Progressives Congress, CPC The Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC headed by the its indefatigable chairman, Attahiru Jega managed to curtail violence by organizing what many have now described as a free and fair election.