Upheaval, Zimbabwe-style, could still be averted
At 84 he is nine years younger than Robert Mugabe. And he has been in power for 35 years, two years short of the Zimbabwean leader’s extravagant haul. Paul Biya, the president of Cameroon, is however, as ruthless a despot, and his role in stifling the potential of one of Africa’s most promising economies, is as great. One difference between two of Africa’s most enduring anachronisms is that Mr Biya has aged more quietly. The catalogue of abuses committed by his regime have received less attention for it.
That may be about to change. Last week Mr Biya joked in Rome, after a visit to the Pope, that very few governments last beyond 30 years these days. He claimed his country was stable as a result of that longevity. It is not and the joke was in poor taste.
Cameroon is in the early throes of an upheaval that mirrors one it experienced 25 years ago when a pro-democracy movement spearheaded by the disgruntled anglophone minority came close to unseating Mr Biya. He rode out that storm, dividing, or jailing, his opponents, and mastering the art of staging elections which rubber-stamped a perpetual grip on power. Cameroon is now one of only a few African states, including Angola, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe, that have weathered the tumultuous aftermath of the cold war, granting only token concessions to more accountable forms of government.
Thus, it still has a difficult transition to come. One sign of looming trouble, is the reignition of the crisis in the anglophone west. Cameroon has been divided along linguistic lines since 1961 when colonial-era French and British-administered territories were brought together in a federation after a referendum. The unification of the two parts in a centralised state 11 years later has been a bone of contention for anglophones, who make up a fifth of the population, ever since. Frustrations boiled over last year in the two English-speaking provinces due to perceived attempts to impose French in courts and schools.
The region has been in turmoil since, with schools shuttered. Rather than seek to defuse this crisis with dialogue, Mr Biya has chosen once again to put it down with force — fearing perhaps that it could precipitate a wider, national revolt. For more than two months, the region has been subjected to an internet blackout. Heavy-handed policing has caused numerous deaths and dozens of activists have been arrested. On Friday, Akere Muna, one of Africa’s most distinguished lawyers and a potential challenger to Mr Biya in polls next year, was hauled before the gendarmerie. As he did when facing a similar challenge to his authority from 1992, Mr Biya has sought to portray the troubles as the work of anglophone separatists and even terrorists.
In reality, the crisis has little to do with language. Cameroon’s English-speaking minority has genuine grievances that need to be addressed. But Cameroonians of all origins do, too. The real problem is with the corrupt, repressive nature of Mr Biya’s regime. It is a familiar story. It does not have to have a familiar ending. Cameroon’s divisions could break into the open, and go on to destabilise central and west Africa — it is the bridge between the two. Equally, handled with care, Mr Biya could yet be coaxed towards the departure lounge and a democratic succession. His Zimbabwean counterpart has stayed on partly as a result of cack-handed foreign meddling and partly for fear of what might happen to him if he lost the protection afforded by power. There is still time for allies in Africa and the west to help Cameroon chart a more peaceful course.