Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Etoudi: 'Paul Biya's silence against his people becomes criminal'

Cameroon's elderly president is criticized for his absence from the national scene as the Central African country faces a burgeoning coronavirus crisis.

A month after the registration of the first COVID-19 case, Paul Biya, 87, has yet to speak to the nation - a silence that for supporters is a sign of seriousness but for critics a failure. 

According to official figures released Monday morning, Cameroon has 658 cases of the virus, with nine deaths, making it the second most affected country after South Africa in sub-Saharan Africa. 

Cameroon is already waging two violent conflicts, one against the jihadists of Boko Haram in the north, the other against the English-speaking separatists in the west. 

The fighters of the new front are doctors and nurses who are in dire need of masks and breathing apparatus. 

During his 37 years in power, Cameroonians have grown accustomed to Biya's long absences, mainly due to poor health, but his silence on the pandemic raises lively questions.

He posed for the cameras after talks with the US ambassador on March 11, but did not speak to the press. 

Six days later, Biya urged Cameroonians on Facebook to "respect" the measures taken to fight the virus, but since then, there has not been as much whispering from a leader who has supervised numerous crises since he came to power in 1982. 

- Biya "cannot be pinned" - 

Biya's history suggests that he is not a major communicator at best, making only three or four appearances per year . But for researcher Stéphane Akoa, "In a context like this, the presidential message is important." 

Last week, rumors mounted on social media that Biya could be dead, causing a formal public denial of the Minister of Communications René-Emmanuel Sadi, who insisted that Biya "went about his official activities as usual "

But the president himself said nothing, provoking a brutal attack on the main opposition leader, Maurice Kamto, Biya finalist in the 2018 elections. On 

Friday, Kamto demanded that the president address the nation in a delay of seven days, otherwise "the people ... will inevitably see their failure". 

Biya's silence "becomes criminal," he added. 

Labor Minister Grégoire Owona responded, saying that Kamto wanted to politicize the crisis, calling it "shameful". 

Oswald Baboke, deputy chief of staff to the president, praised Biya's "wisdom ... (and) restraint", writing in the press that "the president's time cannot be improvised and cannot be set."

So far, the young Minister of Health, Malachie Manaouda, has been the man of the coronavirus crisis, tweeting frequent updates and detailing the government's response. 

But criticism has intensified with the number of known cases increasing from 142 to 658 in one week. 

- 'Lack of coordination' - 

"The government's communication is weak, its response was late and in some respects poorly prepared," said Stéphane M'Bafou, consultant in public management and governance. 

"There is an obvious lack of coordination," said economist Albert Ze.

On March 13, Prime Minister Joseph Dion Ngute announced measures such as border closings and a ban on rallies, which have been extended. 

The only new step since then, attributed to Biya but announced by Ngute, has been the creation of a solidarity fund of one billion CFA francs (1.5 million euros / 1.65 million dollars). 

Others say the answer does not go far enough. 

"We must quickly declare a curfew, isolate the cities where the cases are confirmed and move towards a general containment whatever the socio-economic cost", explained M'Bafou.