President Paul Biya, the 85-year-old Cameroonian leader seeking a seventh term on Sunday, has developed an effective system to stay in power despite long overseas absences.
One of Africa’s longest serving leaders, he has made Yaounde’s Etoudi presidential palace his home since 1982.
“Those who want power don’t last, it’s those who can (rule)” he told journalists in 2015, making a rare remark about his long years in charge of Cameroon.
He also once warned of his sweeping powers telling a Cameroonian journalist in 1986: “Just a little shake of my head and you’ll be reduced to nothing.”
One aspect of his time in office is the “subtle balance of forces” which Biya has created, in a region where leadership changes are often accompanied by force, according to International Crisis Group’s (ICG) Hans de Marie Heungoup.
Cameroon’s system was “designed so that everyone polices themselves and maintained inter-generational and ethnic rivalries,” Heungoup said.
“No one can move an active (security force) unit without the say-so of the president,” he added, emphasising the importance of the balance between the regular army, the rapid intervention force, and the presidential guard — the last two of which report directly to the president.
The president’s appointment of loyalists to key posts has also assured his lasting rule.
‘You’ll be crushed’
The speaker of the National Assembly, the head of the army and the head of the state-run oil and gas company are all confidants of the president, and have each held their jobs for more than 15 years.
The system has been strengthened through “a mix of resigned acceptance and patronage among certain elite leaders who rally behind the regime,” said Fred Eboko, a researcher at the French Institute for Research and Development (IRD).
Biya, a Christian from southern Cameroon, was born on February 2, 1933 to a peasant family in a village 220 kilometres south of the capital Yaounde.
The former seminarist studied law in France before landing a prominent government job upon his return home in 1962.
He was named prime minister in 1975, but precisely how he was anointed to succeed Cameroon’s founding president Amadou Ahidjo in November 1982 remains a mystery.
Unlike more fiery and flamboyant peers in the club of long-standing African leaders, Biya — who is nicknamed “The Sphinx” — is a quiet autocrat. He allowed a multi-party system in the early 1990s, opening the way to strong political opposition from the Anglophone west.
“The system is built on a single individual and this individual is identified with the job,” said Titus Edzoa, a former confidant of the president who was secretary general of Biya’s presidency between 1994 and 1996 and held ministerial posts on several occasions.
“If you try to go against Biya, you’ll be crushed,” he said.
‘In power for 35 years… that’s talent’
Edzoa should know. After resigning as a health minister in 1997 to stand in elections, he was arrested and accused of stealing millions of CFA francs. He spent 15 years behind bars.
Now a free man, he warns that by centring the system on Biya’s personality “not only could the system implode, but so too could the whole of Cameroon” in the near future.
Oswald Baboke, the deputy director of the presidency, wrote in a book published in September that “Biya’s fate seemed pre-determined” and “an opportunity given by God”.
Higher Education Minister Jacques Fame Ndongo said: “We are all creatures and creations of President Paul Biya… we are his servants, or better still his slaves.”
Biya’s repeated long absences from Cameroon, mostly in Switzerland or in his home village in southern Cameroon, have been bitterly criticised.
According to the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), a consortium of investigative journalists, Biya spent “at least four-and-a-half years of his 35 years in power on private visits” abroad.
© Agence France-Presse