Paul Biya:Anatomy of a Rare Brand of Leadership in Africa

1. Paul Biya: Anatomy of a Rare Brand of Leadership in Africa

By Ajong Mbapndah L

For a leader who rarely grants interviews especially in Cameroon where he has served as President since 1982, Paul Biya’s October 29th 2007 outing on the French TV Channel France 24 was expected to address a number of burning issues. If there is one thing it succeeded in doing, it was to keep Cameroonians more confused about his future plans. His answers to many of the questions created more doubts than clear the air and many see in them a continuation of a game that keeps people groping in the dark to understand just what kind of leadership he represents. His is indeed a rare brand that keeps adversaries and supporters guessing all the time.

Whereas many in Cameroon see in his refusal the reason why the remains of his predecessor Amadou Ahidjo are still in Senegal since he died in 1989, Paul Biya shifted the blame to the family of the late president. According to Biya, if the family of Ahidjo decides to bring back his remains, he has no objections. Many consider this a very cavalier manner of treating the remains of someone who served as the country’s first President for 22 years and handpicked Paul Biya as his successor. Issa Tchiroma a political leader from the late presidents region is at odds with the views of Biya, claiming that late President Ahidjo was a national figure and his remains like those of other patriots like Felix Roland Moumie should be repatriated. Writing in his Snapshots column of the Post newspaper, veteran Journalist, Sam Nuvala Fonkem said “Biya knows better than anyone else that the day Ahmadou Ahidjo’s remains touch the soil of Cameroon would spell doomsday for him and the ruling oligarchy”

Since 1992 when multi-party politics reemerged, Paul Biya has never met formerly with any leader of the opposition and when Jean Paul Tchokote a leader of the opposition Social Democratic Front (SDF) Chapter in France sort to know why, the buck was again thrown to the opposition leaders. President Biya revealed that at one point, John Fru Ndi leader of the SDF had an appointment to meet him and requested that the meeting takes place in Biya’s village not far from the nation’s capital. On the appointed day Biya went on, Fru Ndi never showed up. Perhaps afraid that this may lend credence to allegations of his occultic dealings with the regime, John Fru Ndi in an interview with the French Daily Mutations described President Biya’s claims as false and malicious. According to Fru Ndi the presumed winner of the October 1992 presidential elections and whose party ranks second (16 seats) after the ruling party at the National Assembly ,several efforts through the Governor of the North West Province and registered mail have been made by him to meet with Biya without success. To clear the air, Fru Ndi said some of the letters will be made public.

Serving the last of his two term seven years mandate, predictions are rife that President Biya will use the overwhelming majority his party enjoys in the National Assembly to tinker with the constitution and get himself another term. Little was done to assure Cameroonians that he had no such designs in mind. The only certainty he said was that the elections will definitely take place, but there are still too distant as he is barely half way gone into the last seven year mandate. Other priorities like the fight against corruption, AIDS, poverty, and stability in the Central African sub region, need to be addressed and questions on the 2011 elections according to Paul Biya are premature.
Many Cameroonians do not however share the view and will only be too happy if he doesn’t stand for the elections. John Fru Ndi of the opposition SDF sees in Biya a man of bad faith who will do all to change the constitution and keep himself in power. Talking to Pan African Visions in June, Prof Tazoacha Asonganyi, a leading critic of the regime sounded the alarm bells on tenure elongation for Biya and opined strongly that the schemes by the regime to perpetuate itself in power constituted a threat to the stability of the country.

Ekane Anicet of the MANIDEM, another opposition party sees in the interview, a design by President Biya to market himself to his friends from the west. Lamenting on the contempt, with which the national press is treated, Ekane reacting through the French daily Mutations, chided Biya for always feeling cozy with the media in France and not in Cameroon. For his 25 years in Office, President Biya has granted just a handful of interviews to the state owned Cameroon Radio and Television Corporation (CRTV). When Severin Tchounkeu of the private French daily newspaper La Nouvelle Expression succeeded to ask Biya a question at a press conference with Jacques Chirac during the France -Africa Summit of January 2001, many considered it a feat.

Talk of people born with silver spoons in the mouth and Biya will certainly rank amongst them. Upon returning to Cameroon in the 60s after studies in France, he joined the civil service from the top and has stayed there till date with stints as Minister, Secretary General at the Presidency, Prime Minister and finally President from November 1982 ,when to the surprise of many late President Amadou Ahidjo resigned and handed over power to him. Relations between the two soon went stale with President Ahidjo even tried and sentenced to death in absentia for his role in attempts to oust Biya from power. The remains of Ahidjo are still in Dakar, Senegal after his death in 1989.

Described by many as a despot, many people however remain nostalgic of the Ahidjo era because of the economic prosperity and the international aura of the country. Under president Biya, corruption has become endemic and pervasive playing a big role in crippling the buoyancy of one of the most prosperous and promising economies in Africa at the time he took over. The ruling Cameroon Peoples Democratic Movement (CPDM) is considered as a sanctuary for most of those who have robbed the country blind although a crusade against corruption has seen a number of top shots slammed with heavy jail terms.

With the dawn of multi-party politics in 1990, few are those who expected that Paul Biya will still be in power today. The opposition against him was so strong, his party failed to win an absolute majority in the Legislative elections of March 1992 and his victory in the October 1992 elections with a margin of two percent was mired in very deep controversy with his rival John Fru Ndi presumed by many to have been the rightful winner. Mr Biya’s luck has been added by the cacophony within the ranks of an opposition reduce to impotency by its weaknesses and the usage of a crushing state machinery which uses hook and crook to ensure that Biya and the ruling party win all elections.

It is rare to have a leader who takes the electorate for granted to the extent of making just about three outings to the field towards the tail end of a campaign and is still able to come out with ….a landslide victory! Paul Biya succeeded in doing this during the presidential elections of October 2004. He is the President of the ruling CPDM party but during the July 2007 Municipal and Legislative Elections, just like those of 2002, and 1997, he did not bother to show up or do any personal campaigns yet his party came out with landslide victories. Since its transformation from the Cameroon National Union (CNU) to the CPDM in 1985, Paul Biya has served as its national Chairman with little tolerance given for others to challenge him. The party has held just a handful of conventions and party officials at the national level are handpicked resulting in the emergence of unpopular choices. In a country like Algeria, a few francs added to the price of bread led to a nation wide revolt forcing a reversal of the decision, but in Cameroon, the abrupt devaluation of the currency, coupled with two brutal salary cuts in succession was not sufficient to incur the full wrath of the people against Biya! In a year President Biya spends atleast a quarter of his time abroad on official missions and private visits (bref sejours) abroad with the curiosity been that he is more often than not accompanied by his wife and kids.

In 2007, Parade magazine published a list of 20 worst dictators in the world, President Biya was ranked 19th. His country was ranked the most corrupt in the world in 2008 and 2009, and despite the porous human rights record and persistently flawed elections, Paul Biya has succeeded to keep the spot light away from him. Whereas people like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe take all the heat for real and imagined reasons, others like Paul Biya are able to wrangle their way around. Elections condemned heavily by the international community elsewhere are rarely commented upon when it is the case with Cameroon, or given the kind of bad press that other countries get.

His actions sometimes show a man completely out of touch with realities and insensitive to the plight of the average Cameroonian. The admission of Cameroon to the Commonwealth came as a surprise to many because the country did not meet the standards set by the Harare declaration, notably on democracy and human rights. He has succeeded in maintaining Cameroon as a member of the so called gentleman’s club as the Commonwealth is referred to, despite doing little in concrete terms to meet expected standards. Flawed elections considered anathema by the Commonwealth are his stock in trade , and he has convincing dabbled, dribbled and re-dribbled the Organisation with brio , defaulting multiple times on recommendations and promises to create an independent Electoral Commission to manage the electoral process .

The last time he undertook a nation wide tour was in 1991, when opposition to his leadership was very stiff. During elections, he makes sporadic visits to a few lucky areas and is known to go sometimes for a year without a trip to another part of the country. Appointments to public officers more often than not defy logic with criteria that he alone masters. On record he is known to have spoken English not more than thrice in his 25 years in power showing strong preference for French. This is so despite the bilingual character of the country enshrined in a Constitution which has less than a third of its clauses operational since its adoption by the National Assembly in 1996. Many are often confused on the Constitution that is in operation in the country since parts of the 1972 constitution are still in operation as well alongside that of 1996.

In moments of great difficulty, soccer which is like a religion in the country has come to his rescue. In 1990 pushed to the wall by the momentum of opposition to his one party rule, the Indomitable Lions gave him badly needed breathing space by producing Africa’s brightest performance at the world cup in Italy. The legacy of Roger Milla from that memorable world cup, four victories at the African Cup of Nations, Olympic Gold Medal etc are some moments of mass hysteria which have made lured Cameroonians from the harsh realities of life under the Biya regime. Always quick to claim credit for the success of hardworking soccer talents, the regime does little to improve on the game. For a country which boasts some of the biggest names in world and African soccer, the state of infrastructure is appalling. Siphoning funds generously donated by Cameroonians to help government support cash strapped national team at the USA world cup of 1994 shows the callousness with which sports is managed.

Biya who only compares years in office with the likes of doyen Omar Bongo of Gabon, Obieng Nguema of Equatorial Guinea, Mubarak of Egypt and a number of others in office for over 20 years has succeeded in giving the out side world the impression that all is well within his country . He takes a lot of delight in brandishing Cameroon as an oasis of peace in a troubled sub region, but beyond the appearance of relative calm, are tensions capable of wrecking havoc on the polity. The taboo talk that he considers succession to be, the stalled democratization process, the economic hardship, unemployment, the thorny problem of Southern Cameroons et al remain potentially explosive issues begging for greater answers than his interview on France 24 provided and urgent attention than his leadership has provided so far.
* Since this article was first published in November 2007, Paul Biya used the crushing majority he has in parliament to ruled out constitutional term limits imposed by the constitution.This paves the way for a life presidency for him.The move was vigorously contested by Cameroonians and in part contributed to a huge wave of unrest in Febuary 08 with a heavy toll in human life. Ajong Mbapndah L is a Jurist from Cameroon.He is a prodemocracy and human rights activists and contributes regularly for the online publication Pan African Visions www.panafricanvisions.com .Email:ajonglaur@yahoo.com