View from Africa: Cameroon

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View from Africa: Cameroon

Nanjala Nyabola asks questions about Cameroon, where Biya has been president for 36 years.


On 6 November 2018, 85-year-old Paul Biya began his seventh term as president of Cameroon. He has already been president for 36 years. This is even more strange because about 60 per cent of the population is below the age of 25. So most Cameroonians have never known another president and have never had a really free and fair election, where anyone different could win.

In the 1990s, after the Cold War, many one-party governments ended. So many parts of the world have questioned how long someone should be president. Many of the leaders who had been in power for a long time were supported by the US and the Soviet Union. But when these superpowers did not need them anymore, there was space for democracy to grow. Only a few countries in Africa and Asia have not changed in this way. We can see why with the case of Paul Biya.

Cameroon was more interesting to France, than the US or the Soviets. Biya survived so long because of his good relationship with French governments. There was violence at the last election, but France’s president Emmanuel Macron was one of the few leaders who congratulated Biya on his election victory in a letter. Biya published the letter on his Facebook page but the French government said it was private.

Many other countries are not against Biya. But more people in Cameroon are against him now, particularly in the Anglophone region of the country. Biya travels the world freely and often stays at the InterContinental hotel in Geneva - Cameroonians say he spends more time there than in Yaoundé. He regularly attends African Union Heads of State meetings and recently stayed in China for two weeks when he went to a three-day Africa-China summit in Beijing.

When a president has been in power for 36 years in a country where elections should change the leadership, it’s logical to ask, ‘Why don’t the people resist?’ But in Cameroon, regional and international institutions try very hard to stop all resistance. The army and the police control the use of force and can access all weapons, training and other tools. The arms trade has less laws than all others in the world, so people could only fight back with arms if the government do not talk.

In 2015, citizens in the Anglophone region of Cameroon began a peaceful campaign to protest that they didn’t have good government services. The army and the state used violence to stop them, and this has turned into a full rebellion. But the main media do not report on this violence. Biya controls the information about Cameroon so he stops information from leaving, and Cameroonians are left alone to resist.

Africa has the youngest population in the world, so many people are talking about presidents that never leave power. In Cameroon it is even more strange to have an 85-year-old president and an average age of population of 18.5. The Cameroon under Biya shows that change is not just about numbers of people but also power, violence and political institutions. When a president has been in power for such a long time, we need to ask important questions about the international systems that connect and support governments around the world.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)