Many young Cameroonians have lived with the same president all their lives. With Paul Biya now in power for 30 years, they are beginning to call for change – not just for change’s sake, but for a more democratic, youth-friendly Cameroon.
By Anne Mireille Nzouankeu, Yaoundé
Onstage at a televised celebration of Biya’s 30th presidential anniversary, participants speak one after the other. According to the various proclamations, their longstanding leader has brought the country democracy, peace, development and many other positive things.
But when it’s Rodrigue Tonguè’s turn to speak, the tune changes. “I am jealous and envious of the elders who experienced the transition in 1982. I find it frustrating to be 32 years old and not have any memory of a political transition in Cameroon,” he says.
Tonguè’s words send a palpable chill across the stage. It’s always dangerous to speak of the president in negative terms or to talk about an alternation in power. One can get arrested for disrespecting the leader. But despite their fears of just that, many young and educated Cameroonians are beginning to openly express their frustration. Mostly they speak out through debate shows on TV and radio.
Not mentioned in the present
This generation is known as the children of the Renouveau. Their title comes from what Biya – the only president most have known since his ascension to power in 1982 – called his political project, the Renouveau, which is French for ‘revival’.
Clearly desperate for change, some children of the Renouveau have been publishing open letters in local newspapers. University student Denis Atangana is one of them. A member of a political party himself, the 24 year old calls young Cameroonians to mobilize for an alternation in power.
He encourages his peers to join the struggle for political change, insisting that “the time to rebuild Cameroon is now”, and that young Cameroonians no longer want to live in a country “where they are mentioned in the future and not in the present”. According to Atangana: “A young person must take the reins of the country.”
Word on the street
This opinion is echoed by Ulrich Ateba. The 26 year old has taken his discontentment to the street. “I felt I had to do something regarding the repeated power cuts,” he explains. “I gathered some young people from the neighbourhood and we came out on the street with signs saying we had enough.”
Their mobilization faced the same fate as any other public protest in Cameroon: the police quickly stormed the place. But the young protesters managed to escape arrest. Three demonstrations later, Ateba claims that power cuts are now less frequent in his neighbourhood.
But back to Tonguè, onstage and now in the spotlight. “Thirty years in power is too much. Even in some monarchic nations in Africa prior to independence, secrets societies would organize the assassination of a king after 30 years of rule without alternation,” he says.
In his opinion, Biya’s words don’t add up to actual Renouveau policy implementation. Referring to the current administration, Tonguè says: “They are all involved in corruption scandals and traffic of influence, including the president’s son. In his discourse, the president boasts of winning free and fair elections. Yet, he is reluctant to establish democratic institutions, for fear of losing his presidential seat. People die like animals in hospitals, on highways and in prisons.”
To make the numbers necessary to change the system, Tonguè recommends that young people engage in politics or at least participate in civil society. At the same time, he acknowledges there are challenges. “Unfortunately, the regime in Yaoundé keeps them in such material and financial uncertainty that they lack the self-confidence essential to civic activism,” he says. “But,” he adds, “I am self-confident.”