Distraught and in mourning, Cameroonians are reacting to the death of John Fru Ndi the historic opponent of President Paul Biya. The leader and founder of the Social Democratic Front (SDF), the main opposition party in parliament died Monday at the age of 81 after a long illness. Fru Ndi challenged Biya, in the presidential elections of 1992, 2004 and 2011, coming second each time.
"Ni John Fru Ndi for the SDF (Social Democratic Front, editor's note) was the guide, that is to say, the man who traced the furrow along which we walk, the man who against all odds imposed the return to a multi-party system in Cameroon on 26 May 1990 and with it a set of individual and collective freedoms granted to the entire Cameroonian people" Marcel Tadjeu , Chairman of the Douala 5 SDF electoral constituency told our correspondent.
Fru Ndi began his political career in the 1980s as a member of Biya's RDPC. He founded the SDF in 1990 when Cameroon officially ended one-party rule. Today his SDF has only five seats in the current parliament. It held 18 in the previous legislature but lost influence to the all-powerful Cameroonian People's Democratic Movement (RDPC) led by 90-year-old Biya, who has ruled Cameroon since 1982.
Fru Ndi was born in 1941 in Baba Il, near Bamenda in the northwest, then under British mandate. The primarily English-speaking Northwest and Southwest regions became part of Cameroon in 1961, a year after the French-speaking regions gained independence from Paris. They have been plagued by conflict between the army and separatists since the latter declared independence in 2017, after decades of grievances over perceived discrimination by the country's French-speaking majority.
Biya has resisted calls for wider autonomy and responded with a brutal crackdown while Fru Ndi advocated a federal solution, rather than out-and-out independence for the Anglophone regions. This earned Fru Ndi the wrath of most radical separatists and perhaps brought to more scrutiny the positions he has held as an opposition leader over the decades.
"A lot of Cameroonians died when I was still very young. But today, we understand that he was corrupt. He was persuaded perhaps by the powers that be, because in reality, you really have to be strong" says Mathieu Epoune, a computer scientist in Yaounde. "Yet he really should be a great role model. But what I remember about him, it's true, we don't talk much about the dead, but what I remember about him is that he did aspire to change, but in the end he was still corrupted." Epoune added.
Nicknamed "the Chairman", Fru Ndi's SDF is periodically plagued by internal crises and in recent years had his position contested by a faction of senior party officials.
His house was torched and he was kidnapped briefly in 2019 by an armed group, which demanded he pull his MPs out of parliament. Both the army and armed groups are regularly accused by the United Nations and international NGOs of crimes against civilians in the Anglophone regions.
"We lost our father, our grandfather" says one member of the SDF, before adding that he was the person who taught Cameroonians "what is democracy".