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Cameroon: President Paul Biya’s RDPC needs to include the youth

By Franck Foute
Posted on Thursday, 18 March 2021 12:05

Paul Biya in Bastos, Yaoundé, in October 2018 © ALEXIS HUGUET / AFP

Jostled by the opposition during Cameroon’s last presidential election and regularly criticised for its inertia, the RDPC is determined to change.

However, despite the party’s best efforts, it’s facing resistance from many of its older leaders who do not have plans to retire anytime soon. On 10 February, Cameroon’s 88-year-old President Paul Biya in a speech to the youth talked about a “generational transition” that his young compatriots should prepare for by integrating various bodies within the public sphere.

Biya’s words did not go unnoticed. They have since been analysed, commented on, dissected and widely reported in the local press. Some even see it as a message or warning from the head of state to his most faithful colleagues, whose loyalty and obedience have allowed him to govern with peace of mind for over 38 years.

At a crossroads

Since then, Cameroon’s entire political landscape has been in a state of expectation. Especially since the president has awakened the heart of his political machine, the central committee of the Rassemblement Démocratique du Peuple Camerounais (RDPC). Under the leadership of 77-year-old Jean Nkuete, the party’s secretary-general, the central committee is busy preparing a major summit, which will be announced this year. This event, which is supposed to take place every five years, has not been held for 10 years.

After a tumultuous electoral cycle – which saw the emergence of Maurice Kamto’s Mouvement pour la Renaissance du Cameroun (MRC), while traditional opposition parties, which the government had learned to accommodate, were relegated to the background – the RDPC is at a crossroads.

Although it has an ultra-majority in all institutions, it has realised that it needs to rebuild its political base. It also knows that it will have to become more effective and get rid of some of its numerous bodies which were created mostly for electoral purposes, but which are empty shells with no identifiable leaders.

Above all, the RDPC is like the rest of the country’s police and administrative elite: ageing and less and less in tune with its citizens.

“As in all similar organisations, the lack of young people in prominent positions of power is due to two things: the longevity of those in power and the absence of alternatives,” says Cameroonian political scientist Moussa Njoya. “Those who are old today came to power when they were quite young, as is the case with the president of the Republic himself. But once established within the upper echelons of the administration, they preferred to safeguard their interests. And most young people now make up the opposition. One only has to look at those who surround Maurice Kamto in the MRC, from Mamadou Mota to Bibou Nissack.”

A reconstruction of the party is therefore necessary, and this includes replacing deceased members of the political bureau and the central committee whose seats have remained vacant.

On 9 March, Nkuete gathered together the members of the committee responsible for carrying out a complete “cleaning” of the party at its headquarters. This operation – the first phase of which officially began on 13 March and will last until 13 April – consists of establishing the main roles of the party’s different bodies. New leaders will then be appointed. “These steps must be undertaken in order to hold the congress,” says Christophe Mien Zock, the director of RDPC’s media outlet.

Immobility and status quo

Will the RDPC succeed in its transformation? This question seems to be on everyone’s mind as this political party appears to be a breeding ground for immobility and the status quo.

Most have not forgotten that after his re-election in October 2018, Biya had already launched a similar appeal to the country’s youth saying that he had “understood [its] deep desire for change. I will take this into account, bearing in mind that the Cameroon of tomorrow will be made with you,” he said on that occasion.

Three years later, the president’s stated intention has been slow to materialise and has been met with resistance from within his own camp. Despite his reassurances that young people would be well represented during the February 2020 legislative elections, most of RDPC’s leadership positions in government are still being held by people who are much older than the country’s average age, which is around 19 years old.

Even though Biya feels that “many young people have integrated the various parliamentary, municipal and regional bodies”, they have not been appointed to key positions.

For example, the presidents of the National Assembly and the Senate, Cavayé Yeguié Djibril and Marcel Niat Njifenji, are respectively 81 and 86 years old. The former has been in office for nearly 29 years and the latter’s health is so fragile that he is frequently treated abroad and Yaoundé has not ruled out the possibility that they may need to replace him. And not one of their vice-presidents is under 60 years of age.

During the regional elections of December 2020, in which the RDPC was the favourite in nine out of ten regions, the infighting that occurred before the party’s candidates were selected was mostly instigated by the RDPC’s older members. As a result, none of its regional candidates was less than 65 years old.

“The absence of young people within the RDPC should be put into perspective,” says Njoya. “When we look at the municipal authorities of most cities, we can see that there are many young people. In Douala, for example, one of the deputy mayors is 34 years old. In the far North, a number of deputies are between 32 and 40 years old. Yaoundé’s sixth district is headed by a young man, Yoki Onana [43 years old]; the same is true of the 2nd, led by Yannick Ayissi [39 years old]. And it is important to stress that they are not there solely out of the goodness of these older members’ hearts!”

He concludes: “We must make efforts to include young people. In any case, this change will take place, it is the natural order of things, and it will come from the bottom up.”

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