Cameroon: Paul Biya’s holiday bill thirty times more than Barack Obama’s?

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Paul Biya, President of Cameroon, is at the centre of a scandal over an unusual and ludicrously costly summer vacation in La Baule, France. Mr. Biya and his entourage spent, what is thought to be as, millions of euros in less than a month in a backdrop of abstract poverty in his country. Cameroon is one of the world’s poorest countries. Meanwhile, Cameroonian Communication Minister has resorted to a dodgy manner of avoiding real questions whilst denouncing a media prank to destabilise Cameroon. Barack Obama, on the other hand, has been hammered hard for a 30,000 euro vacation rent in the US.

“One million euros (…) to sleep in hotel rooms for a month seems out of touch for a poor and highly indebted country…” Chief Milla Assoute, former leader of a modernist group within the ruling Democratic Rally of the Cameroon People (RDPC), Tuesday, wrote in an open letter to Paul Biya. Now exiled in France, Milla Assoute, king of a large chiefdom in Cameroon defected into the opposition and now runs his own party, Democratic Rally for the Modernization of Cameroon (RDMC). Many Cameroonian personalities have also expressed outrage at the exorbitant cost of their president’s summer vacation in La Baule, France. In another open letter, this time to Yves Métaireau, Mayor of La Baule who awarded a medal of honour to Paul Biya after the latter’s spectacular spending spree in his city, Dr. Simeon Kuissu, coordinator of One Cameroon, states that “it is in La Baule that (former) French president, François Mitterrand, (…) speaking to African leaders (…) launched his famous appeal for good governance”. There has been an incalculable rise in the number of criticisms on the Internet since the revelation of the rather spicy bill.

It all began on August 29. Three French media; France Inter Radio, Radio Fidélité Nantes and a regional daily, Ouest France, revealed that the Cameroonian president, accompanied by a large delegation of over 40 persons, took up residence at the Hermitage and the Royal, two luxury hotels in La Baule for three weeks. At a closer look, there is absolutely nothing wrong with an African president vacationing in France. That is, until the 42 000 euro daily rooms bill, — excluding extra costs (food and beverage, leisure; casino, spa sessions, shopping etc…) — for the three-week holiday is revealed. At the very least, only the rooms bill stands at about 880 000 euros for a three-week vacation. To spice it up, “one may add the 340,000 euros per day spent on a chattered plane that would have been on standby for 3 weeks!” Exclaimed Chief Assoute Milla, who urged the president to interrupt his vacation and return to Cameroon.

Panic in Yaounde

The disclosure of the cost of his holiday came as a surprise to Paul Biya who had tried to cover his act. Upon arrival in Paris, early August, for a private visit which he eventually extended into a vacation, Paul Biya flooded a considerable part of the French media, including Le Monde and L’Express, with commercials and infomercials. These newspapers have since shied away from the highly publicised scandal widely criticised by the Cameroonian press, the first to have blown their cover. Caught off guard, Paul Biya turned to La Baule +, a free newspaper that thrives on advertisements with limited a distribution of about 40 000 copies. Yannick Urrien, La Baule +’s publication director, labelled as a controversial journalist and, reportedly, very close to numerous elected officials of the Union for Presidential Majority (UMP — French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s party), wrote a highly critical editorial in which he compares his fellow French journalists to prostitutes. “Some wonder how the journalist vocation could be so disrespected to the point that a recent survey placed French journalists and prostitutes on the same level of merit… It says it all! The people of La Baule (…) have just experienced a typical example of media manipulation,” he wrote. The prowess of the editorial has, reportedly, helped the highly embarrassed Cameroonian government to regain a foothold. Last Tuesday, the Cameroonian Communication Minister, Issa Bakary Tchiroma former opposition member who defected to the presidential camp, summoned the press to Yaounde to throw some light on the affair. On the same day he issued an official statement in which he cites extensive excerpts from Yannick Urrien’s editorial. “Once again, the Cameroonian Head of State is victim assaulting forces lurking in the dark, and who manipulate the media even beyond national borders,” he wrote. To him, Cameroon is simply a victim of destabilising antics. Adding his voice to a rally in support of the communiqué, his predecessor at the Ministry of Communications now in charge of Higher Education, Jacques Fame Ndongo, stated : “Today those who want to pass the Rubicon (by encasing the stigma of the apostle of peaceful democracy).” Cameroon Tribune, the government daily has also published articles strongly arguing in favour of the government’s position.

The Cameroonian government silent on the real cost of Paul Biya’s holiday

But all these numerous reactions have failed to yield the desired result as many Cameroonians still remain sceptical. For observers, Paul Biya’s defenders have carefully swerved the real questions: Are the figures published by the press true? Who is to foot the bill; The State of Cameroon or Paul Biya? Yaoundé, on the other hand, has chosen to keep it shut. Interrogated by the BBC, Issa Bakary Tchiroma merely asked if the Cameroonian president has no right to do whatever he wants with his money. But this only led the matter to a more serious issue. It is no secret that Paul Biya has always refused to disclose his salary or make public his properties as demanded by Cameroonian Constitution. Titus Edzoa, his mentor and former minister, thrown into jail for apparently “embezzling public funds” after disclosing his intention to run against Mr. Biya for the highest office in 1997, had indicated that the Cameroonian president is the richest man in the country. In a recent affair, the Catholic Committee against Hunger and for Development (CCFD) denounced Paul Biya as being among a list of leaders with ill-gotten gains. According to a French online newspaper, Rue 89, Paul Biya’s vacation was over the top more expensive than that of the American President who was widely criticised for having rented a villa for only 30 000 euros in August!

Cameroon is one of the poorest countries in the world, with 48% of its population living below the poverty line. The country relies on foreign aid for survival. France has pledged to provide 537 million euros over the next five years to the central African country, within a development framework and also to implement a debt recovery plan. Paul Biya, on his way out of La Baule a week ago, told the Ouest France daily that “to address the crisis, it is necessary that countries strengthen international solidarity.” Leaders from richer nations must be smiling from the wrong side of their mouths.

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