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Time For Paul Biya to Call it a Day?

In terms of economic development, political freedoms and social indicators, 30 years of President Biya have not been kind to Cameroonians.
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President Paul Biya (pictured) in Yaounde, Cameroon. Photograph by Commonwealth Secretariat.

Today, a small elite from Cameroon’s capital Yaoundé deserted their administrative functions to join locals in celebrating 30 years of President Paul Biya’s reign. This is a long time. Over the years, some have come to baptise Biya as the ‘father of the nation’ and many Cameroonians, myself included, have grown up knowing no other ‘dear leader’ but Paul Biya.

Indeed, despite his yearly proclamations on Cameroon National Youth Day about the future of our fatherland belonging to the youth, most of Cameroon’s young people have by now grown beyond their youthfulness, their aging marked each year by Biya’s regurgitated, empty rhetoric.

From the outside, Biya’s long rule might represent welcome stability in an unstable region, but Cameroon’s political consistency has been illusorily and illegitimately constructed on corruption and nepotism to benefit of the Biya clan and its allies at the expense of the Cameroonian people.

Biya’s accession

Biya rose to office in 1982, taking over from his then mentor Amadou Ahidjo, a figure whose historical significance has been systematically eroded in Cameroon’s political discourse. Ahidjo, who had been president since Cameroon gained independence from France in 1960, handed over power in what has been described as a peaceful coup orchestrated by Biya with help from a French government unhappy with Ahidjo.

Whatever the reasons behind the handover, Biya has since remained in power, generally breezing through the flawed presidential elections every few years. At the most recent election in 2011, Biya officially garnered 78% of the vote, up on the 71% he managed in 2004 but down from the 93% of the vote he is meant to have gained in 1997.

For three decades in power, Biya has relied on his ‘New Deal’ slogan as his vision for the future. Despite his disciples translating this patchy political platform into more substantive publications, the bottom line remains that little worth celebrating has been achieved.

At the start of his reign, many Cameroonians held hope for a ‘New Deal’ government based on democratic aspirations and respect for human rights, but gradually these expectations were eroded when faced with a regime driven by tribalism, nepotism and human rights violations.

Faltering economy, faltering society

Under Biya’s guidance, Cameroon’s economy has not done well. Unemployment is high and in 2006 Cameroon was admitted into the club of Highly Indebted Poor Countries. Today, the country is borrowing heavily from China to fund projects Biya claims will turn Cameroon into an emerging economy by 2035. But while communities are being displaced to pave the way for such projects, including some led by multinational mining companies, little concern has been shown for long-term sustainability or the environmental consequences a new mineral chase will have on locals who stand to benefit little.

In terms of education, Cameroon has seen slow and questionable development. For the first decade of Biya’s reign, Cameroon boasted just a single over-crowded state university. Since a restructuring of higher education in 1993, the state has come to run seven universities. But quantity and quality are very different things. The universities are poorly funded, curricula are monitored by the regime to ensure no potentially critical concepts are taught, and graduates usually leave relatively poorly-trained and poorly-skilled.

Healthcare has fared little better. State hospitals are overcrowded for those who can reach them, while the desperate majority living in rural areas are left to go it alone if they fall ill.

Cameroon’s state institutions are also marred by corruption, which damages the country’s economic prospects. Despite the economy being expected to grow at a 4.6% rate next year, recent statistics from Doing Business Index places Cameroon at 161st position, down five positions from a year ago. Part of the country’s unattractiveness as an investment destination is its poor governance and corrupt habits which Biya’s three decades in power have entrenched.

Infrastructure is also under-developed, with dilapidated or non-existent road networks making transportation from farms to market difficult, and with power shortages a daily reality for those lucky enough to have even access to electricity.

Time up for Biya?

Biya’s legitimacy as leader is weak and his future is uncertain. He has created numerous enemies and has consigned enough former ministers to languish in the infamous Kondengue Central Prison in Yaoundé to create an interior government of gaolers complete with erstwhile ministers, senior politicians and military chiefs.

And unlike his former regional counterparts such as Gnassingbé Eyadéma of Togo and Omar Bongo of Gabon, Biya does not have a suitable, Western-educated protégé within the family to whom to pass the reins of power. Though his son Frank is alleged to have political authority over every log of timber that leaves Cameroon’s share of the Equatorial forest, he lacks the intellectual skills to take over the presidency.

President Biya’s legacy in office and the prospects for his future all point to the fact that, after 30 years in office, it may be time for Paul Biya to reconsider his method of rule if not his prolonged rule itself.

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