Cameroon: Paul Biya’s Ghostly Legacy in Cameroon – The Absence That Shaped a Nation


In power for 41 years, the 90 year-old president has ruled mostly in absentia, a ghostly embodiment of a gerontocracy that has gifted its people the concept of Waithood.

In an unexpected turn, President Paul Biya of Cameroon, a seasoned nonagenarian leader, showed up in excellent health at the “Summit for a New Global Financial Pact” in Paris late last month. Previously, his lengthy stays in Switzerland had stirred up lively debate among Cameroonians. These days, however, his presence (or lack thereof) in Cameroon is far more enigmatic than his past wanderings abroad.

Often, I’m asked, “What lies ahead for us post-Biya?” My answer usually confounds: we should strive for a world where ‘after’ never manifests, effectively neutralizing Biya’s legacy. His influence should be as nebulous as his presence, a spectral figure from an era defined by a conspicuous absence of assertive leadership. It’s disheartening to see how Cameroonians have adjusted to this cryptic dictatorship, silently acknowledging their collective failings. In the frenetic arenas of social media, Cameroonians exude a quiet resentment towards the West, with any French interference, such as the blocking of France’s LGBT+ rights ambassador, Jean-Marc Berthon’s visit, viewed with suspicion. Effacing Biya’s ethereal rule, therefore, seems like a Herculean endeavor.

The era after Biya feels akin to navigating uncharted territory. When a political structure is anchored in stability, as Biya has so meticulously ensured, it is difficult to envision a future sans its architect. Our leader seems to desire a clone, a political stand-in who can perpetuate his rule from the afterlife.

As a result, the succession battle has found its stage on social media, igniting a whirlwind of conspiracies, betrayals, and political manoeuvrings. We appear to be spiralling towards a double-edged succession: the inevitable execution of Biya’s desires (channelled through a successor), followed by the people’s wildcard choice, an unpredictable twist of fate. Our society seems to be caught in the throes of a political Darwinian drama, where the mighty prey on the weak, a spectacle gruesomely showcased in the downfall of seemingly feeble presidential hopefuls. Repression, social exile, and assorted ‘purification’ operations are the harsh realities of this political ‘survival of the fittest’.

Biya’s reign is drawing to a close, a proclamation echoed for years. It is somewhat farcical to realise that as you read this, he could be at the helm for another decade. The persona he projects for posterity mirrors a villainous caricature, a remorseless leader imposing French upon the Anglophone population against their inherited English. This harsh dissonance presents the notion of a successor as a beacon of hope on the horizon.

The tenuous equilibrium of power is often dismissed as mere dictatorship, yet it’s a far more intricate landscape. It unfolds in several instances of administrative failure, be it from excess or shortage. Biya’s chronic absenteeism serves as a case in point. His constant absence has left the majority floundering to combat a ghost, marking the victory of ignorance over wisdom. The lone efficient gear in this machinery of governance is the one ensuring presidential continuity, which paradoxically mitigates the ensuing social chaos.

Nevertheless, a glimmer of hope exists in the counter-utopia of the ‘black hand’. The covert operations of National Intelligence are nuanced, perceptible only to the ‘happy few’. Unsanctioned champions of Africa’s cause are omnipresent. Although Africa may feign defeat, it secretly nurtures an undercover intelligence, silently sharpening its secret weapon for the final showdown.

An enduring colonial cliché among Africans is, “If you want to hide something from an African, put it in writing.” However, Africans themselves often withhold critical knowledge from the written form. Books are treated as a crypt, a sanctuary to safeguard knowledge. They remain silent, invisible, absent, to better to guard their exposed king. For a Cameroonian seeking to distinguish themselves or to serve, refuge is often sought abroad. The local terrain appears rigged against success. Despite the hurdles overseas, victory remains attainable. In their homeland, life equates to a relentless waltz with death, a draining existence marked by resilience and savoured in the process. In the end, just like Biya, we learn that it is absence that sometimes leaves the most profound mark.

I partially attribute this situation to the phenomenon known as Waithood. Waithood extends beyond the individual to represent a systemic reality that transcends age, embodying a longue durée approach. This term, borrowed from the Annales School, underscores the importance of long-term historical perspectives over individual events. In the context of Waithood, this “longue durée” becomes apparent through the inheritance of public roles and perpetual mandates.

Paul Biya proudly displays his 90 years, 41 of which he has spent as the President of the Republic. Luc Ayang, already a Prime Minister in 1983, has been serving as the President of the Economic and Social Council continuously since 1984. Jacques Fame Ndongo, a government member since 1998, has held the position of Minister of Higher Education for over two decades. Cavaye Yeguié Djibril has been the President of the National Assembly since 1992. Niat Njifendji, who was the director general of the public electricity company for twenty-seven years and a minister and deputy prime minister, is, at 88 years old, the President of the Senate, a position he has held since its inception.

While the law limits the term of a director general at the helm of a public company to nine years, in practice, most have served for more than twenty years. Some ministers, as seen in 2023, pass away while in office without any subsequent government adjustments. These long-standing positions, held by the same individuals, reflect a monopolisation of resources, thereby creating a bottleneck that stifles the upward mobility of younger generations. As a result, Waithood becomes less of a transitional phase and more of a trap where the youth, despite their strength and numbers, are held at a distance. The relay of leadership, instead of being passed on, is seized, leading to a state of stasis, a “stationary state”.

Consequently, the national character of Cameroon, and more broadly, the social morphology of the sub-Saharan individual, are shaped by a capacity to hold back from action, constantly push the limits of tolerance to the extremes of endurance, and cope with a life of poverty. This state of affairs is perpetuated through a hubris based on insincere comparisons: “What is the value of democracy when we observe what’s happening elsewhere?” “True happiness is found here!” “Wasn’t Egypt black?

Source : AllAfrica