Paul Biya, Cameroon’s crafty veteran leader

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Yaoundé, Nov 4 (UrduPoint/Pakistan Point News – Nov 4, 2022): When Paul Biya first took charge of Cameroon, Ronald Reagan was in his second year as president, Madonna was not yet in the charts and the Soviet Union was still almost a decade before the breakup.

Biya, who at 89 will mark 40 years in power on Sunday, has become one of the world’s longest-serving leaders thanks to an iron-fisted regime and backing from loyalists in key positions.

After seven years as Prime Minister of the Central African country, he entered the presidential palace on November 6, 1982, becoming only the second head of state since independence from France in 1960.

Its four-decade-long grip is a tribute to tightrope walking skills in a country facing social, political and security challenges and grappling with economic disparities.

His nicknames among the public are “Popol”, an avuncular form of Paul, and “The Sphinx” – a testament to his cunning.

“All you have to do is lose your mind for a second and you’re done,” Biya told a reporter in 1986.

In October 2018, he won a seventh consecutive term after elections marred by allegations of fraud, low turnout and separatist violence in Cameroon’s English-speaking regions. He was declared the winner with 71.28% of the vote.

After Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe fell in 2017, Biya became Africa’s longest serving president and its longest serving president after Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea, who took power in 1979.

In recent years, he has suppressed all opposition, political and armed, which has earned him rare criticism from the United Nations and Western capitals.

His public appearances are limited to pre-recorded and painstakingly delivered televised speeches.

– The Biya ‘system’ – Biya’s appointment of loyalists to key positions – speaker of the National Assembly, head of the army and head of the state-owned oil and gas company among them – helped buttress his long rule.

“We are all creatures or creations of President Paul Biya,” his higher education minister, Jacques Fame Ndongo, said in 2011. “We are only his servants, or better yet, his slaves.” Titus Edzoa, a former confidant of the president who served as secretary general of Biya’s presidency between 1994 and 1996 and held ministerial posts several times, said: “If you try to go against Biya, you will be crushed.” He said Biya used “violence and terror, depending on his mood and rumors, to subjugate his associates and submit the entire population”.

Edzoa resigned as health minister in 1997 to run for office. After that, he was arrested, charged with theft, and spent 17 years behind bars.

Maurice Kamto, who lost to Biya in the 2018 elections, was arrested the following year after saying he was the victim of an “electoral hold-up”. He was detained for nine months and only released after international pressure.

In the restive English-speaking west of this predominantly French-speaking country, Biya has for years rejected demands for federalism.

The Anglophone campaign became more radical, leading to the declaration of an independent state in October 2017 – a move that sparked a crackdown by Biya. The fighting has claimed an estimated 6,000 lives and forced more than a million people to flee their homes.

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