YAOUNDE, April 10 (Reuters) - Cameroon's parliament adopted
a constitutional bill on Thursday removing a two-term limit to
allow President Paul Biya to extend his 25-year rule over
central Africa's biggest economy past 2011.
Opposition lawmakers, who criticise the bill as a setback
for democracy, stormed out of the chamber before the vote.
The proposed change was a major cause of riots in February
that killed dozens of people, many shot dead by security forces.
The violence shook the world's fourth biggest cocoa grower,
which ranks in sub-Saharan Africa's top 10 economies. Cameroon
lies on the oil-rich Gulf of Guinea, though its modest crude oil
output of around 90,000 barrels per day is half its 1980s peak.
Analysts say the change, which coincides with 84-year-old
Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe's bid to extend his own 28-year
rule, means Biya's 2011 re-election will likely be a formality.
Biya's Cameroon People's Democratic Movement (CPDM) enjoys a
huge majority, controlling 153 of 180 parliamentary seats.
The CPDM oversaw the introduction of a new constitution in
1996 which limited presidents to two seven-year terms. Biya's
second term under that constitution expires in 2011, but he made
it clear in a New Year speech that he would like to stay on.
Parliament members from the Social Democratic Front (SDF),
the main opposition with 15 seats, walked out of the assembly in
protest, saying parliament should not amend a constitution that
emerged from cross-party negotiations in the early 1990s.
The bill, submitted just six days ago, was approved on
Tuesday by the assembly's constitutional law committee which
dismissed more than 20 opposition amendments. The plenary vote
had originally been expected on Friday but was brought forward.
There was little visible reaction in the capital Yaounde,
whose streets were empty late on Thursday due to heavy rain.
A Reuters reporter saw members of Cameroon's military rapid
reaction force patrolling parts of the city on Wednesday night.
The force has spent the last few months combating banditry near
Cameroon's eastern border.
Biya won more than 75 percent of the vote in a 2004 election
which opponents said was rigged. Biya's party denies cheating.
"It is common knowledge that incumbent presidents in Africa
use the government machinery and all the powers at their
disposal to manouevre the electoral process," SDF parliamentary
chief whip Joseph Barnadzem told reporters outside the chamber.
"To try now to amend this article only through the National
Assembly, for us is tantamount to a hold-up," he said.
CPDM chief whip Jean Bernard Ndongo Essomba said the bill,
which also reduces presidential terms to five years, "will
enhance democracy, maintain political stability, national unity
and territorial integrity" of Cameroon.
"It is in tune with international accepted standards as
practised in old democracies such as France and the United
Kingdom. It therefore warrants the enthusiastic support of all
Cameroonians of good faith," he 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 efforts to do so in Nigeria,
Zambia and Malawi have been blocked in recent years.
Ozong Agborsangaya-Fiteu, senior programme manager for
Africa at U.S.-based democracy watchdog Freedom House, warned in
an opinion column published on the International Herald Tribune
Web site on Thursday of dangerous tensions building in Cameroon.
"It is unclear what may happen next. ... Unless there is
clear political reform that will allow citizens to finally enjoy
basic civil liberties -- including full freedom of expression,
free elections and the rule of law -- a crisis is inevitable,"