By Andrew Mwenda
This week, 85 years old Paul Biya was declared winner of the presidential election in Cameroon. Having been in power since 1982, Biya was running for his 7th which will take his presidency from 36 to 41 years. He won by a landslide of 71% of the vote. His nearest opponent only managed to get 14%.
Biya is unique. First of all he does not campaign for the job. He thinks it would be demeaning to reduce the dignity of the man and his office if he went begging peasants for their votes. He calls a press conference, declares his presidential bid and then retires to Switzerland to enjoy the Alps and sip French wine. He leaves his handlers to do the campaigning for him, only returning to Cameroon after his victory to be sworn in for yet another term of office.
Secondly, Biya spends four months of every year out of Cameroon – at his vila in Switzerland where he takes walks, goes fishing, hosts friends to banquets, seeps French wine and toasts expensive champagnes. When he has some time on this busy schedule, he visits his country, Cameroon.
When he is in Cameroon for the other eight months of the year, he stays inside his massive state house or at his villa in his home village. Once in two or three years he hosts a cabinet meeting. Hardly does anyone meet him except a very small group of his handlers. He doesn’t pander to the military or anyone. He practically runs the country through officials to whom he has delegated power.
Then one wonders: there is never a military mutiny or coup, no internal rebellion within his party to oust him, and since the days of John Frundi, who almost toppled him but was later bought out of his opposition politics, the opposition has remained weak and divided to threaten Biya’s power. But there is now a low intensity secessionist rebellion in the English speaking part of the country.
What makes Biya tick? Why does he straddle Cameroonian politics like a colossus? He is not a military man, didn’t lead a revolution or a national struggle for independence. He was just a prime minister to Ahmed Ahidjo, who retired and handed power peacefully to him. Since then he has dominated the country without appearing in public like our own President Yoweri Museveni does. He only works from behind the scenes.
Some suggest that he runs an extremely corrupt system where patronage is so widely spread that most elites are better off with him than risking change. If this is true, it tells us something fundamental: that elites who dominate power in Africa have little progressive interest to promote through the state. Being largely drawn from the professionals, their biggest dream are salaries and other perks from the state. This would also mean that even those in business do better scavenging on the state than innovating in the market. That is why the economy is in the hands of multi national capital.
One lesson is clear: when it comes to power, Biya is a genius whom all aspiring tyrants and other politicians need to study. There must be something he understands about his country and society, plus the regional and global dynamics that allows him to hold power with little overt effort. Even Museveni needs to learn something from this giant of a man – a winner of seven elections, a victor in a thousand battles.
And finally I don’t find any major problem in Cameroon that is not present in other African countries. With $1,400 (in nominal dollars), Cameroon has double Uganda’s per capita income of $700. Even if we consider purchasing power parity, still Cameroon beats Uganda at $3,400 while ours is $2,400. Biya’s success tells a lot, not about him as a person but the society of Cameroon, and Africa.