Cameroon’s President Paul Biya did not partake in any of the public events marking his thirty-fifth anniversary in power last Monday. The country’s armed forces did not parade in front of their supreme commander along Yaounde’s boulevard de 20 Mai. In the Anglophone regions, there were few ebullient spectacles of loin wearing party militants waving banners bearing Biya’s youthful image. Instead, most of this year’s celebrations led by officials of Biya’s Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (CPDM) took place indoors in small clusters in their respective regions of origin. Across the country, these “elites” mostly implored their militants to vote for Biya in next year’s elections.
At one such gathering at the Congress Hall in the city of Bamenda, the same venue where Biya launched the CPDM thirty-two years ago, Prime Minister Philemon Yang, the permanent coordinator of the party in the region (where he is also a native), drove the message home when he urged those present to “do everything possible to ensure that the National Chairman is re-elected. And, despite the deteriorating security situation in English speaking regions such as this (where separatist sentiments have blossomed after protests by teachers and lawyers were met with violence by security forces), the political barons and their acolytes (who gathered under the theme “CPDM Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow”) did not address the crisis that necessitated the heavy security presence. That security is an offshoot of the militarization that Bamenda — a bastion of opposition to Biya’s rule — has witnessed in the past year. Instead, these barons focused on matters of the party, which at this point in the party’s history are inseparable from its progenitor.
L’Institut des hautes études d’outre-mer, which was founded in 1889 during France’s Third Republic to train colonial administrators, was once located in Paris’s deuxième Avenue de l’Observatoire. In 1966, President Charles De Gaulle decreed its transformation into l’institut international d’administration publique, which in 2002 was absorbed by l’École Nationale d’Administration (ENA). But before its integration into France’s network of grande écoles, l’institut des hautes études d’outre-mer was reputed as a top-flight destination for ambitious colonial administrators from Indochina, Madagascar and its African colonies. It was perhaps this reputation that attracted the young Biya, a graduate of Paris’s l’institut d’Etudes Politiques. He would go on to earn an advanced degree in public law from the institution.
Upon his return to the recently independent East Cameroun, Biya was quickly absorbed into the higher echelons of new president Ahmadou Ahidjo’s nascent state, where he was made chargé de mission at the presidency. In the dozen years he would take to scale the walls of power, he would hold several key positions in Ahidjo’s lair including Director of the Civil Cabinet and Secretary General. Meanwhile the administration that counted him among its haute cadres was at war with remnants of the Marxist-nationalist movement that had inspired Cameroon’s drive towards independence. Though it is unclear how influential Biya was within Ahidjo’s inner circle of eclectic characters, what is certain is that he must have made enough of an impression on the wily Ahidjo for the latter to appoint him his Prime Minister in 1975.
Whatever it was, there are segments of the country’s radio trottoir that attribute his rise to his taciturn manner; which they argue his predecessor misjudged when he allegedly tried to play puppet master after handing power to Biya in 1982. Less than two years later, on April 6th, 1984, several officers from Ahidjo’s North Cameroon Fulani-Hausa fief staged a failed coup d’etat, which that same radio trottoir claims resulted in the entrenching of the complex network of patronage and loyalties that were established in the Ahidjo’s era.
President Biya did not conceive the system, which he has thrived in, but deserves as much credit for the modifications that have enabled his sustained three-decade plus reign. So when Biya assembled Cameroon’s array of monarchs, academics, businessmen, high level bureaucrats, and petit-bourgeois apparatchiks to launch the CPDM on the embers of Ahidjo’s Cameroon National Union (CNU) as the country’s only political party, he was writing himself into a legacy his predecessor and his French handlers designed for the state. Actually, Biya’s CPDM was just a reframing of Ahidjo’s CNU consisting of the same figures and structure. Nonetheless, a sleight of hand to dislodge his predecessor’s personality cult while cultivating one for himself.
In order to consolidate the enormous presidential power — inherent in Cameroon’s centralized system — at his disposal, he unilaterally changed the name of the country from the United Republic of Cameroon into La Republique du Cameroun, in French, which for West Cameroonians signaled a cynical ploy to erase the history of the reunification of the two Cameroons. Whatever Biya’s motives were, what was made clear in the years that followed was the new administration’s hardened stance towards dissent in the midst of an economic crisis, which paradoxically did not curtail the Moët et Chandon class’s ostentation.
Despite these power moves on the part of Biya’s government, reform-minded Cameroonians from a range of backgrounds including academics, jurists, writers, journalists and career dissenters began to meet clandestinely in places like Bamenda, Yaounde and Douala to address issues like freedom of the press, electoral democracy and a general liberalization of the socio-political landscape. The regime’s failure to violently repress it once it reached the critical masses, led to some concessions like the legalization of multiparty politics, elections and “liberties” including freedom of speech and the press.
Though official records gave Biya a slight edge over his main opponent in the 1992 presidential elections, I am among those Cameroonians who believe the incumbent stole the 1992 elections. They were against John Fru Ndi, the candidate for the Union for Change, a coalition of opposition parties, unions and civic society groups, which banded together to unseat the incumbent. But I am also among those who will acknowledge that the circumstances that enabled that challenge have since changed meanwhile some of the liberties gained during those bloody years are being undercut by a political class beholden to the whims of its supreme magistrate.
In the years since the 1992 presidential elections that almost toppled Biya, the regime has moved to coopt factions of the very coalition that once challenged it; the ideological demarcations that once defined the political opposition to the regime in place been muddled with the creation of phantom political parties that usually emerge during elections to muddy the waters. With a population estimated at under 25 million people, Cameroon has over 200 political parties, which under normal circumstances would reflect a robust democratic culture, but in Biya’s Cameroon these developments have resulted in a retreat by the critical mass that enabled them in the first place.
These days, Biya spends a significant amount of time in Swiss five star hotels and at the presidential residence in his village of Mvomeka in Cameroon’s South region. It is from these locations that he runs this quilted complexity of a country with a measure of detachment, which has enabled him to avoid the scrutiny of the “international media” unlike a regional peer like Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo.
The custom fitted suits that once hugged Biya’s youthful body now look ragged on his frail frame. But so is the frame that holds the pieces of his fragile nation. Meanwhile, those who congregated in Bamenda’s Congress Hall and across the territory to celebrate his 35th anniversary in power also understand that their survival depends on perching their hopes on the man, the symbol and the deity.