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Paul Biya, Cameroon’s Roaming President

Cameroon’s president, Paul Biya, likes to travel abroad. As a result, he’s missed some far-reaching events in the country he rules from afar.

In October 2016, when an overloaded train derailed in the small town of Eseka, killing over 75 people, Biya was on a “brief private visit to Europe” which is how his office refers to his regular jaunts to Geneva. The president only returned from Switzerland two days after the catastrophe, finally voicing his condolences on the airport tarmac.

A year later, Biya was away on another “private” visit to Switzerland when protests broke out in western Cameroon over marginalization of the English-speaking minority population. He didn’t return for another three weeks. While he was away, his security forces violently repressed demonstrators, setting off what has since become a simmering guerilla war.

The 85-year-old Biya has led his West African nation since 1982, winning four elections by sometimes improbably huge margins (while being accused by the opposition and observers of massive fraud).

His country’s citizens have become increasingly frustrated with his repeated absences.
Paul Biya, Cameroon’s Roaming President
An investigation supported by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) gathered information about the president’s travels from 35 years of editions of the daily government paper, the Cameroon Tribune. They show that, over that time, Biya has spent at least four-and-a-half years on his “brief private visits.” This total excludes official trips, which add up to an additional year. In some years, like 2006 and 2009, Biya has spent a third of the year out of the country.

These calculations are conservative because some editions of the Tribune are hard to find, and archives in Cameroon, France, and the United States have gaps in their collections that span several years.

The president is not in

Cameroon is a low income country: A quarter of its 23 million citizens earn less than US$ 2 a day farming or hustling small jobs. The average life expectancy is under 60. In hopes of a better life, many of the country’s youths set off for Europe illegally in precarious vessels. Some are among the over 3,000 migrants who drowned in the Mediterranean in 2017.

Like them, the president seems to prefer a life in Europe. But the similarities stop there.

Biya’s official salary is modest (reportedly just $271 per month, plus bonuses), but he travels and lives abroad in luxury -- thanks, at least in part, to his country’s taxpayers. According to Cameroonian political scientist Achille Mbembe, nobody really knows what he does on his frequent trips to Geneva, although speculation ranges from hospital treatments to shopping sprees.

While his palace in Yaoundé is rumored to be luxurious, Biya prefers to spend a large portion of his “private trips” at the five-star Intercontinental Hotel in Geneva, which offers a swimming pool and striking views of Lake Geneva and Mont Blanc.

He does not travel alone. His wife Chantal, renowned for her gravity-defying hairdos, accompanies him on nearly every trip, as does an entourage of up to 50 people that includes ministers, bodyguards, butlers, and various other staff.

One of Biya’s closest confidants, Joseph Fouda, a military officer and special advisor, has accompanied him on at least 86 trips, amounting to more than three years of travel since 1993. He prefers a room on a top floor of the Intercontinental. Another close confidant, Martin Belinga Eboutou, 78, has spent nearly three years travelling with the president starting in 1987, when he was Cameroon’s ambassador to Morocco. Eboutou soon became a fixture on Biya’s journeys as his chief of protocol, and later as director of the president’s Civil Cabinet.

According to reporters’ conservative calculations -- based on publically available hotel room prices and a compilation of entourage lists -- the total hotel bill of Biya and his colleagues for one stay at Intercontinental, adds up to around $40,000 per day. At that rate, the cost of all of the president’s private trips (1,645 days in total) would add up to about $65 million since he came to power -- and that’s not counting food, entertainment, and the rental of a private plane. The president’s office did not comment on this issue.

Duration of Paul Biya's official and unofficial trips abroad, per year. (Image: OCCRP / Authors.) Click to enlarge.The president attempted to buy a brand new private jet in 2004, but his staff reportedly cut corners on the deal, buying a defective plane covered by a fresh coat of paint that nearly crashed on its first flight. Since then, the president has chartered at least several private aircraft, including a luxury jet formerly owned by the government of Kazakhstan. Used for regular journeys, such a plane would be large enough to carry some 300 passengers, but for an elite clientele it has been fitted with amenities such as full-size beds and an office, and seats about 60 people.

Travel by chartered plane isn’t cheap. Invoices from 2010 apparently sent by a company called CS Aviation to Director of the President’s Biya Civil Cabinet, and reviewed by OCCRP, bill the Civil Cabinet nearly $855,000 for one round trip for 50 passengers from Yaoundé to Geneva and back. Other invoices show that, in 2013, the plane was kept on standby for two weeks at a daily cost of nearly $157,000. The company did not reply to reporters’ requests for comment.

Number of days Paul Biya has spent in selected countries since 1982, when the Cameroonian president took office. (Image: OCCRP / Authors.) Click to enlarge.At these rates, the cost of Biya’s flights since he came to power could add up to at least $117 million.

It is not clear how much of the president’s travel money comes from the part of the national budget allocated to his office, which totaled $104 million in 2018.

According to the International Monetary Fund, more than $300 million of the revenue of Cameroon’s national oil company in 2017 was not accounted for. The president has oversight over the company, whose oil sales, according to a leaked US diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks, have historically been used as a slush fund.

According to Transparency International, Cameroon is one of the world’s most corrupt countries, ranking 145th out of 176 countries on its Corruption Perception Index.

Who pays, who plays

Cameroonians pay in other ways for the president’s jaunts abroad. Every time he returns to Yaoundé, his motorcade crosses the whole capital from Nsimalen International Airport to his home, the Unity Palace. A dozen gleaming cars, including an ambulance, whizz through the streets. To ensure a smooth journey, traffic is blocked on the main roads, at times for the whole day.

Snipers are positioned on top of buildings. Taciturn soldiers in green camouflage stand at every corner with assault rifles slung over their bulletproof vests. Cars, motorbikes and pedestrians are forbidden from crossing, and so huge traffic jams pile up against both sides of blocked avenues. The city’s yellow taxis must spend the day parked, earning no revenue.

Urban legends circulate about these grand displays, like the one about a bride and groom who ended up stuck, separated by the president’s motorcade, on opposite sides of an avenue. When the president passes, the city stops breathing.

President Biya’s party, the Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement, arranges for crowds to line the closed streets and cheer for the president. But Florian Ngimbis, a Cameroonian blogger, says that Biya’s trips are seen not just as lavish outlays, “but very much also as a kind of contempt for the Cameroonian people.”

Those few Cameroonians who have the most reason to cheer Biya’s return are the dancers and musicians paid to perform on the tarmac when his plane lands. One drummer, afraid to have his name appear in this article, remembers earning $60 a few years ago: “We didn’t complain… we could drink beers for three days.” Nonetheless, says the drummer, security concerns have trumped the thirst for pomp and ceremony lately, and fewer musicians are being invited.

Decrees upon departure

When Biya lands in Yaoundé, he also meets his government -- at the airport. Formal ministerial councils are organized infrequently, every year or two at the most. But while Biya has used public funds to sustain a bureaucracy of 65 ministers and state secretaries, he mostly governs by decree or through a handful of laws sped through a rubber-stamp parliament.

Biya signs a flurry of acts between each of his trips. For example, in 2017, he signed a dozen laws -- the entire legal output for that year – in a couple of days. It took him just three days to sign the entire year’s decrees.

According to Mbembe, the Cameroonian political scientist, Biya’s decrees mostly nominate civil servants to certain positions rather than directing any substantial course in policy.

“His way of exercising power is to not decide,” Mbembe said in a phone interview, “nobody knows what Biya thinks, or what he’ll do… everything can be changed from one day to the next”. He has become a “ghostly figure” leaving civil servants without direction. According to Mbembe, the unpredictability allows Biya to instil a fear of retribution in his ruling apparatus, as well as hopes of nominations to positions rendered lucrative by corruption.

It’s a system that has kept everyone in check for 35 years -- including those with ambition to take over power. But it could lead to a chaotic vacuum when the 85-year old president passes – whether he’s in his West African homeland or in a luxury hotel room far overseas.

With reporting from: Christian Locka (Cameroon), Félix Cyriaque Ebolé Bola (Cameroon), Marie Maurisse (Switzerland), Vlad Lavrov (Kazakhstan)

This story is part of the Global Anti-Corruption Consortium, a partnership between OCCRP and Transparency International. For more information, click here.

Anger As Zimbabwe Military Takes Over Morgan Tsvangirai’s Body

Former prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s body arrived in Harare from South Africa yesterday afternoon amid chaotic scenes after the government decided to take it to an army mortuary overnight.

The MDC-T leader’s body arrived aboard a South African Airways flight after 4pm accompanied by close family members, who including his elderly mother and Tsvangirai’s deputy Thokozani Khupe.

Thousands of Zimbabweans brought the airport to a standstill for several hours as they waited for the release of the body.

There was pandemonium when Tsvangirai’s body was taken to the army’s One Commando barracks in Cranborne instead of a Doves funeral parlour as previously announced.

A Tsvangirai family member said they were taken by surprise as there was no prior warning about the army’s involvement. President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government rejected calls to accord the veteran opposition leader national hero status.
Anger As Zimbabwe Military Takes Over Morgan Tsvangirai’s Body
Acting Information minister Simon Khaya Moyo said he was instructed by Mnangagwa that the body of Zanu PF’s most strident opponent must be taken to the military mortuary.

“I have been instructed by the president to have the body taken to One Commando Barracks,” Moyo said much to the disapproval of thousands of MDC-T supporters gathered at the Robert Mugabe International Airport.

The opposition party youths broke into song and dance accusing Zanu PF of causing Tsvangirai’s death.

Earlier, Khaya Moyo refused to provide reasons why Tsvangirai was not accorded national hero status.

Khaya Moyo said Mnangagwa would pay his respects at the Tsvangirai homestead in Buhera at a later date when asked if the president would attend the funeral.

“He will go to the homestead sometime to pay his respects,” he told The Standard.

At One Commando, MDC-T youths waited outside the entrance singing as they demanded that the army hands over the body to the family.

“When he was alive you hated him, mistreated him even to the extent of denying him his victory and now you want to honour him here,” shouted some of the youths.

“You are hypocrites. You soldiers you refused to salute him when he was alive and now you want to salute him.”

Tsvangirai will be buried on Tuesday at his Buhera home. A church service is scheduled for today in Harare ahead of a send-off rally at Freedom Square.
Feuding MDC vice-presidents Nelson Chamisa and Elias Mdzuri were at the airport to receive the body.

Elizabeth Macheka and Nelson Chamisa Affair Exposed - Tsvangirai’s Mother Threatens to Kill Herself

Morgan Tsvangirai’s mother Lydia Zvaipa has barred lovebirds Elizabeth Macheka and Nelson Chamisa from attending the burial of former prime minister and leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party on Tuesday.

In a live interview with ZBC, Tsvangirai ‘s mother openly said she does not want to see Elizabeth and Chamisa, otherwise, she will kill herself.
Elizabeth Macheka and Nelson Chamisa Affair Exposed - Tsvangirai’s Mother Threatens to Kill Herself
According to sources, the two have been having an affair behind Tsvangirai’s back.

I Will Commit Suicide says Morgan Tsvangirai’s Mother

There was drama at One Commando Barracks, Harare yesterday when the late MDC-T leader Mr Morgan Tsvangirai’s mother threatened to commit suicide, protesting the presence of her son’s widow, Ms Elizabeth Macheka, and party deputy, Advocate Nelson Chamisa.

The incident occurred around 6pm as mourners gathered at the barrack’s mortuary to receive Mr Tsvangirai’s body from South Africa where he died.

Ms Macheka and Adv Chamisa did not respond, though tension engulfed the occasion.

Mbuya Tsvangirai fumed: “Udza vana sekuru vako kuti Eliza handidi kumuwona pano, naChamisa. Kana speech yaChamisa handidi kuinzwa, ndinozvisungirira (Tell your uncles that I do not want to see Elizabeth and Chamisa. I will commit suicide if Chamisa delivers an address).”

She only calmed down after close relatives intervened.
I Will Commit Suicide says Morgan Tsvangirai’s Mother
Adv Chamisa is believed to be at loggerheads with the Tsvangirai family over the fallen opposition leader’s succession.

Reports suggest the family is rooting for Engineer Elias Mudzuri to take over the MDC-T leadership while some senior party leaders are for Adv Chamisa.

The family believes Ms Macheka is in the Chamisa camp.

The fissures were pronounced at One Commando as Adv Chamisa’s supporters cheered him and jeered at Eng Mudzuri and Dr Thokozani Khupe, Mr Tsvangirai’s other deputy.

Mr Tsvangirai’s brother, Mr Manase Tsvangirai, told The Sunday Mail that they had summoned the three and implored them to stop public spats out of respect for their departed boss.

He said this as his other sibling, Collins, gave an emotional narrative of Mr Tsvangirai’s last days.

Collins told the gathering that the 65-year-old opposition leader had shown signs of recovery last Sunday, but his condition deteriorated between Monday and Tuesday.

He subsequently breathed his last on Wednesday.

He had battled colon cancer and a resultant combination of ailments such as kidney failure, heart complications and a depressed blood system.

“I travelled to South Africa to be with him about six weeks ago; our mother and my sisters also joined me there. On Sunday, we had some hope because his face showed signs of glow. When we left the hospital that day at around 8 pm, we thought that he was going to get better.

“But on Monday and Tuesday, his health deteriorated rapidly. When I visited him in hospital on Wednesday, his body temperature was 34 degrees celsius. There was a lot that he was fighting.

“It was not just one disease, but many aliments. He had a problem with his heart, kidneys; and blood system was failing and his legs were swollen. On the day that he died, we prayed vigorously with him as we asked for God’s help, but God chose his way.

“We thank Government for footing the bills and also giving us direct contact from the embassy in South Africa which was also very helpful. We constantly communicated with the authorities and they provided what we asked for.”

Manase told this paper, “Ever since he was diagnosed with cancer, he was very open to the family about his illness. I last visited him in hospital in South Africa on 27 January and he still had hope. He told me that he would remain strong and he would fight with all his strength.

“But it is sad that he died. Even though he died, I think he died a peaceful man. What is painful for us is the thought that perhaps if he had been diagnosed with the disease a bit earlier, maybe it would not have affected him as much as it did in such a quick time.

“Obviously, there was nothing that could have been done because he was a man who went for regular health check-ups. It is a big loss to the family and it is going to be hard to move on without him because you cannot replace such a man.

“As a family, we are humbled by the outpouring of emotion that is coming from not only in Zimbabwe, but all over the world. We are comforted by this show of love for him and it is a befitting send-off for a man of his stature and it will also help to preserve his legacy.”

Acting Information, Media and Broadcasting Services Minister Ambassador Simon Khaya Moyo said, “I was sent by His Excellency, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, to go the airport to receive the body on behalf of Government, together with the family and friends. This was a great man.

“I do not have many words because I know His Excellency will visit the house tomorrow (today) and convey his message on behalf of all of us. We thank God for giving us such a courageous leader. He was a leader of vision and a leader of destiny.

“I will report to His Excellency that this was a befitting welcome to a man who was a great leader. He was a man of purpose, a man of strength and a man of courage.”

Mr Tsvangirai’s body will be taken to his Highlands, Harare home today, with a possible public parade later in the day.

It will be taken to his rural home in Buhera tomorrow ahead of Tuesday’s burial.


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