Cameroonian civil society groups, opposition launch mass voter registration campaign


A voter signs after casting her ballot during the first regional election in Maroua, Cameroon, Dec 6, 2020. [Reuters]

Cameroon’s opposition and civil society have launched a mass campaign to combat voter apathy.

The goal is to encourage disgruntled youths to register to vote before the August deadline and go to the polls in the presidential elections next year, instead of just complaining that longtime President Paul Biya will rig elections to die in power.

There are about 15 million potential voters in Cameroon but only about 7 million are registered voters.

About 20 opposition and civil society members shout using loudspeakers on the streets of Cameroon's economic capital, Douala, that all civilians of voting age should register to qualify as voters before an August 31 deadline.

Cameroon's presidential elections will take place in October 2025 on a date to be decided by 91-year-old President Paul Biya, who has ruled the central African state for more than four decades.

Among the campaigners is Mbah Raoul, spokesperson of the Cameroon Renaissance Movement, or CRM, party. The spokesperson says Cameroon’s opposition and civil society want civilians, especially reluctant youths, to register now and to vote and defend their votes when elections are called.

"If we are really feeling these pains that this government has infringed [inflicted] on Cameroonians for the past 40 years we have to come out in 2025, vote massively and protect our votes. We should be the ones to choose our leaders," Mbah said. "We have to combat electoral fraud by voting massively and protect[ing] our votes."

Mbah said if many people registered and voted, Maurice Kamto, the CRM candidate, would not have been robbed of victory in Cameroon’s October 7, 2018 presidential elections. Biya’s government has always denied the polls were rigged.

Opposition and civil society estimate that at least half of Cameroon's 30 million people are 20 years and older and qualified to register and vote in elections as stated in the country’s electoral code.

ELECAM, the country's elections management body, reports that about 7.3 million civilians have registered for future elections.

Opposition and civil society say high voter apathy is due to the belief that votes do not count because Biya rigs all elections to stay in power. Biya has won all elections since he took power in 1982. The opposition accuses him of what it calls massive electoral fraud.

Catholic Archbishop Andrew Nkea of Bamenda, capital of Cameroon's English-speaking northwest region, says civilians should not be discouraged because it is a divine responsibility for all citizens to register and vote.

"Many Cameroonians are skeptical [to register], but we cannot always presume that our votes will not make sense," Neka said. "If people go out massively to vote, their voice will make a difference and it is very important for those who are organizing elections to ensure that the elections are free, elections are fair and that elections reflect the minds of voters."

Nkea said all political parties and civil society groups should educate civilians, especially youths who refuse to take part in the elections to know that it is their democratic right to determine who their leaders should be.

On Monday, ELECAM said there was an increase in the number of potential voters in their branches in all towns and villages of Cameroon. They also dismiss claims that they rig elections to favor Biya.

Elvis Mbowoh is ELECAM’s manager for Cameroon’s English-speaking northwest region. He told state TV on Monday that opposition parties and civil society groups are gradually noticing that the elections body plays a neutral role in polls.

"The situation on the ground is changing. I see more politicians running to the field, galvanizing people to come out and register," Mbowoh said. "I am already establishing a good relationship with the civil society, not only the civil society, all political stakeholders. That is why we set out an objective to work with all stakeholders and especially the media.

At 91, Biya is the world's oldest president and second-longest serving leader after his neighbor, Theodoro Obiang Nguema, of Equatorial Guinea. Biya has been in power for 41 years. Before becoming president, he served for seven years as prime minister. In 2008, Biya removed term limits from the constitution, allowing him to serve indefinitely.

Cameroon’s opposition and civil society blame Biya for the country's underdevelopment, increasing underemployment, economic hardship and a separatist crisis that has claimed more than 6,000 lives and displaced 750,000 in eight years, according to the International Crisis Group.