By Dibussi Tande
When Paul Biya became president on November 6, 1982, he seemed determined to break away from, and put an end to the clientelist policies of the Ahidjo era; to establish a more humane nationalist agenda that respected ethnic and linguistic diversity but frowned on tribalism; encourage state decentralization; and introduce grassroots democracy within the single party. These ideas formed the bedrock of Paul Biya's "New Deal" philosophy which he articulated during the first five years of his rule, and whose basic principles were later published in a 1987 political manifesto titled Communal Liberalism.
Unlike Ahidjo who insisted that national unity could be possible if and only if “particularist loyalties (identifications) are systematically suppressed in the interest of national consciousness”, Paul Biya argued that a Cameroonian Fatherland would become a reality not by obliterating ethno-regional frames of reference, but by using them as stepping stones to nationhood. Therefore, creating a single nation out of Cameroon's numerous fatherlands was,
...certainly not going to be a question of embarking on a forceful and arbitrary elimination of the present ethnic and regional peculiarities. These, in some respects, are national socio-cultural resources, given their unquestionable contribution to the dynamism and co-operation for which our country is well known. Not only is it difficult to find the magic wand for this purpose, it is also evident that any such attempt could generate more social frustration.
However, like Ahidjo, Biya believed that the state remained "the best politically organized human grouping and the most complete from the standpoint of its authority," but felt that the state should derive its strength from popular legitimacy and not "solely from the concentration of legal prerogatives even if they are accompanied by an enormously strong force for law and order." The best means of obtaining this legitimacy, he asserted, would be-- again unlike Ahidjo's philosophy-- through the devolution of powers to local administrative communities (such as rural and urban Councils, Départements or administrative divisions, and provinces) which were to be "transformed into real decentralized territorial communities with extensive prerogatives to chose their leaders democratically and manage their own affairs."
With regards to the single party, Paul Biya, like Ahidjo before him, insisted that it remained "the only suitable institutional framework for bringing together Cameroonians of all origins," but saw its existence as temporary;
After moulding the unitary spirit of the Cameroonian people, and making real its triumphant march towards democracy, the single party will, when the time comes, appear as having been the best laboratory for a truly pluralistic democracy in Cameroon, the necessary prelude to multipartism, the measured, methodic and responsible birth of which will constitute a very important phase in the accomplishment of our democratization project which should immediately take shape within the state machinery.
In practice, however, Paul Biya failed to transform his nationalistic and progressive political vision into reality. By the end of the 1980s he had jettisoned all the key principles of his "New Deal" doctrine that had won him widespread national support and international acclaim early in his presidency. Many reasons have been advanced to explain Biya's inability to carry out the agenda that he set for himself, the most common being that the 1983-84 succession crisis-- that pitted him against his former mentor Ahmadou Ahidjo-- and the April 1984 Muslim-backed coup forced him to abandon his nationalist agenda and cave in to the hegemonic ambitions of the various Beti factions that sprung up during this period, and on whom he increasingly came to rely for survival.
Whatever the reasons, the result was a gross disparity between the president's political discourse and his actions. Increasingly, his regime became exclusionist in nature, deriving its support from and controlled principally by what became known as the "Beti Lobby." Rather than modifying the principles and mechanisms underlying the prebendal system inherited from Ahidjo, the Biya regime sought to ease out previous beneficiaries, particularly the Bamileke (who dominated the commercial sector) and Fulani (who controlled the political establishment and had a firm grasp of the public corporations), in favor of this budding Beti lobby.
The northern-backed coup attempt of 1984 was thus a golden opportunity to settle old scores with the northern elites, and replace northern political domination with Beti hegemony. The failed coup attempt was followed by a nation-wide purge of Cameroonian institutions of northern influence, and the stripping of the hitherto powerful Fulani elite of privileges acquired through three decades of Ahidjo patronage. The majority of northerners occupying key positions in the army, the Gendarmerie, the police force, public corporations and the civil service, were stripped of their positions. Those rightly or wrongly suspected of having participated in the failed coup (and this group included practically the entire political, military and economic elite of Northern Cameroon), were arrested, jailed and/or summarily executed and their property seized, including that of former president Ahidjo. Thereafter, the Beti lobby took control of virtually all strategic positions in the army, national security apparatus, the public corporations and the civil service.
Just as the coup attempt had served as a pretext to destroy the Fulani political network, the so-called policy of "rigour and moralisation" which was the key component of Biya's New Deal policy, was used essentially to deprive Bamileke networks of their share of rents which they controlled under the previous regime, in favor of the Beti lobby.
Mbembe and Bayart argue that the deliberate opening of Cameroonian markets to Indo-Pakistani businessmen with the help of the infamous Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), was also part of a strategy to deprive the Bamileke of lucrative business networks which they had seized from the Greeks and Lebanese in the 1950s particularly in the wholesale and export trade.
Still as part of its strategy of dominance, the Biya regime made a determined effort to promote entrepreneurship among the Beti elite, and to create a Beti economic class that would rival the Bamileke and serve as the financial backbone of the regime.
The "Beti Lobby"
In a country where there is a "natural affinity between the stream of power and the stream of money or credit," it is no surprise that the Biya regime used its political influence to obtain bank credits for its clansmen on very liberal bases, especially between 1983 and 1987. By the mid-1980s, a quarter of the total portfolio of the state-controlled banking sector-- amounting to 120 billion FCFA francs (roughly $240 million US at the time)-- consisted of unrecoverable loans, most of them being politically mediated loans to elites.
The Biya regime also dug deep into the coffers of public institutions created to supply credit and guidance to local entrepreneurs such as the BCD, FONADER, CAPME and FOGAPE in its bid to create a Beti economic class.
According to Van de Walle, the Beti elite --whom he calls the Beti Barons-- particularly benefited from a more than liberal access to sources of state rents such as public contracts, export-import licenses, scholarships, loans, employment, public contracts, equipment, and customs fraud, which all aid in setting up patronage networks.
Along with the attempt to take over the private sector, the Beti lobby tightened its stranglehold on the public sector, particularly the public corporations, which became the target of extreme neopatrimonial practices tolerated and even encouraged by the government. In spite of glaring evidence of widespread corruption and the embezzlement of funds, the managers of these public corporations went unpunished. Instead, they continued to be recipients of huge government subventions even when their corporations were being consistently indicted for mismanagement by the Financial Commission.
Jua argues that bad management was deliberately tolerated and financed by the regime as part of its neopatrimonial control system;
By enabling members of the development coalition to appropriate funds with impunity, the state staved off even the threat of any momentary political deficiency a la Gramsci, which could unleash a struggle among members or factions of the development coalition for political office and control of the patronage system. In the face of this Cameroonians now claim that managers of parastatals have "titres fonciers" (in this case a free hand) over their concerns.
However, the powerful Beti bourgeoisie that the state had attempted to create by manipulating economic conditions to its advantage never became a reality. Plagued by what Rowlands describes as "an ethos of ostentatious consumption" and "unproductive patterns of investment and reliance on the state patronage for accumulation," they failed to offer competition, let alone overtake Bamileke entrepreneurs who continued to dominate their traditional areas, albeit with more difficulty. In the process, however, the national banking sector, the principal public corporations and state-owned financial institutions all went under, the victims of the extreme prebendalism of the first five years of the Biya reign. Historian Achille Mbembe best sums up public sentiment in Cameroon in the early 1990s when he describes the venal proclivity of the Beti lobby as,
the rampant [and] ostentatious colonization of the state, the central administration, the banks, the public media, the diplomatic corps and the army by an arrogant regional elite with little mastery of monetary issues and more inclined towards the ethos of lavishness than production. In addition to the ensuing waste is the [general] feeling that the redistributive Party-state of the Ahidjo era has been replaced by a crude and sectarian state. [my translation]
Although available evidence suggests that Cameroon's economy was already on its knees by the end of the 1970s, and that the collapse had simply been postponed thanks to the oil boom of the early 1980s; and although there is evidence that the plundering of public corporations and banks by regional elites began under Ahidjo, the fact is that when "the state's offices and treasury ceased to provide orderly profitable circuits for well connected, opportunistic patrons and clients" in the mid-1980s, there was a frenzied "inter-elite competition for shrinking resources" and in this competition, the Beti elites "were identified as the ever more exclusive beneficiaries of the state's remaining largesse."
Unlike Ahidjo who was able "to frustrate somewhat the appetite of Northerners in order to stabilize his personal power" by carefully "cultivat[ing] ties with every ethnic group and [by] placat[ing] all the provincial elites with access to state resources," Biya "demonstrated less ability to control corruption and rent-seeking than Ahidjo had." He therefore allowed the "Beti barons" to increase "rent-seeking, corruption, and patronage beyond what Ahidjo ever allowed," and in the process, established a political system based on "ethnoclientelism".
Thus, rather than enlarging his public support, Biya narrowed it by his politics of exclusion. The result was an exacerbation of ethnic consciousness in the country, and systematic attacks against the political system by ethno-linguistic and regional forces which became commonplace during the multiparty years.
Culled from Dibussi Tande 1996. Ethnicity, regionalism, political liberalization and national integration in Cameroon. Northeastern Illinois University, 195 pages.