By Peter Vakunta, Ph.D.
Life is not all sunshine and roses in Biya’s Cameroon. Much water has flowed under the bridge since Mr. Paul Barthélemy Biya'a bi Mvondo took over the reins of leadership from his predecessor and mentor, Mr. Ahmadou Ahidjo on November 6, 1982. Put differently, this mercurial hard-hearted persona has presided over the fate of Cameroonians for thirty-four (34) years. It is time to take the pulse of the nation-state. The Cameroon that Biya inherited more than three decades ago has degenerated into a human junk-yard, where nitwits, miscreants and morally bankrupt self-seekers ride roughshod over a befuddled populace. Aided and abetted by tribal overlords and imperialistic octopuses, Biya has run the post-colony aground through ineptitude and dearth of foresight compounded by unpatriotic fervor. With the support and blessing of French imperialists, the Cameroonian lumpen bourgeoisie has organized the systematic plunder of Cameroon. With the crumbs of the plunder that often reverts to them, the Cameroonian petty bourgeoisie has been transformed, slowly but surely, into a veritably parasitic socio-economic class that no longer knows how to control its voracious appetite for foreign commodities—material and intellectual. Driven only by their own selfish interests, they no longer hesitate to employ the most disingenuous contraptions, engaging in massive corruption, embezzlement of public funds, influence-peddling, nepotism and dereliction of duty in a bid to meet their ends by over-indulging in politics of the belly.[i]
Politics of the Belly as Governmental Modus Operandi
Paul Biya has surrounded himself with a bulwark of compulsive chop-broke-potters[ii], culled from his own ethnic group, the Beti tribe, who have a knack for bulimia, impulsive spending and misappropriation of state funds. Not satisfied with living off the backs of the Cameroonian rank and file, these political misfits fight tooth and nail to monopolize positions of power within the Chop Pipo Dem Moni (CPDM) ruling party[iii] that have the potential to allow them to use the state apparatus for their own exploitative and wasteful ends. The Beti modus vivendi epitomizes the political philosophy described by Polzenhagen and Wolf (2007) as the “Kinship-based African Community Model” (p.131). This model has been described as a horizontal network that stretches laterally and embraces everybody who is perceived to belong to a particular social group (Mbiti, 1990, p.102). The problem with this sort of ethnocentric political philosophy is that it is exclusive, egregious, counter-productive, and inimical to national integration. Paul Biya’s governmental modus operandi has created a system of endemic corruption that defies all attempts to eradicate. Corruption has crippled our national economy. Writing along similar lines, Timah Njei (2005) makes heartrending remarks about the State of Cameroon and corrupt practices which I cite at length as follows:
"Corruption has brought our beloved country to her knees and exposed us to international ridicule. Our country has held the first position as the most corrupt nation on earth and it is on record that those governing us actually lobbied that the country be classified as one of the poorest highly indebted nations on earth! One really needs to be courageous and shame-proof to make a request like this for such an apparently rich nation. This act alone qualifies us to be in the hall of fame of corruption. The issue of corruption in Cameroon has gone past the level that can be described only as a social ill. It has effectively become part of our national culture. Corruption is embedded in every facet of our national life and it has effectively thwarted and dislocated our path to nationhood for generations to come"
The forgoing remarks lend credence to the consternation of Cameroonian sociologist, Jean-Marc Ela who writes as follows:
"Le Cameroun semble échapper à toute catégorie de l’entendement. Ce qui arrive à ce pays relève de l’inimaginable, de l’incroyable et de l’impossible. Tout ce passe, en définitive, comme si, sous le règne de M. Paul Biya, le Cameroun tout entier avait basculé dans le hors-norme, la déraison ou la folie"
[It would appear that the case of Cameroon defies all attempts at comprehension. What has happened to this country seems unimaginable, unbelievable, and impossible. In sum, it seems as if under Paul Biya Cameroon has plunged into illegality, irrationality, and insanity]
The sad truth about the disheartening Cameroonian narrative is that all of this mindboggling stuff is unfolding in full view of petrified nationals who are mired in squalor, misery and abject poverty. A visit to the Briqueterie neighborhood in the capital city of Yaoundé would drive home the point. This is an urban ghetto where human beings and animals vie for personal space. In an article titled “Sodome et Gomorrhe: Briqueterie-Mokolo: le Texas dans la capitale,” Ismaila Djida portrays this neighborhood as the Sodom and Gomorrah of the capital city of Yaounde. This holds true for other impoverished neighborhoods in the country such as Moloko in Yaounde and Nkouloulou in Doula. While Cameroon is a paradise for the oligarchy in Yaounde, the wealthy minority, for the majority, it is a barely tolerable hell on earth. Part of this disenchanted majority, the so-called fonctionnaires (civil servants) suffer insurmountable constraints engendered by governmental dysfunction, despite the fact that they are assured a regular income. Their poverty-line wages are spent before they have even been received. And this vicious cycle goes on and on with no end in sight. Sometimes, pressure from civil servants pushes politicians to grant some concessions, such as salary increments. But these concessions are mere make-believe because the government often takes back with one hand what it gives with the other. Thus a ten percent wage increase is announced with great fanfare in the media, only to be immediately followed by tax hikes, wiping out the expected benefits. Clearly, politics of the stomach sustained by a divide and rule contraption constitute an integral part of the system put in place by politicians in Cameroon to further subjugate the suffering masses.
Divide and Rule in the Post-colony
Part of the exploited majority in Cameroon is constituted by peasants, the well-known wretched of the earth, who are expropriated, robbed, humiliated and mistreated on a regular basis by men and women in uniform—mange-mille[iv], gendarmes and the military. Interestingly, the peasantry is the mainstay of the Cameroonian economy because they are the ones whose labor creates wealth. Thanks to their productive labor, the nation stays afloat against all odds. It is from their labor that all those Cameroonians for whom Cameroon is an El Dorado line their pockets. And yet, it is the peasants who are least served by the nation. They lack road infrastructure, healthcare facilities, portable water, electricity and good schools for their children. It is the peasants, creators of the nation’s wealth, who suffer the most in the hands of so-called élus du peuple[v]. So much for a misnomer! It is the children of peasants who swell the ranks of Chômencam[vi], the plethora of the unemployed in Cameroon. It is among the peasants that illiteracy rate is the highest in the country— 68.9%. Those who most need to learn, in order to improve the output of their productive labor, are the ones who benefit the least from investments in education and technology. The peasant youth—who have the same aptitude like their urban counterparts end up in the wrong places. Their initial impulse drives them to urban centers—Yaounde, Douala, Bafoussam, Nkongsamba, Buea, and Limbe to name but a few, where they hope to land jobs and enjoy, too, the advantages of modernism.
Sadly enough, lack of academic qualifications precludes these compatriots from landing gainful employment. Lack of jobs drives them into illegal activities such as drug peddling, feymenia[vii], prostitution and more. Some eke out a living by working as pedes[viii] at the beck and call of some sexually starved katikas[ix]. Others resolve to make a pittance working as bendskinneurs[x] and call-boxeurs.[xi] As a last resort, some of them seek salvation by attempting to go abroad by any means necessary. Lately, we have seen disheartening pictures in media outlets of our compatriots who have perished like chicken on high seas and oceans in a desperate attempt to flee from an uninhabitable homeland. The New York Times of May 29, 2016 reported that in three days, 700 deaths had occurred on the Mediterranean, some of them Cameroonians. Does the Cameroonian society provide these compatriots with any alternative? Stated succinctly, such is the state of the nation that Mr. Biya will bequeath to Cameroonians when he ultimately answers the call of the Divine in the not too distant future—a paradise for some and hell for the rest. When all is said and done, Mr. Biya’s track record is one of dismal failure.
Underperformance of Political Incumbency
Students of Mr. Paul Biya’s report card make no bones about the fact that he is a monumental political failure. After thirty-four years of deconstructionist leadership and retrogressive political agendas bolstered by intrusive imperialist domination and exploitation, post-colonial Cameroon under the Biya regime remains a backward nation with nothing to offer the world. This hitherto great nation has been transformed into an underdeveloped heart of darkness, to borrow words from one of Africa’s compulsive denigrators, Joseph Conrad (1899s), where the rural poor—employing 92 percent of the workforce—accounts for only 47 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) and supplies 94 percent of the country’s total exports. It should be noted that in other African countries, notably Nigeria, Ghana, Botswana and South Africa, farmers constituting less than ten percent of the population manage not only to feed themselves adequately and satisfy the basic needs of the entire nation, but also to export enormous quantities of their agricultural produce. Paradoxically, in Cameroon more than 90 percent of the population, despite strenuous efforts, experiences deprivation and is compelled to fall back on imported food items from France, China and more. The imbalance between exports and imports accentuates Cameroon’s dependency on foreign countries. An economy that functions on such a paralysis inevitably goes bankrupt and is headed for catastrophe.
Private investments from abroad constitute a huge drain on Cameroon’s economy and thus do not help strengthen its ability to accumulate wealth. That is because an important portion of the wealth created with the help of foreign investors is siphoned off abroad, instead of being reinvested to increase the country’s productive capability. Paul Biya inherited a buoyant economy from Ahmadou Ahidjo and ran it into a recession a couple of years later not only because he does not practice what he preaches but also because he lacks the cognitive ability to conceptualize economic recovery strategies.In the 1990s, salaries of civil servants were slashed drastically, in some cases by 60 percent. This writer worked as senior translator at the Presidency of the Republic at the time and endured the fiscal humiliation by keeping a stiff upper lip. In fact, he worked for an entire fiscal year without receiving a paycheck from the government because his dossier[xii] had gathered dust in the drawers of some numskull in the Ministère de la Fonction Publique [Ministry of Public Service] in Yaounde. He survived on a pittance that was called prime de technicité[xiii] in bygone days. Salary cuts were quickly followed by privatization which still leaves a sour taste in the mouths of Cameroonians to date.
The greatest weakness of Paul Biya has been in the economic sector. Almost a year ago, he posed a rhetorical question to Cameroonians when he asked the following question: “Why is it that Cameroon has everything in human and natural resources yet is not having the feel good effects?” Five cankers suffice to provide Mr. President with a candid response: endemic corruption, misappropriation of state funds, apartheid-style tribalism, blind-sidedness, and impunity are wreaking havoc in the moral and economic fabrics of the Cameroonian post-colony. Biya took over power in 1982 and announced with pomp and fanfare that his catchwords were going to be rigor and moralization. But the president soon found himself surrounded by a clique of diehard ethnocentric tribesmen, cronies, as well as a coterie of myopic CPDM praise-singers that sang his praises but remained blind-sided to national issues of grave importance. Consequently, Mr. Biya remains a myopic alien in the land that he purports to govern. If fact, he governs this nation of 23+ million jobajo[xiv] drinkers and makossa dancers by remote control.
Governance by Remote Control
Biya does not live in Cameroon and, therefore, does not know Cameroonians. The president is out of touch with the Cameroonian reality. The absentee landlord spends several months in a calendar year in Europe touring casinos and nude beaches with no specific agenda in mind. In 2009, Biya sparked global outrage after reports emerged of a 20-day holiday in France where he spent an average of £35,000 a day, totaling £700,000.Once back home, he retires to his million-dollar castle in his home village of Mvog-Meka to play golf and drink whiskey and champagne. It is for this reason that international observers of the political status quo in Cameroon have branded the Cameroonian Head of State le Roi fainéant[xv]. Biya does nothing to change the destiny of his country. His latest fad about les grandes réalisations[xvi] is political hogwash! The man is an under-achiever, to put it bluntly. Biya’s inept governance has brought Cameroon to its knees. Three decades ago, cities like Douala, Nkongsamba, Bafoussam, Edea, Limbe, Bamenda, Buea and Yaounde, were commercial hubs teeming with business activities and life. Nowadays, they are virtual ghost towns. Biya’s nonchalant leadership attitude has robbed Cameroon of its luster. Cameroon is no longer the Africa in miniature that it was known to be. The Republic of Cameroon is a sore finger on the anatomy of the African continent.
Biya’s lack of political foresight has transformed Cameroon into a beggarly nation. We are beasts of no nation, [xvii]to borrow words from an illustrious son of the soil who perished fighting the Cameroonian canker code-named biyaism. [xviii] Biyaism has moved Cameroon ten years backwards in terms of infrastructural development.The physical environment in Yaoundé is an eyesore.Piles of garbage litter streets here and there. Potholes left, right and center. Unfinished government buildings punctuate the already tarnished landscape of our phantom capital city. Douala does not fare any better. It is a shadow of its former self.The Douala International airport that Biya inherited from his predecessor is now in a shambles—no running water in the restrooms, no toilet paper, broken tiles on the floor, a total mess! What remains of the Douala Port is a nefarious abyss in the bottom of which customs officers hide to steal money from Tom, Dick and Harry.The Limbe Deep Seaport is dead, buried, and forgotten. Speaking in Yaoundé on January 15, 2015 at a meeting with a delegation of South Korean technocrats, Minister of the Economy, Planning and Regional Development, Emmanuel Nganou Ndjoumessi, announced that the Limbe Deep Seaport will be operational soon. Cameroonians are still waiting and shall wait until Godot[xix] comes. Accountability has been thrown to the dogs in that geographical expression nicknamed Cameroon.
The pulse of the post-colony has been taken. And there is incontrovertible evidence that the nation-state is malignant. This discourse serves as a pointer to the legacy that Mr. Paul Biya and his accessories will bequeath to millions of Cameroonians, many of whom have never known any other president. This is a legacy that truly stinks and spells nothing but doom for the young men and women that the president took the oath office on November 6, 1982 to nurture and protect. The purport of this write-up is not to provide a panacea for the myriads of ailments that plague Cameroon under President Paul Biya; rather it is a dirge composed by a son of the soil whose heart throbs for the demise of a nation richly blessed with natural and human capital; and yet sorely lacking in strategic thinkers and leadership visionaries. No Cameroonian who loves and honors his native land can remain indifferent to the status quo at home. Indeed, valiant, hardworking people have never been able to tolerate such a situation. Because they understand that this is not an irreversible situation, but a question of society being organized on an unjust system for the sole benefit of an oligarchy. They have, therefore, waged different kinds of struggles, searching for various ways and means to overthrow the old order, establish a new order capable of rehabilitating the ordinary man, and give their country a leading place within the community of free, prosperous, and respected nations. Cameroonians have a tough call. They should not expect lynchpins of the old order to change their mentality and embrace sweeping changes any time soon. The only language that dictators respond to and understand is the language of force, the revolutionary class struggle against the exploiters and oppressors of the rank and file. The people’s revolution that I envision in this write-up is the only act by which the Cameroonian people will impose their will on the parasitic class that has hijacked the nation-state; that class has benefited perennially from the matrimony that exists between the national and imperialistic bourgeoisie in Cameroon. The Cameroonian Popular Revolution that is called for will be a class struggle by which the Cameroonian people impose their will on the ruling class by all means at their disposal, including arms, if necessary.
[i] In his 1989 book L'État en Afriquel: la politique du ventre (translated as The State in Africa: Politics of the Belly (2009)Jean-François Bayart attempts to describe African politics and, in particular, the relationship between clientelism, corruption and power
[ii] Reference to Cameroonians, notably Betis, who do not save for the rainy day; spendthrifts
[iii] Derogatory name for the ruling party, the Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement( CPDM)
[iv] Corrupt police officers in Cameroon
[v] People’s representatives
[vi] Chronic unemployment in Cameroon
[vii] Underhand deals of conmen
[viii] French slang for homosexual
[ix] Big shots
[x] Motor-cycle drivers
[xi] People who sell air-time to mobile phone users
[xiii] Professional honorarium
[xiv] Locally brewed beer
[xv] Lazy king
[xvi] Big achievements
[xvii]Reference a play by Bate Besong titled Beasts of no Nation(1990)
[xviii] Paul Biya’s governmental philosophy
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