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Opinion: Why is Paul Biya travelling to China again?

Cameroon’s President, Paul Biya, left Yaoundé on August 29, 2018, for Beijing-China to attend the seventh Forum for China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) Summit.

Biya will be joining Chinese and other African Heads of State in the two-day summit running from September 3 to 4 to discuss important issues surrounding China-Africa relations.

President Biya and Wife in China

The decision by President Biya to return to China after visiting the country in March this year raises questions over the motives behind his trip.

A cavil response may be, as other Heads of State, Biya is travelling to China to attend an important multilateral states summit. But this is the seventh FOCAC summit, and the first one to be attended by President Biya.

There are four possible reasons why Biya is visiting China. First, Biya needs Chinese military support to intensify his fight against domestic insurgents. Cameroon’s Government is facing military attacks from three fronts. In the northern part of the country, Boko Harm insurgency has spiked in the past months, after a long break, following the intervention of a regional taskforce.

Secessionist war in the South West and North West Regions has become bloodier and more complex. According to Reuters, “The unrest threatens the stability of one of [Cameroon’s economy] ahead of October elections widely expected to extend 85-year-old President Paul Biya’s three and a half decades in power. It has hurt cocoa output and risks spilling into Nigeria”. [1]

Biya’s effort to combat both conflicts has been hampered by limited resources and US withdrawal from Cameroon. The US, formerly a staunch supporter of Cameroon’s military, announced early this month that it was going to withdraw its men from Cameroon.

Speaking to the New York Times, General Thomas Waldhauser, the leader of United States Africa Command said, the plan “will include the departure of hundreds of Special Operations troops and their support forces.” [2]

To fill the void created by US departure, Biya will be forced to turn to other sources for aid. National Times reported in July this year that Cameroon’s Minister Delegate at the Presidency in charge of Defence, Joseph Beti Assomo and the Chinese Ambassador to Cameroon, Wang Yingwu signed a military agreement which will see China provide FCFA 4.5 billion aid to Cameroon over a five year period [4]. Ambassador Wang Yingwu said the assistance was the fruit of the Paul Biya’s previous visit to China in March 2018, during which his Chinese counterpart pledged the support [5].

Biya is also travelling to China to seek Chinese monies to accelerate his Government’s efforts to revamp Cameroon’s dilapidated infrastructure.

A World Bank report published in 2014 noted that Cameroon needs over $5 billion each year to build infrastructures to transform the country into an emerging economy by 2035. With the conflict in the Southwestern part of the country, petrol production in the country is crumbling, and corruption and excessive Government spending are wiping out whatever is left in the public’s treasury.

In the light of these economic challenges and the upcoming African Nations Cup games, Biya needs an alternative source of capital to face-lift the poor state of infrastructure across the country.

China can be a reliable partner who can build roads, bridges, railways, dams, even urban accommodation. Moreover, Chinese companies can do that quickly too.

Besides, Biya can also ask China for debt reduction so the Government can use the funds supposed to pay China to fund domestic infrastructure.

The third possible reason why Biya is travelling to China is diplomacy. Amnesty International and the International Crisis Group reported that “defence security forces used excessive and disproportionate force to disperse demonstrations in the country’s Anglophone Regions, killing at least 40 individuals between September 28 and October 2 alone”. [3] A video circulating online shows elements of the military killing two women with children on their backs.

The Government has confirmed that the men in the video are members of the country’s defence force. These accusations among others are revitalising calls on western countries to intervene or at least impose sanctions on Cameroon.

While US, Germany, France, and Britain have been reluctant so far to impose sanctions on the Biya regime, it is possible that international response to the Government atrocities in Cameroon may change course in the nearest future, and Biya needs to hedge against this.

As I noted in other story, most countries will prefer to channel their responses against Biya and his Government through the UN Security Council. I am fairly confident Biya is aware of this. With China’s policy of non-intervention into the internal affairs of other States, Biya will assume he can rely on China to veto any sanctions or interventions proposed against his Government at the UN Security Council.

Early this month, a proposal at the UN Security Council calling for UN investigation into Government crimes in South-western parts of Cameroon was vetoed by two UN Security Council members.

The final reason is that Biya’s first trip was not completely successful. Sources from Cameroon’s Ministry of External Relations told me that when Biya travelled to China in March this year, at the top of his request was funding for grand infrastructure projects such as dual carriageway between Douala and Yaounde.
The sources said the Government believes with the upcoming October elections, the CPDM can sell these projects to the electorate. The Chinese, however, have not confirmed nor denied Biya’s request.
Overall, Biya is travelling to China in response to the domestic challenges in Cameroon. Whether or not China will come to Biya’s assistance, we can only tell after the FOCAC forum.


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