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Identifier
Created
Classification
Origin
07YAOUNDE1308
2007-11-02 13:41:00
CONFIDENTIAL
Embassy Yaounde
Cable title:  

CAMEROON: BIYA STILL AN ENIGMA AFTER 25 YEARS

Tags:   CM  PREL  PINR  ECON  KCOR  PGOV  PHUM  TBIO 
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RUEHLO/AMEMBASSY LONDON PRIORITY 1663
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						C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 YAOUNDE 001308 

SIPDIS

SIPDIS

STATE FOR AF/C AND INR/AA
LONDON AND PARIS FOR AFRICA ACTION OFFICERS
EUCOM FOR J5-1 AND POLAD

E.O. 12958: DECL: 10/31/2017
TAGS: CM PREL PINR ECON KCOR PGOV PHUM TBIO
SUBJECT: CAMEROON: BIYA STILL AN ENIGMA AFTER 25 YEARS

Classified By: Pol/Econ Chief Scott Ticknor for reasons 1.4 b and d.

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 YAOUNDE 001308

SIPDIS

SIPDIS

STATE FOR AF/C AND INR/AA
LONDON AND PARIS FOR AFRICA ACTION OFFICERS
EUCOM FOR J5-1 AND POLAD

E.O. 12958: DECL: 10/31/2017
TAGS: CM PREL PINR ECON KCOR PGOV PHUM TBIO
SUBJECT: CAMEROON: BIYA STILL AN ENIGMA AFTER 25 YEARS

Classified By: Pol/Econ Chief Scott Ticknor for reasons 1.4 b and d.


1. (C) 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
--------------


2. (U) 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.



3. (U) 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.


4. (C) 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?
--------------


5. (C) 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

YAOUNDE 00001308 002 OF 003


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.

--------------
Biya's Interview
--------------


6. (U) 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.


7. (U) 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.)


8. (U) Biya welcomed dialogue with opposition parties,
saying he would meet with main opposition leader and head of

YAOUNDE 00001308 003 OF 003


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.

--------------
Comment
--------------


9. (C) 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.


10. (C) 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.


11. (C) 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 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.
GARVEY