(Cameroonpostline.com) — This cable was written in 2007 by the Political and Economic Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Yaounde Scott Ticknor during the tenure of Ambassador Janet Garvey. It was written shortly before President Paul Biya celebrated his silver jubilee in office and just after he gave a controversial interview on TV channel France 24, setting the stage for orchestrated calls by officials of his CPDM party for him to seek another term and even stay in power for life.
It will remain a matter of speculation how power alternation would have played out in Cameroon in 2011 had President Paul Biya not given an interview to France 24, which was aired on 30 October 2007. From questions filed in to the channel by the public prior to the interview, it was clear that many Cameroonians wanted Mr. Biya to make a definitive statement about his plans for 2011, the year he was constitutionally compelled to leave power.
In response to a series of questions on the issue, Mr. Biya, a deft politician, said Cameroonians were going to decide whether or not to change the constitution. A week later, during celebrations marking Mr. Biya’s 25th anniversary in power, CPDM officials started calls for a constitutional amendment to allow Mr. Biya seek another term. The essence of their argument was that term limits were undemocratic and Mr. Biya was, at the time, the only person capable of leading Cameroon to a future of peace and prosperity.
On 31 December 2007 in an address to the nation, Biya made reference to the France 24 interview and announced his plans to modify the constitution to eliminate term limits.
Mr. Biya was so determined to hang on to power that he remained unapologetic when his troops, in February 2008, gunned down over 100 unarmed demonstrators protesting against the planned constitutional amendment as well as high costs of living.
In October 2007, however, the U.S. intelligence had failed to see through Mr. Biya plans, predicting that he was planning an orderly transition, even though they admitted the Cameroon president was unpredictable.
But most remarkable about the diplomatic cable was the revelation that Mr. Biya admitted himself that he did not know all the ministers he appointed. Worse still, he did not know how some of them were selected for appointment.
It has been common knowledge in Cameroon that the president does not know most of his ministers, but it is nevertheless remarkable that Mr. Biya admitted it.
The cable also touched on the president’s rumoured prostrate cancer, his small circle of family and friends as advisers, his poor governance records, among other things.
Below is the full, unedited U.S. diplomatic cable as published by Wikileaks.
CAMEROON: BIYA STILL AN ENIGMA AFTER 25 YEARS
Origin: Embassy Yaounde
Classified by: Pol/Econ Chief Scott Ticknor for reasons 1.4 b and d.
Summary. Nationwide events on November 6 will fete the anniversary of Cameroonian President Paul Biya’s 25 years in office. Biya survived over two decades filled with political turmoil and economic crisis. While preserving unity and a measure of stability, he has performed poorly in governance, investing in people and improving the country’s business climate. Discussion will quickly turn next week to Biya’s plans for the future. He is due to step down in 2011. However, he is famously enigmatic, as reinforced in a rare international interview on October 30. The next year will be crucial in determining whether Biya is serious about reforms and is steering Cameroon toward a peaceful transition or a political crisis. End summary.
A Historical Retrospective
On November 4, 1982 former President Ahmadou Ahidjo surprised the nation with the announcement he was stepping down after 24 years as Head of State. Two days later, his constitutional successor, Prime Minister Paul Biya, took over as president. For the next decade, Biya survived a series of crises. In the mid-1980s he weathered a power struggle with Ahidjo (who tried unsuccessfully to unseat him) and a coup attempt. In the late 1980s, falling international commodity prices (especially cocoa and oil) compounded problems of capital flight, corruption, and structural weaknesses to cripple the economy. The economic crisis, the lack of democracy and the changing global environment (including the fall of communism in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe) spurred major social unrest in Cameroon in 1990-92.
In response, President Biya began a slow reform process. In 1988 he began an IMF structural adjustment process that helped revive the economy. He allowed the country’s first multiparty elections (1992 — though the verdict was badly tainted), implemented the devaluation of the CFA currency to make the economy more competitive (1994), created a new, more liberal constitution and allowed the first multiparty municipal elections (1996), held the first legislative and presidential elections (1997), and gradually liberalized the media. He also opened up more to the outside *world.
As a result, Biya’s Cameroon in 2007 is a mixed story of largely unrealized potential. Political space has opened up somewhat but corruption corrodes every aspect of society and all elections over the years have been seriously flawed. The government welcomes investment but controls much of the economy. The media is relatively free but civil society is feeble. The Presidency makes most decisions and seems largely (though not totally) indifferent to the outside world. Officials often highlight Cameroon’s stability as its biggest achievement, especially in light of the country’s great cultural diversity, divided anglophone/francophone history and unification process in 1972, and its tumultuous neighborhood. However, there has been limited progress on social indicators and, while the per capita GDP of $970 is better than many African countries, poverty is pervasive. The high cost of living, poor job prospects, inadequate political freedom, and corruption have left many Cameroonians despondent.
Who is Biya?
Biya is an enigmatic figure, seen by many as unpredictable and secretive about decision making. His hallmark characteristics are:
— Intelligence: Biya is highly educated, urbane, intelligent and respectful of order. A graduate of Paris’ prestigious Sciences Po and a fast riser in former President Ahidjo’s government, Biya is a product of the establishment. Despite his 74 years and reportedly ailing health, Biya nimbly answered questions in an October 30 interview with the France 24 news channel, never stumbling or stuttering as he provided detailed and thoughtful answers and effectively rebutted even implied criticism.
— Caution: Biya is a cautious, largely reactive president who likely sees Cameroon’s record of stability as his single greatest achievement, significant enough to diffuse all criticism of his regime. Biya is a product of the established order; he is most comfortable in a French tailored suit and never knew the battle fatigues that brought some of his counterparts to power. The 1984 coup attempt reportedly fundamentally altered Biya’s initial liberalizing instincts and continues to shape his decision-making.
— Loose Grip on the State Machinery: Decisions in Cameroon are highly centralized, but the power seems to be with the Presidency more than the President. Biya has and perceives himself to have relatively limited power, often seeming out of loop on important decisions. He has confessed privately that he does not know all the members of his cabinet or how they were chosen. We know of a number of instances where parts of his government have delayed implementing his instructions or brazenly deceived him. Biya is not even certain of support from powerful elements within his own ethnic group. Despite the appearance of an ethnic Beti monolith supporting Biya, the Beti elite are fractured by competing networks of power.
— Patronage Politician: While Biya appears to have let go of his bureaucracy, he has skillfully juggled different interest groups, keeping them invested in him without allowing any one to become too powerful or too disenchanted with their stake. He relies heavily on a small circle of family and friends for advice and control of a network of patronage. He has also carefully managed his military leadership, while in parallel cultivating an independent, better equipped presidential guard.
— Reform Minded: While Biya is conservative about his domestic agenda and the world at large, he is often portrayed as relatively reform-minded within the ruling circles of power. His own Beti ethnic group, for example, is among the strongest opponents of a reform agenda, especially one tied to democratic regime change. He has allowed some democratization and taken some steps against corruption, at times against potent vested interests. He has tolerated limited dissent and indiscipline from within and outside his government.
As noted above, on October 30, Biya gave his first interview with a foreign media outlet (in this case France 24 in Paris) in twenty years. It provided a rare tour d’horizon of Biya’s current thinking on a range of issues. He hoped for continued support from France and noted that President Sarkozy had accepted an invitation to visit Cameroon (date undetermined). He noted Cameroon’s contribution of police in peace keeping efforts in Cote d’Ivoire, Darfur, Chad, DRC and Haiti, adding that with the Bakassi conflict resolved Cameroon could make a more substantial military contribution to these efforts.
On the domestic front, Biya stressed his commitment to combat corruption, pointing to recent successes like raising revenues at Douala port by cutting graft. When asked about his view of the 2011 election and beyond, he stated that the election will happen and that the constitution, as currently written, does not permit him to have a third term, but averred that "I know constitutions are not set in stone". He would let the people debate these issues. He said he is not preparing anybody to take his place, noting that "in a republic, the word dauphin sounds bad." He emphasized that he was in the middle of his second term and he saw the election as a lesser priority at this point than fighting corruption, HIV/AIDS, and poverty. (Note: While Biya is in the middle of his second term since the 1996 constitution, he served additional terms as president under earlier charters. End note.)
Biya welcomed dialogue with opposition parties, saying he would meet with main opposition leader and head of the Social Democratic Front (SDF) John Fru Ndi (who "lost" the 1992 presidential election and whom Biya has never met). "Cameroon is changing," Biya stated; "I have only restarted an open politics ("politique d’ouverture") which is old but is, I think, useful in a young country like ours." He said he had no objection to family desires to bury former President Ahidjo in Cameroon.
The big question on people’s minds here, now and for the foreseeable future, is Biya’s intentions for 2011 and beyond. Many observers were disappointed (if not surprised) that in his France 24 interview Biya did not rule out changing the constitution or extending his term. We were not surprised that he wants to keep his options open and people guessing, especially more than three years before the election. In previous years, he has told us that a stated decision not to run in 2011 would complicate his ability to govern and could unleash major political battles he would prefer to deflect.
Many here suspect Biya will try to maneuver his way into another term. This may be his plan, but he is truly unpredictable. The safety of his family will be his overriding concern, closely followed to the stability of the country, which he will seek to preserve as his greatest achievement in office. Given his age (78 in 2011), reported frail health (rumored prostate cancer), and apparent desire for slow political reform, it is plausible to us that that he will use the next few years to try to build his economic and political legacy and set the stage for an orderly transition of power in 2011. He may try to prepare for succession to a trusted colleague whom he believes will competently manage the country’s continued, gradual modernization and liberalization.
Cameroon’s much-vaunted stability cannot be taken for granted. Biya’s management of this delicate transition, starting with his seriousness about reforms in the next year, will be crucial in determining the country’s future for the next generation. We expect he will make some progress on economic reforms and governance, but probably at his usual glacial pace for fear of threatening stability. We will continue to encourage him to act more deliberately to open the political space, liberalize the economy, and think more globally, while reinforcing the need for him to step down in 2011 — after 29 years in office — and pave the way for a peaceful, democratic future.