Meditations on Paul Biya’s Reelection in Cameroon

The Biya regime's grip on power has been exposed more than ever before. It is revolting to watch.

President Paul Biya, right, with IMF President Christine Lagarde (who served as cabinet minister in three different French governments) in 2016. Image credit Stephen Jaffe via IMF Flickr.

It is no longer news that Cameroon is held hostage by an autocracy; a repressive system with tentacles that pry into every aspect of the nation’s being. It is no longer news that this system, headed by an 85 year-old who has spent more time in power than over half the population has lived, coopts, detains, exiles and when necessary kills its opponents. This is the essence of the “New Deal” Biya announced when he took power. Not even Ahmadou Ahidjo, the erstwhile omnipresent first president (1960-1982) who handed over power to the incumbent (after 22 years), has not been spared the paranoia that greases the levers of Biya’s New Deal: Ahidjo’s remains are still buried in a cemetery in Dakar, Senegal.

Cameroonians of different generations have paid a hefty price for having had the French-endorsed Ahidjo as its first president. We owe the hyper-centralized system, which is at the root of the marginalization and resentment fueling the secessionist movement in the Anglophone regions of the former West Cameroon to Ahidjo’s deceit and mechanizations. It was Ahidjo who masterminded the dismantling of the federal structures that was the basis of reuniting the former English and French protectorates. It was Ahidjo who created our proto-feudal system of regional barons. We owe Paul Biya’s New Deal—inseparable from his unwillingness to relinquish power—to Ahidjo’s lack of foresight despite his perceived omniscience.  And, above all, Ahidjo is responsible for the cult of personality, which entrust an entire nation’s destiny and the stability of a region in the hands of an aging patriarch barely able to sustain his stride.

Indeed, the crimes committed by the system Ahidjo cultivated, which Biya later transmogrified into a self-sustaining model that enables his grip, are too numerous to enumerate. Ask any Cameroonian and they’ll point to families irrecoverably dispersed by the New Deal; they’ll cite relatives detained for an eternity on spurious charges; they’ll narrate tales of parents broken from unpaid salaries, accumulating arrears and a nebulous bureaucracy. They’ll describe a system that has bitten, chomped and spat out men and women of integrity at its whim; a system that casts, molds and elevates the deplorable to do its bidding.

The recent October 7th presidential elections and the legal proceedings it precipitated were broadcast live on national television and web portals across the globe. The deliberations before the country’s brand new Biya-appointed constitutional council brought the country to a standstill, amassing a viewership that rivaled even the most compelling EPL games.  While the public’s involvement in the post-elections judicial drama, in a context where election outcomes tend to be known beforehand, might seem like an inconsequential performance, it would be imprudent to undermine the broadcast’s exposé of the indifference that colors Biya’s seemingly impervious regime.  Yet, Cameroonians know it will take more than flashing media camera lights to overcome the blight and opacity that the regime has cast over the national consciousness.

That the Cameroon government paid US based individuals to impersonate election observers from Transparency International did not surprise any casual student of the regime’s record. That Maurice Kamto of the Cameroon Renaissance Movement (MRC) might have actually won the polls is certainly not in doubt among those who kept track of exit poll returns on Election Day. That the opposition’s attorneys’ goal to expose this evil system’s disregard for democratic norms helped demystify a regime that imagines itself as divinely ordained. That the constitutional court ruled in Biya’s favor should shock no one despite evidence that the regime left a trail of irregularities on its path. That the regime will use every means at its disposal—violence prominently among them—to quell any opposition to their quest to prolong Biya’s reign, is in no doubt.

That is the Biya script—and if the masses revolt, blood will spill to keep the people at bay. Lion-men like him tear into their prey’s wound with salty teeth. That is the lesson segments of the country’s Anglophone community who have picked up arms have learned over the years.

Thanks to these elections, the likes of attorney, Michèle Ndoki who emerged to represent embers of hope that endured the darkness of Biya’s New Deal. Before submitting her brief to the Constitutional Council, Ndoki, a lawyer for the opposition, pled with the council to treat their gesture as a measure of their commitment to the socio-political construct that is Cameroon, which was once a dream for which many died. The council was unmoved. Following the proceedings, veteran attorney, Akere Muna who withdrew his candidacy in favor of Kamto, reflected on his Twitter handle that:

our institutions are not prepared for change. The electoral process in Cameroon is not a process at all. It is a script played out by actors; some of good faith and others fully initiated in the scam. The future of our country now hangs in a balance… But there is hope. Always.

I was born in the dusk of the Ahidjo era, marked my last year as a toddler at the dawn of Biya’s ascent. Hard as I try to distance myself from the putrid system, I realize I am as much an offshoot of the dubious duo’s unflinching hold on post-independence Cameroon as are millions, at home and across all hemispheres, haunted by its shadow. And in as much as I am revolted by its endurance, this system has unintentionally enrich our intellectual cannon.

Indeed, we owe novelist Mongo Beti’s collection of essays, Main basse sur le Cameroun to Ahidjo’s willingness to betray Reuben Um Nyobe’s vision. Where else but Cameroon would the sardonic vision of playwright Bate Besong’s The Most Cruel Death of the Talkative Zombie portray? We owe Dibussi Tande’s Scribbles from the Den, a trove rich in analysis of the country’s recent socio-political history; we owe Were Were Liking’s satirical novel Elle sera de jaspe et de corail to this painful history. Without this history, Achille Mbembe’s On the Postcolony would read hollow.

Is this the year we free ourselves from the hostage taker?

Further Reading

‘Til death do us part

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