On April 11, Cameroon had 820 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 12 deaths, making it the country with the second-highest infection rate in sub-Saharan Africa, after South Africa. With tensions still running high in the anglophone regions and a growing Boko Haram threat in the Far North Region, the pandemic piles on yet another crisis for President Paul Biya’s administration.
Well before the first COVID-19 cases were confirmed in Africa, Cameroonians and opposition figures had been criticizing President Biya’s “hands-off” governing style, characterized by long absences without issuing public statements, delegating government functions to his prime minister, and taking extended private trips overseas. The last time the Cameroonian public saw the president was at a meeting with US ambassador to Cameroon Peter Balerin on March 11, during which Biya posed for press photos but did not speak to journalists. On March 28, opposition leader Maurice Kamto issued an ultimatum to President Biya demanding that he publicly announce an economic stimulus package within seven days. Five days later, Prime Minister Joseph Dion Ngute revealed the creation of a US$16.67 million solidarity fund. During this period, the only other time President Biya addressed the public was through social media, urging Cameroonians to abide by public health guidelines.
Kamto’s ultimatum puts the Biya administration in an awkward position. The opposition leader capped off his statement with a clear warning, “I reserve the right to call on the Cameroonian people to draw all the consequences from his serious failure, which could then lead to ascertainment of his inability to govern.” Responses from Biya’s governing coalition were swift, condemning Kamto for politicizing the pandemic and calling it “shameful”. Though the country has closed schools and its national borders, banned political rallies, and instituted curfews for markets and businesses, this is still not enough, argues Agora Consulting associate director Stephane M’Bafou: “We must quickly declare a curfew, isolate the cities where cases are confirmed, and move toward a general containment regardless of the socio-economic cost.”
While minister of health Malachie Manaouda has taken point on the country’s COVID-19 response alongside the prime minister, President Biya’s habit of consulting ministers in private meetings at the presidential palace is unlikely to instill confidence in his leadership. With the median age of Cameroonians less than half the 38 years that Biya has been president, public confidence in him and his RDPC party is likely to deteriorate should conditions worsen and he were to remain out of sight.