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  • Au Cameroun de Paul Biya
  • Guy Martin
Pigeaud, Fanny . 2011. Au Cameroun de Paul Biya. Paris: Éditions Karthala. 266 pp. €24.00 (paper).

In 1982, when President Paul Biya was assuming the presidency of Cameroon, a central African country, richly endowed in natural and human resources, he was a relatively youthful forty-nine-year-old vice president, who symbolized a new era, characterized by political liberalization and multiparty democracy. That, as the book underscores, was after twenty-two years of authoritarian rule under retiring President Ahmadou Ahidjo. Twenty-seven years later, Paul Biya—now aged 78—is still in power. On 9 October 2011, he was reelected, with 78 percent of the vote, for a sixth consecutive term. The initial hopes for change were sorely misplaced. After years of arbitrary personal rule, based on ethnic exclusion and characterized by extreme economic and financial mismanagement, Cameroon now ranks as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. What explains this sorry state of affairs? This is the main question addressed in Au Cameroun de Paul Biya (or Paul Biya's Cameroon) by a French journalist who for many years was a correspondent of Agence France-Presse and the French daily newspaper Libération in Cameroon.

A fairly abundant literature on politics in Cameroon, mostly in French, exists—most notably by such well-respected scholars as Jean-François Bayart, Fabien Éboussi Boulaga, Richard Joseph, Jean-François Médard, Célestin Monga, Achille Mbembe, Francis Nyamnjoh, and Luc Sindjoun—but little has been written on the Biya presidency itself. Pigeaud's book felicitously fills this gap. In ten concise chapters and 256 dense pages, she reveals the methods and strategies by which the Biya regime evolved from relative political freedom to totalitarian one-party—and one-man—rule, leaving little space for political disagreement, dissent, and opposition.

Having unexpectedly inherited the presidency from an ailing Ahmadou Ahidjo in November 1982, the young President Biya, following an attempted (or unsuccessful) coup d'état in April 1994, attributed his regime's problems to his predecessor, who was eventually forced into exile. Biya then proceeded to build a one-party state centered around his own party, the Rassemblement démocratique du peuple camerounais (RDPC: Cameroon People's Democratic Movement), which ultimately became fused with his administration and his person. According to Pigeaud, one of his favorite strategies is to appear to make concessions to the opposition, only to renege on them later, or turn them into purely symbolic gestures, devoid of substance (p. 80).

The author gives as an example the fact that while the Cameroonian opposition was calling for a Conférence nationale souveraine (CNS, National [End Page 133] Sovereign Conference) of the type initiated in the Republic of Benin (another French-speaking West African nation), which subsequently took place in other Francophone African states, Biya instead convened, in October 1991, a tripartite conference meant to divide and weaken the opposition (pp. 55-61). One of the methods he used to achieve this objective—also successfully used by Mobutu Sese Seko in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1991—was to finance the creation of fake political parties. Thus, as of January 2011, there were no less than 253 legal political parties in Cameroon, as well as forty-eight requests for the creation of new ones (p. 77).

As Pigeaud has shown, it is on record that 203 political parties were represented at the CNS (April-December 1992). Then, following the conference, Biya agreed to the drafting of a new constitution, but the committee entrusted with this task was composed of Biya's trusted advisers, and eventually the committee opted for a "revised" constitution, to be adopted by a simple majority vote in the National Assembly, instead of a much riskier popular referendum (p. 81). Under intense pressure from the opposition and foreign donors demanding the creation of an independent electoral commission, the RDCP set up the Observatoire national des élections (ONEL, National Elections Monitor), chaired by a prominent member of the party, Énoch Kwayeb (p. 81). Similarly, in 2008, all twelve members of Elections Cameroun (ELECAM, Cameroon Elections), created in 2006—a condition imposed by foreign donors—as...


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