In this interview, Cameroon-born Achille Mbembe, research professor in history and politics at the University of the Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg, South Africa, talks to Slate Afrique about the Biya regime and the forthcoming elections in Cameroon. A Scribbles from the Den translation.
SlateAfrique: Cameroonians go to the polls on October 9. Can they hope for regime change?
Achille Mbembe : Under the current circumstance, regime change is not possible through the ballot box. Change in this country will come through an armed rebellion spearheaded or not by a political organization or by foreign forces (as was the case in Cote d’Ivoire); through the natural death or assassination of the autocrat; or even through a coup de force by dissident elements within the army. Beyond that, all paths to a peaceful change initiated by Cameroonians themselves are blocked. From this perspective, the forthcoming election is a non event.
QS: How do you explain Paul Biya’s longevity at the helm of the state for 29 years?
ANS: Having understood very early on that in order to stay as long as possible in power, one had to do nothing, Biya put in place a new system of government which I call government by inaction. Biya studied Machiavelli a lot, and successfully adapted his lessons to a typically African situation. Paul Biya’s genuis is to have discovered that power has no objective other than power itself. The goal of those in power is not to accomplish any grandiose project whatsoever. It is simply to hold on to power. Thus, to govern is to not govern.
QS: At 78 years of age, is Biya still capable of governing?
ANS: Definitely, even though he is senile. But he invented this masterful formula, that of the spectral or ghostly government. It is a formula which always succeeds. He doesn’t even need to be alive to govern. Since it is all about transforming power into the power to do nothing, I bet that he will still be able to govern even from the grave.
QS: How do you explain that the opposition is not able to field a single candidate [to challenge Biya]?
ANS: For this to happen an opposition must first exist. But strictly speaking, an opposition does not exist for a very simple reason. In the last 50 years, the entire society has been subjected to a gradual emasculation. Authoritarianism has ingrained itself into Cameroonian culture.
The regime has largely succeeded in imposing a generalized tonton-macoutization* of minds. Objectively, it no longer needs to use physical force. Having stripped society of all security, it now holds the entire population by the balls.
QS: Why is Biya always absent? It is said that he spends the majority of his time abroad, and that months can go by before he holds a cabinet meeting.
ANS: That’s true. When – and this is rare – he is in Cameroon, he spends most of his time in his village. Otherwise, he prefers to stay in Europe, particularly in Switzerland. He has a libidinal concept of power. Power is for all types of pleasures. Hence the importance that he places on vacations and rejuvenation.
QS: Why do his long absences not generate more reactions from the public?
ANS: People are completely worn out. They dedicate the little energy that they still have to the daily struggles for survival. And when they feel like reacting, it is generally against their closest neighbors. Their rage and anger are not directed against a system, but often against those who are even more miserable than themselves.
QS: Can we talk of a solitary exercise of power? Who governs in the president’s absence?
ANS: The President is surrounded by scores of elderly individuals who are determined not to die alone. They, therefore, keep watch over diverse concentric circles, and fan the embers of hate and jealousy among social juniors whom they dominate. Like in ancient despotic regimes, Biya has perfected the art of manipulation. People live on the hope of being appointed, at a future date, to a high ranking position in government from where they will enjoy the honors and prebends that come with positions of power within the state apparatus. The president uses this grim desire as a tool to literarily cast a spell on, and paralyze society. Appointments, dismissals, falls from grace, loss, and imprisonment, then spectacular returns to grace, are strategies that successfully keep the elite on a tight leash.
QS: Can regime opponents speak freely in Cameroon? ANS: Speech is relatively free in Cameroon. Usually, people don’t hold back and say exactly what they think. But this has no impact on the course of events. On the other hand, any public demonstration is brutally crushed. Obstacles of all types – bullying, intimidation, beatings – are used to muzzle any attempt to establish an organized opposition to the regime. I fear that we have reached a point of irreversible deafness, and that the only way to wake up the regime from its slumber is through force. That said, the social groups who may be able to use force are not organized.
QS: Observers claim that France is abandoning Paul Biya. Is this true? ANS: No. France never abandons its African friends.
Scribbles from the Den Note:
According to Jimmy Kandeh,
in situations of chronic disorder or where armed subalterns wield state power, “tonton-macoutization” directly connects the soldiery to the world of crime as ’looting, confiscation and pillage’ become ’the favored means of acquiring and consuming wealth’
For a more detailed analysis of this phenomenon, see Mbembe’s critically acclaimed book, “On the Postcolony“.