On the podium for the World’s Longest-Serving President, Paul Biya currently holds the silver medal. At an impressive 35-plus years in office, the Cameroonian leader’s ability to keep hold of power over the decades has been remarkable – perhaps all the more so because of how little he actually exercises it.
In our recent investigation with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, we found that Biya has spent huge chunks of his presidency outside Cameroon. In some years, he has been abroad for a third of the time. Overall, he has spent at least four and a half years on “brief private visits to Europe”, often at the 5-star Intercontinental Hotel in Geneva. His official foreign trips add up to at least one additional year.
In response to these eye-opening findings, the government in Yaoundé accused us being “a real office of destabilisation” and defended the president. “Even when Biya is abroad, for republican needs, he governs Cameroon in a very beautiful way,” said Higher Education Minister Jacques Fame Ndongo in a radio interview, “with ICT, it is possible to pilot an organisation from wherever you are”.
The reality, however, is that Biya is neither working from home nor working remotely. Rather, Cameroon is a country with a ghost captain at the helm, a Titanic knocking into one iceberg after another.
In October 2016, when an overloaded train derailed in Eseka, killing at least 82 people, Biya was in Geneva. A year later, when protests broke out in the English-speaking North West and South West regions, he was there again on another “brief private visit”. In fact, that time, the president stayed in Switzerland for another three weeks as security forces at home cracked down on the demonstrations, killing several civilians and arresting hundreds. Those violent actions contributed to the emergence of a separatist conflict that continues to escalate.
Even when Biya eventually responded to the unrest, he was clearly out of touch. He claimed the situation was “stabilising” when the reality was the opposite. Meanwhile, his creation of a Ministry of Decentralisation and Local Development, headed by an Anglophone official, was seen as largely symbolic given Cameroon’s repeated past failures to devolve power.
In this vacuum of meaningful action or even dialogue, calls for secession – once a fringe idea – garnered mass support in the English-speaking regions. Several armed groups emerged and murdered a handful of security forces in guerrilla attacks. The Cameroonian army retaliated, killing dozens of people and torching whole villages, forcing 20,000 refugees to flee into Nigeria.
How Biya maintains control
According to the renowned Cameroonian political scientist Achille Mbembe, President Biya’s prolonged absences are not just a side-effect of his wanderlust. Rather, they part and parcel of a political strategy that has kept him in power for so long.
“His way of exercising power is to not decide,” argues Mbembe. Biya’s approach, he says, “is basically to do nothing at all or to do very little”, making him a “ghostly figure” hidden behind a cloud of mystery. “Nobody knows what Biya thinks, or what he’ll do,” continues Mbembe, “everything can be changed from one day to the next”.
This form of governance affects the whole administration. Afraid of losing their government jobs in a country with few high-paying options in the private sector, officials simply avoid taking decisions. In this way, they replicate the president’s withdrawn management style, rendering Cameroon’s bureaucracy inept at accomplishing even the most basic tasks.
At the same time, Biya wields high-level government posts – lucrative positions thanks to pervasive corruption – as incentives for loyalty. “Everyone is near their radio, they are waiting to be appointed, and when it’s not right away, they keep on hoping that it will be next time,” says Mbembe. “Nobody moves because all are waiting to be appointed.”
By expanding his patronage network for over three decades, Biya now has over 60 ministers and state secretaries with whom he rarely convenes. The last ministerial cabinet meeting, held in March 2018, made international headlines because it was Cameroon’s first since 2015.
One of the latest victims of this capricious carrots and stick system was Martin Belinga Eboutou. He was one of the president’s closest aides and had racked up nearly three years’ worth of trips alongside Biya, according to our investigation. Yet despite decades of service, Eboutou was kicked out of his job in a March government reshuffle without any apparent reason. He’s reportedly refused to vacate his office.
Others have fared worse. Former Minister of Energy and Water, Basile Atangana Kouna, and a few others were accused of corruption and arrested in the recent shake-up. Once a minister falls into disgrace, Biya’s anti-corruption Epervier operation often fast-tracks them to the VIP quarters of Yaoundé’s Kondengui prison. There, they can join a couple dozen other former officials. Some joke that there’s enough of them there to form a whole shadow government.
The People’s Choice?
When the country holds its presidential elections this October, it is unlikely to lead to regime change. Despite widespread disaffection, Biya’s political strategy has already allowed him to weather several decades of crises. He won the 2011 elections with 78% of the vote under the slogan “The People’s Choice”.
In his characteristic laissez-faire fashion, President Biya has yet to officially announce his candidature for the October vote. But if he does and wins as expected, it will allow him to maintain power for another seven years.
Sooner or later though, the 85-year-old’s rule will have to come to an end. Even for a ghostly president governing from far-flung lands, ruling Cameroon from beyond the grave would surely be a step too far.