It is tempting to conclude that democracy has taken significant strides in Africa in 2011. From Côte d'Ivoire to Zambia, the principle of democratic transition seems to be putting down ever deeper roots; Africa's strong men, sitting for life at the top of a corrupted or abusive state, are increasingly anachronistic.
But though it is valid to recognise, and applaud, the long-term trend towards the ballot box, it is equally important that an appreciation of Africa’s wildly varying political cultures is not lost, occluded by a simple binary of democracy or dictatorship.
Cameroon provides a compelling illustration. Though Paul Biya has been president for nearly 30 years, he does not fit the clichéd African 'big man' archetype. He is frequently out of the country, reported not to be personally corrupt, and has not systematically favoured his home region, ethnic group or family. He is better understood as the figure-head of an inclusive elite-level political bargain, including representatives from all of Cameroon's wide range of constituent groups, both in and out of government, that has systematically preferred balance and caution over any form of dynamic political or economic evolution. This system has smothered Cameroonian politics and society since independence, and has certainly brought stability - at the cost of a stagnant economy and an ossified state.
But if Cameroon is not a dictatorship, neither is it meaningfully democratic.
Cameroon has had just two heads of state since independence in 1961. A formal multi-party system arrived in the early 1990s, but the resulting 1992 election proved to be the high water mark for genuine democratic competition, and Biya and his Cameroon Peoples Democratic Movement (CPDM) has since systematically subverted or repressed any dissenting voices. It is thus no surprise that the presidential election on 9 October passed off peacefully. The opposition were weak, divided and comprehensively outgunned – in every sense – by the state-backed CPDM; reflex accusations of electoral malpractice have already been heard, but early indications from international observers are that the process will be given a cautious bill of health. Though the formal result is not yet known, it seems all but certain that Biya will win a further term, and that Cameroon will settle back into the familiar status quo.
Despite endemic poverty and the manifest lack of political expression for the vast majority, this is unlikely to result in meaningful resistance from below. Some protests are likely in the wake of elections, and may spark sporadic flashes of urban unrest, but there are few visible indications of a grassroots uprising, despite wide awareness of events in North Africa. A pervasive deference to age, tradition and family, and a widely-shared need to preserve stability above all else, provide powerful barriers to change. In spite of multiple provocations and a huge youth population - urbanised and largely unemployed - the population has reacted with apathy rather than anger.
Cameroon's unique political settlement may not last.
President Biya will be 85 by the next election, due in 2018, and his contemporaries will be reaching the end of their lives; the safety-first instinct of continuity rather than change will eventually be trumped by the simple passage of time. It is this moment of generational transition that presents the most acute danger for Cameroon's stability, as well as its best hope for meaningful democratic progress. No successor to Biya has been anointed, and if inter-elite competition for position or power in the wake of Biya's departure is not carefully managed, Cameroon's inter-community rivalries, long held in suspension, could bubble into violence. A renewed elite bargain is possible, but would be anything but democratic. Whatever its parameters, Cameroon's future is unlikely to fit mainstream narratives of Africa’s political evolution.