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Review of ‘Au Cameroun de Paul Biya’

Several books have been written in an attempt to capture Cameroonian President Paul Biya’s personality, and ‘the enigmatic aura that surrounds this African dictator’, but Fanny Pigeaud’s new account ‘surpasses them all’, writes Peter Wuteh Vakunta.

Au Cameroun de Paul Biya’ is Fanny Pigeaud’s autopsy of a malignant nation. In 276-pages, this French journalist attempts to provide answers to intriguing questions about Paul Biya’s 30-year anomalous rule over Cameroonians: Why has the country become one of the world’s most corrupt nations? What are the secrets behind Paul Biya’s longevity in power? Has Paul Biya been entrapped in the macabre intrigues hatched by the henchmen that surround him? Have forces beyond his control thwarted the accomplishment of goals he set for himself on accession to power in 1982? Was Paul Biya incurably bruised by the 6 April 1984 abortive coup? According to Pigeaud, Biya himself unravels the conundrum by describing himself as follows: ‘un brouilleur de cartes’, ‘fin statège’ and ‘maître dans l’art de gérer l’immobile’ (69) [card scrambler, cunning strategist, and maestro in the art of managing the unmanageable.">

Pigeaud depicts Cameroon as a terrestrial purgatory where things are topsy-turvy: endemic corruption, misappropriation of public funds, influence peddling, impunity, illegality, electoral fraud and gerrymandering, witch-hunting, and occultism are the stock in trade of the inhabitants of this strange clime. As she would have it, Cameroon is ‘un pays en mauvaise santé, sans projet, rongé par la corruption, le clientélisme, l’enrichissement illicit, et le manque de conscience professionnelle…’(41) [a country in poor health, with no future, enfeebled by corruption, populism, unlawful accumulation of wealth and absence of professional consciousness…">

According to Pigeaud, the dysfunctional state of Cameroon is attributable to a mix of internal and external factors. Foreign countries, she argues, continue to meddle in the internal affairs of Cameroon, exploiting her natural resources with nothing given in return. France continues to treat Cameroon as a post-colony. By standing behind Paul Biya, France ensures that its national interests are protected in Cameroon. Pigeaud notes: ‘le Cameroun constitue un marché pour ses produits et fournit d’importantes ressources, comme le gaz ou le pétrole’ (238). [Cameroon is an important marketing outlet for French products, and serves as a source of important resources, namely gas and oil">. She further points out that Biya has mortgaged Cameroon’s oil reserves to the French oil giant Elf by taking a US$45million loan from the company: ‘Elf a consenti le prêt à la SNH, gagé sur la production future du pays’ (148) [Elf granted the loan, using the country’s oil reserves as security">.This is the reason why Elf is calling the shots in offshore oil exploitation in Cameroon and nobody can raise a finger.

The United States of America also takes some bashing from Pigeaud. In her own words, Cameroon ‘est devenu pour Washington un pays stratégique dans le golfe de Guinée, d’où provient 15% de ses ressources en pétrole. L’objectif des responsables américains est de faire passer ce pourcentage à 25% d’ici 2015’ (244) [Cameroon has become for Washington a strategic country in the Gulf of Guinea where she gets 15 per cent of her petroleum products. America’s goal is to raise this percentage to 25 per cent by 2015">. According to Pigeaud expatriate companies implanted in Cameroon indulge in corrupt practices aided and abetted by nationals.

Internal causes are legion but the most deleterious is impunity. Pigeaud describes the Biya regime as a gerontological oligarchy: Government of the elderly exclusively for the elderly: ‘La plupart des dirigéants d’entreprises publiques et des ministres nommés par le président ont souvent plus de 70ans’ (194) [Most company directors and ministers appointed by the president are often aged 70 or older">. She notes that in 2001 the Minister of Domain and Land Affairs Jean-Baptiste Beleokon was aged 79; the director of cabinet at the Presidency, Martin Belinga Eboutou, was 71; the Manager of the National Hydrocarbons Company (SNH), Adolphe Moudiki, was 73. In 2010, Felix Sabal Lecco, chairman of the board of directors of the National Communications Council (NCC), died in office at the ripe age of 92. Biya consistently flouts the law by allowing members of his close circle of friends and tribesmen to remain in office past the official retirement age. These golden agers are not there to serve the interests of the Cameroonian people; rather they are self-seekers. Pigeaud believes that ‘L’objectif de la petite élite dirigéante est de préserver ses privilèges…’ (189)[The goal of this small ruling elite is to preserve their privileges.">

Pigeaud contends that the story of the ‘disappearance’ of a briefcase containing money destined for the national soccer team, the Indomitable Lions in1994, constitutes an eye-opening case of insolent impunity and shameless abuse of power by Cameroonian political leaders. Cameroonians would recall that in 1994 their government refused to disburse money to enable the national team to travel to the United States to participate in the World Cup quarter finals. Saddened by this turn of events, the then Minister of Youths and sports went on national television to launch an ‘Opération coup de Coeur,’ a nation-wide fundraiser for the Indomitable Lions. Cameroonians responded generously by donating 400 millions CFA francs.

Unfortunately, the money never reached the intended recipients – the Indomitable Lions. It was embezzled in its entirety. When questioned about the whereabouts of the money, the then Minister of Communications, Augustin Kontchou Kouomegni simply said: ‘l’argent s’est perdue quelque part dans le ciel entre Paris et New York’ (195) [the money went missing in the air somewhere between Paris and New York."> To date, no enquiry has ever been opened to investigate this eye-piercing story of brazen theft by Cameroonian ministers. On the contrary, a CRTV journalist who aired Joseph Antoine Bell’s criticism of Kontchou Kouomegni’s nonsensical remarks was suspended from his job.

‘Au Cameroun de Paul Biya’ is a rap on miscarriage of justice in Cameroon. Cameroonian courts are window-dressings at the beck and call of the executive branch of government. As Pigeaud opines, ‘La justice s’achète, se vend [Justice is bought and sold">. She describes Paul Biya and his spouse as outlaws who show total disdain for the rule of law. An example she gives is Chantal Biya’s Foundation, code-named La Fondation Chantal Biya [Chantal Biya Foundation">. The Foundation is portrayed in Pigeaud’s book as a gigantic fraud intended to embezzle national funds. In 2006, for example, Chantal Biya received the sum of 60million CFA francs from Feicom supposedly meant to finance a certain ‘Opération cartable’ targeting marginalized children of the South-West. God alone knows if this mission was ever accomplished or not. In 2001 she received the sum of 93.1 million CFA francs for a similar bogus project.

Biya’s government is described as a mafia regime steeped in the occult: ‘Le régime de Biya s’est peu à peu égaré pour ressembler finalement à une vaste organisation mafieuse’ (149). [Biya’s regime has gradually degenerated into the equivalent of a mafia."> Pigeaud notes that Cameroon’s most wanted Feyman[i">, Donatien Koagne enjoyed the protection of Jean Forchivé, chief of secret police service. Thanks to Forchivé, this notorious conman was able to evade arrest on several occasions. Pigeaud posits: ‘Certains on vu derrière le soutien de Forchivé à Koagne, la volonté du régime de promouvoir la corruption, l’illégalité et l’argent facile…’ (150) [Some people view Forchive’s protection of Koagne as an indication that the regime desires to encourage corruption, illegality and ill-gotten wealth.">

‘Au Cameroun de Paul Biya’ heaps a ton of opprobrium on Cameroon’s security officers whom Pigeaud portrays as corrupt to the core. They aid and abet corruption, influence peddling, extortion and misappropriation of public funds: ‘Les forces de sécurité ont, elles aussi, développé de nombreuses activités mafieuses’ [Security officials have also created several mafia activities."> Because Paul Biya is also corrupt, he cannot put an end to corruption. As Pigeaud would have it,’ Si Biya arrêtait tous ceux qui ont volé, ce serait comme jeter une bombe dans sa propre maison. Il pourrait sauter avec’ (146) [If Biya were to arrest all those who misappropriated public funds, it would be tantamount to throwing a bomb in his own home. He could end up being blown into pieces in the process.">

‘Au Cameroun de Paul Biya’ is a lampoon on the politics of ethnicity. Like most African dictators, Biya has learned the ropes of divide and rule. The multiplicity of ethnic groups in the country (about 236 according some sources) has worked in his favor. He is an adept of the philosophy of politics of ethnic dribbling. In this light, Pigeaud observes that Biya ‘a exacerbé les clivages ethniques pour se maintenir et disqualifier les opposants.’[has exacerbated ethnic clivages in order to disqualifier political opposition and stay in power.">

Biya’s survival depends on what Pigeaud calls the ‘bétisation du pouvoir’ (134). [Beti stranglehold on power">. She contends that ‘La survie des Beti passe par le maintien au pouvoir de Biya…’ (134). [The survival of the Beti depends on Biya's longevity in power">. Biya’s political survival also depends on his ability to balkanise the English-speaking region of the country. He bounces off the Graffis against South-Westerners for political expediency. The schism he has created between Northwesterners and Southwesterners has enabled him to make political capital.In a similar vein, he uses the so-called ‘Complot bamiléké’ [Bamileke conspiracy"> as an excuse to marginalize the Bamileke and keep them at arm’s length.

In a nutshell, several books have been written in an attempt to capture Biya’s personality, and the enigmatic aura that surrounds this African dictator (‘Le Code Biya’, 2009; ‘Paul Biya: Les secrets du pouvoir’, 2005; ‘Cameroun: Les crises majeures de la présidence Paul Biya’, 2007, etc) but Fanny Pigeaud’s Au Cameroun de Paul Biya surpasses them all. This veritable masterpiece towers over all others by virtue of its depth, matter-of-factness, and clarity of diction. Pigeaud sets out to inform the unapprised reader about what makes Biya’s despotic regime tick; she accomplishes her goal brilliantly. Her book is a treasure trove of political, socio-cultural and ontological information. It is a work that will stand the test of time. It is worth read.


* Fanny Pigeaud’s ‘Au Cameroun de Paul Biya’ is published by Editions Karthala, (ISBN978-2811-105266).
* Dr Vakunta is professor at the United States Department of Defense Language Institute in Monterey-California.
* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.