New Internationalist 361 October 2003
Africans have, with a few notable exceptions, been ill-served by their political leaders.
Some have been welcome in the corridors of power in the West – Moi of Kenya and Mobutu of Zaire until their recent falls. Others, like Mugabe of Zimbabwe or Taylor of Liberia, have been persona non grata.
Measured in terms of corruption and human-rights violations it is hard to see the difference. Perhaps it lies in the groups they offend (white farmers in Mugabe’s case) or the amount of mischief they cause outside their borders (Sierra Leone and Côte d’Ivoire in Taylor’s).
In any event, a form of ‘stable authoritarianism’, well-greased with bribes and graft, appears to be the ideal model of ‘good governance’ for Africa.
A current case in point is President Paul Biya of Cameroon, who came to power in 1982. So if you are a Cameroonian aged under 21 you’ve never known another President. His predecessor, Ahmadou Ahidjo, thought he was terminally ill and handed power over to Biya. The diagnosis proved premature. Ahijo attempted a coup to get his old job back and was forced to flee the country when it failed.
Biya fits the classic dictator mould – personal corruption, pompous self-serving rhetoric, viscous police-state tactics, cronyism that benefits his own family and tribe. For a number of years Cameroon topped an index – compiled by the German-based Transparency International – of the world’s 85 most corrupt countries.
Bribes have a number of names in Cameroon: ‘backdoor’, ‘soya’, ‘oiling of palms’, ‘beer’ or – the most popular – ‘choko’. It exists at all levels. Biya kept lucrative oil revenues off the government budget for years, making them difficult to trace. His office approves all public appointments, right down to the village police officer. According to human-rights lawyer Charles Taku: ‘To get such a job or a business licence ... you have to show that you support the President actively, that you love him and his party.’ Anti-corruption campaigner Andrew Bengkuh reports that local police don’t even bother with the niceties: ‘When we stop you, why do you bring us documents? Can one buy beer with those papers?’
In the early 1990s, following a number of killings and beatings at pro-democracy demonstrations, Biya was forced into allowing competitive parties and ‘free’ elections. Amid widespread charges of electoral fraud, Biya squeaked back into power in the 1992 elections. Since then the electoral process has been managed in a more efficient fashion – by harassing the opposition, centralizing power, extending the term of the President from five to seven years. The distribution of parliamentary seats among the political parties, with Biya’s Rassemblement Democratique du Peuple Camerounais (RDPC) holding commanding majorities, is considered by most Cameroonian observers to be a poor reflection of their actual support.
The Biya regime engages in two major forms of repression – the selective persecution of political opponents and the ‘social cleansing’ of powerless people. The Operational Command, an élite force that was originally in charge of ‘social cleansing’ but has now been disbanded, was implicated in many deaths, including the murder of six young boys accused of stealing a gas canister in January 2001. Later that year a mass grave was discovered containing at least 36 bodies. Local groups reported the extrajudicial killing of between 300 and 800 victims in the northern Maroua Province in 1998 and 1999.
The causes of this kind of authoritarianism are much disputed in Africa. Cameroonian film director Jean-Miro Teno, who explores their roots in his recent film Chef, believes that they lie in the patriarchal family: ‘If every husband is a chief then Cameroon is a nation of seven million chiefs.’ The French Civil Code of 1804 is still the law in Cameroon and guarantees the dominance of husbands over wives.
Corruption and authoritarianism have been exacerbated by a number of other problems. The ethno-politics of Cameroon have polarized, with tension between the Anglophone minority in the southwest (a former British colony) and the largely Francophone, Biya-dominated state. The country is also the largest exporter in Africa of raw tropical timber – the rainforest and peoples of Central Africa are coming under increasing pressure from foreign timber companies.
The US State Department maintains a website – www.nationbynation.com/Cameroon/Human – that includes a long list of human-rights abuses in Cameroon. Yet Biya has been welcomed at the White House. Secretary of State Colin Powell says: ‘Cameroon is an island of stability in that area of Africa. The United States Government will make all possible [efforts] to strengthen Mr Biya’s Government.’ Perhaps Powell should check his own department’s website.
If infamous or not-so-famous big shots are beating up
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