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Cameroonians general strike for democratic elections, 1991
In Cameroon in 1989, attorney and Duala chief Yondo Black formed a new major political party, initiating a significant change in the national political climate towards support for a multi-party system. The ruling party of Cameroon was the Cameroonian People’s Democratic Movement (CPDM), and at its helm was President Paul Biya. One of Black’s aims was to challenge the rule of Biya, who had been in office for nine years at that point. Biya and the party have been able to maintain a stronghold on national governance largely due to significant external support from France.
In 1990, Black and his fellow political organizers were arrested and charged with destabilizing the government and forming ethnic tension. In May of 1990, spurred on by Black’s arrest, another opposition leader, John Fru Ndi formed a political party, the Social Democratic Front (SDF). The government used violent force to break-up SDF’s first public rally in the town of Bamenda and between four and twelve people were killed. Shortly thereafter, a number of the minority political parties came together to form the National Coordination Committee of Opposition Parties (NCCOP). The three major political parties in the NCCOP were the SDF led by Ndi, the National Union for Democracy and Progress (UNDP) led by Maigari Bello Bouba, and the Union des Populations du Cameroun (UPC).
In April of 1991, tensions between opposition groups and the government grew. Between April 10 and 15, eight pro-democracy demonstrators were killed and several others were wounded. Nearly 300 students were detained in Yaounde after security forces attacked the university there. On June 25, the NCCOP declared a mass general strike across Cameroon under the name of Operation Ville Mortes (Operation Ghost Town). The aim was to shut down the function of nearly every city in the country, Monday through Friday. The strike spread across transportation services, city ports, merchant shops, and businesses. The opposition recognized that it was not realistic to ask the masses to go without access to goods and services every day of the week, and therefore businesses were open on weekends. Yaounde, the capital city, was the only city spared the effects of the strike, but seven of the ten provinces in Cameroon were effectively shut down during the week. The strike was most effective in the South, Littoral, West, Northwest, and Southwest provinces.
The NCCOP’s main goal was to paralyze the national economy and cut off support for the civil servants of the government. The NCCOP wanted to end the reign of Biya, and to establish democratic procedures for subsequent elections. The NCCOP’s primary public demand was for a sovereign national conference of all constituent parties. The main issue at this conference would be rules and procedures for the upcoming local and national elections, as well as addressing Biya’s abuse of the political system.
In response to the strike the government established Operation Commanders, whose main purpose was to re-establish public order. The Commanders were sent to seven of the ten provinces to exercise control, and held greater authority than the local military structure. For several months, the Commanders used excessive physical force against the protesters. In July the Minister of Territorial Administrations banned six organizations for engaging in political activities. The groups (Cap Liberte, Cameroon Organization of Human Rights, Collective of Women for the New Deal, Human Rights Watch, Association of Professional Drivers, and National Association of Cameroonian Athletes) were all members of NCCOP and were subsequently dissolved by the Minister.
At the same time, the government began an extensive crackdown on the national press. Biya’s administration established the New Censorship Authority to monitor the content of the press. Independent newspapers, including Le Messager, were confiscated. In August the government banned seven more newspapers. In response, on September 4, dozens of independent journalists staged a peaceful march to protest newspaper bans. Several journalists were injured when security forces confronted them, and nearly forty were detained.
In October, the strain of the strike began to weigh too heavily on the opposition forces and the strikers of Cameroon. Businesses were unable to endure financially and people were struggling without access to goods and services. In addition, the government’s violent responses to protests, the general feeling that the protests were largely ineffective, and the government’s ability to continue functioning led many of the opposition parties to settle for negotiations on Biya’s terms. In late October, a trilateral conference came together with representatives from the government, multiple (though not all) opposition parties, and the forces vives (including media representatives, business interests, religious leaders, and workers’ and students’ unions). Among other things, the opposition groups wanted election reform so that there would be multiple rounds of balloting. This would allow the opposition to select one candidate prior to the general election.
The government agenda for the conference fell far short of the opposition’s hopes and the demands that they had set forth at the beginning of the strike. Biya did not personally take part in the negotiations, talks were restricted to constitutional questions, and no reforms were made prior to the elections. Despite these disappointments, in late November, forty-one political parties signed an agreement with the government; the SDF was not one of them. By the end of 1991, there were as many as 70 political parties in Cameroon, all of which were representing different interests and resistant to making concessions.
Presidential elections were held in October of 1992, and amidst accusations of widespread election fraud, Paul Biya was re-elected with 40% of the vote. The government’s ability to maintain at least the image of control during the strike was the main asset that allowed them to wait out the strike. There was no threat of military insubordination, and the government was receiving significant financial support from outside of the country. France retired part of Cameroon’s debt and twice arranged for government officials to receive back pay. Additionally, the International Monetary Fund sent several million dollars to the country for economic restructuring.