To extricate himself from this debacle of denial, Biya must face the painful truth about the nation in crisis and be under no illusion that military force can defeat the Anglophone resistance. And if the president sincerely thinks youths should assume the mantle of leadership, why, at 85 and after 35 years in power is he contesting the 2018 presidential election?
Across the world, it is the practice of leaders to address their fellow citizens by means of national broadcast, wherein they take stock and make visionary statements about the future direction of the country. President Paul Biya’s traditional youth-day address was disappointing for failing to accurately capture the state of the nation. It was obvious the president wanted to paint a rosy picture over an otherwise gloomy state of affairs, and ended up wasting a golden opportunity to honestly engage with Cameroonian youths, whose future is being mortgaged on the altar of empty grand-standing.“In the decades ahead, you will be our country’s leaders, hence the need for you to be up to the task, by acquiring the necessary skills and experience. However, first, you must understand that the “new world” which is unfolding before our very own eyes could be tougher and more unstable than the old one,” Biya noted. No one is impressed by the hackneyed mantra that youths are tomorrow’s leaders, or that they hold the nation’s future. This is trite and sounds like a broken record. The more serious questions to ask are: what quality of youth? Which future? Biya’s claims were so hollow; his diagnosis of the problems facing youths was pedestrian; his proposed solutions were empty platitudes; indicative of leadership dysfunction and apathetic indifference by the man Cameroonians elected as their president. Little surprise the speech was roundly dismissed as empty rhetoric.
It is obvious, Biya doesn’t care about youths and his promises have lost credibility with each youth day address. How can youths who have been excluded from any meaningful participation in the running of public affairs by the greed and primordial interests of the president’s generation, be ready to face the challenges in this overly complicated, globalized world? Since this generation of youths are ill-prepared to be tomorrow’s leaders, on which generation should Cameroonians now depend for their political destiny? Is it the generation that succeeds two failed generations? Is it this generation that has been demoralized, abused, instrumentalised; onto whom has not been bequeathed any values and patriotic sense of duty to the fatherland?
Few will argue that Cameroon is a gerontocracy, where a group of tired old men tottering on the borders of senile decay have taken the country hostage. The four most important personalities of the nation, together, combine for 317 years – Biya (85); Senate President, Niat Njifenji (83); House Speaker, Cavayé Djibril (78); PM Philemon Yang (71). At age 76, Laurent Esso’o has been Minister of Justice, Public Health, Defense, Foreign Affairs, and Secretary General at the presidency and is back as Justice Minister. The cabinet is full of octogenarians and septuagenarians who continue to be recycled into different portfolios. Even if their age is no problem, what about the age of their ideas? In the legislature and judiciary, the median age of the top brass is above the official retirement age of 55 years. Tired old men like Nfon Mukete, Achidi Achu, Enow Tanjong, Mafany Musonge, Philemon Yang and others in their generation, ought to have long quit the stage to become elder statesmen who, in tricky times like these, would be consulted for their wisdom and experience. Recently, Biya recycled another bunch of spent forces, all facing creeping senility; to the Constitutional Council. When will these old people retire?
The other fundamental point about the president’s address is the claim that “the situation in the South-West and North-West Regions is stabilizing.” This is a big, fat lie that fosters apprehension in public consciousness, and raises questions about Biya’s sincerity to address the crisis, beyond mere lip-service. Despite the militarization of Anglophone regions, at least five soldiers were killed in sporadic attacks, a day after Biya spoke – an indication the Anglophone resistance is not about to end just yet. Biya should stop putting a bold face on an appalling situation that has all but passed crisis point. There is no better way to work one’s name into the book of infamy.
Predictably, Biya blamed falling oil prices for the parlous state of the economy. The truth is that the economic trajectory created by low oil prices was compounded by the absence of fiscal buffers. Instead of saving for the proverbial rainy day when oil prices were high, Cameroon actually increased its debt portfolio to finance conspicuous consumption. The national debt has more than tripled since debt relief under the enhanced Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative in 2006.Besides, huge contracted, undisbursed external loans of FCFA 3.7 trillion (21% of GDP) have become a drainpipe on the treasury. These loan obligations were signed in 2013 but government’s failure to meet the conditionalities stalled disbursement. Over FCFA 12 billion is wasted annually to pay interest on loans that are idle in foreign banks. According to the IMF, China holds the largest share of Cameroon’s undisbursed loans (36%).
These undisbursed loans hang over the heads of the largely overrated but underachieving economic management team like an albatross. The country is being denied the benefits of counter-cyclical fiscal policy tools of budget and capital spending, needed to reflate the economy; further stifling productivity in real sectors of the economy, like manufacturing. With over 60% of the populace under age 25, and with poverty stagnated at 40%; according to the World Bank, Cameroon is sitting on a power keg, given that the ILO puts youth unemployment at a whopping 75%.The government must diversify the economy and create the enabling environment for the private sector -the engine of economic growth – to attract capital and foreign direct investments and create jobs. The over dependence on dwindling oil revenues and external borrowing that has bloated the national debt is unsustainable. Instead of measures taken to boost job creation, Biya said: “As at 31 December 2017, 473,303 jobs had been identified for youths, exceeding our set target of 400,000.” Whether he was speaking in metaphor, the ludicrous assumption that identifying jobs somehow translates into actual job creation provokes a certain queasiness that betrays Biya and his speech writers as incapable of creative thinking.
With gallant effrontery, Biya parodied US President John Kennedy by admonishing the youths to: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Hear Biya: “rather than yielding to the tempting mirage of illegal emigration and undertaking a hazardous and often doomed trip, I invite you to play an active part in our great vision to achieve emergence by 2035. I believe I can safely say that the State has done much in recent years to prepare you for this lofty task.” Such glib talk is a mea culpa expression of incapacitation, and a very grave self-indictment that underlines Biya’s defeatist resignation to the fact that Cameroonian youths will continue to vote with their feet, braving the odds to seek greener pastures abroad because they see no future in a country, captured and taken hostage, by a rapacious, vampire elite that have stolen and amassed enough wealth even for their unborn generations of children.
It does not require special intelligence to recognize Cameroon is ailing. The problem is inextricably tied to poor leadership, linked to a poor recruitment process. No country, after all, can rise above the level of its workforce, especially at the leadership level. In consolidating his personal power, Biya relies on patronage networks of cronies, loyalists and tribesmen. Many youths without connections to these patronage and ethnic-clientelism networks in the system, must bribe their way into professional schools like ENAM, which opens avenues for corruption and rent-seeking. A majority end up frustrated, bitter and disillusioned. The angst and anomie driving the Anglophone resistance are deeply embedded in the generational question. The consequences of excluding youths from the commanding heights of authority in public affairs, is so bad that the best Cameroonian youths are outside the country or outside government. This tragedy is a vicious cycle: tired old men who at one time or the other, contributed to the nation’s downturn continues to be recycled in office giving them the opportunity to continue perpetuating their failure in the affairs of the nation. More often than not, they are clueless, inept and ill-equipped for the enormous responsibility of nation-building. For example, aside his nuisance and entertainment value, what technocratic capacity has Issa Tchiroma in a communication landscape driven by information technology and social media? The nation undoubtedly gets a raw deal when the wrong people get into offices. The result is widespread ineptitude. Little wonder Cameroon’s fortunes have continued to plummet just as she diminishes in stature and integrity.
In a genuine democracy or even any context, there is something absurd in one man ruling a country for 35 years and counting. It just cannot be that there are no other capable hands to continue wherever he stops! As has been apparent in the course of history, with each passing generation, the state of leadership deteriorates in double proportion. Whilst a systemic failure to sacrifice for the nation’s greatness signposts the leadership quotient of Biya and his generation, it should now be obvious that, Biya’s inability to harness the talents and qualities of Cameroonian youths, to help lift his administration to a commanding height of moral regeneration and socio-economic progress, is a regrettable personal failure. This failure has made Ambazonia very appealing to Anglophones, as a great country waiting to happen. Not even an Anglophone president under the present dispensation will alter this dynamic!
By Ekinneh Valerian Agbaw-Ebai
*Ekinneh Agbaw-Ebai is a Public Intellectual and graduate of Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government, where he was Managing Editor of the Harvard Journal of African-American Public Policy. A former Research Analyst for Freedom House, he is a Consultant and lives in Boston, USA.