After Paul Biya, one more test for France in Africa

After Paul Biya, one more test for France in Africa

While Paul Biya will celebrate his 90th birthday, more than forty-one of which at the head of Cameroon, his succession promises to be a challenge in a crossroads country in French-speaking central Africa.

An interview with researcher Olivier Vallée.

Mondafrique: what is the latest news on the succession of Paul Biya, the oldest leader of French-speaking Africa?

Olivier Vallee : Paul Biya is old. The next elections are scheduled for October 2025. And we must avoid the contagion of the turbulence observed throughout the region.

Mondafrique: what is the security situation in Cameroon?

OV: The country is struggling on two fronts. Almost the entire north of the country is under the control of Boko Haram and armed bandits. In the West, the conflict in Ambazonia, territory claimed by the English speakers, has worsened. It resulted in the country being split in two. All this feeds a latent conflict towards Nigeria. The security of the regime is ensured by the Rapid Intervention Battalions (BIR) trained by Israelis. Cameroon also has to cope with very strong ambient insecurity, in the city and in the countryside.  

Mondafrique: and on the economic level, what does Cameroon weigh?

O.V.: It is the most economically powerful country in the franc zone in Central Africa, with resources in oil, gas, bauxite, minerals and, increasingly, a form of agro-industry, where powerful indigenous capitalism thrives . The bourgeoisie has been living well, for fifty years, from its various incomes, and, without necessarily being favorable to Paul Biya, it is not very inspired by the upheaval that is coming. Compared to conventional IMF criteria, Cameroon is doing rather well. The French group Favre is present in cocoa, pepper and bananas. In the English-speaking area, it is the CDC group, in rubber and palm oil. Cameroonian agriculture is modernized and capitalized. The key sector that brings in a lot of money for Paul Biya and his entourage is the forest, exploited in association with China.  

Mondafrique: Is Paul Biya a personality of Françafrique?

O.V. : Yes. But like Cameroon, with sudden reversals, forms of reminder of colonial history. The country was not a French colony but placed under French mandate. The President is linked to French Masonic and Rosicrucian networks. He grew up in the shadow of the first President Ahmadou Ahidjo, alongside whom the French army fought very hard against the separatists of the Union of Cameroonian Populations (UPC).

We must also not forget that it is a country which is the meeting of English-speaking Cameroon and French-speaking Cameroon from the greater Cameroon under German mandate.


Mondafrique: how to explain the longevity of Paul Biya? What is his secret?

OV: Biya succeeded a President who was in the minority, a Fulani from the Muslim north. The civil war which fractured the country continued after independence, until the early 1970s, causing tens of thousands of victims. Biya was very close to Ahidjo but with him, Cameroon turned the page on war. A former seminarian, he is a pure product of the French administration. He relies on his community in the center of the country, the Beti group. He is seen as a safeguard towards the Northerners, a “democrat” in relation to a military threat and a peaceful man, even if his indulgence towards the UPC activists remained very measured. Ultimately, all this means that Biya does not appear as a negative person; he managed to forget that he was very linked to Ahidjo and the French reaction.

Mondafrique: how has power evolved over time?

OV: The hegemonic party, the Democratic Rally of the Cameroonian People (RDPC), is the continuation of Ahidjo's party and to succeed in anything in Cameroon, you must be a member. People in the West, where the Social Democratic Front (SDF), an English-speaking party with national pretensions, was born in 1990, are systematically marginalized. We are witnessing a sort of sharing of the country between the Bamiléké of the West in business and the Béti of the center in politics. As Paul Biya aged, the regime gradually fossilized, continuing to evolve not on the basis of consensus but rather of gerontocratic rigidity. Today, the homeless man's scarecrow no longer works. But the unity of the oppositions, some of whose leaders are in prison, is difficult to achieve against a backdrop of armed struggles.    

Mondafrique: can we talk about a Paul Biya system?

O.V. : It's a diet that rests on the five fingers of one hand. And some say one of those fingers is a British colonel. The decision is very centralized. Paul Biya is the empty hub of the wheel. Its absence allows the wheel to turn. Most eliminations and punishments are not issued by him. It is not a classic autocratic power, like that exercised by Sekou Touré or Omar Bongo. Despite the cult of personality to which he is the subject, Biya rather plays on a form of invisibility, of reserve.

Governance is catastrophic, embezzlements systematic and, from time to time, a dignitary pays punctually, more for his political ambitions than his misdeeds. Paul Biya willingly sacrifices his loved ones.

Mondafrique: what are the events that could destabilize the succession of Paul Biya? 

OV Even if there are factors of fragility, it is rather the positioning of each of the possible heirs which could accelerate the exit from the status quo before the next presidential elections. A palace revolution is not excluded. We can imagine a family camp that thinks it is better to replace the President before others do.

The army is well treated, so a belly mutiny is unlikely.  

Mondafrique: on the international level, who are Paul Biya's allies?

OV: There is a Western international consensus on his person. And if he were ever let go, Paul Biya would go after the Russians without hesitation.

Paul Biya and his wife Chantal

Mondafrique: so, who are his heirs?

OV: His wife, Chantal, is part of the equation. She is linked to a number of social networks, charitable networks, women's organizations which will obey her. Her only weakness is that she is not Béti. Son Franck could also be part of the equation if he continues to maintain good relations with his mother-in-law. He embodies the new generation of the CPDM. Chantal also has two children, a son and a daughter. Children can become a kind of fetish that allows the system to persist for a time.  

There are people who resent the influence of Israeli advisors involved in many dubious land transactions. It's never pleasant for soldiers to receive orders from strangers. We can also imagine that young BIR officers would one day tire of their octogenarian hierarchy.

Another hypothesis is that the Douala camp unites behind a younger “economic” candidate, bringing together economic, political and religious forces.

Mondafrique: is the stability of Cameroon an issue?

OV: Biya has never maintained friendly or fraternal relations with his CEMAC neighbors. He perceives himself as clearly superior to other heads of state, with the exception of Faustin-Archange Touadera, who studied in Cameroon and is a professor. Biya likes academics. Today, he considers the Chadians a source of trouble and is wary of Sassou N'Guesso and Nigeria. He is skeptical about the sincerity of Americans towards him, knowing that what he is doing to English speakers fuels strong discontent against him in Congress. Apart from Israel, for him, the only serious interlocutors are China and Russia. I think that the stability of Cameroon remains a challenge for France. Because this country is an important market for France and its laissez-faire allows the franc zone in the Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa to function satisfactorily, much better than its West African neighbor. The collapse of the Biya regime would be more bad news for Paris.


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