Biya’s Last Odyssey: Cementing a Half Century Legacy of Service to Cameroon

Emmanuel Konde With the exception of those Cameroonians who never rose to exercise political power in Cameroon despite their valiant and historic struggles, we have seldom elevated to a pinnacle beyond reproach those who not only accessed power but actually led. It is therefore not uncommon for Cameroonians to speak of, and write about, Ruben Um Nyobe, Felix Roland Moumie, Ernest Ounadie and a host of others who gave their lives in struggle for authentic independence in glowing terms. Few have done same for those who exercised political power. Hence, names like Ahmadou Ahidjo, John Ngu Foncha, Solomon Tandeng Muna, and Paul Biya—all pragmatist politicians, are never mentioned in the same light as our idealist heroes.

By nature an emotional people, we have permitted our emotion to spew into the intellectual realm analyzing and writing history, a trend that has colored the historiography of Cameroon. Our penchant for that, which never was, as an emotional people, is understandable. But this orientation must be altered. It is simply wrong to worship our dead who died fighting and excoriate our leaders who navigated through the treacherous waters of colonialism and neocolonialism to help sustain our native land. We must aspire to abandon histrionics and rationally embrace the process of writing history by combining the work of our nationalist heroes who never lived to rule for one day with the work of our political leaders who managed to rule despite the constraints imposed on them by forces external to Cameroon.

Enter Mr. Paul Biya

One of Cameroon’s political leaders of enduring stature whose praise has not been sung enough is Paul Biya, President of Cameroon since 1982. President Biya stands astride among the few as the only Cameroonian who devoted the greater part of his life to the service of his Fatherland. At age 78, fifty of these have been spent managing the affairs of Cameroon. It is no exaggeration to assert without ambiguity that the greatest political gift that the people of Cameroon have had since German colonization and amalgamation of the various tribal polities into an embryonic nation during the last decades of the nineteenth century was initiated by Paul Biya upon his ascension to the supreme office of the land in 1982. What I am alluding to is the gift of political freedoms, which have expanded and flowered over the last three decades in Cameroon.

We must recall that under colonial rule and the first quarter century of independent Cameroon our people were denied the simple freedoms of assembly, association, and speech. But no sooner President Biya assumed the reins of power in 1982 than he set in motion a transforming ethos that is still unfolding. Experiencing this great transformation that President Biya has wrought in Cameroon in just three decades–a vibrant and dynamic media and flourishing of opposition political parties–attests to what a well-contrived and executed plan of democratization can bring. We cannot but be appreciative of Biya’s work which, though slow and incremental, constitutes a social force of stability.

It would be naïve to think that the process of democratizing a fragmented polity in a few decades. The leading democracies in the world took longer than a century for democracy to blossom; for Cameroon, a poly-ethnic society comprised of people acculturated to identifying with their particular tribal systems of governance, the process might take even longer. Hence, whether we admit it or not, Paul Biya is responsible for setting Cameroon on the course toward democracy. Therefore, Biya can arguably be posited as a transitional figure in the evolution of Cameroon politics from absolute authoritarianism to an incipient participatory democracy.

Nevertheless, we cannot be oblivious of one constant political reality: that all political transitions are fraught with pitfalls because of the inconstancy of human nature, especially when the citizenry is ill-educated in politics, their expectations high, and no quick fixes or magic wands at hand to bring about the desired results instantaneously. That’s why Cameroon’s political transition needs to be guided skillfully by a leader with tried and tested experience. To this end, history has placed Paul Biya in an unenviable position to lead Cameroon toward opening up of this once closed society. This task, it must be submitted, is Herculean and fraught with pitfalls

But who is this man, Paul Biya, whom history has anointed to guide Cameroon‘s political transition? Why should he be re-elected once more to lead Cameroon during what might be his last tenure as president? This synoptic appraisal of Biya’s political career proposes to present a brief biographical sketch of the man and to demonstrate why his re-election in the upcoming 2011 Presidential Election would augur well for Cameroon.

This writer is of the conviction that Mr. Biya’s last tenure at the helm of the Cameroon state will be devoted to cementing his legacy, which translates to working assiduously for the welfare of the nation. As the man of our times, whose experience far exceeds the combined experiences of his opponents, to him must the mantle of national leadership be handed one more time. Indeed, none can argue that President Biya has not accumulated and invested enough political capital. All would agree that it is time for him to spend it on the people he has served this past half century (1962-2011). All Cameroonians at home and abroad must, at this critical juncture in the political history of Cameroon, lend him their support.

Education for Political Leadership

Paul Biya was born among the Bulu people of Cameroon in February 1933, at Mvomeka’a village in Sangmelima, Dja and Lobo Division in South Province. Bulu is one of the ethnic groups that comprise the Beti-Pahoiun family in Cameroon. He was 49 at the time of his ascension to power in 1982. A well-educated, debonair, suave, and cosmopolitan man, the highlights of Biya’s early schooling consisted of six years of rigorous Roman Catholic seminarian education in colonial Cameroon, after which he attended the prestigious Lycee Leclerc in Yaoundé and distinguished himself. Biya later undertook studies in politics and public law at Sorbonne University and other French elite institutions of higher learning. This educational formation prepared him for the future administrative and political roles he would play in the years to come.

Upon completing his education in France, Biya returned to Cameroon in 1962, entered the civil service, and meteorically climbed to the apex of his country’s political hierarchy. During the first twenty years of his public career Paul Biya served under his predecessor, President Ahidjo (1962-1982). From 1967 to 1975 the positions Biya held in the Cameroon government involved functions directly related to national education and the presidency. In January 1964, Biya was named Director of the Cabinet at the Ministry of National Education; by July 1965 he had risen to the post of Secretary-General in the same ministry. Biya was appointed Director of the Civil Cabinet of the President in December 1967; and in January 1968, he became Secretary-General at the Presidency. Biya retained both positions simultaneously.

A consummate bureaucrat with exceptional management skills, Biya gained the rank of Minister in August 1968 and that of Minister of State in June 1970, even as he remained Secretary-General at the Presidency. When in 1972 the Cameroon federation was transformed by national referendum into a unitary state, on June 30, 1975 Biya was named Prime Minister. Four years later in June 1979 the Cameroon Constitution was amended to designate the Prime Minister as the President’s constitutional successor. On November 4, 1982 President Ahidjo abruptly resigned from the office of president, Biya succeeded him as the second President of Cameroon.

Cementing the Legacy

Ideological proclivity and emotionalism aside, from all apparent indications President Biya is the Cameroonian best qualified at this historical juncture to lead Cameroon. Of service and loyalty to the state he has demonstrated with unequal zeal and uncharacteristic finesse. No other Cameroonian loves Cameroon more; none has spent more years of his life in the service of our beloved Fatherland; no one else understands the Cameroonian political psychic any better than President Biya; and no Cameroonian is better qualified than President Biya to lead Cameroon.

Granted, no single person was born to rule Cameroon. But the times and challenges demand of certain individuals who have accumulated the requisite experiences…. Assuredly, the task of leading Cameroon into mature statehood is not meant for just any man or woman. Many good and gifted men who tried their hands at rising to prominence did not make it; those who succeeded in rising to political prominence found the task of leadership rather daunting. Among those left standing from the now seemingly distant epoch of Cameroon nationalism, Biya alone has made it. This, in itself, is a testament of the workings of Providential forces beyond human understanding.

Given Mr. Biya’s experience serving Cameroon these past 50 years, it should be apparent to all that no other candidate knows Cameroon better, and none more suitable to meet the challenges that await our beloved Fatherland. President Biya has been there and done it all. He deserves this last chance to correct all past errors–economic and political–and, by so doing, set Cameroon on a smooth course towards realizing our national aspirations. We summon the sons and daughters of Cameroon at home and abroad to come together at this crucial moment in the life our native land and lend their support to President Biya as he undertakes the last leg of his political odyssey. We call on all Cameroonians to rise up, to rise up to the wake of a new dawn and join President Biya in this historic journey toward completing the work he began some fifty years ago.
Emmanuel Konde
Professor of History
Albany State University

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