It is usually said that the history of a nation is created variously, including in law making chambers, executive offices and the law courts. Indeed, “lawmen” usually transform the law to meet what US Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes described as “felt necessities of the times.”
The electoral laws in Cameroon, now assembled in an electoral code since 2012, fail to define what the laws mean by sociological composition, gender consideration, belonging to a political party, and many others. Most of the electoral disputes that have been taken to court since 1996 have mainly been disputes related to “sociological components” of a constituency, and “candidates who are not members of the party concerned”; more recently, “gender aspects” have been added to these.
For the upcoming twin elections, more than for any election in the past, election disputes flooded the chambers of the Supreme Court, most based on these same issues that the court failed to definitely resolve in the past. Since election disputes are known to fall within the vicissitudes of political controversy, within the reach of majorities and self-interested officials, their resolution was left in the hands of a Constitutional Council, at least for presidential and parliamentary elections, as well as for referendum operations. This was because the 11 members appointed to the institution are supposed to enjoy at least some independence, not only because they are designated by different institutions like the presidency, the national assembly, the senate, and the higher judicial council, but also because they serve a non-renewable term of office of nine years. In such circumstances, they can at least ensure that in the discharge of their duties, they are indeed governed mainly by the law and their consciences.
The Constitutional Council has not been put in place since the 1996 constitution that defines the powers of the institution came into force. Leaving the “Supreme Court” to play the role of the Constitutional Council since 1996 is vicious, selfish and unpatriotic. Indeed, since all members of the bench and the judicial department in Cameroon are appointed by “the president of the republic,” he appoints all justices of the Supreme Court, meaning that he can be said to be the jury, prosecution and judge during the examination of electoral disputes by the “Supreme Court” because of the overwhelming power of control he has over such appointees. The opposition political parties are usually left to amuse the court in the gallery of complainants and defendants during the examination of electoral disputes.
In any case, at the end of the examination of the disputes that ended last week, at least the gender issue was resolved – happily to the benefit of the empowerment of women; I hope once and for all. The issue of membership of political parties usually abused by the CPDM was also resolved to an extent. But the equally important issue of sociological components of constituencies seemed to have been left hanging, unresolved. Since it is the duty of the court to interpret the open-ended language of some clauses in electoral laws, and indeed, all laws, it all looked like the decisions of the court were not really meant to establish legal principles that could be applied in a non-partisan manner in future; they seemed to be just a series of ruses that affected only opposition lists when the CPDM was high and dry, or let everybody off the hook if the CPDM lists would be negatively affected!
Indeed, whenever there was overwhelming evidence presented against a list of the CPDM, the court always adjourned the verdict for deliverance at the end of all the cases to reduce the impact of their verdict in favour of the CPDM on the court of public opinion, since the audience at the handing down of the verdict would surely not be the same that followed the evidence first hand, and tempers would have already cooled considerably! This was the case with the Tiko CPDM list for council elections which ELECAM had rejected because it was introduced through the backdoor after the deadline; the court rehabilitated the list! It was also the case with many other disputes that targeted lists of the CPDM. It is incredible that at the end of the whole process, the CPDM is going in for all 180 seats in parliament, and all 360 council areas in the country. If these were the result of political savvy, it would be praiseworthy; but it is the result of political intrigue, political manipulation, judicial and administrative arm-twisting, and brazen abuse of power!
It is not just some of the rulings that pricked our consciences. The court also pricked our consciences by tarnishing its own moral authority to punish political parties for breaking the electoral law, since such authority is dependent on a commitment by the court to follow the law too. Without this commitment, the court would look more like a tool in the hands of the powerful to protect their exercise of power. Indeed, the court left us with a lot of skepticism about its moral authority; like Vaclav Havel once put it, complete skepticism is an understandable consequence of discovering that one’s enthusiasms are based on illusion. What morality allows a court to punish political parties for not respecting deadlines, while failing to respect legally prescribed deadlines itself?
And so at the end of it all, the court has once more turned its back on Cameroonian voters and manifested indifference to the needs and aspirations of the voters. The court has missed the mark again. In spite of this, the court has spoken. Whatever we may think and feel about what they have said, we should never lose sight of the fact that the court only plays a small though important part in fighting electoral injustices; the rest is our collective burden – the sum of the little corrective acts of each and everyone of us.
This is why we should always keep in mind that the electoral playing field in Cameroon is still not level at all. As we scramble towards September 30 and beyond, this fact should neither be ignored nor neglected. We can, and we must continue to pay close attention to electoral injustices. Only by doing so can we make the ballot box what Abraham Lincoln considered it to be – the rightful and peaceful successor to bullets.
* Asonganyi Tazoacha is a science professor at University of Yaoundé I; a former Secretary-General of Cameroon’s leading opposition party, the SDF and a committed political commentator /critic