The absurdity of Cameroon’s Paul Biya

This is from the organized crime and corruption reporting project (OCCRP):

An investigation supported by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) gathered information about the president’s travels from 35 years of editions of the daily government paper, the Cameroon Tribune. They show that, over that time, Biya has spent at least four-and-a-half years [abroad] on his “brief private visits.” This total excludes official trips, which add up to an additional year. In some years, like 2006 and 2009, Biya has spent a third of the year out of the country.

And here is a breakdown of Biya’s destinations over the last three and a half decades. It is almost as if Biya is a colonial governor of Cameroon, a Fanonian caricature.

Paul-Biya-Chart-A2

How does Biya pay for all this travel (estimated to be at least $185m in total)?

….. According to the International Monetary Fund, more than $300 million of the revenue of Cameroon’s national oil company in 2017 was not accounted for. The president has oversight over the company, whose oil sales, according to a leaked US diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks, have historically been used as a slush fund.

Needless to say, the fascination with Geneva leaves little time for Biya to actually govern.

When Biya lands in Yaoundé, he also meets his government — at the airport. Formal ministerial councils are organized infrequently, every year or two at the most. But while Biya has used public funds to sustain a bureaucracy of 65 ministers and state secretaries, he mostly governs by decree or through a handful of laws sped through a rubber-stamp parliament.

Biya signs a flurry of acts between each of his trips. For example, in 2017, he signed a dozen laws — the entire legal output for that year – in a couple of days. It took him just three days to sign the entire year’s decrees.

Strong leadership can make a big difference in states with weak bureaucracies. But unfortunately for Cameroon, for 35 years it has been saddled with both an absentee landlord of a president and a barely coherent public service.

An enduring puzzle is why Cameroonian elites haven’t moved to come up with a more economically efficient means of keeping Biya in power and luxury. For instance, they could make him King, and have him sign decrees whenever he likes, but also have a Prime Minister that is responsible to a parliament and accountable to the people. Not that this would magically improve the quality of governance, but at a minimum, would likely introduce coherence within the public service (unless, of course, all of Cameroon’s elites simply want to appropriate public resources and spend their time in Geneva).

A response to this might be that elites in Cameroon are actually fine, constantly scheming and fighting for favor with Biya and access to governance rents.

But this still leaves open the question of why they wouldn’t want a more predictable means of accessing governance rents — that is not subject to the whims of Biya (who shuffles and jails ministers with wanton abandon). In any case, an elite-level collusion outcome — like the one described above — would create opportunities for the expansion of the pie beyond just oil and other natural resource sectors.

All to say that we should probably be spending more time exploring the seeming lack of elite-level political innovation across Africa (and Political Development more generally).

stop the blame game and move on

I am no apologist for colonialism. I am also not a fan of blaming everything on colonialism. Arbitrary borders, neocolonialism, assassination of presidents, unfair farm subsidies etc etc are the usual things we hear as explanations to why most of Africa remains economically backward. I say it has been more than 50 years and its about time we moved on. Colonialism had its evils, no doubt about that. However, it’s enduring legacy on the Continent has been the fault of Africans and their leaders. There are numerous other countries that have managed to take off even though they were also colonized and for some time were heavily dependent on the industrialised West.

Mobutu, Amin, Bokassa, Moi, Mugabe, Nimeiry, Gaddafi, Doe etc etc were all Africans who deliberately chose to mess up their countries. Nobody held guns to their heads to force them to do what they did. Guinea – at independence – is a clear case that it was quite possible to break free from the former colonizers. All the above mentioned men presided over wasted dictatorships. They killed and maimed and jailed thousands of their citizens but never attempted to do what Pinochet did for Chile or the dictators of the Asian tigers did for their countries. Instead they stole everything they could from their treasuries.

The reason I bring this up is because I just attended a talk on the legacy of colonialism in Africa where the general consensus seems to have been that European colonizers were to blame for most ills on the continent. I find this track of thought wanting. African failure should squarely be blamed on inept African leadership.