By Tikum Mbah Azonga
President Paul Biya is expected in Bamenda some time this year, although the precise date is still the subject of intense speculation. He is going to Bamenda to celebrate the golden jubilee of the Cameroon Armed Forces, thus implementing a measure he announced in his traditional end-of-year speech to the nation on the 31st of August 2009.
Closely guarded secret
Now that different dates for the trip are being bandied around by different people – depending on their political inclinations or their personal intentions – the likelihood is that the visit will happen more or less like his annual outings to the Yaounde Ahmadou Ahidjo Stadium when he has to preside over the finals of the Cameroon Football Club Championship. Usually, the precise day of the match is not made public until a couple of days before it takes place. Then, the president is rushed to the stadium and whisked back to the presidential palace as soon as the match is over and the players are honoured. Sources close to him say this is for his security. Nonetheless, one may still wonder whether this is the best way of going about it. Perhaps it is, because so far, it has worked.
Peddling of influence
Ahead of the visit, different people and groups of people are jostling and positioning themselves in the limelight, perhaps in order to be seen as “being part of those working in the interest of the president” or even those “intending to gain favour from him in one way or another”. As a result, all kinds of pronouncements and declarations and accusations and counter accusations are being made. Diverse and multifarious as they are, their authors all claim to be working towards attaining one and the same objective. Nonetheless, beyond the political rhetoric, when it comes to separating the grain from the wheat, the task could be quite daunting. The paradox though is that while the rest of us may be spending sleepless nights on the issue, the concerned person, Paul Biya may not even be thinking about it. We know how over the years, he has been impenetrable to insult, blackmail and calumny.
The ongoing facelift
Paul Biya, when he arrives in Bamenda, will undoubtedly notice that there have been some changes in the town since his last trip there in 1991. Firstly, there has been a considerable reduction in the tension and rigidity created by differences between the main opposition Social Democratic Front (SDF) party of Ni John Fru Ndi and the ruling Cameroon People`s Democratic Movement (CPDM) led by Paul Biya himself. Back in 1991, the upcoming SDF was only a year old; it was young, inexperienced and somehow naïf. Over the years though, the party has ripened, matured and become wiser. Even so, it has had to pay a heavy price in the process. It has lost over half of the parliamentarians who later won elections and sat in the National Assembly in its name and on its behalf. It has also lost some key members, either through resignations, outright exclusions by the party or death. Although the SDF may have lost steam, it is not yet a down and out party, since it is still the main opposition party in the country. The point is particularly pertinent because Biya will find himself in a Bamenda which he broke up into three distinct Council areas and Sub divisions recently – along with some other big towns in the country - but whose three councils are all being run by the opposition SDF party. The SDF would have been preparing to have a field day during the visit with its host mayor delivering or not delivering a welcome speech for the president. However, this is not to be because of the system of appointing government delegates in big towns introduced by Paul Biya, whose government delegates then dwarf and supersede the mayors under them. The consequence is that if the opposition won councils through the ballot box, they would find themselves “ruled’ by a CPDM appointed government delegate., a matter over which they have cried foul for year, to no avail.
The government delegate who will receive Biya in Bamenda this time around is no longer the Jomia Pefok of 1991. It will be Vincent Ndumu who took over from Tadzong Abel Ndeh, Pefok`s immediate successor. Earlier this year, Tadzong was arrested to face charges of corruption. When Biya called round in 1991, Pefok made a speech which many people lived to remember. Referring to the acrimony between especially the SDF and the CPDM but in more general terms between the government and the suffering Cameroonian people, Pefok told Biya in his welcome address that “when two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers”. It will be interesting to know what outstanding points will emerge from Ndumu`s own speech this year.
New man, new fashion
When compared with Tadzong Abel Ndeh, Ndumu comes across as someone who is more restrained, more willing to listen but not a sycophant. It is true that any such value judgments may be too premature because Ndumu “has just come” and also because “a small child`s cutlass is sharp only in the morning”. Nevertheless it is clear that that the man has distanced himself considerably from his predecessor. One of Ndumu`s first moves as government delegate was to “decree” that all containers serving as businesses premises in the town must be removed. Those who resisted finally found that he meant business and took them away. Today that Bamenda does not have any more containers along its streets, many agree that the town is “cleaner and healthier”.
In his way, Ndumu is doing the groundwork for the president`s visit. He has lit the street from the Hospital Roundabout to neighbouring Bali sub Division, thus transforming the street into a beautiful night time jewel to behold. Residents say the “opening up” has improved security in the area because it has deprived thieves of a strategic hideout. Also, as a result of the transformation, transportation difficulties have been eased because nowadays, travelers can easily find taxis or motor bike taxis plying the road at any time of the night. The new hotel in the vicinity, Azam, opened by Zachariah Awanga, the boss of NFC Bank and Samaritan Insurance Company, greatly benefits from this development because of the better access to its location by customers. By the way, right now, Azam Hotel is the most up market home-from-home, not only in Bamenda but in the whole of the North West Region. It is a gigantic beauty of a glass house which brings immense joy to any passing pair of eyes that looks at it. All told, the development of this area is good news for all the villages situated there and in its environs. These are Mankon, Nsongwa, Chomba and Mbatu.
Focus on two principal arteries
In addition to these developments, the Ngen Junction towards Nkwen has been given a new look. Its notorious potholes and gullies and depressions have been filled up. The junction has been redesigned and given an island roundabout in the middle of it as well as clearly defined pathways leading to the Finance Junction and Cow Street on the one hand, and the Veterinary Junction and Radio Afrique Nouvelle /GBHS Bamenda on the other hand. Cow Street is now a one-way street, so is Ghana Street. Cow Street can only be entered from the Mile Two/Petrol Station direction and exited at Ngen Junction, just like Ghana Street is entered from Ngen Junction and exited at the Petrol Station.
The army in pride of place
By all indications, the Bamenda army camp is being positioned to play a major role when the president comes calling, which is just as well because the object of the presidential visit is the commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the armed forces. One of the preparatory moves taken by the powers that be is the relocation of the camp from Up-station to the Bamenda airport, located inside of Mankon village, just after the Baptist High School and the border between Mankon and Bafut. Traveling to the camp at night is a delight because the road is beautifully lit. This goes on from Mankon town right to the camp/air port.
Any absentee resident returning to Bamenda will realize some modification to the Commercial Avenue. A concrete separation wall has been erected along the whole length of the middle of the street and made to run from the City Chemist Roundabout right up to T-Junction. In this way the two opposing streams of traffic are conveniently separated. While technicians attribute this technique to a bid to curb road accidents, politicians see it as a move taken to ensure the head of States`s security while he`s in Bamenda.
The linguistic dimension
The question on many lips here in Bamenda is what exactly is the key message the president is bringing to the people of Bamenda in particular and North West in general. In other words, what is he going to say in his speech, especially as this is his first trip to Bamenda in 19 years? Nineteen years is a long time, especially for a president who calls himself a man of the people. Whatever it is Biya is planning to say, he must be careful not to fail to address the population in English, the predominant official language of the region. But even when he does that, he must know that it is not enough. Paul Biya is fond of speaking English only when he is in the North West or the South West which is the other Anglophone region of the country, or when he is addressing the Cameroonian community in an Anglophone country abroad such as the United Kingdom or the US. There is disquiet in the minds of many about the fact that in his 28 years in power, the president who addresses the nation at least twice yearly has never done so in English, yet English is supposed to be one of the official languages of the country, at the same level as French. By downplaying his use of English in this way, the president is said to be “demoting rather than promoting” its use.
The SCNC and secession
It is unlikely that Biya will name the SCNC in his speech, simply because he usually does not do so. He may refer to them, perhaps in coded language but may not actually call the name as it is. Although the SCNC and its factions have not had much impact on the running of the country because they do not seem to have their feet firmly on the ground, and also because they are divided, it is a fact that they still exist and are Cameroonians, although it becomes a different ball game when it comes to exactly what kind of Cameroonian they are. The recent ruling by the Justice body in Banjul that the SCNC should transform itself into a political party and dialogue with Biya may not have been exactly what they wanted. Even so, they too must learn that politics is a game of give and take. Biya may want to seize this opportunity to give the SCNC an olive branch. That would be advisable, even if the SCNC spurns it.
A ring too many
Whether Biya likes it or not, he will be expected to make a statement about the construction of the Ring Road. The road is the most significant in the North West, linking five of the seven Divisions of the region to each other in the form of a ring, hence the name, “Ring Road” It cuts through Mezam, Ngohketunjia, Bui, Donga Mantung and Menchum Divisions. When one considers the aphorism that “where a road passes, development follows”, one can easily understand why there is so much of an outcry for the Ring Road to be brought alive. As President Paul Biya returns to the North West, he should remember that considering this particular project, the general feeling about him is one of utter disappointment. This is because during his last visit to Bamenda in 1991, he went on record by saying that the Ring Road would be done and even added that he would personally supervise it. Today, 19 years later, the balance sheet is abysmal. Apart from a few stretches of tar thrown here and there, not much else has been done on the road. There are rumours that money earmarked for the project was embezzled. Whether that is true or not is beside the point. The president must really and truly find a way of solving this problem.
The State University of Bamenda
Another point much expected in the president`s speech is that of the much rumoured State University of Bamenda. Proponents argue that since the South West Province has the University of Buea, the North West should also have its own university. But is Biya going to grant it? If at all he is, what form will it take? Will it simply be an expansion of the existing ENS Annex Bambili to which the government gave a second cycle a year ago and in the process, added a first and second cycles for technical teacher training? If Biya announces the opening of a state university in Bamenda, then that will call for celebration because it would be coming to add itself to three existing officially recognized universities in the region. These are the Bamenda University of Science and Technology (BUST) which is privately owned, the Catholic University of Bamenda and the Protestant University spearheaded by the Presbyterian Church in Cameroon. While the former has been running for a number of years now, the last two are due to open their doors this October.
The mother of all speeches
This trip is a key one for Paul Biya`s political career. It is a major speech he will make prior to the presidential election scheduled for next year, although it is known that he could suddenly decide to bring it forward and therefore make the whole thing a snap election. So far, although his supporters have been urging him to stand again in the forthcoming elections, he has not declared his intentions. But if Biya runs, it will be for another seven year term because that is the duration of the presidential mandate according to the amended constitution of 1996. If he runs, he will be doing so at the age of 78. And if he serves the seven years, he will be 85 when term comes to an end. Strictly speaking, the question of whether he should stand is irrelevant because there seems to be nothing in the constitution that bars him from being a candidate. However, only a strong opposition can stop him – and this can be done only at the ballot box. But then the opposition is scared of election rigging. Nonetheless, their greatest weakness as I see it is the fact that they are divided and unprepared for the election. In any case, the decision of where to go from here is theirs. They can come together and speak with one voice. Alternatively, they can take the easier option of “everyone for himself’ with the “everyone” each hoping (against hope) to be the next president of the Republic.
Breakfast at Fru Ndi`s
Although Paul Biya`s CPDM party is in the majority nationally, in the North West Region which he is about to visit, the CPDM is dwarfed by Fru Ndi `s SDF opposition party. The political scales have always tilted in favour of the SDF in this part of the country. Bamenda, the regional headquarters which is to host Biya is also Fru Ndi `s home town. So during the trip, both men are likely to be in the same town at the same time. One burning question on lips here is whether they will see each other. Will Fru Ndi turn up at the grand stand and sit and listen to Paul Biya? Will they shake hands? After all, when Fru Ndi lost his wife Rose some years ago, Biya sent an emissary with his condolences which Fru Ndi gladly accepted. By the way, rumours have it that Fru Ndi is preparing to invite Paul Biya to breakfast at his “palace” in the Ntarinkon quarter of Bamenda. If these rumours are true, it will be interesting to see if Biya will accept the offer and go there, although if he does, it will be a sign of strength, not weakness. He would have wrong footed everyone by taking them unawares. That was what Joseph Owona, then minister of National Education, did some years ago, when while on an official visit to Bamenda, accepted Fru Ndi`s invitation to breakfast and joined him at the Ntarinkon residence. But then those who know Owona also know that he is the kind of person to accept such a challenge. Biya is quieter and more reserved.
To cap it all
No one seems to doubt the president’s coming to Bamenda. What remains in doubt is the “when”. But as things stand, it will all continue to be a guessing game, at least until the cat is out of the bag. And when it is all said and done, lessons will no doubt be drawn. But who will draw the? And to what effect?