Operation Makeover

Cameroon: President Biya is trying to shine the country’s tarnished image

By Georges Dougueli

Posted on March 29, 2021 14:10

Firefox_Screenshot_2021-03-26T12-11-26.087Z Cameroon’s President Paul Biya presenting his best wishes to the nation on 31 December 2020 © MABOUP
Cameroon’s President Paul Biya presenting his best wishes to the nation on 31 December 2020 © MABOUP

Handicapped in recent years by a series of crises – political, security and economic – Cameroon wants to reassert its position as a regional power. However, it must meet many challenges if it wants to convince people that the country’s situation is improving.

The Etoudi Palace is feeling modestly triumphant. However, the Cameroonian presidency is not claiming victory even though, according to a senior official, “the war in the Anglophone zone is almost over. Apart from a few clashes that usually occur on lockdown days [the weekly day when the city is still], nothing more happens.”

Sisiku Ayuk Tabe, president of the Republic of Ambazonia – whom we interviewed from Kondengui prison, where he is serving a life sentence – does not share this view. “This is not the first time we have heard them say this. Their words should match those of reality. Remember their denials after the revelation of the Ngarbuh massacre and many others. The war has been raging for four years now,” he said.

Defeat of the secessionist project

At any rate, within the presidency – as is the case within all the decision-making circles – the defeat of the secessionist project is no longer in doubt. On the strength of this certainty, the government complains that the international press persists in presenting Cameroon as a country at war when, according to the government, peace has returned to the two English-speaking regions.

Similarly, in the Far North, where the hordes of the Islamist sect Boko Haram still operate sporadically, a few skirmishes do not mean that a war has broken out.

Nevertheless, five years of armed struggle have left their mark. In the eyes of the authorities, the most serious repercussion of all this conflict has been that the image of a country that was once known for its stability has been tarnished. Newspaper articles and NGO reports compile the misdeeds of the warring parties, giving Cameroon a reputation that is likely to put off investors and tourists. However, in a first, a report by the NGO Human Rights Watch from 12 March denounced the violence committed by the separatists who, the organisation believes, have abandoned their demands and become criminals acting in organised gangs.

Now that it has reinforced its firm military stance and extended a hand to the rebels on the political front, the government wants to take advantage of the lull to take control of its communication. The problem is that no major event is coming up during which it can “sell” the return to peace. Perhaps during the national dialogue? “Fortunately it was held even though internal rivalries prevented the Prime Minister, Joseph Dion Nguté, from making the sale,” says a politician.

To bring back investors, Yaoundé is also counting on the political climate to ease. Tensions have decreased and opposition demonstrations have stopped. Furthermore, the post-election crisis following the 2018 presidential election is also coming to an end.

While the revolutionary base of oppositionist Maurice Kamto’s party Mouvement pour la Renaissance du Cameroun (MRC) is pushing it to maintain pressure on the government, the leader has chosen to put his “plan of peaceful resistance” on hold. This is despite the fact that he boycotted the regional elections last December and demanded a reform of the electoral code for democratic elections.

The government is also benefiting from the weakening of the Social Democratic Front (SDF), the other major opposition party, which has been overrun by right-wing secessionists in its own stronghold, the Anglophone regions. Its federalist discourse has become inaudible, especially since the party’s moderates would like to experience for themselves the effects of the special status conferred by the decentralisation implemented since the regional elections.

Diaspora activists

At the same time, the SDF has been in the midst of an existential crisis ever since its leader John Fru Ndi announced his desire to hand over the reins to a younger man. This has triggered a war of succession, which for the time being is being fought between radicals and moderates.

Cameroon’s image is also blurred by the fact that internal confrontations have been transferred abroad. The President’s visits to Switzerland, France and the US give rise to clashes between his security service and anti-Biya activists within the diaspora. On several occasions in recent years, they have tried to storm the hotels where the head of state was staying.

How does one go about calming the relations between those in power and Cameroonians abroad? To ease the atmosphere, President Paul Biya has initiated a major movement within the diplomatic service. Several new ambassadors have been deployed, who possess both security skills and diplomatic experience, such as André Magnus Ekoumou, who was appointed Cameroon’s ambassador to France on 30 June 2020.

This diplomat, who spent more than two decades within the presidency where he was responsible for security issues, is working in France to defuse tensions and strengthen ties with his fellow citizens living in France.

In Berlin, where embassy’s premises were damaged, Biya appointed police commissioner Victor Ndoki on 2 November and tasked him with the same mission in Germany.

The country’s success

These changes give us hope for a better future at the Etoudi Palace, which successfully hosted the latest African Nations Championship (CHAN) during which visitors and television viewers were able to appreciate the quality of the host country’s infrastructure. This included brand new stadiums, improved public and private hotel services, renovated and well-maintained urban roads, etc.

It is undoubtedly a great success for this country that had to postpone the holding of the Africa Cup of Nations (CAN) from 2019 to 2021, then to 2022 because of delays in the delivery of works.

Cameroon hopes to host, in a year, the first post-Covid-19 CAN. For this event, the government is not cutting corners by any means. Yaounde has borrowed 55bn CFA francs (nearly €84m) to complete the new sports complex it is building in Olembe, north of the capital.

Yet again, the government forgot that information is better than mere statements. The authorities had to invite the press to explain the ins and outs of this new loan. Social media had to be calmed down, as users had decried an excessive debt “whose repayment will be the responsibility of unfortunate future generations” and also criticised the government for “not being accountable” for the operations surrounding the entire infrastructure construction programme.

Changing the country’s external perception is a difficult challenge and so is the return to strong growth. The government has therefore adopted a national development strategy (SND 2020-2030). It sets a reference framework for its industrialisation policy while taking into account the recommendations of the Grand Dialogue National (GDN), which was convened by the President in September 2019.

As a condition for success, according to forecasters at the Ministry of the Economy, “the annual growth rate should rise from 4.5% to 8.1% on average during the period 2020-2030. And growth in the secondary sector (excluding oil) should average more than 8%, while the trade balance deficit should decrease from 8.8% of GDP in 2018 to less than 3% in 2030.”

The contribution of economic diplomacy

This is a difficult challenge for a country that has not achieved such a performance since the 1970s-1980s. This document, which is a notable novelty compared to previous documents, integrates the contribution of the diaspora to development, as well as the contribution of economic diplomacy. It also takes into account the rationalisation of the management of public institutions and enterprises.

Restoring the country’s reputation will help attract more investment. This also involves improving its business climate. In the World Bank’s 2020 Doing Business report, Cameroon was ranked 167th out of 190 countries, which represents a slight drop compared to the 2019 edition, in which it had reached 166th place.

Commenting on this underperformance, the Groupement Interpatronal du Cameroun (Gicam) believes that “in general, the implementation of the Doing Business reforms should lead to a reduction in procedures, delays and costs in areas such as setting up a business, obtaining a building permit, connecting to electricity […]. To this end, most countries in the Franc zone have been more ambitious than Cameroon. For example, it takes five times longer to set up a business there than in Togo.”

Despite this criticism, Cameroon intends to regain its position as the leading economy in the sub-region. It can do so if it manages to overcome its governance problems such as bureaucracy, which weighs down the functioning of the state, corruption, which slows down the process of awarding and executing public contracts, and extreme centralisation, in which the presidency makes decisions which could be handled at a lower level.

However, at the same time, the 88-year-old head of state is distancing himself more and more from public life.

Changing Cameroon’s image will remain a challenge if courageous structural reforms are not undertaken and policy changes are not put in place.

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