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Wikileaks Cable 14: Biya Deflects Criticism of Endless Lavish Trips 

CameroonPostline.com — This cable recounts an atypical work-centered attitude put up by President Biya in the last days of 2009. It was written by Ambassador Janet Garvey in December 2009 and classified by embassy’s political and economy chief Scott Ticknor.

President Paul Biya has often preached against inertia in public affairs and the crippling effect of inaction or sheer negligence on the pursuit of the common interest. But many have contended, reasonably so, that the boss himself is the very epitome of inertia. He spends much of his time on private holiday trips in Europe and whenever he finds time to ‘visit’ Cameroon, he pitches camp at his Mvomeka’a quintessential palace where the pressures of work hardly come by.

As the president enjoys his endless sabbaticals and relaxation bliss, official work remains undone. Files are stacked on the big man’s desk waiting for signature and crucial decisions. Events meant to be presided by the boss are often handled by emissaries designated at the very last minute. Those events that exclusively necessitate his presence are left to suffer until such a time that the president deems necessary.

However, in December 2009, following a global media scandal about a lavish trip at a French hotel where President Biya and his massive accompanying delegation squandered billions of taxpayer’s money, the Yaounde strongman hurried home and unusually took to making announcements about events he would be presiding in the coming days. This cable is based on this bizarre work-focused stint mounted by Mr Biya.

As we are reminded in the cable, in the period between November 2009 and December of the same year, Mr Biya did more than he ordinarily does. The President kick-started his game-plan with a letter, the first of its kind to Cameroonians on the occasion of his anniversary in power. This grabbed headlines and deflected attention from the ostentatious-spending incident at La Baule. All major daily newspapers were paid a fee to publish the letter on the front page. Later on 1 December, unlike he often does, Mr Biya decided to personally preside 5oth anniversary celebrations at ENAM.

Three days later, the boss was at EMIA, the elite training centre for officers of Cameroon’s armed forces, to supervise the graduation ceremony of two batches of lieutenants – a responsibility he had snubbed for close to 4 years. During the graduation ceremony, the President announced the celebration of events marking 50 years of the Cameroon Army in Bamenda during the next year. These were only part of a battery of moves made by Mr Biya elsewhere in the economy, diplomacy and politics.

The cable aptly interprets this strange “activism” as a design to show that “he’s still in charge and to stave off post-Biya jockeying within his party and government”. While the President ran from one event to another, an utterly amazed press made positive comments and regime spin doctors filled columns about how hard the President had been working to prepare for these events during the splendorous stint at La Baule in France 

Continue reading below for a full unedited version of the cable as published by Wikileaks.

Subject: Cameroonian President Biya Unusually Active
Classified: 12/07/2009
Classified By: Pol/Econ Chief Scott Ticknor

Summary

Cameroonian President Paul Biya has been uncharacteristically active in the past two months.  He issued a letter to the Cameroonian people, attended two high profile public events, announced several other future engagements, encouraged his party to refocus on bread and butter issues, received three regional heads of state, and admonished several major partners not to criticize his decisions. 

Almost six months ago, Biya reshuffled his Cabinet and directed his Cabinet to fight inertia and reenergize the economy; since then, the government has been more actively pursuing infrastructure projects, although none has been completed.  Biya’s new dynamism contrasts with his usual conservative lethargy. 

Observers here take it for granted that he is in active campaign mode to run again in the next presidential election.  His activism also seems designed to show he’s still in charge and to stave off post-Biya jockeying within his party and government.  Biya’s recent activism is fueling widespread speculation that he may move the scheduled 2011 election forward to 2010.  As one of his senior aides recently told us, “2010 is certain to be very active.” End summary.
 
The Domestic Signals

Biya has been unusually active on the domestic front.  His moves over the past two months included:
 
— The letter:  As reported ref A, on November 5, on the eve of the 27th anniversary of his presidency, Biya wrote his first-ever letter to the nation in the private print media, which he has usually treated with hostility.  While not widely read by the majority of Cameroonians, the private media is influential among Cameroon’s elites.  In the letter, Biya invoked the World Cup qualifying success of the national soccer team, the Indomitable Lions, to urge Cameroonians to feel good about themselves.
 
— ENAM:  On December 1. Biya attended a ceremony to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the National School of Administration and Magistracy (ENAM).  Biya rarely attends such events, typically delegating someone (often the Prime Minister) to represent him.  ENAM trains all government civil administrators and judges and these days has a reputation for producing corrupt and incompetent officials. Biya urged good governance and patriotism; however, more than his message, his rare presence got all the media attention.
 
— EMIA:  On December 4, for the first time in many years, Biya attended the awards ceremony for two graduating classes at the Ecole Militaire Interarmees (EMIA).  (Biya attended this ceremony almost every year in the 1990s.)
 
— Early announcements:  Biya almost never makes early announcements about events on his calendar.  In the past month, he did so twice.  During the visit of Chadian President Idriss Deby in October, Biya announced the anticipated visit of Central African Republic President Francois Bozize in December.  During the EMIA event, Biya announced he would commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Cameroonian armed forces in 2010 in Bamenda.
 
— CPDM Activism:  Biya redirected the ruling Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (CPDM), which he heads, to shift priorities to areas of leading national concern, such as economics, jobs, education and health.  CPDM “militants” have been touring the country with a message conveying this new focus. 

A big meeting of the Central Committee in the President’s home town of Sanmelima, South Region, on December 5 reportedly spurred calls for Biya to run and for the party to train for an election, although it also appeared to reveal tensions within the local party leadership.  Rumors have been swirling that Biya will create a Vice President position and that he will soon tour the country (he hasn’t traveled in the country, outside of his village and Yaounde, since 2005).
 
— Economic Activism:  The past few months have brought a flurry of movement on major infrastructure projects, including roads and power projects.  The recently completed budget projects an 11% increase in expenditure despite GDP growth predictions of 2.4%, reduced anticipated revenues, and a sizable expected drop in oil production.  While the details of the budget have not yet been released (and will be reported septel), contacts tell us it includes a heavy boost for public works and social spending, reflecting the needs of a more political period.
 
International Activism

Biya has also shown new energy on the international stage, including:
 
— Central African Leaders Come Calling:  In recent years, Biya has not been active as a regional leader.  In the past three months, Biya received visits from President Ali Bongo (then President-elect), Chadian President Idris Deby and Central African President Francois Bozize.  In all three visits, the leaders reportedly focused on security, economics and regional integration, in anticipation of a December 14 meeting of the Central African Economic and Monetary Community (CEMAC) in Bangui.
 
— Lecturing Western Partners:  As reported ref B, on November 25, Minister of External Relations Henri Eyebe Ayissi summoned Ambassador to read her a message from President Biya telling us not to criticize his government, especially about the Electoral Commission (ELECAM). 

He delivered the same message to the European Union, German and French Ambassadors.  This was the first time in our collective memory that Biya had delivered a demarche in this format to resident Ambassadors.  While it may have been the product of clumsy diplomacy, Biya may also have hoped to preempt criticism for an anticipated political move.
 
An Election in 2010?

Biya and the CPDM have been in campaign mode for some time and it is increasingly taken for granted that Biya will run in the next election.  His recent activism has made that more obvious and has fueled speculation that he may call an early election in 2010.  Observers are divided on whether a 2010 election date is likely and whether a constitutional amendment would be required to set the stage. 

The constitution stipulates that presidential elections should take place every seven years and does not make provisions for calling early elections. Nonetheless, no one doubts that Biya could amend the constitution or find another legal instrument to move elections forward if he wishes.  Some contacts argue that the Electoral Commission (ELECAM) could not be ready to run an early election. 

Our sense is that if the President wanted, he could make ELECAM technically capable of running an election in a short period of time, using the flawed 2007 electoral register, directing the needed budgetary support, and providing it with property and staff from the Ministry of Territorial Administration (MINATD), which used to run elections through its National Elections Observatory (ONEL).  Some observers point out that ONEL was created only eight months before the June 2002 municipal and legislative elections.
 
Comment

Biya’s increased activism is probably not all indicative of early elections.  Biya’s new leadership in Central Africa may be more a consequence of the vacuum left by the death of former Gabonese President Omar Bonga.  The economic activism may reflect a realization, especially in the context of the global economic crisis, that Cameroon’s economy needs a jumpstart.  Some contacts suggest Biya is now being served by better staff, who are more savvy about communication. 

Some suggest he is motivated by his desire to leave a stronger legacy of accomplishments, especially with infrastructure projects.  Biya’s new hightened pace seems in part designed to show he is still in charge, fending off those around him who are already actively jockeying for post-Biya leadership.  This was also a factor in his 2008 decision to eliminate presidential term limits.
 
There are political reasons Biya may want early elections, in addition to keeping the post-Biya positioning game off balance.  He may be concerned about a reprieve of the kind of social unrest seen in 2008, given recent rumblings from trade unions, persistent frustration and poverty, and publicly voiced concerns about the government’s ability to pay civil service salaries. 

He may want to strengthen his hand to neutralize dissenting factions within the party and buy more time to godfather a successor.  He may also want to take advantage of the feel good factor of Cameroon’s current World Cup soccer success.
 
While early presidential elections are very possible, Biya is famously enigmatic and likes keeping the country guessing about his plans.  He takes his time in making decisions and has a reputation of sending mixed signals that confound even the most seasoned observers. 

The Ambassador saw this in a recent meeting with Rene Sadi, Secretary General of the CPDM and Minister at the Presidency, one of Biya’s closest confidantes.  In response to a question about possible early elections, Sadi responded “anything is possible.  2010 is certain to be very active.”
GARVEY
 

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