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A review of Michel Roger Emvana’s Paul Biya: Les secrets du pouvoirs. Paris: Karthala. 2005. 290pp.Paper Back $58.45. 2-84586-684-4

Emvana’s well researched book titled ‘Paul Biya: Les secrets du pouvoir’ is a walk through the meanders in the skewed mind of a compulsive despot — Mr. Paul Biya, the tyrant that has misgoverned Cameroon for close to three decades. Emvana creates an interesting parallel between Paul Biya and Niccolo Machiavelli when he compares the machinations of Cameroon’s head of state with the shenanigans of Machiavelli’s protagonist in ‘The Prince’ (1977):

“ The power hungry comedian is well seated on his pedestal for more than two decades now, with this dose of Machiavellianism that renders him incomprehensible.”(10).

Those who have read Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ would be familiar with the diabolical precepts that the Italian writer propounded as modus operandi for monopolizing political power in perpetuity. In Emvana’s own words, Paul Biya is a prototype of Machiavelli’s political modus operandi: “Paul Biya is the clone of Machiavelli’s prince, attached to his throne and forever attentive.” (34). Envana underscores the point that Paul Biya is a bicephalous political beast who appears to be what he is not: “Biya governs with a mask. He is not what he appears to be. That’s why it is difficult to characterize him.” (11)

Indeed, the generality of Cameroonians find it rather hard to paint a credible portrait of the man that has abused them for decades. This is because Biya is a political comedian. Emvana portrays the Cameroonian president as “The guy that Cameroonians don’t know very well; whose ministers have only partial knowledge of who he really is. As he puts it, “Biya knows how to play the double role of a devouring big cat and that of a cunning fox. To put this differently, Paul Biya excels at the nefarious game of cat and mouse in the political arena. Emvana’s neologism “le Biyaïsme” is a label that describes Biya’s political comedy of abstraction, governmental ineptitude and injurious subjectivity. Biyaism, the highest stage of Machiavellianism, is founded on the precept of banished moral scruples: “Some sociologists have attributed to Paul Biya the epithet of Machiavellianism founded on absence of moral scruples serving the interests of an individual” (37)

Biyaism is an anti-people code that breeds apathy, dereliction of duty, and resentment. Emvana writes, “Biyaism is a theory that is transcendent, complex, rippling and iconoclastic. It is a theory that must be studied profoundly in order to steer clear of associating it with apathy, absenteeism and sloth” (27). He argues that Biya is a “Lazy king” who listens to no one else’s voice but his own. Biyaism as a governmental paradigm draws its strength from ontological sadism. According to Emvana, Paul Biya is a sadist who “…who loves to make people tremble.”(243). As he sees it, it is this sadistic penchant for deriving pleasure from the sufferings of others that has driven Mr. Biya to have recourse to occultism: “Paul Biya has a mystical relationship with power…” (29).

‘Paul Biya: Les secrets du pouvoir’ is interesting in several respects but the aspect that captivates the reader’s attention most is the ambivalent nature of the Cameroonian head of state. Emvana notes: “But everyone knows that Paul Biya and his ministers do not speak with one voice” (81). It is not just consensus that is sorely lacking between the president and his henchmen. They do not meet periodically as expected to discuss state affairs. Little wonder nothing works in Cameroon. Emvana does not mince words in his diatribe against Paul Biya and his lame duck regime. He calls a spade a spade when he labels the Cameroonian head of state an opportunist: “Biya is an opportunist but his political opportunism is soused and veiled.” (77) One other intriguing aspect of Biya’s persona is his ability to make believe; to dine with God and Mammon at the same time.

According to Emvana, Biya believes that his governmental inspiration derives from God Almighty: “His power comes from God…” (77). At the same time, Biya is an adept of sorcery. He is a member of the Rosicrucian Order. Emvana points out that Biya perceives the Rosicrucian Order as a source of protection on which he relies to hang onto power eternally: “Paul Biya probably perceives the Rosicrucian Order as a source of protection to which every politician has recourse in a bid to stay in power perpetually…” (160). This double allegiance to God and Lucifer is so mind-boggling that Emvana cannot help but ask the rhetorical question: “How can Biya worship the gods of AMOK and Christ?”(157) He observes that Biya is portrayed in the Western media as one of the most generous financiers of the Rosicrucian Order: “…French media portrays Paul Biya as one of the most generous donors of the Rosicrucian Order… ” (157). Not surprisingly, Emvana notes that: “Christian masses have always been celebrated at Etoudi before and after Paul Biya became Head of State.” (157). He insists that this ambivalence is typical of Paul Biya, a man who has dressed up in borrowed robes during his entire tenure at the presidency of Republic of Cameroon:“ This is typical of Biya. He is a political comedian who enters the scene wearing a fake costume and soon abandons his role once on stage” (158). Thus, the Cameroonian Head of State is synonymous with a political chameleon that changes colors at its whims and caprices.

‘Paul Biya: Les secrets du pouvoir’ is a scathing lampoon on the crippling ethnocentrism that has rendered the presidency of Cameroon dysfunctional. The book is also about the paranoia that has gripped the Cameroonian head of state. Paul Biya nurses a morbid fear of the press in general. He lives like a hermit at the presidential palace at Etoudi or at Etoudi-Annex in his home town of Mvomeka. Most of the time, he is gallivanting in luminous cities in western countries in search of nothing in particular and learning nothing that could improve the livelihood of Cameroonians. As Emvana points out, “He evades press interviews… He is wary of the press in general” (202).

Ironically, Paul Biya views himself as an indomitable lion. He goes by the sobriquet ‘l’homme-lion’ or Lion-Man. Emvana notes that “Biya adopted this nickname during the presidential elections of 1997” (211). The significance of this nickname is that Paul Biya subscribes to the doctrine of the law of the jungle. His political opponents acknowledge this fact. Frédéreic Kodock, for example, has described the president as “un serpent” or snake in an interview he granted the press in the past. This metaphor compares Paul Biya’s sly nature to that of a green snake in green grass.

The succession question is broached in ‘Paul Biya: Les secrets du pouvoir’. Who will succeed Paul Biya? Has Biya groomed his successor yet? What does the constitution say about presidential succession in Cameroon? These are some thorny questions that preoccupy Emvana in his narrative. Without offering a convincing response, the writer has the hunch that “…The successor shall emerge from the close circle of Biyaists. The presidential choice will be made from this small group…” (236) However, the writer cautions political observers against ruling out the possibility of an outsider emerging as Paul Biya’s successor: “However, one should not rule out the likelihood of an outsider emerging as a political successor to Paul Biya” (236). In the meantime, Paul Biya is contented with simply keeping a close watch on those hawks that are vying for succession in the post-Biya era.

The 1996 amended constitution of the Republic of Cameroon makes it abundantly clear who becomes president in the event of power vacancy in Cameroon. Article 6, section 4 of the constitution states lucidly: “In the event of vacancy at the presidency of the Republic on account of death, resignation, or permanent disability brought to the attention of the Constitutional Council, presidential elections must be conducted without fail 20 days at least and 40 days at most from the date of the vacancy” (230). The 1996 constitution designates the President of the Senate as the legal successor of Mr. Biya. However, the president of the senate cannot run for the presidency: “On paper, Biya, being the fine republican and perfect legalist that he is, knows his successor already. The statutes exist since 1996 but texts do not replace a president. From the human, practical and pragmatic points of view, Biya alone knows his successor. It is State secret” (231). The question that begs to be asked at this juncture is why there is so much brouhaha about presidential succession in Cameroon if the constitution leaves no room for ambiguity in the succession question. Emvana observes that this agitation stems from the fact that Paul Biya, in his quest for a strategist like himself may not respect the supreme law of the land in his ultimate choice of a successor. As he would have it, “The goal of this book is not to serve as apologia or panegyric. It is not an alibi for disproportionate praise, nor is it intended to be an indictment” (231).

In a nutshell, with the publication of ‘Paul Biya: Les secrets du pouvoir’, Michel Roger Emvana joins the ranks of writers like Gervais Mendo Ze and Jacques Fame Ndongo who remain firm in their belief that Paul Biya is God’s gift to Cameroonians. The book is replete with ambiguity and hyperbolic statements about the invincibility of President Biya. In the preface Emvana states upfront that his intent in crafting his book is neither to produce a panegyric laudation nor a vitriolic diatribe of Biya’s regime. Whether or not Emvana has remained true to this stated objective remains a moot point; a conundrum for readers to unravel. ‘Paul Biya: Les secrets du pouvoir’ is a book that causes both grief and glee. It is a document to be read with an open mind and composure.


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* Dr. Vakunta is professor at the United States Department of Defense Language Institute.

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