Paul Biya: the excessive costs of African leader’s foreign trips

85-year-old President Paul Biya of Cameroon


LONDON—Let us highlight Cameroon’s president, the 85-year-old Paul Biya, who is one of the world’s oldest heads of state, and one of the longest-serving – ruling for nearly 35 years after abolishing term limits in 2008. At 85 years old, the president is still sporting a jet-black hair and is said to be contemplating another run for the presidency.

It is not uncommon, for what critic’s term “unproductive African leaders,” to spend millions of dollars each year on foreign trips that, on average, do not produce equally tangible benefits to their country.

Take President Biya, for example, who recently held a cabinet meeting for the first time in over two years. After compiling reports from the daily newspaper, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), calculated the amount of time the president spent abroad. The OCCRP estimates that the president spent, on average, nearly one week out of every month on a foreign trip.

In his 35 years of power as President of Cameroon, his country continues to lead the pack as one of Africa’s most corrupt republics. To put it in perspective, Cameroon is ranked 55 points lower on Transparency International’s Perceptions Index than countries like Liberia where corruption, wasteful spending, and nepotism are still prevalent.

According to OCCRP findings, in October 2016, when 75 people died after a train derailed in
Eseka, a small commune in Cameroon, the president was on a trip to Europe. The president was on a similar trip to Switzerland, in 2017, when riots broke out in Cameroon after protests on the marginalization of the English-speaking minorities.

For over a year, Cameroon’s Anglophone districts were stuck in constant protests and disasters. It all started with many Cameroonian teachers and professionals demanding better conditions for the English-speaking minority.

Their requests created tensions, leading to a confrontation between the Cameroonian security forces and protesters. The crisis led to a three-month blackout of internet services across most of the English-speaking regions across Cameroon and separatist militants fighting for an independent “Ambazonia.” While the government took some drastic measures to calm the situation, tension remains.

African Leaders Love for Foreign Hotels

Although Africans continue to agonize from a lack of adequate housing, healthcare, and other necessities, African leaders, who were once marginalized opposition, tend to forget their roots once they take power, and start living in hotels and engaging in what their critics call wasteful foreign trips.

Many citizens see their former opposition leaders, who were one-time critics of the ruling party’s foreign travels, living in luxurious hotels at the cost of $7,500 to a whopping $40,000 per day for their entourage. This amount equals the yearly salary of nearly 500,000 average citizens in many African countries.

The President of Cameroon Paul Biya and his wife, Chantal, wave to Pope Benedict XVI upon his departure from Yaounde airport on March 20, 2009  AFP PHOTO / ISSOUF SANOGO

Biya travels with his wife Chantal, who is well known for her “gravity-defying hairdos,” and an entourage of up to 50 people that includes ministers, bodyguards, butlers, and various staff.

OCCRP estimates the Cameroonian president has spent the equivalent of four and a half years or roughly 1,645 days on “private” visits overseas, totaling around 65 million dollars since he came to power.

Cameroon is described as a low-income country with roughly 25 percent of its 23 million citizens earning less than US$ 2 a day from farming and menial jobs. The average life expectancy, like so many African countries, is under 60.

According to Cameroonian political scientist Achielle Mbembe, Cameroonians do not know what (exactly) President Biya does on his dozens of yearly foreign trips to Geneva – although some have speculated that the 85-year-old is traveling for hospital treatments, shopping for his wife, and to hide stolen wealth.

In 2004, President Biya attempted to buy a brand new private jet, but his staff supposedly “duped him” into buying a defective old plane covered with a fresh coat of paint that nearly crashed on its first flight. Since his brushed with death, the president has abandoned the idea of owning a private plane, which his critics say would have opened the door to even more wasteful foreign trips. However, he still travels on chartered planes at a cost of around $855,000 per year.

Today, Cameroonians are waiting to see if President Biya will seek another term in office.

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Paul Goldstein

PAUL F. GOLDSTEIN is an avid blogger and investigator in a U.S. based firm probing foreign corruption. Paul investigations focus on foreign corruption, white collar matters, insider trading and securities law. Paul has successfully advised foreign individuals in a wide range of enforcement matters including Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and U.S. Immigration violations.
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