Paul Biya: Cameroon President Spent 'Four-and-a-half Years Overseas'

The numerous overseas trips of President Paul Biya have long irritated many Cameroonians, particularly due to the street closures that accompany his return, which can block traffic for hours in the capital of Yaoundé. 

Their annoyance deepened in October 2017, when Biya was away in Switzerland while protests in the west of the country were violently quashed. Yet all the while, nobody had calculated the full scale of Biya’s absences from the country he has ruled since 1982.

Since the 85-year-old Biya has been in power, he has spent at least four-and-a-half years on “brief private visits” overseas. This total excludes official trips, which add up to an additional year. We found that, in some years, like 2006 and 2009, Biya spent a third of the year out of the country.

It didn’t take too long before the story raised interest among quite a few international media outlets, with activists and journalists asking the United Nations and the government of Cameroon about Biya’s travel habits. Cameroon’s authorities were not quick to react, but when they did, it was all hands on deck.
President Paul Biya

On February 28, the government-owned Cameroon Tribune splashed the headline “the denigrators are back” across its front page and dedicated five articles and one interview to our investigation, with titles such as “cloudy method, doubtful investigation” or “a clear electoral propaganda.”

In one of the articles, government spokesman Issa Tchiroma Bakary was quoted saying “we are dealing with a real office of destabilization, bankrolled by the secessionist movements and hidden interests who only dream of bringing chaos to our country.”

We cross-checked our findings with information from GVA Alert, a Twitter bot that records the comings and goings of dictators through Geneva Airport.

The same day, Jacques Fame Ndongo, Cameroon’s minister of higher education and a high-ranking member of Biya’s party, was asked on France’s influential RFI radio about the affair and explained that: 

“Even when Biya is abroad … he governs Cameroon in a very beautiful way …with (the help of communications technology) it is possible to pilot an organization from wherever you are. I formally deny this apocalyptic vision that President Biya spends most of his time abroad. He’s regularly in Cameroon.”

Likely feeling under pressure to justify itself to the powers that be, the publisher of The Cameroon Tribune, the Society of Press and Editions of Cameroon (SOPECAM), wrote an open letter claiming that our report’s “pseudo-revelations” did not come from their archives, which they assured were very difficult to access and not yet available online. 

They’re right. While we used about 4,000 copies of The Cameroon Tribune to source our information, we did not use the newspaper’s own archives, knowing full well that it would not be possible because of their political leanings.

On March 1, the prime-time news broadcast of the government-run CRTV station called our allegations “toxic” and a “denigration campaign.” 

They then claimed that since we did not access the newspapers via SOPECAM, it was not clear were we got them and our investigation was not credible. It was even suggested that the publication was timed to coincide with the run-up to Cameroon’s presidential elections, to be held this October.

In one of the Cameroon Tribune articles casting doubt on our methodology, journalist Yves Atanga wondered whether “attempting by a rather vague process to evaluate the cost of these travels might deserve a great global prize of investigative journalism, or the Nobel of mathematics applied to presidential travels.”

Nevertheless, given the nature of these responses, we feel compelled to respond to them — and show our readers just how we collected the data for our story.
Unlocking the Archives

Joining me on this project were bloggers Gaelle Tjat and Frank William Batchou. I knew they’d be the best partners because they had published an analysis of all of Biya’s ministers since 1982, along with their age and background.

We knew that the government’s paper, the Cameroon Tribune, features a cover article on each of Biya’s trips, praising his achievements, so the data was public.

This will be easy, we thought. We’ll collect all the newspapers, then input the data and publish the results.Investigative journalists used about 4,000 copies of the Cameroon Tribune to source information but did not use the paper’s own archives due to its political leanings.

Wrong. Although the Cameroon Tribune is arguably the country’s most widely-distributed newspaper, and owned by the government, it’s actually very difficult to get your hands on its archives. 

While the publication was founded in 1974, its own archives, we were told, only go back a few years. Archival copies were also quite costly to obtain and it’s unlikely SOPECAM would have been keen to give us a discount had they known our aims.

That’s how Frank ended up on a bus to Buea, the capital of the country’s South West region, at the foot of the mighty Mount Cameroon. The town is famous for its gruelling race where competitors run up and down the steep mountain at dizzying speeds. 

A lesser-known fact, but more useful to us, was that a small building at the foot of the mountain hosts government archives that date back to the early 1900s. They have been fairly well-maintained, although the older documents are slowly disintegrating in the town’s humid air.

He made several trips to Buea, occasionally (though not literally) wrestling with the archive’s officials to gain access to the documents. His efforts provided us with around 390 papers, primarily from 1983-1991 and 2002-2009.

But that wasn’t enough for our project. We needed much more data. Flipping through 35 years of Cameroon Tribune front pages was fascinating: over the years, Biya has met with world leaders like Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and François Mitterrand. He’s outlasted all of them in power, and outlived them, too.

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