Emma Emeozor, [email protected]
Ian Khama took the international community by surprise when he announced early in the month that he was voluntarily stepping down as president of Botswana. The 65-year-old leader will be the second African president to step down in recent time after Angola’s former President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, 75. Kham’s announcement came not too long after Zimbabwe’s former President Robert Mugabe, 94 and South Africa’s former President Jacob Zuma were forced out of power in their respective countries. Khama’s decision immediately raised the hope that sit-tight and old generation African leaders have begun to learn that it is wise to quit when the ovation is loud. Curiously, the reported cases of voluntary and forced resignations of African presidents had occurred in swiftly only in one sub-region, Southern Africa, even as the other regions are also‘filth’ of sit-tight leaders.
Following Mugabe’s exit, watchers of Africa affairs quickly turned to Cameroon in West Africa where 84-year-old President Paul Biya has held sway over the country’s affairs for 35 years nonstop. Biya succeeded the country’s former leader, Ahmadou Ahidjo in 1982 and he has since remained in power. Ahidjo ruled Cameroon for 21 years and voluntarily handed power over to Biya due to his failing health. Interestingly, Biya had served in various capacities in Ahidjo’s government before becoming president.
It would seem Cameroon is a leading African state having a government of the elderly. While Biya is 85 year-old, the Senate president, Marcel Niat Njifenji is 83-year-old. He was born on 26 October 1934. Under the country’s constitution, Njifenji is the qualified candidate to succeed Biya. The Prime Minister Philémon Yang is 70-years-old. He was born on 14 June 1947. Records show that the Biya’s administration is made up of octogenarians who have been in power for over 60 years now and there are no signs that they are ready to go. It is no wonder that Biya is nicknamed the “Monarch.”
Cameroon is expected to hold presidential election in October and the thinking among analysts is that Biya should throw in the towel and allow young generation of leader(s) to emerge. The main opposition party, the Social Democratic Front (SDF) may have tactfully thrown a challenge to the ruling party, the Cameroon’s People Democratic Movement (CPDM), when its founder and leader, 77-year-old Ni John Fru Ndi announced he was stepping down for a younger politician to contest the presidential election in October. The party has announced the nomination of a 49-year-old aviation expert, Joshua Osih as its presidential candidate. Ndi was quoted as saying he wants to leave the stage for the young generation.
But it might be an illusion to think that Biya is prepared to vacate the presidency. About five months to the election, he has remained silent on whether he was going to relinquish power though it is an open secret that the ailing president would be seeking another 7-year-mandate. Biya suffers prostate cancer and failing heart. In February, a Cameroon newspaper carried an unconfirmed report that the president slumped at his Unity Palace. The report said: “The atmosphere at the presidential palace is tense and government officials have been holding meetings to come up with a common response so as to keep the population in check.”
It is believed that the anxiety over the Ambazonia crisis and the poor state of the economy have further added to the deteriorating health of the president. Yet, he clings to power.
He is often out of the country seeking medical attention abroad, a development that has made some observers to nickname him “absentee president.”A non-governmental organisation, the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) said in March that it has “calculated the amount of time the president spent abroad using reports from the daily newspapers.” According to the group, “the president spent nearly 60 days out of the country last year on private visits.” It also alleged that “he spent a third of the year abroad in 2006 and 2009,” adding that “The Intercontinental Hotel in Geneva is his favorite destination.”
The government-owned Cameroon Tribune newspaper immediately responded, calling the group’s investigation “a clear electoral propaganda.” Still, other sources said the president seldom appears in public and often meets with his ministers at the airport.
It was a shocking revelation when the media said Biya has not held cabinet meeting since 2015. How can it be explained that Cameroon has a president who does not consider the holding of cabinet meetings important. The presidency might argue that the prime minister is in control and holds meetings with the ministers. But this cannot be considered as a plausible excuse in a modern day society.
It was only on March 15, 2018, he convened another cabinet meeting which had no agenda in the invitation letters sent out. Sources reportedly said the meeting was not different from those of the past when Biya delivers more of lectures instead of allowing the cabinet members to deliberate on issues. The cabinet meetings are said to be usually brief, perhaps not to over stretch the president’s poor state of health.
Already, his loyalists who benefit from his government are reportedly calling on him to contest the election. And that is what the president needs to buttress his decision to continue in power.
Of course, the president has a readymade argument on his table as to why he has to contest the election. That argument borders on the political crisis facing the country following the declaration of the Ambazonia state by the Southwest and Northwest Anglophone provinces. Currently, Biya is ruling a country on the edge and there are no indications that peace will return soon.
Believing that it can always clamp down on agitators, the government failed to take appropriate peaceful measures to stem the tide of political upheaval when signs first emerged that the indigenes of the two English-speaking provinces were feeling marginalised.
The situation got to a head when the government issued the obnoxious decree compelling schools and courts to adopt French as their official language whereas English language has been the official language in the two provinces. Biya has reportedly ruled the country by decrees since becoming president even as he claims to be running a democratic government.
The refusal of the Biya administration to respond naturedly to the peaceful protests initially staged by the people has since been the undoing of the government in the two provinces. As the country contends with increasing cases of kidnapping, assassinations, killing of government security agents and indeed outright guerrilla warfare, the government has resorted to the use of brute force to quell the uprising. But that seems to be a herculean task as the separatists continue to expand their base and the government continues to increase the number of troops being deployed.
The seriousness of the Anglophone crisis is to be found in the continuous flow of refugees from Cameroon to Nigeria. Three Nigeria states, Taraba, Cross Rive and Benue, sharing border with Cameroon are already overwhelmed with refugees escaping from the daily exchange of fire between government troops and separatist forces.
Only few days ago, eight Cameroonian athletes went missing from the ongoing Commonwealth Games in Australia to the shock of Yaounde. Cameroon press attaché at the games, while reacting to the development, admitted that “It came as a complete surprise,” adding that “There were no worries of this kind of thing might happen.”
Apparently, the athletes have fled the Cameroon as life is no longer safe there. Besides the breakdown of law and order in the troubled provinces in particular, the crisis is having its toll on the economy as well. The educational system in the two provinces has also collapsed.
Ironically, Biya calls Southern Cameroonians agitating for independence terrorists. He has vowed to destroy them. The government recently celebrated the deportation to Cameroon of the Ambazonia secessionist leader in Nigeria, Ayuk Tabe Julius and 46 others. Reports said Ayuk was among 15 separatist leaders who Cameroon issued arrest warrant for in November 2017.
The Anglophone crisis has continued despite the government’s decentralization policy which was introduced to douse political tension in the agitating provinces. The policy gives more power the local council to oversee the affairs of their areas. The poor implementation of the policy made indigenes of the provinces not to have faith in the process which the president had described as a major reform.
Biya said: “It is my belief that fast-tracking our decentralisation process will enhance the development of our regions.” On the implantation process, he said: “To that end, I have ordered the implementation of the necessary measures to speedily give effect to this major reform.”
But what went wrong with the process of implementation? The people believe it a political gimmick to give a resemblance of democratic governance where there is freedom of expression, unhindered electoral process and even distribution of infrastructures. But Biya thinks otherwise.
He said: “We started implementing this process effectively since 2010, but of course we can ascertain the fact that there are still some difficulties, there are still some problems. The councils complain that the resources put at their disposal do not allow them to respond to the needs of the populations and to the implementation of their projects.”
Certainly, Biya deserves commendation for his steadfast leadership. He is a patriotic Cameroonian who thinks well about his motherland. He stands strongly for the unity of the country. Indeed, he has great dreams for the country. But sometimes dreams become mere fantasies that are not realizable. Perhaps, this explains why he has not been able to turn Cameroon into another United States of America. At 80 plus, the president would be taking the country for a ride to think that he alone has the wisdom to lead the country. It is clear that he is already overwhelmed with the Ambazonia crisis and the dwindling economic fortunes facing the people. Now is the time for him to bow out and allow new blood to be injected into the government. The unity and progress of Cameroon is more important than a president who clings to power even when it is clear he no longer has solutions to the nation’s mounting problems. Biya should either learn from the experience of Mugabe and Zuma or take a cue from Khama.