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Cameroon’s New Senate: An (Anti)Democratic Anachronism

Monday 11 March 2013

By Dibussi Tande

"The new Senate has no power to impeach the president, to approve or reject presidential appointees to the executive and judicial branch... and no power to conduct investigations of malfeasance in the executive branch. In short... the Cameroonian Senate has no power of restraint over the executive branch."

On February 27, 2013, some 17 years after the 1996 constitution established the Senate as the upper house of parliament, President Biya finally signed decree N° 2013/056 scheduling the first ever Senate elections in Cameroon for April 14, 2013. As with past elections, this date was chosen on a whim, or more precisely, at the discretion of the president who ignored persistent calls that municipal elections be organized prior to the senatorial elections since the mandate of municipal councilors expired in June 2012. As they say in Cameroon, the president alone understands the “intricacies and imperatives” of the country’s political and electoral calendar...

The Biya regime has defended the creation of this second legislative body, which many consider an extravagance, by arguing that it will be a major boost for Cameroon’s democracy in terms of popular participation, strengthened checks on the executive branch, a less hazy separation of powers, and increased political transparency. From all indications, however, this is mere wishful thinking, beginning with the method of selecting senators which makes a complete mockery of the democratic principle of popular participation.

A Democratic Anachronism (of Patricians and Plebeians)

Even the the Senate has been in the books for close to two decades, many Cameroonians were still stunned to learn that they would not be voting in the senatorial elections because, unlike presidential or municipal elections, these elections would be through an arcane and archaic “indirect universal suffrage” system where only a select few are eligible to vote. According to Chapter 1, Section 3 of Law No 2006/005 of 14 July 2006 to lay down conditions governing the election of Senators:

(1) Each region shall be represented in the Senate by 10 (ten) senators 7 (seven) of whom shall be elected by indirect universal suffrage on a regional basis and 3 (three) appointed by decree of the President of the Republic.

Chapter IV, Section 11 clarifies that:

(1) Senators shall be elected in each region by an electoral college comprising regional and municipal councillors.

In 2008, Parliament amended this clause, stipulating that “the electoral college for Senators will be exclusively municipal councillors in case senatorial elections are organised before regional council elections”. Since regional council elections have not yet taken place, the electoral college will, therefore, consist uniquely of the 10,636 municipal councilors, 9,032 of whom are from the ruling CPDM and the remainder from the SDF( 801), UNDP (364), CDU (244), MDR (128), UPC (26), and ADD (6). So much then for the much vaunted “popular participation”…

On another note, a second presidential decree sets the participation bonus for each member of the electoral college at 50,000 Francs CFA per person.

Stacking the Deck in Favor of the Ruling Party

The political implications of the indirect universal suffrage is immediately obvious to anyone familiar with the Cameroonian political system and the context in which the Senate was established back in 1996. At that time, Cameroon had held its first multiparty parliamentary elections a few years earlier during which the opposition had swept the majority of seats, and ruling CPDM forced to enter into a coalition with the MDR and UPC in order to govern. These elections had been followed by 1996 municipal elections during which the opposition had, against all odds, swept what was then described as “le Cameroun utile”, or the Cameroon that matters. The ruling CPDM therefore needed a second legislative body in which it would be assured permanent control, and which would have the power to amend or reject laws adopted by an opposition-controlled national assembly.

It was in this context that CPDM constitutionalists came up with a 100-member senate in which the president (in violation of the sacrosanct principle of the separation of powers) would unilaterally appoint 30 Senators of his choice, the assumption being that since the president/CPDM already had a stranglehold on the “Grand South” (Center, South and Eastern provinces/regions) and its 21 seats, the regime would have an automatic 51 senate majority even before the first vote was cast.

This was the thinking in 1996 at a time when Cameroon still had what could pass for a reasonably credible or powerful opposition. Today, the political environment is completely dominated by the ruling CPDM which currently controls 336 of the 360 municipal councils in the province and has 9,032 of the country’s 10,636 municipal councilors.

This political reality explains why the President insisted that senate elections take place before new municipal elections, even though the mandate of the current councilors expired in June 2012. On June 1, 2012, President Biya signed a decree extending the mandate of mayors and municipal councilors in Cameroon by one year with effect from the 31st of July 2012. Logic would have required that the electoral college for the 2013 Senate elections consist of new councilors elected in 2013 and not by councilors elected in 2007. Unfortunately, political expediency once again won the day.

Caricature of the US Legislative System

The Biya regime describes the indirect voting system as a catalyst for Cameroon’s democracy but it is an anachronism whose modern origins can be traced to Senate elections in the United States during the first 137 years of its existence. In that now abandoned system, the two Senators representing each state of the union were elected in a two-step process. First, voters in each state elected their state legislators by direct popular vote who in turn selected the state’s senators:

The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, chosen by the Legislature thereof, for six Years; and each Senator shall have one Vote.

The rationale for this system was rooted in the nature of America’s federal system of government which sought to give states a say in national affairs. As John W. Truslow III explains:

The framers’ legislative design was subtle, but ingenious: While a Member of the House would represent the interests of the people as citizens, a Senator would represent the very different interests of the people’s sovereign state governments. This structure embodied the original meaning of the term “separation of powers.” The legislature would domicile two distinct powers (the people and the states) to compete bill by bill for the direction and scope of the federal government.

In spite of this rationale, the shortcomings of the indirect system soon became obvious with rampant influence peddling, bribery, corruption, institutional gridlock, etc. As University of Baltimore School of Law professor Garrett Epps recalls,

by 1890, special interests owned the state legislatures; whenever a senatorial election occurred, railroad barons, oilmen and monopolists descended on the state capitol and spread their cash like butter across the lawmakers’ outstretched palms.

Spurred by what Epps describes as “an extraordinary grass-roots campaign, one of the most sustained and powerful in American history,” the US Congress enacted the 17th amendment in 1913. Its main objective being to guarantee that senators are elected by the people of each state in direct elections.

Today, the indirect universal suffrage is a distant memory, although in recent years, the Tea Party fringe of the Republican party has been calling for a repeal of the 17th Amendment on grounds that it stripped States of their rights.

The Senate is an Anomaly in an Over-centralized Unitary System

So what is the rationale for Cameroon’s indirect vote, when neither the country’s unitary system, in which the president wields the powers of a constitutional monarch, nor its legislative system, which is at the beck and call of the Executive branch, recognize or even accommodate specific rights for the periphery? As a reminder, in Cameroon,

[The President] is empowered to name and dismiss cabinet members, judges, generals, provincial governors, prefects, sub-prefects, and heads of Cameroon’s parastatal (about 100 state-controlled) firms, obligate or disburse expenditures, approve or veto regulations, declare states of emergency, and appropriate and spend profits of parastatal firms.

In addition, unlike in the US where congressman defends the interests of his local constituency in the House of Representative, the Cameroonian member of the National Assembly is expressly forbidden to represent the interest of any local constituency – not even the one that elected him. According to the constitution, the Cameroonian MP “represents the entire Nation” (Article15 (2) of the 1996 constitution).

Similarly, unlike his US counterpart who represents (the people of) his/her state, the Cameroonian senator represents “regional and local authorities” rather than the people of his region (Article 16 (2) of the constitution). Thus, there is no justifiable rationale, other than political expediency, to use the undemocratic indirect universal suffrage in 21st century Cameroon on the spurious claim that it will promote the interests of regions.

No Power of Restraint over the Executive Branch

The new Senate has no power to impeach the president, to approve or reject presidential appointees to the executive and judicial branch, no specific oversight over international treaties signed by the executive, and no power to conduct investigations of malfeasance in the executive branch. In short, unlike its US or even Nigerian counterpart, the Cameroonian Senate has no power of restraint over the executive branch. In short, the Senate has no specific duties other than those listed in Article 26 of the constitution which generally assigned to the legislative branch and which are currently being handled by the National Assembly.

The Senate’s unique responsibility belongs to the Senate President in the event of a vacancy at the helm of the state. Article 6(4)(a) of the constitution stipulates that:

The President of the Senate shall as of right act as interim President of the Republic until the new President of the Republic is elected. Where the President of the Senate is unable to exercise these powers, they shall be exercised by his Vice, following the order of precedence.

The ultimate result is an unnecessary duplication of tasks between the National Assembly, elected by popular vote, and the Senate elected by indirect suffrage, which will nonetheless have the power, per article 30 of the constitution, to amend or reject bills adopted by National Assembly – a potential source of gridlock and paralysis in the event that the National Assembly is controlled by the opposition…

In the end, there is really no valid rationale for a Senate in Cameroon even though its supporters argue that it will improve parliamentary procedure and the quality of legislative decisions through a division of labor between both houses. Even if that were the case, the Senate will remain a tool for reinforcing executive control over the legislative branch and reducing the margin of maneuver of an opposition-controlled National Assembly if it ever came to that.

Until an improbable reform of its structure and functioning, the Senate will remain—in popular imagery and in reality—a gilded retirement chamber for former high ranking government officials, and a prebend to traditional chiefs, business magnates and other individuals who have sworn an oath of fealty to the Biya regime. In the process, municipal elections, which were once quite low on the political totem pole, will be transformed into a high stakes zero-sum game with the political elite bent on using every trick in the book to stack the deck their favor with an eye on the next Senate elections.

See online: Cameroon’s New Senate: An (Anti)Democratic Anachronism