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Cameroon – France’s Guatemala (third of a series) – Paul Biya, (Yet Another African) President Without A Social Base

November 4, 2013
Francophone Africa

Francophone Africa

(Part One of the Series)

(Part Two of the Series)

(Part Four of the Series)

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If, over the years the United States has protected, supported and promoted such human rights luminaries as Anastasio Somoza (Nicaragua), the Shah of Iran, Hosni Mubarek (Egypt), Ferdinand Marcos (Philippines), Suharto (Indonesia) – ie, essentially repressive kleptomaniacs who tortured and killed many of their own citizens and recycled gobs of foreign aid money into private tax haven accounts worldwide, France has done likewise with a number of leaders of its former French colonies in Africa.

Right up there with this cast of political detritus is the Cameroon’s present president, Paul Biya, one of France’s key African allies. Biya – think of him as Cameroon’s very own Zine Ben Ali –  is a classic example of how the system of `Francafrique’ works. It is difficult to put into words in a single article how corrupt, how repressive his rule has been – and degree to which his political career has hurt the people of his own country while lining the pockets of the political class and wealthy in France.

A Cameroon blogger, Zuzeeko, sums up Biya’s accomplishments succinctly:

“His presidency has been marred by allegations of corruption, electoral fraud, economic stagnation, poverty and gross human rights violations including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary  arrests and imprisonment of journalists and authors, and brutal crackdown on peaceful demonstrators, including University student demonstrators. Freedom of speech and expression – the foundation of free democratic countries – are restricted. Intimidation by security forces is rife. The right to good quality education is limited. Dilapidated schools abandoned by the government are a common sight. The regime has failed many of its young school goers. In certain government schools, children have no benches or tables. Good roads are almost non-existent. Health care in nothing to write home about. The list goes on.

Allegations of corruption and embezzlement of huge sums of money by government officials are rampant, while many ordinary people live below the poverty line. Police corruption is endemic and happens with impunity in broad day light.

Unemployment stood at an estimated 30% in 2001. [Source]”

So impressive and rampant is the corruption in Cameroon that the Catholic Community against Hunger and For Development, awarded Paul Biya with its prestigious and much coveted “Corruption Hall of Shame” award where he joins other French supported kleptomanics and close collaborators, Omar Bongo Ondimba (Gabon), Denis Sassou Nguesso (Congo Brazzaville) and Teodoro Obiang Nguema (Equatorial Guinea). Poor Biya, reputedly worth somewhere between $100-200 million while Bongo, Sassou-Nguesso and Nguema Mbasogo have all reached billionaire status.

Paul Biya is a classic example of how the system of `Francafrique’ works.

While the oft-heard claim of corruption is true enough, missing is France’s role in encouraging such activities – their denials to the contrary. There is much evidence that has surfaced in recent years that French political leaders urge their African counterparts, Biya and others, to help themselves to their country’s public treasury as a way of winning their allegiance. 

Then, little by little the corruption at the top seeps down into the middle and lower ranks of society and becomes pervasive. Everyone takes their share, among other things, undermining the state’s social programs – in the end from the state budget which might support such programs. It turns out that a good portion of this money, much of it coming in the form of development loans, is then recycled back to France through different political networks (Foccart, Pasqua, Mitterand, etc) who use the funds to finance political campaigns.

Now in power for 31 years, Paul Biya, called Cameroon’s “lion man”, modified the Cameroon constitution two years ago so he could run for office yet again and serve for another term 2011-2018. But Biya needed to change his image. Besides changing the constitution, Biya was “advised” by Stéphane Fouks, Bolloré head, that he, Biya needed to “improve his image.”  Biya has gotten throughout his presidency a little help – or more than a little help –  from Paris, this despite the fact that his rule has been characterized by impressive levels of corruption and continual human rights abuses by international human rights organizations.

Coming to the rescue, somewhat of an expert at political face-lifting  Mme. Christine  Ockrent, Directrîce Generale de la Société de laudiovisuel extérieur de France (SAEF), and coincidentally, the wife of Bernard Kouchner, French Foreign Minister (2007-2010). Ockrent’s task was indeed formidable, : to promote Cameroon’s image abroad, an image often maligned as exceedingly corrupt, undemocratic, made more difficult by the fact that Biya spends a good portion of his time living in pricey French and Swiss resorts,  not in Cameroon. In 2009, both the French and Cameroon press alleged he was spending a cool $40,000 a day renting 43 hotel rooms in the south of France for friends and family. Called an “absentee landlord”   by his compatriots, he is known to be gone from Cameroon for two to three months at a time. But then, all the good man is doing is watching over his worldwide network of properties that include  several castles in France and Germany and the Isis villa on the Cote d’Azur.

But then relying on French assistance is nothing new for Biya, now 80 years of age.

From the outset of his rule – which began in 1982 when Cameroon’s first president, Ahmadou Ahidjo, under French pressure, reluctantly ceded power – Biya, like Ahidjo before him never had more than the thinnest popular base – if any at all. If he has survived (and personally prospered) it is largely because he has been maintained in power by Paris all these years. In exchange for Paris having turned the other way, or, more accurately, having helped him accumulate a private bankroll estimated at more than $200 million, all safely tucked away in tax free havens, the grateful Biya, again, following in Ahidjo’s tradition, keeps the Cameroon economy open to continued and intensive French corporate exploitation.

Biya has followed in Ahidjo’s footsteps in another way.

His main hold on power is accomplished through a powerful French trained secret police force, censored press, promoting ethnic tensions when his rule is threatened, irrelevant tv and the commonplace imprisonment and torture of his political opponents – real, imagined or potential. In fact, Biya’s rule is universally acknowledged as  among the most corrupt anywhere in the world, so much so that both in 1998 and 1999 it received the dubious title of “the world’s most corrupt country.”

While the oft-heard claim of corruption is true enough, missing is France’s role in encouraging such activities – their denials to the contrary. There is much evidence that has surfaced in recent years that French political leaders urge their African counterparts, Biya and others, to help themselves to the public treasury as a way of winning their allegiance. Then, little by little the corruption at the top seeps down into the middle and lower ranks of society and becomes pervasive. Everyone takes their share, among other things, undermining the state’s social programs – in the end from the state budget which might support such programs. It turns out that a good portion of this money, much of it coming in the form of development loans, is then recycled back to France through different political networks (Foccart, Pasqua, Mitterand, etc) who use the funds to finance political campaigns.  [i]

To an impressive degree, the colonial economic and political relations that existed in Cameroon’s colonial period continue up until present in their new, polished `neo-colonial’ posture. The country’s political leadership might very well be Black, African and Cameroonian, but the economic and political system, its security apparatus, serve France today as much – or perhaps even more – than during the heydays of French colonialism. Independence in 1960 – after the crushing of a genuine independence movement in the 1950s – brought change, but essentially all the change necessary to maintain the status quo – and French political and economic influence. The notion that somehow France’s relations with its former colonies is kinder and gentler than, let’s say, Washington’s relations with El Salvador or Chile, is little more than self-serving fiction. When necessary France – through its secret services and the complex web of African neophytes it has developed and cultivated over the years – can be as brutal as any modern neo-colonial power, especially in repressing African democratic movements.

Despite considerable natural wealth, the people of the Cameroon remain among the world’s poorest. Although the official unemployment rate stands at 13.5%, international observers suggest that such a figure is a figment of Biya’s imagination and that the real rate is closer to 50%. Poverty and all the problems that go with it – hunger, disease, rampant crime rates, prostitution, the above mentioned corruption. – are extensive and have hardly changed since independence. This is the case despite the fact that Cameroon is rich in natural resources (bananas, cocoa, coffee, petroleum) with a strategic location that hosts one of the continent’s major ports – Douala. Douala is the natural maritime outlet for inland countries like Niger, Chad and the Central African Republic.

– Bollore, the French owned multinational holding company, heavily invested in transport and logistics, energy, media and telecommunications is upgrading the country’s rail system.

– ELF-Total – the French oil giant, has developed the country’s off-shore oil resources. French agribusinesses have monopolized its agricultural sector (bananas, coffee, cocoa).

– But in a classic `core-peripheral’ fashion, the Cameroon’s natural wealth benefits France far more than itself, and the the lion’s share profits derived there from, end up in Paris. Much of the Cameroon’s share of the wealth is squandered through corruption of Biya, his olympic gold medal spendthrift wife, Chantal or the coterie that clings to their shirttails and skirts. In exchange for access to the country’s resources, Biya and co. are assured their cut of the country’s wealth.

Very much like deposed Tunisian President Zine Ben Ali, the domestic social base which keeps Paul Biya in power is razor thin. Other than his coterie of sycophants and hangers-on, in fact it is close to nonexistent. There is hardly a social grouping that he has not alienated or cruelly repressed, be it the very poor, the peasantry, the working class or the intelligentsia.  Like Ahmadou Ahidjo before him, without the support of Paris, his rule would collapse outright. It is French corporate and military power that keep him afloat pure and simple. Lacking support from his own people, he must rely on prevasive repression, censorship, his intelligence apparatus – as extensive as Ben Ali’s – along the with French intelligence and the prospect of Paris’ military intervention – to stay afloat. His flamboyant younger wife – Chantal – who learned how to use her good looks to do what she does best – sleep her way to the top – might be popular with Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton and the wives of French Presidents, but like Tunisia’s Leila Trabelsi, she has become something of a national embarrassment to the Cameroon people. Her unbridled greed and lust for power will, someday be her undoing as it did with Trabelsi.


[i] Francois Xavier Verschave. “ De la France a la Mafiafrique” (Tribord: 2004)

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