Biya’s 37 Years in Power: How is the scorecard? 0

For almost four decades, members of Cameroon’s ruling CPDM party also known as the crime syndicate, have always used November 6, the day the country’s president, Paul Biya, also known as the monarch, came to power to celebrate.  This was the day many Cameroonians thought their destiny would change for the better.

As the country’s first president, Amadou Ahidjo, announced that he was leaving power, many Cameroonians thought that the young, handsome and self-effacing Biya would steer the country to the land of promise. He had studied in France on taxpayers’ money and having worked with Mr. Ahidjo for a long time, Cameroonians thought he would blend his Western education, experience with the huge financial reserves the country had at the time he came to power to launch Cameroon into a new political and economic era.

The goodwill towards Mr. Biya was unimaginable. Cameroonians could only swear to him. Ahidjo had not had a good education, but he had laid down a solid foundation for Cameroon’s economic and social prosperity. Under Ahidjo, the country was known for its five-year development plans which brought about fast and harmonized development in the country.

Cameroon was, indeed, a development model for many French-speaking African countries and Biya’s accession to power in 1982 triggered a wave of optimism in the country. Young Cameroonians were hopeful, especially as the country and the economy bequeathed to Mr. Biya were enjoying a boom. Unemployment was low, university graduates could easily find work and the private sector was delivering on its promise. It was, indeed, the pillar of the country’s rapidly-evolving economy.

But it did not take long for the country’s economic and political fortunes to start changing, unfortunately for the worse. Biya had taken over power promising to collaborate with his predecessor, but a few months from the day he took over, he started backpedaling from his promise. Amadou Ahidjo, the country’s pioneer president and the man who whole-heartedly delivered a beautiful gift to Mr. Biya on November 6, 1982, was slowly being transformed into a devil incarnate by Mr. Biya’s closest collaborators. The county’s first president quickly realized that he had manufactured his own “Frankenstein monster” who will later send him into exile to Senegal where he lived for the rest of his life.

The disagreement between the two men resulted in several coup attempts, and this led to the killing of many of the first president’s collaborators. The unity for which Cameroon was known got shattered when the two men started drifting apart. Cameroon, the once beacon of peace, had just started its journey to the world of tribal politics.

From 1984, when Biya survived the April 6 coup, he clearly demonstrated that he would transform governance in Cameroon from a regional representative system into a tribe-based system wherein only people from his ethnic group would be appointed to key positions.

The implementation of that decision started when key positions such as the ministries of finance, armed forces, territorial administration and gendarmerie were given to key Biya allies and proteges, most of whom were from his ethic group. Most Cameroonians who had sympathized with Mr. Biya thought the decision was only a temporary measure to clean up the mess left behind by the failed coup. Little did they know they would have to put up with such a corrupt system for decades.

Even the military had to undergo a rapid transformation. Key positions in the military were granted to the Betis, people from Biya’s ethnic group that constitutes less than 10% of Cameroon’s population. Today, the Center and South regions which are predominantly Beti, account for more than 70% of the generals in the country’s military.

Regarding, state-owned corporations, there are more Betis as head of corporations. Of the 34 state-owned corporations in Cameroon, 18 are headed by Betis. Some of these corporations are headed by people who are either related to the president or his wife and many of them do not have the right experience to run such corporations. Many state-owned corporations have been run aground due to corruption and incompetence, leaving thousands of Cameroonians jobless and homeless. Many have died as a result of the hardship that follows the collapse of those corporations.

Many years after having run the country as a single party state, Mr. Biya in 1991 finally yielded to pressure from the population for multiparty politics in Cameroon. However, this did not come without bloodshed. Thousands of Cameroonians clamoring for multiparty politics in the early 1990s were slaughtered by Mr. Biya’s forces. University students in the country’s lone university at the time were killed and others arrested and sent to the Yaounde maximum security prison.

Despite the brutality, the people stood their ground and in 1992, the country’s first presidential elections were held with the opposition leader, John Fru Ndi, defeating Mr. Biya. However, Mr. Biya refused to leave office. He ordered a state of emergency in the entire northwest region, Mr. Fru Ndi’s stronghold. The impact of the crimes of this period are still lingering, as many young Cameroonians still bear the scars. Their amputated arms speak to the brutality with which Mr. Biya’s forces dealt with those they suspected of challenging his authority and victory.

Since 1992, Mr. Biya has won every election, using the same tactic. In 2018, he used the same tactic on Professor Maurice Kamto who was the clear winner of the presidential election. On October 22, 2018, Cameroon’s Constitutional Council validated Paul Biya’s re-election, with 71.28 percent of the votes. The Council’s decision was immediately contested by one of Mr. Biya’s rivals, Professor Maurice Kamto, who claimed the results had been altered.

In early November, dozens of pro-Kamto protesters were arrested in Bafoussam, Western region. Biya was sworn-in for a seventh term as president on November 6. He immediately imprisoned Professor Kamto and his aides for eight months, a strategy Biya’s government has used over the decades to break down his opponents mentally and psychologically.

 Today, in Cameroon, it is normal for people to disappear, especially those who are very critical of the government’s high-handedness. The country’s maximum-security prison is full of opponents of the regime and this is giving the country a very bad name. These violations have been condemned by Human Rights Watch in its latest report on the country.  The report points to massive and brutal human rights abuses by the country’s security forces.

 “Cameroon, a country previously known for its stability, faced violence and serious human rights abuses in 2018. The country endured abusive military operations against a secessionist insurgency in two Anglophone regions, attacks by the Islamic militant group, Boko Haram, in the Far North, and a worsening humanitarian crisis. President Paul Biya, 85, won a seventh seven-year term on October 7,” the report says.

‘In the South West and North West, government security forces have committed extrajudicial executions, burned property, carried out arbitrary arrests, and tortured detainees. A Human Rights Watch report documented a range of abuses by both sides in the Anglophone regions, including arson attacks on homes and schools. According to the International Crisis Group, government forces and armed separatists killed over 420 civilians in the regions since the crisis escalated in 2017,” report underscores.

“The humanitarian consequences of the Boko Haram attacks and separatist insurgency are of growing concern. As of November, the United Nations estimated that more than 244,000 civilians were displaced in the Far North and 437,500 in the Anglophone North West and South West regions. About 32,600 Cameroonians found refuge in Nigeria. Also, Cameroon has continued to forcibly return Nigerian asylum seekers, fleeing Boko Haram attacks in northeastern Nigeria,” the reports adds.   

But Mr. Biya’s worst legacy is the war in the two English-speaking regions of the country. The war which started as a protest by teachers and lawyers against marginalization quickly developed into a full-blown conflict when government forces acted in their usual and traditional manner by cracking down on lawyers, teachers and students of the University of Buea.

For three years now, Cameroon has been the theater of a huge armed conflict that has resulted in the death of some 3,000 civilians, with more than a million Cameroonians escaping to neighboring countries, the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom while some 450,000 have been internally displaced. More than 200 villages have been torched by government troops and the fighting is still playing out in a manner that is far from being fair.   

Government forces have always responded to the growing separatist insurgency in the English-speaking regions by carrying out abusive security operations against communities suspected of supporting secessionist groups. Security forces have committed extra-judicial executions, used excessive force against civilians, tortured and abused suspected separatists and other detainees, and burned homes and other property in scores of villages.

Government atrocities have been documented by many human rights groups. Some will never be reported as the dead are quickly buried in locations that will be hard to find. Attacks documented by Human Rights Watch indicate that security forces have shot and killed many civilians, including at least seven people whom witnesses said had intellectual, psychosocial or physical disabilities who did not flee because they were unable or refused to. At least four older have been burned alive, after security forces set their homes on fire.

Human Rights Watch also documented three cases where security forces detained people suspected of supporting the secessionist cause, and then tortured and killed them in detention. In a fourth case, Human Rights Watch analyzed evidence of torture filmed by perpetrators, who appear to be gendarmes. On September 24 and 27, a total of nine men were allegedly executed by security forces in the town of Buea, according to videos reviewed by Human Rights Watch and a report by the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa, a local non-governmental organization (NGO).

As Biya celebrates his 37th year in power today, millions of Cameroonians are mourning and cursing the hour to which they were born to such a destiny. Unemployment, diseases and corruption have blighted many lives in Cameroon. The country’s hospitals have been reduced to consultation clinics and the total lack of infrastructure in the country has made life very challenging for Cameroonians. Death and destruction seem to be constants in Cameroon.

While Cameroonians languish in poverty, Mr. Biya and his children have simply transformed the state treasury into their personal ATM. Mr. Biya has the nasty habit of spending more time in Switzerland where he always seeks quality healthcare, a service he cannot provide to all Cameroonians and these services are costing the poor country a pretty penny.

While he is wasting taxpayers’ money in Switzerland, his daughter, Brenda Biya Eyenga, is squandering what little money her father leaves in state coffers when he is heading to Switzerland. Last week she was spotted in an expensive hotel in Dubai where she was spending her holidays. Experts put her vacation expenses at USD 75,000 for less than two weeks.

Mr. Biya’s scorecard for the 37 years he has been in power speaks to a dismal economic and political performance. A country that was designed to serve as a model to others has today become a symbol of mockery because of incompetence, corruption, nepotism and tribalism. It is common for Mr. Biya to use ex-convicts as ministers just to prove that he can do and undo. Any opposition to his rule always meets with an iron fist and this has caused many talented Cameroonians to leave the country.

By Kingsley Betek in Yaounde