Dying often is not easy for autocrats in Africa, because they leave behind an unfillable vacuum. In the past, this was the case for autocrats such as Mobutu Sese Seko in Congo and Hastings Banda in Malawi, and now for Paul Biya in Cameroon. Ninety-year-old Biya has held sway in Cameroon for forty years. He has, in the philosophical words of film director Jean Pierre Bekolo (56) in Cameroon, become the world and time, he is the universe and with the end of his reign the world will end. “Paul Biya is more powerful than Jesus Christ,” says Bekolo. “Still, I think Biya is dead, at least that is how we experience it in Cameroon. Because we do not see him anymore. And when we see him, we do not know what we see. Because on television he looks quite different because of the special effects and make-up, he even is getting younger and younger.”
Jean-Pierre Bekolo and Paul Biya
Bekolo made, among other things, the satirical film Le Président (2013), which was banned in Cameroon. The film is about the succession battle that erupts in his entourage when a fictional president suddenly disappears from the radar.
In an autocracy with an untouchable leader, the political game becomes like a wry soap opera. The country seems stable but there is rumbling everywhere. “Cameroonians have cultivated a kind of irrationality. The portrait of Biya is everywhere, adorning garments on men’s chests or women’s derrières. The people worship him and only do criticize the ones around him. But if he dies, Cameroon will stop. This is what it means to be irrational. We say the sky is blue when we see it red.”
Autocrats cannot die, because then their carefully constructed dictatorial model of governance will collapse. With their end in sight, an unreal situation arises. “When conflicts arise at the highest level, Biya is absent. Clearly, he is irrelevant as an individual right now, other than being used by those who now run the country. At least two groups are trying to position themselves behind the scenes for the transfer of power while meanwhile officials cannibalize the state, since their position is jeopardized if the great leader falls. That is why the sword of Damocles hangs over Cameroon,” says Bekolo.
Ruled with remote control
Paul Biya belongs to the first generation of post-independence politicians; he is Africa’s last political dinosaur and the second longest-serving president on the continent. His strong hand brought his fertile and mineral-rich country in West Africa a form of stability, but also a war in the English-speaking west of the country. His administration was characterized by a lot of corruption. Biya ruled by remote control, often literally: he spent much of his time in a luxury hotel in Geneva and his 27 million subjects often referred to him as a “ghost president” because of his long absence.
When permanent-serving rulers in French-speaking Africa (such as Mobutu Sese Seko in Congo) came under pressure from a new generation of liberal leaders in the early 1990s, Biya survived this wave of democratization by implementing constitutional reforms in time and abolishing the one-party state. He retained power through a centralized patronage structure built around him. He manipulated tribal relations by shifting money to tribal leaders and bought off opposition with large-scale corruption.
The helmsman of the untouchable and cleverly manipulative leaders in Africa was Mobutu. It was not for nothing that he was called “the Guide of the Nation” and “the almighty warrior who burns everything in his path and proves invincible battle after battle,” in macho language: “The rooster who serves all chickens.” Every day just before the news bulletin on TV he came down from the clouds as if he were an angel, the elderly warned naughty children that in the spirit world a punishment from the Congolese leader awaited them.
“We don’t have those clouds in Cameroon, but we have the equivalent,” chuckles Bekolo. “Biya does not cultivate that mystical dimension, but Africans believe in magic and so all kinds of legends arose around him. When he became president, all the chieftains took him each to their secret place to inaugurate him traditionally. So, people say that’s why he controls the Cameroonians, because each tribe gave him the power, the mystical power of their region.”
The leaders of the old political class in Africa created a magical aura around them. They wore leopard skins, they used magic rods or wielded other mysterious attributes. All for the glory of the Great Leader. Not only Mobutu in Congo, but also Eyadema in Togo or Banda in Malawi and Houphouet-Boigny in Côte d’Ivoire. They built hideous monuments for themselves, erected a gigantic marble palace or a life-size replica of St. Peter’s Basilica in their native regions.
Concubine in power
In the tradition of the African chieftain, they want to rule until their deathbed. That is why it was often forbidden by law to talk about what might happen if the great leader died, as is the case now in Cameroon. Often, as an emergency measure of the elite, a family member is carefully pushed forward. In Cameroon, these are Chantal, Biya’s 36-year younger wife, who always stands out for her showy wigs, and his son Frank. In Malawi, President Banda’s concubine Cecilia Kadzamira secretly took over the reins from her now senile husband. Kadzamira was feared during his 30-year reign, and she was compared to Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth for her influence over her husband.
And if the great leader does die, it often must remain a secret. As happened in Kenya in 1978. Kenyan President Jomo Kenyatta died of a heart attack in a toilet during a public meeting near Mombasa. Close supporters wanted to prevent Kenyatta’s Vice President Moi from taking power and had long planned a coup immediately after the death of the president. To buy time, they decided to postpone the news of his death so that they could put their coup plans into action. Kenyatta’s body was taken to Nairobi in his blinded Mercedes. At the Mombasa ferry, bystanders began to cheer when they saw the limousine. Kenyatta’s dead hand slipped out of the roof and began to wave.
“I am a filmmaker and through that lens I see all this as a film,” says Bekolo, who now heads a cultural center in the capital Yaoundé after years abroad. With some nostalgia and self-reflection, he wonders how he could embrace Biya as a high school student. “We put so much hope in him then. But the Africa we dreamed of then is behind us now.” In the circle around Biya, it is hinted that he will stand again in elections in five years.
This article first appeared in the Nehterlands daily newspaper NRC on 19-4-2023