Paul Barthélemy Biya’a bi Mvondo was born on 13 February 1933 in Mvomeka’a, a village in Cameroon’s South Region.
He studied at the Lycée General Leclerc, Yaounde and the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, Paris and went on to the Institut des hautes études d’Outre-Mer where he graduated in 1961 with a Higher Education Diploma in Public Law.
He became a bureaucrat in his late 20’s under President Ahmadou Ahidjo.
He was Chargé de Mission at the Presidency of the Republic upon his return from Paris in October 1962 and Director of Cabinet of the Minister of National Education, Youth Affairs and Culture in January 1964.
He was named Director of Cabinet of the Minister of National Education, Youth Affairs and Culture in July 1965 and later Director of the Civil Cabinet of the President in December 1967.
While still serving as Director of the Civil Cabinet, Biya was appointed Secretary-General of the Presidency of the Republic in January 1968.
He gained the rank of Minister in August 1968 and the rank of Minister of State in June 1970, while remaining Secretary-General at the Presidency.
Following the creation of a unitary state in 1972, he became Prime Minister of Cameroon on 30 June 1975.
Ahidjo unexpectedly announced his resignation on 4 November 1982, and Biya accordingly succeeded him as President of Cameroon on 6 November.
Assessing 89-year-old Biya’s 39 years in power
Cameroon’s aging President Paul Biya celebrated his 89th birthday on Sunday, making him the oldest president in the world. He has been in power for 39 years.
Birthday celebrations held across the country, with Ferdinand Ngoh Ngoh, the Secretary-General at the Presidency joining hired youths at the Yaounde Sports Complex to thank God for keeping Biya this long. In Biya’s native Sangmelima, prayers were said on his birthday. Biya was represented by the Director of his cabinet, Samuel Mvondo Ayolo. Like in previous such birthday celebrations, Biya’s birthday was met with protest by the opposition, demanding that he step down.
So, how has he acquitted himself in office, and what has been his legacy for Cameroon?
Cameroonians welcomed Biya when he became president in November 1982. The peaceful transfer of power by his predecessor Ahmadou Ahidjo won Cameroon praise as an example to emulate in Africa, where leaders either held on to power for too long, through duplicity and violence, or were forced out.
Ahidjo was ruthless, authoritative, and vicious. He ruled by intimidation. Under him rivals were hunted down, tortured, killed, or forced into exile. He was the “source of all power in the state”.
Biya was seen as a breath of fresh air, and he stepped in saying the right things to different groups.
He visited the nation’s Anglophone regions, spoke in English, and even referred to Bamenda, a major city in the Northwest region, as his “second home”. It was a marked difference from his predecessor, whose policies severely undermined English as a major part of the nation’s bilingualism.
Biya’s early actions were received with cheers. He pledged a “new deal” to restore integrity and eliminate corruption. He also announced that although he was of the Beti/Bulu ethnic group, he was born a Cameroonian and would govern as such.
His policies extended elementary and secondary education to rural areas. He allowed press freedom. In his book Communal Liberalism he emphasised the importance of creating a “more open, more tolerant and more democratic political society”.
But those promises and pronouncements were short-lived.
By the end of Biya’s first year in office, he had reverted to his predecessor’s tactics, a practice which intensified after the attempted coup in 1984.
He remade the nation’s only political party, Cameroon National Union, in his image, renaming it the Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement. He packed his administration with people from his ethnic group and drove a solvent economy into insolvency.
His policies targeted and undermined groups like Bamilekes, Anglophones and Northerners.
He changed the name of the country from the United Republic of Cameroon to the Republic of Cameroon, a clear indication that Anglophone concerns did not matter.
He went to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund for help to revive an ailing economy. But, after three decades of intervention by these institutions, the economy remains on the brink of collapse.
The nation’s currency was devalued on his watch in 1994, bringing misery to many.
Corruption became endemic. Cameroon is often ranked as being among the most corrupt countries in the world.
Biya circumvents the country’s multiparty political system at will. He has repeatedly amended the constitution to tighten his grip on power. One amendment, in 2008, was to eliminate presidential term limits.
As a response to protests against excessive centralisation of decision making in Yaounde, Biya signed a decentralisation decree in 1996 to empower regional and local authorities. But 25 years later, that initiative has not been realised. Not even the adoption of the Law to Institute Regional and Local Authorities in December 2019 has bolstered the much heralded Decentralisation.
Another failed initiative was the National Commission for the Promotion of Bilingualism and Multiculturalism created in 2017 in response to the Anglophone protest. After billions of francs CFA were squandered, the commission has achieved nothing substantive.
Biya’s Achilles heel is the ongoing Anglophone crisis. He has overstayed his term in office, using underhand manoeuvres to cling to power.
His nearly four decades’ rule has robbed Cameroon of its credibility as a stable and peaceful country. Nations such as the US have repeatedly imposed advisory travel bans on Cameroon.
The true test of leadership
Four years ago, a peaceful protest against the marginalisation of English-speaking people turned violent as Biya’s military responded with arrests and torture.
Some responded with a call for secession of the Anglophone regions and created a virtual Ambazonia Republic. They formed a military wing, Ambazonia Defence Force, and used it to attack Biya’s military and disrupt economic and social services in the region.
The Anglophone crisis degenerated into violence because of miscalculations by Biya’s regime. The resulting crisis has devastated entire communities. The region’s economy has also been crippled, resulting in a wave of crime, and burning of businesses and public facilities.
Cameroon is now a no-go country in many respects.
Foreign policy success
Biya’s most enduring achievement has been in his conduct of foreign policy. He remains influential in the African Union, and maintains good relations with France, the US and China.
Cameroon was part of the multinational joint task force which conducted military operations to contain Boko Haram. Biya was key in convincing major powers that Boko Haram posed a global threat.
He settled Cameroon’s conflict with Nigeria over the Bakassi Peninsula and placed relations between the nations on a good footing.
Biya also diversified foreign policy from a focus on France to expanding relations with China (though by 2007 he had begun to regret China’s economic domination in Cameroon). He has encouraged American businesses in Cameroon too.
Even after Cameroon was excluded from the African Growth and Opportunity Act, a programme that allows African nations to export their goods to the US duty free, for human rights violations, US-Cameroon military collaboration continued.
Turning the tide
Given Biya’s unwillingness to step down from power, the global community needs to exert pressure on him to solve the Anglophone crisis.
The crisis exposes the hypocrisy and weaknesses of the current global system. The major powers make noises about human rights, yet fail to stop abuses by Biya’s government.
What happens with the Anglophone crisis may turn out to be the most significant determinant of Biya’s legacy.
Biya now sliding into dementia
Biya may be living longer, healthier, and a more active live than other Cameroonians of his generation. Understandably so because the country’s wealth has been personalised by his family.
Fears are sometimes expressed that Biya may be at risk of dementia. And it’s true that the onset of dementia among those who are 75 or older is a moderate risk.
A leader like Biya with decades of experience is likely to have encountered various crises before to know how to respond effectively.
Biya seems to have remedied his loss of mobility, sight, and hearing concerns, hitherto seen as inevitable consequences of ageing that should have robbed him of his ability to a lead vigorous, energetic live.
89-year-old Biya appears to be walking on replacement hips and knees, seeing clearly thanks to routine cataract replacement, and gaining access to powerful digital hearing aids that filter random noise and allow clear understanding and conversation.
Older leaders are distinct from younger ones in their skill set. Obviously, their strong suit is experience. Biya with decades of experience is likely to have encountered various crises before and to know how to respond effectively (and what mistakes to avoid).
Biya knows what it’s like to make the tough calls and to take a longer view. He is less strong at innovation, but for that reason he is also likely to be less polarising.
Biya will be too old to run; CPDM should just give him wings to fly
On Saturday, November 6, 2021, Paul Biya clocked exactly 39 years as President of the Republic of Cameroon.
While celebrations took place nationwide in his absence, militants of his ruling Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (CPDM) took turns to re-echo calls for his to run for office in 2025 when his current mandate expires.
After Lekie Division, the entire North West CPDM begged 88-year-old Paul Biya to present himself as presidential candidate in 2025. In 2025, Biya will be over 92 years old. If he renews his mandate, then it will end when he will be 99.
But asking a man who can barely walk to run for office is standing logic on its head. The CPDM should just give Biya wings to fly.
While attending the 2nd Edition of the Paris Peace Summit in November 2019, Biya was seen wobbling as he moved to shake hands with the 43-year-old French leader. His legs were apparently unable to support his weight as he would be supported up a 7-step stairway by his bodyguard.
President Paul Biya clocked 89 on February 13, 2022. The current 7-year mandate which he renewed last October 7, 2018, following controversial polls expires in 2025. Before luck shone on him, Biya was Prime Minister for seven uninterrupted years.
Critics say he has in 39 years taken the country to an all-time low, with uncountable crises plaguing the underdeveloped nation, the most pressing of which is the conflict in the North West and South West Regions.
It is even rumoured in some quarters that the hitherto “traveling president” is now being moved around by his wife, Chantal and her puppet, Ferdinand Ngoh Ngoh who is the all-powerful Minister of State, Secretary-General at the Presidency of the Republic. Jeune Afrique once refereed to Ngoh Ngoh as Mr. Vice President.