By Paul Timah
Earlier this week, prominent French-speaking Cameroonian activists based in Europe alleged that the president of the Republic of Cameroon, Paul Biya, was dead. The news was quickly propagated on social media (WhatsApp and Facebook among others) with little or no due diligence done. Just yesterday, one of the prominent activists who made this allegation backtracked on his position and reported that Biya is indeed alive but in deteriorating health condition. Such a backtrack only highlight how gullible some Cameroonians have become in this age of the social media, with most always excited to share any story feed that pops up on their social media accounts without giving a second thought. Former Communication Minister Issa Tchiroma during his tenure as Spokesperson of the Government had the habit of repeatedly calling such persons “agents of fake news” and in truth, they are indeed agents of fake news.
As the rumours of Biya’s dead went viral over social media, some contacts reached out to me and wanted to know what I thought about the rumours. Although I stated my opinion to them that Biya is alive based on facts that are all available to the public, I thought it necessary to share the rationale for my opinion with the wider public in the hope that it could help us all fight the propagation of fake news by being wary and sophisticated.
Before I dive into my rationale, it is important to highlight the facts that sparked the rumours. First the activists erroneously linked the President’s failure to address the nation regarding the fight against COVID-19 to the passing away of the President. They also question why the President’s daughter, Brenda Biya, his son, Franck Biya and family were speedily airlifted from Europe to Cameroon. They insinuated that the speedy airlifting of these members of the presidential family was probably to give the President the opportunity to spend his last moments with them. I am not sure if the activist took time to ponder on all these facts before making so a grievous allegation but these facts and others that are publicly available could have averted such ill informed allegations and rumours that were quickly peddled on social media.
When I got word of the purported dead of the President, I immediately dismissed it with the wave of the hand because the facts that are available are quite telling and revealing that the President is quite alive. First, Biya has a known habit of addressing the nation only when things get to a critical level. The Anglophone Crisis is a case in point. Despite the numerous calls from different quarters for the President to address publicly address the Anglophone Crisis when it started in October 2016, the President only did so several months later when the crisis became critical. In my opinion, although the COVID-19 threat is far more lethal than the threat from the crisis, the devastation from the crisis is more profound than what we have seen already with COVID-19. I am in no way saying that the President should not give a COVID-19 state of the nation (SONA) address. On the contrary, a SONA address will be commendable but given what we know about the President, it is too early to think of a SONA address from him and therefore sheepish to have expected him to do one before now or anytime soon. Secondly, it is no longer news that Cameroonians in particular and Africans in general, living in some of the worst COVID-19-hit European countries such as Italy, France, Spain etc. were in a mad rush to get to Cameroon/Africa where it is arguably thought that the risk of infection from the novel COVID-19 is presumably low. Members of the President’s family were no exception to this mad rush. JeuneAfrique reported on this and citied COVID-19 infection fears as the reasons for the president’s family speedily rushed to Cameroon. Although the regime is noted for not being trustworthy when it comes to communication, it would be questionable to posit that the members of the presidential family were speedily airlifted to Cameroon so they would be able to be beside the president during this passing away. Another thing that should have been considered is that they were probably speedily brought back home so the airspace could be closed. Secondly, the President paid a written tribute to the late Cameroonian music icon, Manu Dibango, on March 24, 2020, a day before activists alleged that he was dead. The president equally signed two decrees on March 25, 2020 appointing the Director and Deputy Director of the Buea-based National School of Local Administration (NASLA) as well a wrote a condolence cable to his Chadian counterpart following the killing of close to 100 Chadian soldiers by Boko Haram militants. These decrees were signed on the same day that activists alleged he had died. Some of those who reached out to me argued that members of the president’s entourage had possibly forged his signature. This is laughable in the sense that the president has given a power of authority to the Secretary General (SG) at the Presidency and if the President was truly dead, such appointments would have been signed by the SG himself since he has a mandate to sign and/or act on the behalf of the president. Additionally, the positions at the NASLA are not key government positions that have to be filled for the economy to remain operational. The point here is that there is/was no urgency for someone in the president’s inner circle to appoint the Director and Deputy Director of NASLA if the president were dead. However, if the subject of such decrees was cabinet reshuffle (with key changes within the Ministries of Defense and Justice), then it would have been a call for concern. Finally, I watched Brenda Biya’s COVID-19 sensitization video posted on her social media accounts with keen attention. She appeared quite relaxed, unshaken and calm in the footage. It is hard to keep such composure when you are grieving and especially so for Brenda who is very emotionally attached to his father as evidenced by her numerous public defenses of her father.
The above reflection and analysis do provide compelling reasons to believe that the President is well and truly alive and as I mentioned to a few of my contacts, believe the rumours at the expense of being called an “apprentice sorcier” later. It should be recalled that this is not the first time the President has been rumoured dead. In 2004, the President responded to rumors of his dead by saying that his enemies (apprentice sorcier) will have to wait for 20 more years before “celebrating” his dead. If the President has his destiny in his hands, then we should ignore any rumours of his dead for the next four years. Until then, and for now, the President is well and truly alive!
I hope that this opinion piece will spur us into treating social media items with caution, while exercising a little bit of due diligence. Folks, before you hit the share button on a news item on social media, ask yourself if what you are about to share is authentic. Remember that in 2017, MTN sent bulk messages purportedly sponsored by the Ministry of Post and Telecommunication that “publishing as well as spreading false news, including on the social media, are punishable by the penal code and the law”. I urge you all to be mindful of what you share on social media.
Don’t be a victim! STAY SAFE, FOLLOW WHO AND MINISTRY OF PUBLIC HEALTH GUIDELINES AND DISTANCE YOURSELF SOCIALLY during these trying times of COVID-19.
Paul Timah holds a B.Sc. in Economics from the University of Buea and a Master in Economics from SLU & Uppsala University in Sweden. He is currently pursuing a Master in International Public Policy at the Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario Canada and is equally a Graduate Fellow at the Balsillie School of International Affairs Waterloo. He has over a decade of experience in business management and has developed a very multi-cultural mindset as a result of his lived experiences in different countries across the globe (Cameroon, Sweden, Mauritania, Ethiopia and Canada). He has very strong passion for democracy, good governance, human rights, politics, immigration, human security, racial equality, international trade and public policy.