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Cameroon: The president who likes to go on holiday

By Daniel Finnan

New research published this month reveals that Cameroon’s President Paul Biya has spent at least four and a half years on private travel during his time in power. A group of journalists analysed copies of the state-backed Cameroon Tribune newspaper spanning the last 35 years to determine exactly how much time Biya spends outside of the country. The reporters discovered that the Cameroonian head of state spends the bulk of these holidays in Geneva, France and the US. The report estimates that the president has spent some 65 million dollars on accommodation and almost 120 million dollars. The researchers indicate that it is not entirely clear how the trips are funded. Spotlight on Africa spoke to Emmanuel Freudenthal, a freelance journalist who contributed to an investigation supported by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project

Q&A: Emmanuel Freudenthal

Why did you decide to do this research?

Paul Biya’s travels have been highlighted for quite a long time and have caused quite a lot of frustration in Cameroon. I thought it would be a good idea to know exactly how much time he spends abroad, how much time he actually spends in Geneva.

How much time does President Biya spend abroad?

Overall he’s spent at least five-and-a-half-years abroad since he came to power in 1982. That’s a minimum figure, basically that’s the number of days of travel we could calculate based on the copies of the Cameroon Tribune we got. Out of that, four-and-a-half-years were on what his office calls ‘short private visits abroad’. Mostly he’s visiting Geneva, staying at the InterContinental Hotel, but sometimes he also goes to France or the US. So it’s basically time where nobody really knows what he’s doing, he’s on private business.

The vast majority of this is personal travel. It also seems, according to your analysis, that the number of trips is increasing and the length of time away from Cameroon has increased over the years.

It’s pretty hard to know exactly if that is the case. He was travelling quite a bit in the earlier years and it does seem like he’s travelling more recently, especially more on these private trips. But we have a bias in the data - it’s harder to get the older editions of the Cameroon Tribune.

What are his favourite destinations? We’ve mentioned Geneva, France and the US.

By far, Geneva is his favourite place to spend time. When he’s in Geneva he stays at the InterContinental Hotel. According to what we heard, he stays inside the hotel - has his meals there and so on - with a suite and a delegation of about 30 to 50 people. Other than that - France, the US – they’re the other countries, he mostly goes to European countries whether it’s for official or private travel. He doesn’t seem to like travelling in Africa much.

Who pays for these trips?

According to what little information we have about his wages, the official wage would be around 270 dollars [per month]. On top of that he gets a lot of bonuses for travel, for expenses, for being the head of this or that commission. But it seems unlikely [for him] to be able to cover the roughly 65 million dollars that were spent on this [private travel], according to our estimates, since he started on these private trips. So it seems like it comes from government coffers, exactly where it’s coming from is also a bit difficult to know because it’s quite opaque. We’re just kept guessing about exactly where the money’s coming from.

Who goes with him on these trips? Who’s in his entourage?

So there are quite a few ministers who go with him. He’s got a very big government, about 65 ministers and secretaries of state. I don’t know exactly how he picks them, but some of them get to go with him. Those names are announced in the Cameroon Tribune when they write an article about him. People of lower rank don’t get mentioned in the articles, so we don’t know exactly who they are. But according to one list of guests at the InterContinental hotel, those people include a maître d’hôtel, bodyguards, assistants and so on. These guys - we don’t really know who they are. There’s two people who feature in most of his recent travel, Joseph Fouda and Martin Belinga Eboutou, who’ve been on around 80 trips with him, if my memory serves me correctly, and travelled about three years with him. Joseph Fouda is one of his special advisors. Martin Belinga Eboutou used to be chief of protocol and now he’s director of the president’s civil cabinet.

What does he do with all of this time that he spends on private trips?

No one really knows, because he’s actually quite a recluse. He doesn’t actually end up speaking to many people, so the information doesn’t leak very easily. One rumour is that he goes to different hospitals in Geneva, which are much better than those in Cameroon, which are falling into disrepair. Paul Biya doesn’t go to hospitals in Cameroon, he goes to hospitals in Geneva it seems. That’s one possible reason for these trips. What is clear is that he doesn’t work during those trips. He signs very few laws and very few decrees when he’s in Geneva.

How does he travel? Because you estimate that he spent almost 120 million dollars on flights since he came to power.

He spent a lot of money on flights since he came to power because he has to rent private jets every time. We had one invoice for around 855,000 dollars for Yaounde – Geneva return flight, which if you take economy class would be 800 dollars. Of course, the comfort’s quite a bit better – you have your own bed, you have an office, some of the planes also have a shower and so on. He rents his planes because in 2004 he tried to buy a plane, but then his staff apparently didn’t spend all the allocated money on the plane. They bought some old plane that nearly crashed and killed him. So since then he’s preferred to rent a plane each time.

Does he actually have allocated holidays as president?

I don’t know what the allocated holidays are as president of Cameroon. But whatever they are, it seems to be pretty good! The other cost of his travels - I think probably the biggest cost to the country, other than the hundreds of millions that were spent on the actual travel – is his governance style. He basically doesn’t take decisions. His trips are a way to show that he’s the president. That he’s able to travel in great luxury abroad and be received by heads of state. That gives him some kind of legitimacy. When it comes to his own country he doesn’t take strong decisions and that has some impact. For example, in the Anglophone region, there’s been for years, for decades, a resentment by the Anglophone minority, in the west of Cameroon, and this has been left to rot. Recently it has blown up into a full-on guerrilla war against the government. People protested first, then the government responded by arresting and killing people, and then that started what is today guerrilla war with the killing of [members of the] security forces and then massive burning of villages and killing of civilians in the west of the country. This might have been solved quite easily and peacefully if it had been dealt with. So that’s the hidden cost of his travel and governance style. What actually happens is that his lack of action trickles down to all levels of government, even to the clerk who is supposed to stamp your papers. So no one really does anything and the government – because there’s a whole apparatus of government there – doesn’t necessarily take decisions. It’s basically a predatory government.

Response from the government

RFI's French service contacted the Cameroonian government for their view on this research. The authorities in Yaounde said they did not want to comment.

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