A democratic revolution is under way in France, while Cameroon is stuck in political sclerosis and inertia with an insipid gerontocracy comprising tired old men, tottering on the borders of senile decay.
For Cameroonians, the most obvious lesson from the election of Emmanuel Jean-Michel Frederic Macron as President of France is that the youths too can do it, if the conditions are right. At age 39 and one who has never held elected office, Macron founded La République en Marche (Republic on the Move or REM), a centrist political movement with an ideology, structure, and a campaign machine that within a year, took on and defeated long existing and experienced mainstream political parties on the right and left. In the presidential run-off, Macron trounced Marine Le Pen’s National Front winning over 66% of the vote. In the next chapter of his democratic revolution, Macron’s party, and its allies won a handsome parliamentary majority – a remarkable result for a party founded only 14 months ago.
The election of Macron is an opportunity that beckons on Cameroonians, with the next Presidential election in sight. Already, the nation is being treated to a comical spectacle by self-seeking morons and scums stumping around, in a bizarre campaign aimed at getting the “anointed” CPDM incumbent to seek re-election in 2018. These efforts to orchestrate another 7-year mandate for the ailing 84-year-old Paul Biya, stands in mockery to the leadership recruitment process that put a 39 year-old into the French presidency. It is a travesty that insults and diminishes even Biya’s own person. CPDM political jobbers should spare Cameroonians the noise as the nation laments in agony for better governance.
Macron, an investment banker, may not have contested elections before but had substantial experience in the corridors of power. He worked as a public servant; was once a member of the Socialist Party and held different government portfolios. His success is a function of a political environment that is relatively healthy and civilized, where politicians, servant-leaders go into politics for the public interest. It is said that only the deep calls to the deep. Macron’s mentors and senior politicians, like erstwhile President Francois Hollande who leveraged his career are patriotic French politicians who identify and nurture youths with such positive qualities. The leadership recruitment motive and process that put a 39 year-old into the French presidency must therefore be commended. It is worth-noting that though 22 years younger than Biya, Hollande at age 62, chose not to seek re-election because of his low job approval rating. Such sensitivity to public opinion is indeed a mark of statesmanship and the wisdom of a patriot.
Mr. Macron is a man who follows his mind, as exemplified by the story of his marriage. He is one who, believes in the “can do” spirit as evidenced by the movement he put together to win so soon and so spectacularly, the highest office in France and at an age only Napoleon Bonaparte matched. But his success was not manna that dropped from Heaven. Luck, as they say, is when opportunity meets preparation. Macron prepared, and climbed on the shoulders of giants who helped him get to the top. He has a sound education, worked in both public and private sectors and benefitted from older politicians who brought him into government and political exposure. But all these was only possible because his benefactors found him worthy of high responsibilities and leadership roles, hence he rose. In sum, Macron earned his achievement. Indeed, his confidence, his courage, and his competence are clearly demonstrated by his decision to quit the Socialist Party to start his own political movement.
It must be recalled though, that Cameroon once had courageous and capable young people in leadership positions. President, Paul Biya at age 29, was Charge de mission at the Presidency in 1962, and later rose to become prime minister in 1975 at the age of 42. The current Prime Minister Philemon Yang was appointed Minister of Mines and Power at age 28; Bello Bouba was prime minister in 1982 at age 35. At 25, Bello was Secretary General at the Ministry of Defence; at 28, he became Minister, Deputy Secretary General at the Presidency. Before becoming prime minister, Bello was Minister of State on January 7, 1982, at the age of 35. Hamadou Moustapha, currently, Minister in charge of Special Duties at the Presidency was first appointed to this portfolio in 1975 at age 27. Augustin Frédéric Kodock was Secretary of State at the Ministry of Finance in 1963 at age 30. Kamdem Niyim was Health Minister in 1964 at age 23; his Sports counterpart Mbombo Njoya was 27. Ndam Njoya was Education Minister in 1977 at age 35.
Achidi Achu was Minister of Justice in 1972 at age 38. Maikano Abdoulaye was 38 when he became Minister of the Civil Service on June 12, 1970. House speaker, Cavaye Djibril, was first elected at age 30. He has been MP for 47 years; 25 of them as Speaker. Before becoming Senate President, the 84-year-old Niat Njifenji was appointed GM of SONEL in 1970 at age, 40. In 1988, Laurent Esso’o became deputy secretary general at the presidency at age 46 and has never left the government ever since. Joseph Owona was director of the International Relations Institute of Cameroon (IRIC) in 1976, aged 31; Dorothy Njeuma, was 32 when she was appointed Vice Minister of Education in 1975; At age 28, Nzoh Ekanghaki was Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister in 1962, and became Secretary General of the defunct OAU at the age of 38. The list is endless.
Cameroonians find it difficult to understand why these old people are still running the country. Biya inherited the presidency in 1982 and has held office for 34 years and counting. In clearly unmistakable terms, the fact that the four most important personalities of the nation – President Paul Biya (84), Senate President Niat Njifenji (84), House Speaker Cavaye Djibril (77) and PM Philemon Yang (70), combine for a total 313 years is a mark of Cameroon’s regression. Even if their age is not a problem; what about the age of their ideas? These spent forces are clueless, inept and ill-equipped for the complex challenges of nation-building in the 21st century driven by globalization social media, and new information and communication technology. It is regrettable that the ruling class is dominated by people who ought to have joined the president in a well-deserved retirement. That men like Jean Foumane Akame (78), Martin Belinga Eboutou (77), Amadou Ali (74), Laurent Esso’o (74), Bello Bouba (70), Hamadou Moustapha (72), Ayang Luc (70), and others like Achidi Achu (82), Enow Tanjong (80), Ibrahim Mbombo Njoya (80), Mafany Musonge (74), Nfon Victor Mukete (99) are still running the nation’s affairs is most unhelpful to the cause of a better Cameroon. The gerontocracy has perforated the judiciary, as well as the military top brass. René Claude Meka, army chief of staff is 78 years old; the police boss, Martin Mbarga Nguele is 81 and has been a police officer for 68 years and counting; the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Daniel Mekobe Sone is 72.
These one-party apologists suffer from monolithic hang-over and view global trends towards respect for human rights, press freedom; transparency and accountability in government, rule of law and good governance as intrusions into their personal power and influence. They just cannot understand how dissent is an act of patriotism and that citizens have an obligation to question and hold their leaders accountable. Undoubtedly, the nation gets a raw deal when tired old men facing creeping senility are recycled from political limbo into high public office. The integrity deficit associated with octogenarians running the country is self-seeking, ignominious, whimsical and disdainful political brigandage that has held the nation prostrate. This is a sad commentary on the character of Cameroonian politics and politicians for, after all is considered, neither purposeful leadership nor the public interest is served by these men of yesteryears; who regrettably, are the ones who often catch the President’s fancy powers.
In a genuine democracy or even any context, there is something inherently absurd in one man ruling a country for over three decades and counting. It just cannot be that there are no other capable hands to continue wherever he stops! Democracy thrives on regenerative change and good governance can only be enhanced where fresh ideas from other patriots are allowed. It is a blemish on the leadership quality of any man who fails to nurture new leaders to succeed him. It still holds true that success without a successor is failure. Biya’s continued stay in power therefore subtracts hugely from his standing as a statesman. Besides, his long stay in office denies Cameroonians the experience of peaceful change of leadership and puts the country at risk of disintegration when, as a reluctant mortal, death eventually forces him out of office; a tragedy Cameroon can do without.
The 39-year-old Macron is poised to remake the face and shape of French politics. Biya should look at Macron and realize that he does not have a monopoly of wisdom and should have left office a long time ago. After 34 years in power, it would be an act of statesmanship for Biya not to even contemplate contesting the 2018 election. It is time to begin the process of handing over to a new generation. At 84 years of age, Biya should have long abandoned partisan politics and become a father of the nation who, in tricky times like these with separatist agitations, should be available to be consulted for his wisdom and experience. Alas, in Africa, only Nelson Mandela and a few other leaders have had sufficient self-control, political sagacity and gumption to settle for such pedestal.
In point of fact though, the Anglophone problem is a Cameroonian problem that is deeply embedded in the generational question. In effect, Anglophones are sick and tired of a corrupt leadership recruitment process choked by so-called “godfathers” with dubious connections and access to the corridors of power, who arrogate to themselves the exclusive right to nominate people for appointments to public offices. Cameroon is a great country waiting to happen and needs men and women of character who would make sacrifices for her greatness. Buffeted by a myriad of woes, including a self-serving political class of septuagenarians and octogenarians, redemption is still possible. There is need for sober reflection on the moral imperatives of the political and economic choices facing the nation. Resolving the generational question requires a major paradigm shift and a restructuring of the political system to return the country to federalism.
The Author, Ekinneh Agbaw-Ebai is a Public Intellectual and graduate of Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government, where he was Managing Editor of the Harvard Journal of African-American Public Policy. A former Research Analyst for Freedom House, he is a Consultant and lives in Boston, Massachusetts, USA.