Life After Biya

As Cameroon witnesses the dying embers of the embattled Biya regime, questions abound about what the future holds for the Central African country. Beset by a violent separatist conflict in the Anglophone regions and the omnipresent scourge, Boko Haram, in the North, that Cameroon faces significant challenges ahead is an understatement. Yet slowly and very carefully, the potential for a more democratic future is emerging from conversations between leading Cameroonians.

President Paul Biya has effectively ruled Cameroon since 1982, with questionable elections returning him as President as recently as 2018. Biya, now a sprightly 87, will be a venerable 92 when his seventh term ends, and his health remains a popular topic amongst Cameroonians both at home and in the diaspora. Extended stays in Geneva and regular disappearances from the public eye have only furthered these discussions. Biya’s absence was particularly conspicuous this year at the start of the Coronavirus pandemic- even his reappearance at a meeting with French Ambassador Christophe Guilhou did little to stop them. Biya is apparently back at the helm now, but questions about his health abound. There is now a growing inevitability about the end of the Biya regime. Nobody lives forever, and Cameroonian eyes are starting to turn toward the future. Who will succeed Biya? What does the Cameroon of the future look like? More simply- what comes next?

Whilst Biya’s Cameroon Peoples Democratic Movement (CPDM) party may retain an overwhelming majority (139/180 seats) in the National Assembly, there is a degree of inescapability about the instability and potential power vacuum to come. This is the price any highly centralized country must pay for being ruled by a strongman with an iron fist for so long. Out of this change, however, arises an opportunity never truly granted the people of Cameroon since its formation in 1960, as the only previous president, Ahidjo, was also widely regarded to be dictatorial figure. It is remarkable that since 1960, Cameroon has had just two presidents. After sixty years of the rule of the Strongman and ultimately the cult of Biya, the people of Cameroon are approaching the greatest crossroads since federation in 1972, or perhaps in the country’s history. The people of Cameroon can allow the nation to continue down its current path, settling on a new ‘chosen’ leader in the mold of Biya, but they will also have the chance to effect the lasting political change that many desire. Leader of the Cameroon Renaissance Movement opposition party, Maurice Kamto, is the most prominent proponent of this view, publicly opposing an apparent transfer of power to one of Biya’s acolytes, as if the CPDM party itself had the divine right to rule.

On social media, he stated ‘We will not accept the mutual agreement succession in our country, nor new popular elections without consensual reform of the electoral system. Only the Cameroonian people will have to choose their legitimate leaders, in freedom and democratic transparency’.  Kamto has paid and continues to pay the price for his opposition to the regime. He and his supporters were imprisoned from January to October 2019 in the notorious Kondengui Prison in Yaoundé. A rumored assassination attempt followed, and only this week was his compound attacked and death threats reportedly made against him. He recently also proposed a wide-ranging, representative committee to help resolve the Anglophone Crisis. It is somewhat symptomatic of the Biya regime’s extremities and decline that Kamto’s efforts to fundraise for the Coronavirus response were heavily suppressed- and even outlawed- by the government.

Yet whilst Kamto is indeed a key player, a drive for change is coming from some of Cameroon’s most revered figures. Politician and entrepreneur Kah Walla’s ‘20th of May Dialogues’, livestreamed simultaneously on Twitter [CS1] and Zoom, has brought some of the nation’s brightest minds together to discuss the future of their country. Speakers including journalist Mimi Mefo, once imprisoned by the Biya regime, the indomitable technology entrepreneur Rebecca Enonchong, surgeon Dr. Dennis Foretia and others have all voiced their thoughts on issues including the Anglophone Crisis, Coronavirus and political transitions. The value of these dialogues should not be underestimated, as they are introducing and highlighting new, exciting Cameroonian options for the country’s future, from some of the nation’s finest minds. The reaction to these dialogues on social media illustrates both the richness of Cameroon’s political sphere and the yearning for change- or at the very least, more discussions.

Although the Anglophone Crisis is oft ignored by the international community, it threatens the stability of the entire state of Cameroon and thus must form (and has formed) a key part of these discussions. The dialogues have hinted at how a solution to the Anglophone Crisis could be found, but longer-term thinking is required in order to produce a lasting peace – be it through a true federation or another mechanism. A weakness of previous dialogue efforts has been a lack of unity among Anglophone groups, with views varying widely. With a stronger coalition of Anglophone voices, a meaningful dialogue has more chance of success. The concept of a future Cameroonian state beyond the Biya regime offers a genuine opportunity for change, and for Cameroon to better reflect the demands of the Anglophone population. Of course, this will not satisfy everybody, particularly the most ardent Ambazonian separatists, but it would represent a significant improvement on the current situation. The Anglophone regions remain of vital economic importance to Cameroon, and so they would invariably be a major point of discussion, even if the crisis had never occurred.

Looking across Central and Francophone Africa, change is coming. Even Burundi’s Nkurunziza has handed power over to a successor, and more nations are supportive of Presidential term limits. France’s controversial and neocolonial CFA Franc is being replaced in West Africa by an exciting though arguably imperfect successor, the ECO. Central Africa’s CFA Franc, used in Cameroon, will surely follow, reducing the country’s dependency on its former colonial master. Coronavirus itself has also upset the world order, and what that fully means for Cameroon and Central Africa remains to be fully understood. The end of the Biya regime, then, may coincide with a changing of the guard on multiple fronts.

Whilst the Biya regime will invariably trundle on for a while to come, it feels more finite than ever before. Cameroonians have the rarest of opportunities to reform their state and to mold it to be ready for the next 100 years. That process starts with conversations like the ‘May 20th Dialogues’, led by so many brilliant Cameroonians. This progress will likely be contested fiercely by those in power by way of the Biya regime, and so there are tough political challenges ahead. Somehow though, in the unlikeliest of times amidst a terrible pandemic, there is an indelible source of hope in Cameroon.


Cameroon’s Crisis Falls on Deaf Ears

When American Pastor Charles Wesco was killed in the crossfire of separatist and government forces, people thought that change would come. The American government surely wouldn’t stand to lose one of their own. But that was 2018.

When Baby Martha Neba, with only four months on this earth, was gruesomely killed by state forces, people thought that change would come. A four-month-old child? Horrendous. But that was 2019.

When government forces committed a terrible massacre at Ngarbuh, people thought change would come. At least twenty-two dead women and children, as innocent as could be. An atrocity. And that was 2020.

Yet no change has come.

When Samuel Wazizi, a popular TV anchor and journalist, was arrested in August 2019, people thought it was just another example of the repression of the press in Cameroon. He would surely be released, in time, as Mimi Mefo and others had before him.

Yet Wazizi’s lawyers were never granted access to him. His family never heard from him. When his lawyers finally won the right to have him produced by the government in court, he did not appear.

Then, on June the 5th, the truth came out.

The Government’s Military Spokesman revealed that Wazizi had died in their custody. In August 2019.

For Three Hundred Days, Wazizi’s family, friends, lawyers, colleagues and international press advocates had all been pushing for his release. To see him, to hear him, to feel him again. For Three Hundred Days, the Government of Cameroon maintained a cruel charade that denied justice and tortured his family. The Government stated that Wazizi died of sepsis shortly after his arrest. But after three hundred days of deceit, who would possibly trust that? An independent investigation and autopsy has been demanded by many, and French Ambassador Christophe Guilhou intimated that President Biya has indicated that an investigation will take place. With allegations of torture rife, an independent investigation this is the only way to bring any form of peace to those who cared so deeply about Samuel Wazizi.

Yet Biya’s suggested investigation is nothing to applaud. The Government of Cameroon is a serial suppressor of press freedoms, and still has at least 7 journalists in prison. The gravestone of Wazizi is yet another grim marker of the deterioration of the Biya regime, and yet another indicator of the grave threat posed to journalists in Cameroon.

There is a famous thought experiment that asks:

‘If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound’?

It could be argued that in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon, two other versions of this thought experiment are being tested.

Firstly, with reference to the government of Cameroon,

‘If an incident occurs and all the journalists and witnesses have been arrested or killed, did the incident happen’?

Secondly, with reference to the international community,

‘If incidents happen and nobody cares enough to act, are they really incidents’?

The international community has watched as the Anglophone Problem became the Anglophone Crisis, and now they have watched as the Anglophone Crisis has become the Anglophone War. Through an absence of meaningful enforcement and redress, the government of Cameroon has operated with absolute impunity throughout the crisis. Separatist groups have also committed serious human rights abuses. Incidents like the Ngarbuh Massacre have drawn international attention, even at the level of the United Nations Secretary General, but the lack of subsequent action has facilitated the further deterioration of the crisis. Despite overwhelming evidence of serious human rights abuses, Cameroon remains off the agenda of the UN Human Rights Council. Cameroon is also not on the UN Security Council agenda.

With little pressure on Cameroon and the armed groups involved, there is no end in sight for the Anglophone Crisis.

In the mean time, I at least hope that we will see #JusticeForWazizi.

Image created by Gabriel_TheCode