Paul Biya: 38 years of ‘democratic dictatorship’ and the triumph of inertia, failure
Paul Biya will be 88 in February 2021. He became Cameroon’s second President on November 6, 1982. He thus, clocks 38 years on the job this Friday, November 6, 2020.
With 38 years spent at the helm of the nation, with prospects of a life-presidency project concretized through the removal of presidential term limits in 2008, Biya prides himself among the world’s top three longest-ruling non-royal national leaders.
Biya comes behind Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo who has ruled Equatorial Guinea for over 41 years and Ali Khamenei who has had a grip on Iran for the last 39 years.
Biya is seen by many as a favored child, rising through the ranks of power to become Prime Minister on 30 June 1975 and then the constitutional successor of pioneer President, Amadou Ahidjo.
Ahidjo was considered to be an iron-fist ruler. Biya was thought to be different when he unveiled his New Deal agenda. But before long, Biya cunningly tightened his grip on power and tailored the constitution to serve his ego.
Many Cameroonians seem to be enjoying the abuses by the security forces in the Anglophone regions, just as they did with the military atrocities in the Far North.
The recent events in Cameroon’s North West and South West Regions have strengthened perceptions that the state has little regard for its citizens. The bestiality and brutality of the army are by every measure emblematic of Biya’s democratic dictatorial government, by and large.
It’s a “sort of decentralized tyranny,” says Achille Mbembe, a prominent Cameroonian political philosopher. “This means that each [civil servant] is a little tyrant at his little level. It’s rather spectacular democratization of tyrannical dynamics.”
Small wonder than Governor Okalia Bilai Bernard of the South West region recently referred to mourning and protesting women as “witches” and in 2017 called locals “dogs”.
The civil service, just like the government, is accountable to Biya only. The people do not matter. The same Biya is famous for spending time outside the country, usually at a five-star hotel in Geneva, Switzerland. Overall, he’s spent over four and a half years on private trips abroad since he came to power. The COVID-19 outbreak must have dealt a blow to his travel plans. At least, his children are doing the traveling on his behalf.
Pursuing an audience with a government minister means sacrificing hours in sleepy waiting rooms. If a meeting is granted, the minister’s door opens and a glacial breeze escapes. Crossing the threshold, the visitor enters a new world of air-conditioning, fresh paint, and plush leather sofas.
Although official salaries are not high, government posts are generally the best-paying jobs in Cameroon because of pervasive corruption and high per diems given to attend meetings.
Biya’s integrity and the integrity of his government counterparts could be gauged by looking at the quality of their watches and suits, their shoes, those of their relatives, and even the private houses they build around the country under doubtful identities.
In his foxy fashion, Biya has used the power of decree to eternalize his stay in power, appointing friends and foes alike as ministers or directors of public companies. Potential challenges, in particular, are often bought off with such jobs, with hitherto opposition leaders now enjoying from the national purse – bleeding the public lot.
One prominent example is Issa Tchiroma Bakary, the minister of employment and vocational training, as well as Bello Bouba Maigari who is Minister of State for tourism and leisure. The list is long, with the latest entry being that of Jean de Dieu Momo, Minister Delegate to the Minister of Justice.
Tchiroma, for example, was not always on Biya’s good side. In 1984, two years after Biya became president, he was accused of participating in the failed coup attempt and spent the next six years in prison. He then joined an opposition party, until Biya named him transport minister in 1992. In 1996, he lost this posting and rejoined the opposition, only to be brought back into the government in 2009. He still heads an opposition party, but one that supported Biya’s re-election in 2018.
During Biya’s 38 years in office, this approach has required him to get creative, cutting the governmental cake into ever-shrinking slices. As a result, there are now 64 ministers and secretaries of state. The education sector alone is shared between five ministries: one for primary school, one for secondary school, one for tertiary education, one for physical education, and one for professional training. In 2018, in a dishonest bid to address Anglophones’ frustration, the Ministry of Territorial Administration and Decentralization was split into two, with the juicer part handed to Biya’s tribesman and the skeleton to an Anglophone boy-boy.
Biya also wields sticks to keep threats to his power in line. He often demotes his appointees for no apparent reason. In more drastic cases, he sends them to jail. There are currently, so many high-ranking civil servants who have been sent to Yaounde’s notorious Kondengui prison, most of them on graft charges, that the joke among Cameroonians is that they could form a shadow government.
This is how Biya has been in power for 38 years without knowledge of who will succeed him.
Biya’s romance with the outside world
Before the neglected Anglophone crisis went overboard, Cameroon was seen by foreign governments and aid groups as “a politically stable country in an unstable region”.
Despite the government’s poor record on corruption, outside help continues to flow. In 2017, Cameroon received $600 million in foreign aid. Even to this day, the IMF and other donor agencies have been flooding Cameroon with aids, grants, and loans.
Nevertheless, the well-documented abuses of the country’s army have been in the eye of international discussions.
Although America had drawn closer to Cameroon in order to help her fight Boko Haram, the atrocities of the Rapid Intervention Battalion, [B.I.R]. forced Washington to have a rethink.
Outgone U.S. ambassador to Cameroon, Peter Barlerin had told Biya to investigate and punish soldiers who led “targeted killings” as well as “burning and looting of villages” in the Anglophone regions.
Barlerin after an audience with Biya in 2018 said he had also “suggested to the president that he should be thinking about his legacy and how he wants to be remembered in the history books,” adding that “George Washington and Nelson Mandela were excellent models.”
It was not long before Biya’s boys claimed that Barlerin was financing the opposition, a claim the US diplomat had to deny. “We do not have a preferred outcome for the election,” he said in a subsequent interview with The New York Times. “We want a strong and stable Cameroon.”
In a move akin to military regimes and police states, Cameroon’s President Paul Biya emptied military barracks into major streets in the country to foil planned opposition protests Tuesday, September 22, 2020.
Recent events have shown that Cameroon is indeed a police state – a state with authority, which uses the police, especially secret police, to maintain and enforce political power, even though violent or arbitrary means, if necessary.
As Paul Biya furthers his life presidency project with 38 years already up to his sleeves, the political space in the country has been reduced to near zero.
Today, Biya is the law and the law is Biya. Small wonder therefore why military regime style laws like the December 24, 2014 law on the suppression of acts of terrorism and even the 1996 constitution were crafted to protect the Biya dynasty.
Arbitrary arrests, illegal detentions, and summary killings are everyday occurrences in Cameroon as Biya and his cronies seek to eternalize their stay in power.
Although the one-man written 1996 constitution protects and guarantees the right to protest, Biya has substituted himself for the constitution.
Point 12 of the preamble of Cameroon’s constitution states that “every person has a right to life, to physical and moral integrity and to humane treatment in all circumstances. Under no circumstances shall any person be subjected to torture, to cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment”. But we have seen images to the contrary flooding the social media space following today’s protests, a scenario lived in the North West and South West regions every day since November 2016.
Although the constitution says, “no person shall be harassed on grounds of his origin, religious, philosophical or political opinions or beliefs, subject to respect for public policy”, those being brutalized, teargassed, and detained in Douala and Yaoundé were denied the exercise of their political rights.
Point 16 of the preamble of the constitution adds that “the freedom of communication, of expression, of the press, of assembly, of association, and of trade unionism, as well as the right to strike, shall be guaranteed under the conditions fixed by law.”
Just like a police state, disguised as a democracy, the Biya regime has typically exhibited elements of totalitarianism through its harsh means of social control.
In a police state, the police are not subject to the rule of law in an emergency and there is no meaningful distinction between the law and the exercise of political power by the executive.
Police states like Cameroon do not often refer to themselves in this manner. But judging from the laws, policies, and actions of the regime, and its conception of the social contract, human rights, and similar matters, it is safe to consider it a police state.
When Kamto said on August 24, 2020, that he will lead a giant protest on September 22, 2020, to oust Biya, Mali style, many asked if it will resemble the September 22, 2017 uprising in Anglophone Cameroon – owing to its poor handling, there have been untold bloodshed in the North West and South West Regions.
With peace plants and tree branches in hand, September 22, 2017, protests broke out on the same day President Paul Biya was addressing the 75th UN General Assembly. It followed on October 1, 2017, that Ambazonia leader Sisiku Ayuk Tabe declared his country’s independence, a move met with brutal repression by defence and security forces, provoking “self-defence” fighting that is in its third year.
Biya apologists and bootlickers of his ruling Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement, CPDM, will be quick to come to his defence. They will deny the fact that Cameroon is a police state. But nowhere in the world can a country be claiming to be democratic and is seen to be rolling out the repressive military machinery that has been seen in recent years in Cameroon in the build-up to protests.
As journalist Colbert Gwain Fulai puts it, “The reaction by government of Cameroon and its allied political parties, as well as some civil society to the planned peaceful protests, marches by Law Professor, Maurice Kamto and his CRM party, smacks of the manner in which civic and political space has dangerously shrunk in Cameroon in the last few years.
“The ruling elites and their allied political forces, as well as some anti-rights civil society movements, have successfully used the degrading security situation in the country, no thanks to the Boko Haram insurgency in the Northern regions, the unrest in the North West and South West as well as the volatile situation in the East of the country, to criminalize dissent and varying political opinion to the exclusion of government thinking.
“It is for this reason that any suggestion of a civil or political protest, however peaceful, would be considered an insurrection and the 2014 anti-terrorism law would be dangled on organizers and participants. To the credit of authoritarian regimes across the world has come to add COVID-19 restriction measures as a pretext to proscribe freedom of association and peaceful assembly.
“Unfortunately, Cameron’s democratic gains of over 30 years are being rolled back under the watchful eyes of its helpless citizens. And as stated earlier, the pretext is the degrading security situation. Authoritarians see the current health crisis as a formidable new political battleground in their fight to stigmatize democracy as feeble and reverse its dramatic gains of the past few years.”
But should Biya not open up the political space and implement sweeping legal reforms, then he may be swept out by people power in shame and ignominy.
For now, Kamto stays under house arrests, his party members thrown in prison, the killings continue in the Anglophone regions, and Biya keeps thinking of how to remain in power forever. May the killing of seven innocent children in Kumba open the eyes of Cameroonians to see that Biya is no longer strong enough to protect the people.
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