In Cameroon, will one Biya lead to another?

By Georges Dougueli
Posted on Thursday, 1 December 2022 13:23

Franck Biya, 8 June 2019. ©Victor Zebaze

On an early November tour of Cameroon's North, Franck Biya - a strong ally of his father Paul Biya - took his fledgling steps in politics. Without an official function, but ever influential at the Etoudi Palace, he is increasingly seen as a successor.

History will note that Biya II made his political debut on 6 November 2022, the 40th anniversary of his father’s accession to power. The 51 year old had been invited by Aboubakary Abdoulaye, the lamido (political and spiritual leader of a lamidat, a small Muslim territory in Northern Cameroon] of Rey-Bouba. His reception, which was organised in Garoua, was full of pomp and colour, and was widely covered by the media.

Although he has an office at the Etoudi Palace and claims to be an unofficial adviser to the president, the only son of Paul and Jeanne-Irène Biya, does not appear on any presidential organigram. This former businessman, who lived for a time in the south of France, not far from the principality of Monaco, has never held an elective mandate.

The lamido of Rey-Bouba is, however, the vice-president of the Senate. He is also a key figure in the constitutional scenario for the devolution of power. In the event of a vacancy, it is indeed the president of the Senate who is called upon to succeed the head of state.

The incumbent in that post, Marcel Niat Njifenji, is now over 88 years old and beleaguered by recurrent health problems, he is often absent. It is therefore not incongruous to think that Abdoulaye could be brought in to replace him at short notice. This is where the meeting in Garoua, stronghold of the party in power, takes on its full meaning.

Neither anointment nor disavowal

Officially, it is the Rassemblement démocratique du peuple camerounais (RDPC) that organised the November event. The problem is that even though the guest of honour is the son of the president and founder, he is not a member of any party organ.

Moreover, until now, nobody had seen Biya wearing the party’s blue and white scarf. However, for several months now, his supporters have been working behind the scenes. They call themselves “the Franckists” and constitute a heterogeneous movement, which does not benefit from the official anointment of the main interested party. Biya has not disowned them.

Whichever way you look at it, the event sure seems like a political communication stunt designed to test public opinion…

Perhaps Biya undertook the trip in a private capacity – the monarch later claimed that Biya had come to offer his condolences following the death of the host’s mother. However, the said funeral took place more than a year ago… Whichever way you look at it, the event seems like a political communication stunt designed to test public opinion. The whole of Yaoundé watched it wide-eyed, plunged as it was, in an abyss of perplexity.

The endorsement scenario does not correspond to Biya’s style. For 40 years, even while under pressure, the president has always been reluctant to push his son into the political cauldron, as he is well aware of the expectations linked to a succession.

For a long time, people have been scrutinising clues, looking for one that might identify the person to whom the president plans to hand over the keys of the palace. However, as a shrewd politician, he has never let anything show. He has multiplied false leads, hiding behind the constitution to declare that he has no successor – “Cameroon is not a monarchy!” he once said.

Can Paul Biya make his son his political heir without contradicting himself?

Since nature abhors a vacuum, the now nonagenarian puppeteer has often taken care to whet his close collaborators’ appetites by offering them attributions, prerogatives and delegations of signature. He has let the press get lost in conjectures on the future of ‘’successors” who have ended up falling into disgrace, and some of whom are serving long prison sentences. Since this exercise has revealed its hand, the contenders – obviously undeclared – have learned to avoid the trap of impatience. Can the president make Franck Biya his political heir without contradicting himself?

‘The strategy of the fait accompli’

Cabral Libii, MP and president of the Parti camerounais pour la réconciliation nationale (PCRN), has taken note. “For us, without the slightest doubt, this trip is the public presentation of the successor desired [by Paul Biya],” says his opponent. “It is therefore the launch of a pre-electoral campaign. The strategy chosen is that of the fait accompli. If, from a legal point of view, the citizen Franck Biya has the right to do what he wants, what happened on 6 November 2022 is, from a political point of view, insider trading.”

Others insist that Paul Biya has no plans for a dynastic succession. The president’s son is eligible, of course, but can he win without his father’s support and the state’s financial means? Cameroon wants to unravel the mystery of this man who is so discreet that even his political baptism by fire was unspooled in the manner of a silent film. In Rey-Bouba, he did not say a word; most of his fellow citizens have never even heard the sound of his voice. He surrounds himself with a few childhood friends and shuns worldliness.

Even so, in early 2020, Biya’s son spoke on the subject of investment finance, to the surprise of an audience of journalists, diplomats, bankers, investment fund bosses and the heads of several organisations, including the director general of the French Development Agency (AFD). It happened at a dinner-debate, which was organised at the Maison de l’Amérique Latine in Paris by Olivier Zegna-Rata, a former director of Hervé Bourges’ office.

The attendees that day were not the only ones left thinking they had underestimated the younger Biya. “He knows the system built by his father well, including its worst flaws, and has good ideas for reform,” says a former European ambassador based in Yaoundé.

Networks

Keeping a low profile, the eldest of the three Biya siblings (Franck has two younger half siblings) takes care of those in his network. The influential minister of finance, Louis-Paul Motaze, is his cousin and owes him – in part – his portfolio, as does Alamine Ousmane Mey, who is in charge of the economy.

He is also reputed to be close to former minister Robert Nkili (his late mother’s younger brother); Modeste Mopa Fatoing (the director general of the tax department); and Samuel Mvondo Ayolo (director of the president’s civic office). He is also linked to retired tennis player Yannick Noah, to whom he opened the doors of the Etoudi Palace.

In France, the former businessman, who interrupted his university studies in the US to go into logging, and who has served as an intermediary for big companies wishing to invest in Cameroon, regularly meets with Franck Paris – Emmanuel Macron’s Africa advisor.

Another member of the Macronist galaxy insists that nothing should be deduced from France’s position. “There is no official position at the Élysée Palace regarding the succession,” says this source. “There are several tracks and different accents depending on whether the analyses come from military, intelligence, business or diplomatic circles. Most of those I see start from the idea that the succession will be played out within the presidential camp, but it is true that some are pushing for a succession from the father to the son under the pretext that stability, security and safeguarding interests must be maintained.”

One thing is certain: in Yaoundé, just as in Paris, everyone is waiting for clarification. Still, there are many ambitious people in the vicinity of the Etoudi Palace, and not all of them will necessarily agree with Paul Biya’s choice.

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