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Biya needs to devise a monumental shift if Cameroon is to turn the corner

Cameroon President Paul Biya during the presidential elections in October. EPA-EFE/Nic Bothma

Cameroon’s Constitutional Council has declared Paul Biya the winner of the October 7 presidential election. Even though observers from organisations such as the African Union pointed to severe irregularities, the results were affirmed – 71% of the votes for Biya and 14% for his main competitor Maurice Kamto.

What’s most alarming has been an intense militarisation of parts of the country since the results were proclaimed. In Douala, protest activities were blocked. Opposition leaders and followers were harassed. And the terror in Anglophone cities which predated the elections multiplied. The latest of these is the kidnapping of 79 pupils, the headmaster, a teacher and driver from a Presbyterian boarding school in Bamenda in the Northwest Region.

Consistent with past practice, Biya has resorted to strongman tactics rather than working with different ethnic and regional groups to find solutions to urgent problems.

Decades ago, when Biya took office there was much hope and promise, but within a few years things began to fall apart. In his book, Communal Liberalism, written in the tradition of the enlightenment, Biya emphasised the importance of democratic principles and social justice. His actions, however, have been the reverse.

The time has come for him to turn the tide. He can do this by taking specific action. First, he needs to go on television, tell the people that he has heard their voices, cries, and frustrations. He needs to declare his commitment to work towards addressing the problems.

Then he needs to get to work. Biya must figure out how to gain the people’s confidence. One way to do this would be to open the door for fresh ideas to flow in by creating a “brains trust” made up of intellectuals, policymakers and ordinary citizens. Its job would be to deliver – within one month – a document identifying solutions to the nation’s most urgent problems and suggesting ways of implementing them. The brain trust must have gender, ethnic and regional balance.

The problems of the country are monumental, and the response must be equally monumental.

Early years

When Biya took office 36 years ago in a peaceful transfer of power, Cameroonians hailed him as a breath of fresh air. Many had grown weary of his predecessor, Ahmadou Ahidjo, who had run the country with an iron fist.

Biya, many believed, heralded a new era. And for a brief period, there was progress.

Once in power, Biya promised the Cameroonian people a New Deal, stating that it would restore prosperity and efficiency. He visited the ten regions in the country. Press freedom was restored. Education was improved as more institutions including university centres were created. The rising crime rate was curbed.

He visited the Anglophone region and even spoke in English, signalled to his Yaoundé ethnic group that he was president of all Cameroon and not just of the Beti ethnic group. He also sought ways to manage the complicated ethnic and regional problems of the country.

But within a few years Biya began to resort to his predecessor’s tactics. He packed his administration with people from his ethnic group, dismissed the Bamilikes (a major and significant ethnic group), as “les enemies dans la maison,”, reduced Anglophones to second class citizens, and allowed the nation’s treasury to be controlled by an oligarchy of Yaoundé origin.

Corruption, unemployment, and social decay became endemic. Repeatedly, he used the military to brutalise peaceful demonstrators. Elections were often rigged, and political opponents marginalised .

But complaints and criticisms changed little, as the country experienced more setbacks and bloodshed. Nor did countries such as the US, France, China and Britain help. Although they complained about the conduct of elections they continued to pursue policies of non-intervention. As long as their interests were safeguarded, they saw no reason to alter the status quo.

Anglophone crisis

The Anglophone crisis must be addressed within the first 100 days. Biya should embark on a process of inclusive dialogue coordinated from his office.

The policy of restricting Anglophones to certain cabinet level positions needs to be shelved. Senior level appointments should be based on merit and a can-do spirit, and not on clientelism. The government must institute an “affirmative action” programme to bring previously underrepresented groups such as Anglophones into management positions.

There must be a concerted effort to recruit, admit, and retain Anglophones into the nation’s elite professional schools. This is particularly important because graduates from those schools create, shape and implement policies in the nation.

Those initiatives will increase Anglophone representation in professions such as engineering, teaching, magistracy and finance. It is unacceptable that of the over 150 general managers of the nation’s top parastatal companies, only two are Anglophones.

And a genuine system of accountability needs to be put in place. Military offices – especially those in the Anglophone region who committed atrocities – should be brought to justice. This policy should also apply to residents in the region who engaged in similar practices. The population must be convinced that they can trust the country’s judicial system.

Policies must be put in place to ensure that education is a “sacred obligation” that can never again be hijacked by outside forces. There must be a swift response against those who threaten school children.

And Cameroonians in and out of the country must use their energy and know-how to promote peace. Constructive dialogue must replace the culture of intimidation and threats.

Finally, Biya should commit to visiting different regions of the country. Biya is president of all of Cameroon and not just of the City of Yaoundé, and specifically the community of Etoudi where his residence is located. It’s important for the people to regularly see their leader at work.

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