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Cameroon's ghost president fails to lead

November 6, 2020

As Cameroon's Anglophone crisis drags on, longtime leader President Paul Biya has been virtually invisible. This has had devastating consequences for the conflict and for the country, says Mimi Mefo Takambou.

Paul Biya  waves
Image: picture alliance/dpa/j. Warnand

One of the biggest items on my bucket list is to see President Paul Biya in the flesh. After all, he's ruled Cameroon — the country of my birth — for 38 years. And for 10 of those years, I've been working as a news reporter.

But I've never managed to lay eyes on the 87-year old president because Biya is virtually absent from public view. He's hardly ever in parliament, invisible on the campaign path, and certainly does not make himself available for interviews with any of Cameroon's dozens of private media outlets. He even avoids interviews with the state-owned media, his personal propaganda tool.

In 2018, I had the privilege of interviewing all the major opposition leaders for that year's presidential election. Biya rejected all my interview requests — he did not single me out in doing so; he rejected interviews with all journalists from private media.

In other countries, journalists like me can see their leaders up close when covering political events. But Biya only held one cabinet meeting between 2015 and 2018, and he views campaign rallies as "too lowly" for his elevated status.

Biya rules from a distance

I might have encountered him if I'd made an effort to travel to the Swiss city of Geneva — at least until last year. For many years, Geneva was known as Cameroon's 11th region because Biya spent many months there, holed up in the top floor suite of the luxurious Intercontinental Hotel.

Mimi Mefo
Cameroonian journalist Mimi Mefo Takambou lives in GermanyImage: Mimi Mefo

The president had a rather inglorious exit from Switzerland in July 2019 when anti-Biya protesters from the Brigade Anti-Sardinards clashed with Swiss police, and Biya's bodyguards in due course harassed journalists.

This episode has now led to what could be Biya's longest stay in Cameroon since becoming president in 1982.

Even when he's in Cameroon, Biya remains out of sight. He spurns the Etoudi Unity palace — his official residence in the capital, Yaounde — preferring to spend months at a time as a recluse at his private residence in Mvomeka'a, the village of his birth.

I'm not convinced that his ruling from a distance fits any contemporary definition of leadership.

Read more: Cameroon: Divided opposition quashes hopes to unseat Biya

Man of 'few words'

While addressing the Paris Peace Summit in 2019, Biya said he had brought "some few words" to the event. This perfectly sums up Biya's seven mandates as president — because it's rare for him to speak out on pressing national issues.

When Cameroon was hit by the coronavirus pandemic earlier in the year, Biya stayed out of public view for two months. He finally made a televised address to the nation in May.

More recently, it took the aging president over 48 hours to tweet his condemnation of the deadly Kumba school shooting in October. In other instances, like the February killings in Ngarbuh village in Cameroon's restive Northwest region, Biya remained mute.

Kumba school shooting
The massacre in Kumba has once more brought the Anglophone conflict in the spotlightImage: Tamfu Ciduan Ndimbie/My Media Prime TV/Reuters

Biya's aides and supporters have described this phenomenon as "presidential silence" and argue that "his attitude is a sign of maturity and wisdom."

I don't agree. What I see is a country adrift without leadership, crumbling under conflict and poverty.

No end to Cameroon's conflicts

Biya has proved incapable of ending the bloody Anglophone conflict in the English-speaking Northwest and Southwest regions, which is tearing Cameroon apart. The violence has claimed thousands of lives, and has displaced over 1 million people. Even worse, Biya has avoided taking responsibility for government failures.

Human rights groups have widely condemned Cameroon's military for extrajudicial killings in the Anglophone regions. Yet Biya, the commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces, has claimed that soldiers acted on their own.

Between the mayhem caused by Boko Haram in the northern regions, the dilapidation of state institutions in the east and south of the country and the conflict in the Anglophone regions, Cameroon's economy has been left in ruins.

Read more: 'No dictatorship considers protests legal,' Cameroon's opposition politician says

Is Biya a demi-god?

Biya enthusiasts and his party supporters would like us to believe that Biya is a demi-god. Or perhaps it is more that Biya's inner circle has adopted practices of praise-singing and worshiping of the president to remain in his good books.

Take, for instance, when Biya was likened to Jesus in an astounding report on Cameroon's state broadcaster, CRTV, in 2017. Or the time when a CRTV commentator called Biya's return to Cameroon after the 2019 protests in Geneva, "without any exaggeration, ... comparable to the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem."

More recently, government minister Atanga Nji Paul quoted Bible verses to back up the idea that Biya is the head of state because he was chosen by God.

The quickest way to ascend power under this regime is to utter the (not-very secret) password: "We thank the head of state" or "Thanks to the head of state," which falls without fail from the lips of party politicians all the time.

Risen from the dead?

Perhaps Biya has something in common with Jesus after all: For decades, rumors of Biya's death have swept periodically through the media (more recently, social media), only to have the president "miraculously" reappear some time later. The last rumor of his death was in April when Biya failed to address Cameroonians about COVID-19.

COVID-19 information poster in Yaounde
When COVID-19 reached Cameroon, Biya remained out of sight for two monthsImage: Imago Images/Xinhua/J. P. Kepseu

Each time such rumors emerge, I question what difference the demise of an absent president would make to ordinary Cameroonians like me.

Perhaps it would allow us to speak our minds, especially those living in Yaounde, without worrying about a visit from Cameroon's police or other security operatives in the dead of night.

Because uttering a word against the president in a taxi, in a bar or on the streets, can land the speaker among the inmates at Kondengui prison, or even in exile.

Absent president has eyes and ears everywhere

For example, there's the jailing of Biya's once close ally, Marafa Hamidou Yaya, who was sentenced to 25 years in prison on corruption charges. Many say this was because he dared harbor ambitions to succeed the president.

There's also the case of the musical artist Longue Longue who criticized the outcome of the 2018 elections. His passport was seized and only returned after he spent nearly a year publicly begging for forgiveness.

As a result of actions like these, it has become almost taboo to criticize the president in any way.

Crushed independent media

Investigative journalists are brandished as enemies of the state, as terrorists and rebels. They are tried in military courts and held in inhumane conditions.

In the decade I have been reporting, two jailed Cameroonian journalists have died in detention: Samuel Wazizi, who was arrested in August 2019 for criticizing Yaounde's handling of Cameroon's Anglophone crisis, and Bibi Ngota, who was detained in 2010 for falsifying a government document.

Hundreds of independent journalists have either been arrested, jailed or gone into exile. They either have to toe the line and become songbirds of the regime, or prisons become their new homes.

Today, November 6, 2020 marks the 38th anniversary of Biya's rule of Cameroon. That is too long.

As a Cameroonian journalist in exile, I believe the onus now lies on me and others in a similar situation to stand up, assert our position as journalists and tell the truth about the situation in our country.

Tensions grow in Cameroon