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Ambassador Jackson Statements

Democracy and the Role of Civil Society

Wednesday, October 19, 2011, 3:00 PM CAT / 10:00 AM EDT

The Electoral Process in Cameroon: What Are the Lessons Learned?

Remarks by Ambassador Robert P. Jackson
at the Civil Society Post-Election Roundtable

Digital Video Conference between Yaounde and Washington, D.C.

Ladies and gentlemen,
Colleagues and friends,

Good afternoon.  It is a pleasure to host this digital video conference and to provide a forum to forge stronger ties between U.S. and Cameroonian civil society organizations.  I hope that through this event today, we can have a frank discussion about the October 9 presidential election -- with the understanding that the election will not be complete until Cameroon’s Supreme Court rules on requests for annulment and announces the results.  Today, we should take a comprehensive look at what lessons we can learn from the process -- not simply examining what ELECAM did well and where it could improve, but what we did well and where we could improve in terms of promoting democracy.  Ultimately, I hope that at the conclusion of today’s session, we will have a better sense of what role we can play in and between elections.

The Role of the U.S. Mission

Before I share our mission’s observations about the poll, allow me to take a moment, to share some views on democracy and the role of civil society in Cameroon.  I would like to begin by responding to some accusations that were made against the U.S. Embassy in September and October -- namely, the insinuations that our meetings with civil society are tantamount to an “interference” with the intent to destabilize Cameroon.  I comment now, not out of a need to defend our Embassy’s activities, which are conducted openly and with the full knowledge of the Government of the Republic of Cameroon, but to clarify why we work with civil society and what our vision of democracy entails.

I found the articles and editorials in the Cameroonian press to be troubling for three reasons.  First, their implications are not true; in fact, they are absurd.  Second, journalists should not make the U.S. Embassy the center of attention (and the subject of much newspaper space) during a period that Cameroonians should be focused on their own political process and presidential choices.  Third, the media conveyed the false assumption that civil society is a political force to unseat the government, in coordination with or on behalf of opposition parties.

I chose not to respond before because to do so would have further distracted Cameroonians from focusing on choosing someone to lead the nation for the next seven-year period.  Now that the ballots are cast, I ask you this question:  “What makes one democracy more effective than another?”  It is not necessarily the quality of the constitution or the national legal framework although these are important -- and Cameroon has a good Constitution and good laws.  Nor is it the license of journalists to write and print whatever they please although press freedom is also essential.  What makes a democracy effective is the degree to which power rests with the people, since it is the will of the people that should drive the government.

The underlying assumption is that the people have a will and are prepared to express it through the ballot box -- that they will elect leaders who say they will do the right things and vote out leaders who do not do the right things.  As they participate in this way, a country’s citizens refine -- from one election to the next -- the quality of their leadership and the strength of their institutions.  It’s a gradual process driven by citizens rather than by outsiders.

The United States of America and the Republic of Cameroon have an official relationship that dates back to the establishment of the first U.S. Consulate in 1957.  Our bilateral relationship is strong today and is based upon common interests and mutual respect.  One year ago today, I presented my credentials to President Paul Biya as the 17th U.S. Ambassador.  Since then our partnership has prospered.  We have embarked on two major initiatives over the last year – one to combat HIV/AIDS, with a new investment of $25 million, and one to strengthen civil society.  I have always been forthright about both.

Democracy Promotion

Is the U.S. Embassy interfering in Cameroon’s or other countries’ affairs by promoting democracy and strengthening civil society?  As Americans we believe that as the world as a whole democratizes, the world as a whole prospers and frees itself from poverty, hunger, disease, illiteracy, hatred, discrimination, and war.  The underlying premise is that we must progress in tandem rather than apart and that the people of every country should have equal opportunity and freedom.  Promoting democracy and civil society around the world is not interfering…it is simply sharing our vision of what we wish for all peoples of the world.

As the Department of State’s website makes clear, “Promoting freedom and democracy and protecting human rights around the world are central to U.S. foreign policy.  The values captured in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in other global and regional commitments are consistent with the values upon which the United States was founded centuries ago.  The United States supports those persons who long to live in freedom and under democratic governments that protect universally accepted human rights.  The United States uses a wide range of tools to advance a freedom agenda, including bilateral diplomacy, multilateral engagement, foreign assistance, reporting and public outreach.  …  The United States is committed to working with democratic partners, international and regional organizations, non-governmental organizations, and engaged citizens to support those seeking freedom.”

Democracy cannot exist in theory if it does not exist in practice.  It cannot exist on paper if it does not exist on the streets.  As I have said on several occasions, we cannot wait until the conditions for democracy are perfect before we start exercising our democratic rights.  We must create conditions for democracy by exercising our democratic rights.

Democracy is dynamic, and involves the possibility of change, posing a temporality and conditionality to all governments.  If strengthening democracy and public discourse causes social unrest, however, then there is something else fundamentally wrong with the structure of government.  Although promoting political pluralism, openness and transparency may be seen as destabilizing to some actors on the political stage, it does so for the benefit of the rest of the society.  This may seem like interference to those who do not share our goals and values.  Fortunately, I believe that most Cameroonians do share our goal of a vibrant democracy.

Let us be clear:  Peace and stability are necessary pre-conditions for democracy and human rights to flourish.  However, stability and peace cannot endure when a government serves its own interests at the expense of those it governs.  In fact, the only way to preserve Cameroon’s peace and stability for future generations is by giving Cameroonians a greater stake in their country’s future, greater opportunity, and a greater voice in their own destiny.

An essential part of freedom for any society is a free, fair and transparent political process.  In 1961, the same year Cameroon achieved reunification, President John F. Kennedy said that he believed Americans should partner with other countries to promote democracy.  Democracy is essentially the right to participate in society, including in the governance and direction of one’s community and country.  This should not happen only occasionally in one’s lifetime, i.e., on election days, but ideally should take place on a constant, even daily, basis through community service, civic participation and social advocacy.

Civil Society’s Vital Role

As a continuation of the legacy of such visionary leaders as Kennedy and his contemporary, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a civil society activist who never held political office but who profoundly altered Americans’ concept of human rights, the U.S. Embassy in Yaoundé has worked to forge longstanding partnerships with the Government, civil society, journalists, businesspeople, and other sectors of the community.  By partnering with civil society, we are not promoting one candidate over another, nor are we supporting one political party over another.  We are simply promoting the opportunity for all voices in a democracy to be heard.

As Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton stated when she launched the Strategic Dialogue with Civil Society on February 16, “Our support for democracy and human rights is not about siding with or against either governments or citizens.  This is about standing up for universal principles and for those in and out of government who support them.”  In that same address, she emphasized that “Civil society holds governments accountable, keeps them honest, and helps them be more effective.”

Civil society has an important role to play in democracy in general and in the electoral process in particular.  Whereas politicians reach out to voters in order to increase their electoral results, civil society organizations do so in order to increase electoral turnout.  This is why this Embassy, other U.S. Embassies around the world, and other like-minded embassies and high commissions -- so often work to strengthen civil society and its place in the public forum.

Civil society aims to awaken a people to their civic responsibility.  It aims to create citizens out of residents and communities out of neighborhoods.  Civil society can act as a watchdog to hold political entities responsible; and it can facilitate the participation and awareness of the citizenry. 

However, civil society is not the opposition.  In a multi-party democracy, the country needs multiple parties, but civil society is not one of those parties.  Civil society should simply reflect the broader society it seeks to represent, consisting of individuals from every political persuasion.  I invite civil society here to hold itself to the same high standard of impartiality that it expects from government institutions, including ELECAM.  Civil society’s function is to make political discourse possible but is not itself the discourse.  Civil society helps to make democratic change possible but is not the change itself.

I have said repeatedly -- publically and privately -- for the past year that the U.S. Mission would work with civil society to encourage Cameroonians -- particularly women and youth -- to participate in the presidential election.  For the past year, I have called on Cameroonians to register to vote.  I was pleased by the expansion of ELECAM’s board to include members of civil society.  I was pleased by the move to reduce and ultimately waive the fees for obtaining national identity cards in the lead-up to the election.  I was pleased by the passage and implementation of legislation to allow Cameroonians residing oversees to vote.  I was pleased that the election took place on time.  I applaud Cameroonians for keeping the peace on October 9 and commend those Cameroonians who voted or attempted to vote. 

Some have told me that they voted by not voting.  That is like saying “I protested by not protesting,” or “I complained by not saying anything.”  There may be political messaging in abstention, but there is little political power in it.  In fact, it weakens the very democratic system as a whole.  Either you vote for a candidate, you vote against him/or her, or you run yourself.  If you do not like any of the candidates, become a candidate yourself and convince your friends, neighbors and countrymen to vote for you! 

In looking at the election, rather than blaming the Government, ELECAM, the Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (CPDM), other political parties, and international actors for the irregularities, low turnout and voters’ lack of understanding of the actual voting process, one needs to look at what happened before the campaign ever began.  One needs to examine the root causes of apathy, abstention and division.  I submit to you that some Cameroonian civil society organizations are as guilty of blurring the line between civil society and opposition as the CPDM is of blurring the line between the party and Government.  While we do not know the official election results, it is clear that by being divided, the opposition severely hindered its chances of success.  It did not join together to support a single, strong candidate.  We all know that Cameroonian civil society and Cameroonian political parties, including the 200 or more opposition parties, are divided.  To some degree this is understandable -- multiparty democracy is still relatively new and the prevalence of patronage and intimidation as political tools has slowed the development of civil society and political pluralism.  Until civil society organizations begin to work together more cohesively, they will be vulnerable to accusations that they are not serious, intent, or effective.  Having thousands of small civil-society organizations and over 250 political parties -- in any society -- plays into the interests of the ruling party, dividing the people against themselves.  In fact, is having thousands of small civil-society organizations and over 250 political parties something of which to be proud?  This abundance of organizations and parties actually undercuts democratic principles because the entities do not represent people but isolated individuals or small groups.  It is not democratic; it is persono-cratic, even ego-cratic, and erratic.  As long as the opposition presents 22 candidates, one must ask if it -- and they -- are serious.  Belatedly, some opposition parties are now talking about a common front.  Shouldn’t they have done that months ago?

What Are the Lessons Learned?

What do we recommend?  A great deal needs to be done to improve public confidence in the electoral process.  And I want to acknowledge that the recommendations that follow include valuable ideas and analyses from other diplomats, observers, ELECAM, government officials, and civil society activists.  First, in order to improve the political climate for the next election in a meaningful way, one needs to level the playing field so that opposition candidates have an equal chance of competing.  Their task is daunting:  to campaign with limited resources and time and transform their oft-times regional parties into movements with broad-based, national support.  With public skepticism at such high levels, your task is also daunting -- finding ways to promote transparency and good governance while simultaneously appealing to the Cameroonian electorate to participate in greater numbers and more meaningful ways in the electoral process.

To provide context for our recommendations, I note that in the days preceding the presidential election, the U.S. Mission dispatched 14 teams of two to four persons to observe the campaign, the preparations, the voting, and the counting – in other words, the electoral process.  Teams went to each of Cameroon’s ten Regions, with additional teams in Douala, the largest city, and Yaoundé, the capital.

On election day, mission observers noted inconsistencies and irregularities in and between almost all polling stations as well as technical difficulties on the part of ELECAM in administering the election.  One of the biggest criticisms was the way that the voter list was consolidated and managed, creating opportunities for multiple voting.  The lack of training for election officials and the lack of voter education on how to vote were apparent.  The ink that was to prevent repeated voting was not indelible, and election officials did not check people’s thumbs to see if they had ink on them.

Nonetheless, I was pleased that the Government and ELECAM’s leadership acknowledged problems.  ELECAM sought feedback on what observers saw and what it might do better.  I strongly encourage ELECAM to address shortcomings in advance of the 2012 parliamentary and municipal elections.  In that spirit, I recommend the following:

  • First and foremost opposition parties ought to unite if they wish to mount a credible numeric challenge;
  • ELECAM should demonstrate its independence;
  • Cameroon should switch to a single ballot system to prevent vote buying, missing ballots, and confusion about the process;
  • The campaign should be longer than two weeks to allow all parties to make their cases;
  • The ruling party should not use government resources to campaign, creating an unfair advantage using tax payer funds;
  • The ruling party should refrain from fear mongering by suggesting that voting for the opposition will lead to instability and civil war;
  • The voters roll should be thoroughly scrubbed to remove the deceased and duplicate voter’s names, and it should be posted on the Internet for all to review for errors;
  • Voters’ cards should be biometric and  should be distributed well in advance;
  • Polling places should be better identified in advance of the election;
  • Poll workers and watchers should have more training;
  • Voters need more voter education to understand the actual voting process;
  • ELECAM should accredit all observers;
  • Ink must be indelible, properly applied, and checked;
  • Fewer polling places in urban areas and more than one voting booth per polling place would permit better coverage by officials and party representatives;
  • Additional provisions should be made for physically challenged voters;
  • Ballot boxes should be sealed properly before the polls open;
  • Polling places should close earlier so that the counting can be done in the daylight;
  • Media coverage, especially by CRTV, must be more balanced; and
  • Youth must be encouraged to vote since most voters in the current presidential election appeared to be 40 and older.

Within that lengthy list, there are action items for ELECAM, the CPDM, the opposition parties, the Government and the National Assembly.  There are also action items for you.  I strongly urge civil society to find a way to enhance your coordination so that in 2012, you manage to send election observers to each polling station, synthesize your observations, and perhaps even conduct parallel vote tabulations.  All of this would enhance the integrity and transparency of the process.

I applaud civil society as you share your vision of a more democratic Cameroon with others.  Help Cameroonians become a vital part of Cameroon’s political, economic and social life, finally embracing that the future lies in their hands and the ballots they choose to cast.

President Barack Obama, concluding his first speech in Sub-Saharan Africa as President of the United States, declared, “The world will be what you make of it.  You have the power to hold your leaders accountable, and to build institutions that serve the people.  You can serve in your communities, and harness your energy and education to create new wealth and build new connections to the world.  You can conquer disease, and end conflicts, and make change from the bottom up.  You can do that.”

Supporting the engagement of citizens in the political process is the ultimate protection of human rights.  Providing a forum for and encouraging civil society members to exercise their democratic rights is the way the U.S. Government and Cameroon carry on the legacies of Kennedy, King, and countless others who have fought and died to make “government of the people, by the people and for the people” a reality.

I look forward to continuing our work together, but, most importantly, I look forward to seeing you succeed in your advocacy efforts, in partnership with other actors, especially with the Government of the Republic of Cameroon. 

Thank you.