Among the many officials and political party leaders who visited the Mbankolo disaster site on Monday was President Paul Biya’s son, Franck Emmanuel Biya. The real question many have been asking is “What message did he carry and to whom was it delivered?”.
He spent at least an hour at the landslide site in Yaounde, where at least 30 people died on Sunday night.
Unlike other officials who visited Mbankolo, Franck Biya’s actual mission to the site remains unclear.
Many Cameroonians have been wondering in what capacity he visited the disaster scene.
During the visit, he took time to understand what had happened and is reported to have offered his sympathies to the victims. But he left without saying a word to the press, thereby leaving many wondering exactly what the message was that he presented to the suffering masses.
Franck Biya lives just a few hundred meters away from the Mbankolo disaster scene, on the Mont Fébé Heights, from where he can see the disaster site.
He was led to the scene by the Senior Divisional Officer for Mfoundi while wearing blue jeans and a folded-sleeve shirt, along with gendarmes and other people wearing plain clothing.
Some believe that his casual attire, unlike that of some government officials who came there in official attire, communicated his solidarity with the victims.
Moreso, it was a visit to a neighborhood disaster.
It is possible that Franck Biya, like many others, just came to sympathize with the dozens of people who were affected.
The Yaounde II Council, where the disaster happened, wrote on its Facebook page that Franck Biya “met the people to offer condolences and support”.
The Council furthered that “he also encouraged firefighters and river walkers as they continued the search before the final assessment of the damage.”
However, Franck Biya has not been seen doing so before, acting concerned about the sufferings of ordinary Cameroonians.
This year alone, the country faced several natural disasters, in the face of which Franck Biya showed no public sympathy.
From the landslide that killed five and injured 13 in Limbe in July to the floods that ravaged Buea Town and killed at least two in March, he showed no signs of concern for victims.
These disasters are in addition to ongoing conflicts in the Far North, North West, and South West Regions of the country, which have sparked a dire humanitarian crisis, killing thousands and leaving many more displaced.
In the face of these, Franck Biya has kept parading in the corridors of power, featuring in official events, although his position in the Biya government remains undefined.
His concern for the Mbankolo landslide victims seems surprising to some. To others, it is a political visit veiled by a humanitarian fig leaf.
Assuming duties of the father
Regime critic and member of the opposition Cameroon Renaissance Movement, Albert Ndzongang, says Franck Biya is increasingly assuming Paul Biya’s presidential duties.
In fact, he interprets the visit to Mbankolo—something that President Biya himself should have done—as a subcontracting of presidential duties.
Ndzongang says that even if Franck Biya is not there for anything political, the visit is opportunistic, considering that he has not visited other disaster sites in the past.
“We could be wrong, but this is a malicious and subtle attempt to reappropriate father power by son,” says Albert Ndzongang in a writeup that circulated on social media.
“We are tempted to talk about informal subcontracting of presidential duties but the word is a little light. Better to assume a test balloon for parental transfer of charges.”
Man without portfolio
His opinion reflects what is going on in the minds of many Cameroonians, who have been kept in the dark about Franck Biya’s actual role in his father’s government.
He holds no official position in government, yet he has sometimes acted like his father’s de facto successor. While this is practically impossible, given that he holds no official position within the ruling CPDM party and has not succeeded in forming his own political party, many have not stopped speculating. Furthermore, there is no avenue within the Cameroonian constitution through which Franck Biya can become president.
Nonetheless, the Mbankolo visit raised speculations about his subtle ambition to replace President Biya, who has ruled Cameroon for nearly 41 years. How he hopes to achieve that remains a matter of much bigger speculation.
It is a popular belief in Cameroon that President Biya is saddling his son for the Unity Palace job, but unlike others such as Omar Bongo and Iddriss Derby, whose sons were actively involved in politics, Franck Biya has no portfolio as a politician and has not been known to manage anything before.
Spoken for by others
The 52-year-old Franck Biya has been featured in important state events, including the recent visit of French President Emmanuel Macron to Cameroon. But there is rarely a Cameroonian who has ever heard Franck Biya speak.
Additionally, calls for him to run for president have frequently boosted his political morale, but these calls have always come from other people.
Championing these calls is a group called the Franckist Movement, which, an opinion has highlighted, is a ‘coup in gestation’.
Founded in 2013, the movement has openly campaigned for Franck Biya’s candidacy, despite the latter’s total silence about the subject. They have, however, received some pushback from members of the current administration. The most recent is the decision by the administration in Bamenda to stop them from matching during the National Day celebrations.
The movement’s deputy secretary general, Moubarak Foundikou, told Radio France International (RFI) that his appearance at the Mbankolo disaster scene sent a political message about his concern for the public.
“The political reading that I can make is that there is an actor who is trying to say to these fellow citizens, ‘I understand you. I am showing you through this descent my attachment to public affairs. I sent you some form of response’,” Moubarak said.
This is clearly a desperate attempt to insert meaning into a visit that, for all intents and purposes, achieved nothing for the victims.
While Franck Biya, like any Cameroonian, has the right to vie for the position of president, many believe that he needs to do so by following the right channels and doing what politicians do—speaking to the electorate. His eerie silence, and lack of transparency about who he is or his personal life only paint a disturbing image of a leader Cameroonians can do without.