Biya faces obstinate challenges as he clocks 38 years in power

By Ndi Eugene Ndi

Paul Biya clocked 38 years as president of Cameroon on Friday November 6, 2020, maintaining his position as Africa’s second long-serving leader. He is only beaten by Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea, who has been in power for nearly 41 years.

The 87-year-old came to power on November 6, 1982 when a large number of the country’s 26.5 million citizens were not yet born. Biya inherited a Cameroon of 9.2 million people from Ahmadou Ahidjo, the country’s first president.

The anniversary of Biya’s ascension to the supreme magistracy is usually marked by colourful celebrations. Crowds of the octogenarian leader’s supporters, including members of government and supporters of his ruling Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (CPDM), clothed in fabrics with the veteran leader’s smiling face stamped on them gather at anniversary rallies in nooks and crannies of the country. They will chant ego-massaging melodies to the one they consider their champion, then take a “support walk” on a given distance that the mainly old men and women can cover on foot and end with the reading of a motion of support in which they pledge their “unflinching or unalloyed or unconditional” support to the president or “ask him to accept the call to be their candidate at the upcoming election”.

Biya himself is usually only present at such rallies only through a very imposing effigy taken when the leader was still very strong. The photo is usually placed in front of the high table and carried by relatively young militants during support parades, but top government and party officials at such events usually promise to channel the messages to the leader in Yaounde.

The 38th anniversary of Biya’s ascension to the helm coincided with the leader’s second anniversary of his seventh mandate following his re-election in a disputed poll in October 2018 and swearing-in for a seventh seven-year term on November 6 of same year. The current mandate ends in 2025, at which point Biya will be 92-year-old, a year younger than former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe when he was ousted from power.

Many challenges

This year would have been double anniversary with double “eating and drinking” for supporters of Biya, but for the fact that the celebration came at a very challenging time for the leader and the country.

Biya, who adopted the name Lion Man after the 1990 World Cup during which the country’s soccer team, the Indomitable Lions, became the first African country to reach the quarter finals, has been able to weather many storms.

This time, however, Central Africa’s economic giant is beset with several challenges threatening the peace and unity of the state and the president’s grip on power.

Biya apathetically accepted the introduction of multiparty politics in the country in the 90s, and in 1992, the country organised its first multi-candidate presidential election which he won and has since remained a serial election winner in the country albeit rarely making campaign outings. However, a tough challenge to his rule since the 2008 protests against constitutional change has no doubt been post-2018 presidential elections.

In 2011, a red carpet was basically rolled out for Biya to walk on into the Unity Palace for a sixth term. But since the last presidential election he has been faced with a major challenge to his grip on power with Prof Maurice Kamto, his former ally and now opposition leader and harshest critic, openly calling for “gigantic protests” to oust him from power.

Kamto, who now heads the opposition Cameroon Renaissance Movement (MRC), says he won the 2018 vote but his victory was stolen by incumbent Biya. He has since been protesting.

The latest of Kamto’s popular protests on September 22, however, met with a heavy clampdown by government troops and some supporters of the opposition leader were arrested with government saying they will be tried for attempting to destabilise the country. Forty-five of the arrestees were recently transferred to the Kondengui maximum security prison in Yaounde while Kamto has been under house arrest since September 21.

Armed conflict in NW, SW

Another obstinate challenge to President Biya’s grip on power is a separatist movement in the two English-speaking regions that is threatening to tear the country apart. Separatist violence erupted when fighters declared the independence of the Anglophone Northwest and Southwest regions from the majority French-speaking country. They also declared the creation of an independent English-speaking state called Ambazonia.

The declaration of the independence in October 2017 met with heavy military crackdown that has escalated into an armed conflict with over 3,000 people killed according to early 2020 statistics by the UN.

Schools and other government institutions have been targeted by armed men in the nearly four-year-long conflict. A day to Biya’s 38th anniversary at the helm of the country, an official burial for seven school children killed by gunmen in their school was going on in Kumba in the Southwest region in the presence of the Prime Minister, Chief Dr Joseph Dion Ngute, who was representing the president. Biya had earlier described the killing of the students of Mother Francisca International Bilingual Academy as “horrific murder” and later decreed a day of national mourning in their honour.

Boko Haram insurgency

Along with the internal pressures Biya faces, another security challenge is the Nigeria-based jihadist group, Boko Haram, which continues to carry out attacks against civilian and military targets in the Far North region, an indication that there are cracks on the wall the veteran has built for nearly four decades.

Additionally, a good number of northerners on whose support President Biya has ridden on are, like the Anglophones, now agitating over marginalisation in government positions and public entrance examinations. A recently created outfit known as ’10 Million Northerners Movement’ has been giving the Biya regime sleepless nights lately.

The country is also grappling with the spillover of the Central African Republic crisis into the East Region, increasing the fragility of the security apparatus.

Worrying state of disrepair

Biya incarnated hopes for a fresh start when he took over the reins of power in 1982, christening his arrival as “Renouveau,” meaning “The New Deal;” which many saw as simulation of former US President, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” that dramatically expanded the US federal government’s role in the economy in response to the Great Depression.

Thirty-eight years after, his critics think his reign has been 38 years of bruises for Cameroon, as the country continues to wade in a “worrying state of disrepair,” as French journalist, Fanny Pigeaud, described it in her 2011 book, Au Cameroun de Paul Biya (‘In Paul Biya’s Cameroon’).

Notwithstanding, diehard supporters of President Biya think his reign has been a blessing to the country.

Prof Elvis Ngolle Ngolle, director of the CPDM academy said last year that the president’s reign is worth celebrating because of the statistically proven achievements.

Those who share the view of Prof Ngolle Ngolle usually cite democracy, the peaceful resolution of the Bakassi conflict, the creation of several secondary and higher institutions of learning, the promotion of agriculture through organisation of agric shows, the fight against corruption, the construction of hydro-electric dams among others which his supporters always talk about especially during electoral campaigns. Biya, who rarely speaks to the press, once told a French journalist in relation to his longevity in power that only those who can, and not those who wish, can maintain the grip on power for long.

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