Paul Biya – “˜officially’ in his late 70s – is one of the longest serving leaders in Africa and the world. After serving from the 60s in the upper echelons of the administrative apparatus of late President Ahmadou Ahidjo, Biya assumed the presidency in 1982. Since then he has maintained absolute power with a leadership style that he alone seems to master.
Biya does not communicate much – on average he is known to address Cameroonians about three to four times a year. He makes a speech on New Year’s Eve, one while receiving New Year wishes from the diplomatic corps (often in January), and one on the 11th of February celebrated as “˜Youth day.’ Biya always seems aloof, rarely visits other parts of the country, and often acts during political campaigns as if he is totally disinterested. He rarely holds cabinet meetings and seldom opens himself up to the Cameroonian media.
“Tyrants, the world’s 20 worst living dictators” by David Wallechinsky featured President Biya alongside Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and King Mswati of Swaziland from Africa. Painting a largely accurate picture, Wallechinsky said of the Cameroon leader, “every few years, Biya stages an election to justify his continuing reign but these elections have no credibility.” Biya he goes on is, “credited with a creative innovation in the world of phony elections. In 2004, annoyed by the criticisms of international vote-monitoring groups, he paid for his own set of international observers, six U.S.Congressmen who certified his election as free and fair.”
Indeed, beyond the brouhaha about the 2011 elections looms the spectre of the post Biya era. With a balance sheet that is largely below expectations at the onset of his accession to power in 1982, many Cameroonians long and hope for someone else to pilot state affairs. For those who have fed fat from the regime, the prospects of a post-Biya era are something to be dreaded. What happens when President Biya and his ruling CPDM are no longer there to serve as cover for criminal activities ranging from flagrant human rights abuses to looting the public treasury with impunity?
Even within the ranks of his ruling CPDM, there have been reports of vicious off camera struggles of eminent presidential associates to position themselves as heirs to the throne. Former Ministers are languishing in jail today like Atangana Mebara former Secretary General to the Presidency, Olanguena Owono, former Minister of Public Health and Polycarp Abah Abah former Minister of Economy and Finance. All are said be victims of the power games of succession. Officially arrested for corruption, the real reason for their incarceration in the dreaded Kondengui maximum security prison was their allegiance to the G11 group exploring options for the post-Biya era. With the wear and tear of age, the growing intolerance of leading world powers for sit-tight leaders and the desire for a graceful exit which avoids the humiliation suffered by Ben Ali in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt and Laurent Gbagbo in Ivory Coast, it is hard to say what Biya may have in store for Cameroonians.
Huge Challenges For Next President
Whether President Biya succeeds himself, is succeeded by someone else from the ruling CPDM, or by some political miracle the next leader emerges from the opposition, the challenges facing Cameroon are enormous.
Though he takes great pride in describing Cameroon as an oasis of calm in a troubled sub region, beyond the faí§ade of peace lays a mounting volcano. In recent times, insecurity has been relatively rife in the country. A few months ago armed robbers spectacularly raided Ecobank in the heart of the economic capital Douala and made away with a booty estimated at $200 million frs cfa. Attributed to pirates, who in September of 2008 achieved the same feat in the coastal town of Limbe, the fact that this took place in the heart of the economic capital was not reassuring news for the government. Reports of robberies in Ministries and senior government offices have also been too rife for comfort.
With population estimates of about 19 million, the unemployment rate in Cameroon is circa 30 percent. This presents a huge problem for whoever is going to be Cameroon’s next leader. In an election year where the stakes are high, Biya announced plans to recruit 25.000 Youth into the public service. A campaign gimmick or a genuine attempt to curb a very serious problem? Cameroonians were left to figure this out for themselves when Public Service Minister Emmanuel Mbonde announced a few weeks back that the publication of those recruited had been shifted to December 2011.That would most likely be after the elections!
Corruption has been elevated to the level of art under Biya’s stewardship of the country. In 1998 and 1999 Cameroon was ranked as the most corrupt country in the world by Transparency International. Despite the fact that a few public officials have been arrested and detained, the judicial process has been painfully slow. Operation Sparrow Hawk (as the anti-corruption crusade is dubbed) is more notable for the high drama nature of the arrests it makes rather than the justice that it renders. Notable amongst those arrested are Pierre Desire Engo – a former Minister, Director of the National Social Insurance Fund and Member of the Political Bureau of the CPDM, Mounchipou Seidou, a former Minister of Posts and Telecommunications, Titus Edzoa, former Minister of Public Health and Secretary General of the Presidency.
The lack of political will to fight corruption is clearly manifested in the reluctance of the government to implement the clause of the 1996 constitution which calls for public officials to declare their assets.
Considered by many as a ticking time bomb, the Southern Cameroons problem has failed to receive adequate attention from President Biya. Formerly a British trust territory, the Southern Cameroons entered into a Union with La Republique du Cameroon in 1961 to form the Federal Republic of Cameroon. First under President Ahidjo and then President Biya the identity of Southern Cameroons was progressively eroded, culminating in a decision by Biya in 1984 to change the name of the country to La Republique du Cameroun.
Since the dawn of the 90s, Southern Cameroons Nationalism has been on the rise and the Southern Cameroons National Council today advocates for the restoration of its statehood. Its chronic leadership squabbles may have slowed down its case, but this does not mitigate the seriousness of the problems. Calls from former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan for President Biya to initiate dialogue have remained largely unheeded. It remains one of those problems that will not be simply wished away.
Ajong Mbapndah L is Managing Editor of Pan African Visions