Imagine waking up one morning to rooster crows and chipping birds in Cameroon and you’re faced with a new reality that Paul Biya, the ‘strongman’ of Africa is no more – no longer president of the Cameroons.
Last year, Biya won a seventh term at age 85, after a landslide victory as is always the case, having proven that he has no intentions of giving up power. Should his wish gets granted and he clings on till life escapes him, what will the next days, weeks and years be like for the over 25 million Cameroonians? Most of whom were born and have grown to know him as their only president.
A handful of Cameroonian comedians jokingly attribute the noun ‘president’ to mean Paul Biya, and their audiences are loving it. For 36 years and counting, he has succeeded in controlling every sphere of public and private affairs in Cameroon to the extent that forecasting life after him seems hopeless.
Anti-Biya protests have shaken the country, with cries of foul play in the most recent election, but Cameroon won’t breathe after Biya. Anglophone regions want the government to recognise their own self-declared country called Ambazonia, a successor state to the Southern Cameroons. In the north of Cameroon, Boko Haram has intensified its attacks and the country remains the second most targeted by the group.
The Strongman of Africa
Sitting comfortably as Africa's oldest leader, President Biya, who has ruled Cameroon with an iron fist since 1982, entered his seventh term last year and will remain in power until 2025.
Holding a firm grip of the executive since he took over after the surprise resignation of Cameroon’s first president, Ahmadou Ahidjo, Biya before now had unmatched control and loyalty.
Escalation of the Anglophone crisis in English-speaking regions which call for secession, coupled with a pro-Maurice Kamto movement known as ‘Brigade Anti-Sardinards’ (BAS) that is campaigning for Biya’s removal, now threatens his reign.
So far, the campaign to have Biya removed and replaced by who they claim to be rightful winner of the election, jailed politician Maurice Kamto, has fallen on deaf ears. Except for the protest organised in Geneva, Switzerland that forced Biya and his wife to cut short their private stay and return home, the anti-Biya group hasn’t recorded much success.
After suffering numerous arrests and detention by security officials in Yaounde and Douala, those opposing the regime of President Biya have learnt to look before they leap.
One of the members who spoke to African Arguments from Douala in approximate English said “we have been talking with some military officials for them to see why we need to stand together against Paul Biya as was the case in Algeria and South Sudan.”
The militant, who requested anonymity for fear of repression, believes “It is for the benefit of all Cameroonians, if we all come out with the military on our side, he will have no option but to leave power.”
Having Cameroon’s military on their side to oust Africa’s second longest serving president might seem far-fetch. After suffering a coup attempt in 1984, Biya made it his mission that such will never happen to him again, and he’s done this by consolidating power.
In the armed forces, he reigns as commander-in-chief with unquestionable control over the navy, air force and motorized battalions. In the judiciary, he is powered with abilities to appoint, promote, sanction and dismiss all magistrates in the country. Due to the influence he exalts in the judiciary, his interference is never questioned but justified.
With an overwhelming majority in Cameroon’s houses of parliament and at the constitutional council, his words and decisions are transformed into laws with little or no objections.
Charged with appointing all top members of government right down to divisional officials, including members of state corporations, institutions and agencies, Biya enjoys loyalty which transcends to supports during polls.
Considered by the West as Africa’s most experienced autocrat, the question of what will be Biya’s legacy has often been received with harsh reaction, especially by members of his government and political circle.
Before his re-election, US ambassador to Cameroon, Peter Henry Barlerin, called on President Biya to “think about his legacy and act like Nelson Mandela”. What followed was immense criticism with supporters of the Etoudi Palace occupant calling on the ambassador to know his limits or pack his bags. He was accused of attempting to meddle in the election and was summoned by the Minister of External Relations and schooled on diplomacy and what is expected of him as an ambassador.
With backing from the state-run media and some private media organs loyal to the regime, Biya’s ideologies and policies are propagated with projections of a booming economy and better tomorrow for all who rally behind the head of state.
Nonetheless, many are those who believe that Biya will leave Cameroon far worse than he met it in 1982.
“In 1976, when I visited Douala for my first time, Douala was beaming with business and economic potentials. Cameroon was the pride of Central Africa, we were not compared with Gabon or Chad as is the case now, but with Ivory Coast - and on several occasion we topped them,” says Cletus Fongoh who has experienced both Cameroon presidencies.
“When I came to Chicago in 2005, there were parts of Chicago that were less beautiful than Douala in 1974, I was very surprised that my country could compete at such a level.”
That’s not the case today, Cameroon’s glorious days are long over.
This is especially true as the country has been admitted into the Heavily Indebted Poor Country Initiative several times as the absentee president maneuvers and extends his stay in power despite his growing unpopularity.