Biya plan to keep power in Cameroon clears hurdle

Tue Apr 8, 2008 3:56pm EDT

(Adds analyst comment, opposition)

By Tansa Musa

YAOUNDE, April 8 (Reuters) - Cameroon President Paul Biya's plans to extend his 25-year rule past a 2011 limit cleared a legal hurdle on Tuesday, paving the way for a quick vote by a national assembly overwhelmingly dominated by his supporters.

Proposals by Biya, 75, to remove a constitutional limit on presidential terms were a driving factor in days of violent rioting in towns across the country in February in which his security forces shot dozens of people dead.

Analysts said the move, which coincides with 84-year-old Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's bid to extend his 28-year rule in Zimbabwe, came as little surprise, and that if successful, Biya's re-election in 2011 would be a formality.

The National Assembly's Constitutional Laws Committee adopted the bill on Tuesday after eight hours of deliberations, the committee's chairman, Hersesse Zondol, told reporters.

The committee's approval means the bill, tabled only last Friday, could be put to a vote in the pro-Biya National Assembly before the current parliamentary session ends on Friday.

"Work in the committee took place in a very cordial and friendly atmosphere, with members only introducing a very slight modification of the bill tabled by the government, which is to reduce the presidential term of office from seven to five years," Zondol told reporters.

The 1996 constitution, which was ironically introduced under Biya's rule, limits the president to two 7-year terms. Biya's second elected term under that constitution will expire in 2011.

Some 21 other amendments proposed by opposition members of parliament were rejected, Zondol said.

"We were not only surprised but embarrassed by the attitude of our colleagues of the (ruling) CPDM, who never even cared to study our proposals and only went ahead to reject them in block," said Joseph Mbah Ndam, a legislator from the opposition Social Democratic Front who sits on the committee.



OVERWHELMING MAJORITY

Biya's Cameroon People's Democratic Movement (CPDM) enjoys a huge majority in the National Assembly, controlling 153 of the house's 180 seats. That means a vote in favour of the constitutional change is widely regarded as a formality.

Biya's landslide wins in previous elections, which opponents say were rigged, suggest he would easily win re-election again.

Oil-producing Cameroon is one of the 10 biggest economies in sub-Saharan Africa although its crude oil output of around 90,000 barrels per day is half its 1980s peak.

While long-serving authoritarian leaders in some other parts of Africa have gradually relinquished their grip on power, the leaders of central Africa's six-nation CFA franc currency zone, of which Cameroon is the dominant economy, have each ruled their respective countries for most of the last two decades or longer.

"I think it's a fairly open secret that there are people around the president who have been angling for this kind of change, or rather not change, for some time," independent oil analyst Anthony Goldman said by phone from London.

Investors looking at Africa afresh, hoping to cash in on a surge in global prices for the continent's petroleum and commodities exports, have yet to show marked interest in Cameroon save for a couple of specialist sectors.

"There's no doubt that even a successful change in the constitution to allow Biya to stay in power would only exacerbate those concerns, in that it would leave open the question of succession," Goldman said.

A number of African presidents have abolished two-term limits introduced in the 1990s in a wave of multi-party rule after the end of the Cold War. But parliaments in Nigeria, Zambia and Malawi have blocked efforts to do so in recent years. (Writing by Alistair Thomson; Editing by Nick Tattersall) (For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: africa.reuters.com )