Millions of both French and Southern Cameroonians have known no other president than Mr. Paul Biya. More than half of Cameroon’s population were born or raised under Biya’s nearly 40-year authoritarian rule, and they have been hit hardest by the nation’s ever growing poverty and corruption and faltering education system.
Today, millions of Cameroonians are deeply worried about what could happen if Biya passes from the scene. That possibility was on every dinner table in Cameroon when the 88-year-old Biya underwent a major surgery in Geneva, Switzerland and was gone for a month and he has now spent several months in Yaoundé out of the public eye after returning home.
Interestingly, even with Biya in Yaoundé, Cameroonians still feel that they are a hair’s breadth away from complete and total chaos as many embittered by what they say is the Biya regime’s constant denial of democracy.
Now, many fear the unknown could be worse. The senseless war in Southern Cameroons that has claimed the lives of some 10,000 Cameroonians, with army soldiers accounting for close to 35% of the deaths, a divided nation, numerous Boko Haram incursions, high rates of poverty and criminality in all major towns and cities, but with Biya gone there will be looting and killing on the streets.
Fear of the unknown is a safeguard that the Biya regime and his ruling CPDM party have intentionally cultivated. Biya has long prevented any political figure in the country (even from within his own party) from gaining enough prominence to stand as an alternative and he has rejected calls to name a vice president who could be seen as a successor.
Correspondingly, his ruling CPDM crime syndicate regularly dishes out warnings that without Biya, the way is open to power for political adventurism.
Biya reportedly told one of his top aides recently that only Jesus Christ knows who will be his successor confirming claims at home and abroad that democracy would never determine who comes after him.
Since his return from Geneva and with age greatly telling on him, Biya has not said whether he will run for a new term in presidential elections due in 2025 — but top CPDM officials said recently that they want him to and they will be appealing for a national consensus for Biya to seek a new term in 2025.
But Cameroonians’ uncertainty over the future only underscores how deeply Biya and his ruling CPDM party are entrenched in their lives.
The former prime minister, who became president when his predecessor Ahmadou Ahidjo resigned in 1982, has significantly destroyed every developmental structure that he inherited and he has auctioned the country to corrupt French investors. The result in recent years has been high rates of poverty, criminality and homosexuality.
To be sure, wealth in Cameroon has gone only to a small group of Francophone political elite from Biya’s Beti Ewondo tribe, while the Cameroonian middle class has been crushed under high inflation and other woes.
Frankly speaking, the generation raised under Mr. Biya has had a tough time even entering the economy. Unemployment has hovered for more than three decades pushing many young people to migrate to Europe and North America. Democratic practices and freedoms have regressed and opposition parties are little more than figureheads set up by the Biya regime.
In Biya’s 39 years as head of state, elections are routinely rigged or fraught with irregularities and gendarmerie brutality is common. Security agencies hold wide powers and top military officials in the police, gendarmerie and the army also have considerable political influence. The result is a generation that is deeply frustrated, and while millions of Cameroonian young men and women will grumble about Biya, at the same time Biya is the only one they can turn to.
Over the last decade, the politically docile French speaking Cameroonians have been protesting in Douala and Yaoundé camping out to press demands for jobs and to air personal grievances. However, many of these protests don’t criticize Biya, but rather appeal to him for help. Some of the suffering Francophone protesters shout slogans accusing Biya’s close aides within the regime and the ruling CPDM party of stripping authority from Biya amid his illness and old age.
Indeed, Biya is the only one who can save the Cameroonian youth from their predicaments. But he’s own family is crumbling right in front of him! He has all along been isolated from the Cameroonian people and at 88, he can no longer make a difference.
Isolation from their leaders is something French speaking Cameroonians have never complained about but have always blamed Southern Cameroonians for raising the issue about Biya’s prolonged absence in the country. Today, the growing sense of an administration out of touch with people’s problems is eroding Biya’s image. If economic and social reforms don’t reach the people, then those policies have not succeeded. The Beti media gurus on Vision 4 are very much unaware of this assertion.
In Biya’s Cameroon, you can bang your head against the door for years seeking a government job, and still lose out to an ill-equipped rival who has better CPDM connections. We of the Concord Group understand that this is the widespread feeling among the young in Cameroon that a job depends on who you know, not what you know.
By Soter Tarh Agbaw-Ebai