Paul Biya, the “king.”

President Paul Biya sits alone on his throne. Over the years, he has secured his position through clientelism, dashing money to a faithful court. When everybody gets their share of the spoils, it is easy for the king to throw challengers to the lions under the veil of fighting corruption.

Paul Biya has curated an image of being a good pupil: he was an exemplary student from his high school years at Yaounde’s Lycée Général Leclerc to his law studies at Paris Sorbonne’s law faculty. The story of his life is about following the rules and then turning them to his favor.

In 1982, President Amadou Ahidjo, the only previous president since independence, resigned for health reasons. Paul Biya thus became the second president, climbing up the ranks and waiting patiently for his seat.  After several legal disputes, Ahidjo was condemned in absentia for allegedly plotting a coup against his successor. This was a convenient excuse for Biya to launch a clean-up and tighten his grip over the state apparatus. Since then, he has firmly clung to power, not hesitating to destroy ambitious newcomers who could unseat him. 

Once at the top, he has no intention of sharing. And it is with his wife Chantal that he pulls all the strings of the system.

A frugal father, a prodigal family.

Paul Biya does not exhibit signs of ostentatious luxury. In his immediate entourage, he is perceived as a man with little attachment to valuables, just like he should be as a son of a catechist.

His relatives are much less concerned with modesty. His oldest daughter, Brenda Anastasie Biya has no problems showing off her luxurious way of life. While studying in the United States, she lived in a luxury villa in the upscale Beverly Hills neighbourhood. In 2016, a very furious Brenda Biya denounced on social media the ill-treatment inflicted by a taxi driver, boasting of paying his taxi up to $400. Back in Cameroon, the first daughter continues to exhibit her lavish lifestyle on social media.

Brenda and Chantal Biya dance with Wizkid for the 2020 new year eve

In January 2020, Brenda Biya and her mother received Nigerian artist Wizkid for a private concert in the presidential apartments. His performance cost around CFA 72 million ($144,000).

Prodigality is not limited to the family, as Paul Biya surrounded himself with a network of loyalists that emulates the presidential family. 

Since his arrival, Biya has placed his friends at all strategic levels, as well as in the army, the gendarmerie or the intelligence services. Competing networks, notably from two sub- ethnic groups, the Nangas and the Bulus, are all conducting to the president, where his inner rink rules the country while having a luxury life. Among them, Jean Fame Ndongo, who has been minister of higher education for the last 16 years. That way no one can challenge the king Biya. 

Cost of basic social services

ServiceCost in  FCFA
Two standard classrooms (in a single building)18 500 000
Cost of an asphalted route (per km)600 000 000
Basic dispensary50 000 000
Monthly wage of a licensed nurse
Junior: 158 492
Senior: 336 718
Monthly wage of a midwifeJunior: 173 180
Senior:  257 612
Monthly wage of a contractual school teacher90 321
Monthly wage of a permanent school teacherJunior: 120 000 
Senior: 200 000 
Safe access to drinking water. 8 500 000

Operation Sparrowhawk: divide and conquer.

Prime Minister Inoni Ephraim wanted to clean up the country’s finances. He quickly learned that investigating the extent of the spoils of Biya’s circle was the best way to be swept away.

In 2006, Ephraim was one of the architects of Operation Sparrowhawk, an investigation on corruption. His objective: to curb senior officials’ corrupt practices of using public money for their benefits. About 30 corrupted officials were incarcerated in the central prisons of Douala and Yaoundé, for embezzlement of public funds, according to a report from ADISI Cameroon on Operation Sparrowhawk.

Former government officials were mostly condemned for embezzling public funds, amounting to hundreds of billions of CFA francs dating back to 2006. Some were accused of “management error,” according to the Contrôle Supérieur de l’État, an unusual term for embezzlement. Still, many were never formally indicted as the President is the one to approve the prosecution through the Special Criminal Court, which prosecutes economic cases involving frauds of more than CFA 500 million. 

Gilles Roger Bélinga and some of his close partners were the first convicted in September 2007 for embezzlement and complicity in the misappropriation of public funds, as well as defrauding associates through the Real Estate Company of Cameroon (SIC), worth 2 billion CFA. Bélinga and 21 co-accused, including Hamadou Ousmanou, Paul Eyebe Lebogo, Annie Ngandjeu, Sylvain Tchombe, Nama Nsimi, Dieudonné Ossombo were sentenced to 20 years in prison. 

Several other convictions followed. In 2012, it was the turn of Urban Olangena Awono, Maurice Fezeu, Awono, Maurice Fezeu, Hubert Wang, Rose Chia Banfegha and ten other co-defendants who were sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison on several charges; including diverting CFA 80 million from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis allocated to the country, embezzling CFA 122 million from public funds and misappropriating CFA 6.3 billion from the National AIDS Control Committee. 

Several cases brought to court in 2019

Fake audit of the Société Générale de Surveillance Essimi Menye,François Tchakui2 500 000 000Life Sentence
Embezzlement through the Challenger Audit Firm Corporation owned by François Tchakui François Tchakui, Essimi Menye938 000 000Life Sentence
CFC et RAV/ CRTV : Embezzlement from the Crédit Foncier and from the CRTV (2004-2005)
Polycarpe Abah Abah,Joseph Edou, Manga Pascal, Mbala Hélène, Evina Nyangono Sylvie, Me Lydienne Eyoum, Ntenlep Ntenlep, Raphaël Meke, Gervais Mendo Ze 7.8 billion and 18 000 000 000– 25 years (13 January 2015)
– 18 years (20 March 2019)
PAD : embezzlement of PAD money.

A. Siyam Siwe E. Etonde Ekotto  et 11 others40 000 000 000– 10 years for François Marie Siewe- Etonde Ekoto et 10 others acquitted.
Embezzlement in three crown companies:  REGIFERCAM, ONPC et ONCPB François Tchakui Essimi Menye2 300 000 000Life Sentences

In 2012, the wind turned, and Inoni Ephraim was arrested on corruption charges related to his involvement in Cameroon Airlines. For many Cameroonians, these accusations were part of a score-settling, as one of his close allies, former Secretary-General of the Presidency of the Republic, Marafa Hamidou Yaya, fell into disgrace from the President. Yaya was convicted in 2016 after a 20-hour trial for passive complicity in a fraud related to the presidential plane. He was charged with “intellectual complicity,” an accusation that does not exist in the Criminal Code.

Political trials?

In 2019, six other cases were put on trial, bringing heavy sentences to the culprits. But what was the real crime of all these persons? Challenging the king.

Inoni Ephraim and Marafa Hamidou Yaya both had political ambitions. And for many Cameroonians, these cases were not aimed at fighting corruption, but cleansing the government from foes who could pose a threat to the President. International organizations recognize several of these condemned public figures as political prisoners, notably the Committee for the Liberation of Political Prisoners (CLP2).

At the end, Operation Sparrowhawk allowed a political purge within the powerful, without touching the presidential clan. The government recovered crumbs from the money stolen by high-ranking officials. In the few cases where recovery could have been possible, money had already left to untraceable foreign bank accounts, far away from the justice’s reach. During the trial of Yves Michel Fotso and Marafa Hamidou Yaya, investigators presented the several networks used for transferring public funds, and how investigators, in the end, lost track of the money. 

A winning president, losing citizens

In April 2019, the Special Criminal Court (TCS) estimated that CFA 6,000 billion had been embezzled during the seven previous years from the state coffers. This represents one and half times the 2019 national budget, and double the sums involved in Operation Sparrowhawk in 2006. 

While some investigations are being conducted, the president’s finances are never audited. The principal oil firm, the Société Nationale des Hydrocarbures (SNH), has not made public any contracts or bids. The presidency directly controls the SNH: the long-lasting presidential secretary is also the chief executive officer of the SNH. Several expenses from the presidential family are paid directly by this organization. 

Despite all this, Paul Biya, who has secured the control of the entire electoral and institutional system for his benefit, continues to live lavishly with his family. At the same time, Cameroonians remain in poverty in a country lacking all essential services: health, education, industry, infrastructure. All of this, in a context where inequalities have led to a crisis in the English-speaking regions. 

It does not need to be that way: Cameroon is the only Central African country to have a diversified economy and is the largest market in the CEMAC area, with several underground resources (oil, gold, diamond, iron, manganese, bauxite) and Congo Basin’s largest forest. The country also has several seaports, making Cameroon a strategic location, particularly in the coveted Gulf of Guinea.

Cameroon is a rich country, and these resources are providing new funds for the government. The state could afford to offer basic services to its citizens, instead, resources are devoted to a king and his court. And whoever aims to challenge the crown will be cut from this source of wealth and thrown in jail. In Cameroon, is better to remain silent if you want a piece of the cake.

Marie Louise MAMGUE and Paul Joel KAMTCHANG


Operation Sparrowhawk:


Multiple :

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