Cameroon: The “Indefatigable” President Paul Biya At 85

Cameroon: The “Indefatigable” President Paul Biya At 85

The president of the Republic of Cameroon, Paul Biya, has tabled his candidacy for the upcoming elections on October 7, 2018, in the West African country. With the probability of him winning, Mr. Biya would become the longest serving president in Africa (43 years in power), challenging the record of Angola’s Eduardo Dos Santos, who was one of the longest serving heads of state in the world. He would also fall in the ranks of the world’s oldest Presidents after Mugabe.

Mr. Biya’s decision to run for the presidency for the fifth time since the introduction of multiparty politics in Cameroon has raised more dust within the country as well as his own political party, the Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (CPDM). Many wished that Mr. Biya would seek retirement and allow the younger generation within his own party to take over. Before stepping down as UN Secretary General in 2006, Kofi Annan had advised Paul Biya not to seek more mandates which, according to him, may trigger a conflict as in other African countries.

Most Cameroonians have argued that at 85 Paul Biya should be thinking of resting and not clinging to power. The US government, through its ambassador to Cameroon, Peter Barlerin, has also advised the president to think of stepping down which would be a better legacy for him at this point in time rather than staying on. Moreover, with the conflict raging on in the Anglophone regions of the African state, some observers have called on Mr. Biya to give chance to another candidate who would better manage the conflict and ensure that peace returns to the nation.

Paul Biya’s stakes

While declaring his candidacy last July, Mr. Biya stated that he is answering to what he termed “the people’s call.” According to him, it is because of these incessant calls coming from the “people” which prompted him to accept the mantle to be their candidate in the upcoming elections.

However, the notion of the “people’s call” in Cameroon is a very controversial aspect of politics given the fact that most of the motions of support to the President, with the appellation of “natural candidate,” are mostly designed and signed in the bureaus of top regime barons who must keep the president on seat in order to maintain their posts. They sign it on behalf of their respective constituency and present it to the President as the “people’s” call. It is these calls that Paul Biya was responding to in his Twitter message that announced his candidacy – for the fifth time in the history of Cameroon.

Proponents of what has become known as the “people’s call” argued emphatically that it is only Paul Biya who can restore peace to a shaky Cameroon. However, since his declaration on July 13, the violence in the Anglophone regions of the country have increased dramatically, with scores of people being killed every day. Moreover, in recent times, Boko Haram has also stepped up its attack in the North of the country.

Faced with the current situation, a challenge to the candidacy of the President is tantamount to unpatriotic moves by regime officials. Within Mr. Biya’s ruling CPDM party there is a silent voice which is frustrated at the decision by the president. Speaking to some officials of the party who would not want to be named because of the sensitivity of the case, they argued that Mr. Biya has served the country throughout his life, holding all top positions in Cameroon for more than 50 years and according to them, it is time for him to take a rest and give the opportunity for others to lead.

Mr. Biya’s declaration has also sparked an allegiance debate within Cameroon with the emergence of a more divided society. On the one hand, there are are some opposition parties and civil groups, including traditional rulers who have declared their support for him. Just days after his intentions were made known, about 20 leaders of the opposition gathered in the economic capital, Douala, to declare their support for the incumbent leader. This has also led to an increase in division within the various political parties, as some members are now decamping from one grouping to another because of Mr. Biya’s decision.

Equating the current stakes with Paul Biya’s candidacy

According to many opposition parties and even foreign bodies, it is almost impossible for any opposition candidate to defeat Paul Biya in an open election. This is because of the very thin line that exists between the state and the ruling party in Cameroon, whose interests are closely knitted. For example, it is not uncommon to see state cars being used for party ceremonies, or the state media which always carries a write up for Mr. Biya in every edition of its newscast. Moreover, the process from registration to declaration of results is entirely controlled by regime appointees. Therefore, the mere announcement of his intentions to run again is synonymous to another seven years under Mr. Biya’s leadership. According to those opposing his candidacy, this is an indication that the country will be under violence for seven more years, with economic stagnation and a very shaky leadership – which can’t assume challenging roles during challenging times.

The violent conflict in the two Anglophone regions has been raging on for close to two years now, and that of Boko Haram for about five. Since English-speaking lawyers and teachers went to the streets in September 2016 to demand for more rights in a context dominated by the Francophone majority, there has been calls for the Cameroonian president to open dialogue via the international community including the United Nations, Australia, Britain, the United States, as well as national bodies like the country’s state sponsored National Human Rights Commission. However, the dialogue episode has been missed, and now violence is raging on with the government seeming very helpless.

According to an expert in peace studies, Dr. Williams Herman Arrey, with all measures implemented by the government, violence has instead increased which is an indication that the government seriously needs bonafide help from the international community. This has been the case for most persons opposed to a Biya candidacy, who argue that he has exposed his shortsightedness in the management of the conflict, and therefore another person should takeover.

Moreover, Mr. Biya’s longevity has become a problem in its own right owing to the fact that the majority of Cameroonians were born after 1982 when he took over power. This is a group of people who comprise more than 64 percent of the total population of Cameroon, and who argue that they have never known any other leader apart from Mr. Biya. According to them, only until a new person becomes president would they be able to make a comparative study of different époques.

Over the years Cameroon’s economy has been crumbling with a very high rate of corruption, which ensures that much of the country’s wealth ends in private pockets. Mr. Biya himself has acknowledged the intensity of corruption but seemed incapable to push it back. This has ensured that Cameroon virtually lives on borrowed funds to erect major projects, including those geared at hosting the 2019 African Cup of Nations to be paid by future generations.

“Peace” has been the only thing his supporters were using to advance as a case for his longevity, but with the recent happenings in the country, peace has been thwarted and Mr. Biya seemed powerless to leave Cameroon as he met it. That is why the US Ambassador, Peter Henry Barlerin, recently told Mr. Biya to follow the examples of George Washington and Nelson Mandela. This way, he can leave power so as to be remembered fairly, rather than clinging to power and be forced to leave. Proponents of Mr. Biya’s candidacy may be protecting their interests, but on the other hand, building a country that depends on an individual who is not indispensable.

When a nation is built around an individual it becomes very shaky in the absence of the person, but when institutions are projected as the bearers of the solution to challenges a nation is facing, life after a president is guaranteed. Moreover, at 85, Paul Biya may be full of wisdom, but his strength to face the daily challenges of a dynamic presidency in a country affectionately described as “Africa in miniature” may no longer available. That is why Mandela left the presidency before he could be glued to it, so that even after him South Africa could remain a giant in Africa.