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Cameroon: Does Franck Biya have his sights set on the presidency?

By Georges Dougueli
Posted on Wednesday, 5 May 2021 07:02

Cameroonian Franck Biya in Douala in 2011 © Victor Zebaze

Like in a presidential election, albeit too early, posters with the slogan ‘Franck for president!’ feature an official-looking photo of the ‘candidate’, smiling, against a blue backdrop. Is Franck Emmanuel Olivier Biya, 49, thinking about taking the reins from his father, President Paul Biya?

The Mouvement Citoyen des Franckistes pour la Paix et l’Unité du Cameroun – an obscure group behind this surprising and, to say the least, awkward campaign – seems absolutely sure that he is.

But why campaign four years before the next presidential election? Moreover, no presidential vacancy appears to be on the horizon and President Biya, 88, has shown no interest in leaving office before his term ends. As for the ‘Franckistes’, they made no comment when asked if their preferred leader supports the campaign.

Personal trademark

Franck did not comment either. Never one to justify or explain himself or even deny claims, he no doubt learned this from his father, whose tight-lipped ways have become a personal trademark; as though calculated silence were in itself a sign of authority and dignity.

Thus far, Franck has been careful not to disavow the group of activists. He did, however, allow his inner circle to deny any presidential aspirations. “He doesn’t know the people involved in the movement,” one of his friends says. “They acted on their own initiative. He isn’t connected to them in any way!”

The problem is that the spark has ignited a fire: the mere mention of Biya’s eldest son’s name is enough to set people’s imaginations ablaze. After all, in Central Africa, family successions are a regular occurrence. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Joseph Kabila succeeded his father, Laurent-Désiré. In Gabon, after Omar Bongo Ondimba’s death, his son Ali Bongo Ondimba took the reins. And in Chad, Mahamat Déby recently replaced his father as president while a transitional government gets underway.

Conspiracy theories

In Yaoundé, even if President Biya maintains that he has no successor and that Cameroon “is not a monarchy”, it’s of no use: conspiratorial thinking has given new life to the myth.

The country’s constitution stipulates that if the president leaves office before the end of his term, the president of the senate is to serve as acting president and hold an election in which his or her participation is prohibited.

A political analyst says: “Cameroonians don’t think that the constitutional succession process will be followed. No matter the cost, the ruling party has maintained Marcel Niat Njifenji at the helm of the senate, even though he’s in poor health. That’s helped undermine the constitutional process of transferring power to a new president.”

Outside conspiratorial circles, members of the political class are starting to have their own doubts. President Biya’s primary opponent, Maurice Kamto, a professor of constitutional law, is readying his supporters to stand up against the “backdoor succession” that he believes is under way.

“President Biya has a successor in mind. It’s someone who will be capable of both governing and protecting his legacy and the Biya family,” says a political commentator, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It might be his own son or a trusted partner. He alone knows.”

Suffice it to say, Franck’s blanket denials will not be enough to put speculation to rest. Some view the movement’s activism as a test run to gauge public perception about a potential candidacy. The jury is still out on whether Franck is interested in becoming president, as his background is worlds apart from other prominent leaders’ sons.

After an ordinary education in Yaoundé, where he attended a Catholic school, Collège François-Xavier-Vogt and Collège de La Retraite, he went to the United States for his university degree: he studied economics in California. Far from the influence of his mother, a stern midwife, the teenager was at long last able to break free from his family and pursue his passions. Once he completed his studies, he moved to Europe and then returned to Cameroon, where he got into the forestry business.

Cocktail hour with Yannick Noah

Franck’s world revolves around business. Indeed, he has always moved in a crowd of friends from the business sector, though he was careful to steer clear of public contracts. “He didn’t want to run the risk of getting mired in the kinds of scandals that are a dime a dozen in Cameroon. That would put his father in a bad spot,” says one of his friends.

That said, Franck’s business dealings benefited from his influential position as President Biya’s gatekeeper. This past February, for instance, during a cocktail hour at the president’s 88th birthday celebration, Franck introduced his father to former tennis champion Yannick Noah, who was developing a real estate project in Yaoundé called Cité des Cinquantenaires.

Franck is a central player in many project involving investors looking to establish their business in Cameroon, whether in the mining, aviation, energy or telecommunications sector. If he were to launch a political career, his business experience would clearly be his biggest strength. In serving as his father’s go-between, he has become an official adviser. Other than his parentage, his business acumen is about all he has going for him in the succession race, whenever it may begin.

Formidable bureaucracy

Aware of Franck’s shortcomings, his critics dispute his ‘presidential legitimacy’ with four arguments. First, they say, he does not understand Cameroon’s formidable bureaucracy. In fact, he was not educated at the country’s university for the political and judicial elite – the École Nationale d’Administration et de la Magistrature – unlike his father, who attended the school upon his return to Cameroon after studying in France.

President Biya gradually worked his way up the government ladder, starting out as chief of staff for the national education minister before becoming minister, secretary general of the presidency, prime minister, the constitutional successor of former president Ahmadou Ahidjo and, ultimately, president of Cameroon. If he was planning to arrange a dynastic succession, then wouldn’t he have made his son follow a similar path?

Second, his critics add, Franck has no foothold in the ruling party, Rassemblement Démocratique du Peuple Camerounais (RDPC), which counts as members, whether out of conviction or calculation, much of the country’s political and administrative elite, not to mention middle-class business owners.

In fact, he has always kept to the sidelines. During a party convention in September 2011, Franck declined an invitation to join the RDPC’s central committee, which serves as its governing body and has 250 members (150 of whom are elected by the convention at its ordinary session, while the rest are appointed by the head of state).

Uneven regional influence

Franck has never had to face voters. In this respect, he has not followed in the footsteps of leaders like Ali Bongo, who was elected as a representative for Bongoville, before he became vice-president of the Parti Démocratique Gabonais; or Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, who served as vice-president of the Partido Democrático de Guinea Ecuatorial and has been Equatorial Guinea’s vice-president since 2016.

A third weak spot, still according to Franck’s critics, is that his influence is uneven from one region to another. As a local political analyst says: “To win a presidential election, you have to be able to unite Cameroon’s patchwork of communities.” That means winning over the inhabitants of the country’s north, which has the largest number of voters – 2.3 million out of 6.6 million registered voters countrywide.

Could economy minister Alamine Ousmane Mey, who comes from a powerful Kotoko family in the north and has Franck to thank for kick-starting his career in government, help his friend make inroads there? “Absolutely not. Alamine isn’t very approachable. Few people owe him favours, so he isn’t well-connected enough to back Franck’s presidential bid, if he runs,” says the same source.

Alliances

Even in the south, the part of the country from which the Biya family hails, Franck is not a shoe-in for the presidency. There, the biggest threat lies in an electorate that could end up splintered if there are many candidates. Potential rivals include Louis Paul Motaze, finance minister (and Franck’s cousin), who has been forging alliances for years in the north while cultivating his popularity in south.

Franck’s fourth ‘deficiency’ is his lack of military connections, something his father knows a thing or two about. The elder Biya showed little interest in the military during his stint as prime minister and, with no allies in the intelligence services, he was unable to thwart the bloody coup attempt that nearly ended his presidency in April 1984.

Utmost respect

Perhaps Franck was trying to make up for this very weakness when, according to sources, he hosted senior military officers a few weeks ago at his home along the banks of Yaoundé Lake. Even if the military’s top brass treat him with the utmost respect in public, some privately admitted that they were rather hesitant to oblige him by accepting the invitation.

“If Franck stands for election, that will give me my best-ever shot at the presidency,” says a young opposition member who ran in the last presidential election. “President Biya has a successor in mind. It’s someone who will be capable of both governing and protecting his legacy and the Biya family,” says a political commentator, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It might be his own son or a trusted partner. He alone knows.” Whatever his decision may be, voters may have the last word.

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