It is impossible to have listened to Paul Biya the other day at the airport without thinking of what Gratiano said about Antonio’s silence in Shakespeare’s play, ‘The Merchant of Venice.’ Paraphrased, he said some people use silence to hide their ignorance and to feign wisdom. Those who have been blaming Biya for his loud silence in the face of the Southern Cameroonian crisis must now admit that it stood him in better stead not to ope those lips at all, than to show the world, as he just did, that Sir Oracle’s coconut shell was empty.
We are aware he is a hostage to scheming hawks who censor what he should know and hence inform what he says. And his declaration of war left us conjecturing what spin he must have been fed, to make him sound so sure that Cameroon was now under terrorist attack in the name of a secessionist movement. But at least his censors appear to have given him access to some figures for once. Six policemen and soldiers killed in Mamfe. That figure is so annoying it made the President break his silence – something the killing and disappearance of hundreds of Southern Cameroonians and the flight of tens of thousands of refugees into neighboring countries never did.
Biya makes no bones about the fact that for his exaggerated longevity in power he feels indebted, not to his popularity (which is at rock bottom) but to a military that is always on hand to force his will on the people.
And he spoils them rotten in return. Just see what chunk of the nation’s budget he allocates for their comfort, even in peace time. They are the only public servants whose promotions come with the regularity of a Swiss watch. But their overriding privilege is the total impunity they enjoy for all the outrageous things they do to the citizens in the name of national security.
It is precisely such atrocities committed in Mamfe recently that have radicalized local youths and produced the backlash Biya now calls acts of terrorism. The Government took care to put the whole of Southern Cameroons under a blanket communication blackout, seemingly to ensure that the world never gets to know who actually did what to whom in Mamfe. So when Yaounde accuses so-called terrorists of killing soldiers, it is its word against that of the local population who claim Government troops killed some of their own in order to frame the local youth, and hence justify the genocidal onslaught that Biya now seems to have given sanction to.
Could Mr. Biya have made that kind of statement without knowing that he was drawing the line between lives that matter to him and those that don’t? – Between valiant servants of his country and dogs native to an enemy country under siege?
The Biya regime has this knack for stripping words of their value. What do you reasonably expect when heavily armed troops invade a community and, on a daily basis, rape, maim, kill and disappear people before the very eyes of their loved ones? When, past the threshold of normal human endurance, these people rise up and, with the energy of despair, throw whatever they can back at the assailants, who of the two is the terrorist?
And, as usual, when he speaks, he leaves his foot soldiers to read his mind and act in any way they imagine could impress him – so that when things go dramatically amiss, he can turn around and say that was not what he meant. That is how, immediately after Mr. Biya’s declaration at Nsimalen, and while views were still diverging at what many now call a council of war with his Generals, the Senior Divisional Officer, SDO, for Mamfe orders whole villages to evacuate their homes. With one characteristically mindless order SDO Oum thus transforms tens of thousands of villagers into refugees. They either move to no one knows where, or anything may happen to them thereafter, he warns. And the blanks he leaves in his press release are promptly filled by allegations of a planned military raid in which all able-bodied local youths will be shot dead, disappeared, characteristically maimed or arrested.
Only when the alarmed population begins to flee helter-skelter, in all directions does it dawn on the Government that it is committing a crime against humanity for which someone may have to answer at the International Court of Justice, ICJ. And that sets in motion a series of panic manoeuvres. The local administrators, including the dog minder governor, realise they have embarrassed instead of impressing their paymaster. In the ensuing confusion two key hallmarks of the Biya administration are perceptible – impenitence and dishonesty. The SDO, who signed, stamped and distributed the release to all local press organs goes back to (in his own words) “contradict” it. He goes to great length to say what is wrong with such an order, but seems to find it beneath his dignity to apologize to the population for any inconvenience it may have caused. To his credit, however, he does not claim, like his boss in Buea, that the order was fake. And while the SDO and Governor are contradicting each other, the confused population wonders if the rescinding of the order was not just to correct a tactical error, by making them stay put for the military to come and decimate. Indeed, the boot work has since been audible in the dark, suggesting that someone is biting and blowing – that while someone is un-talking the war talk as a diversionary tactic, the regime is actually walking the war walk.
And the world watches on, wondering if there really is a captain to this drifting boat – not just someone sleeping in the captain’s cabin but someone steering the course and reading the compass.
In the midst of all this bumbling, President Biya will have to do or say something else to persuade the population of Mamfe, and indeed the entire Southern Cameroons, that when he talked of restoring peace, he did not mean graveyard peace. If that is what he wants, the massive military arsenal he is now deploying all over Southern Cameroons can bring it about in the batting of an eyelid, since the population is unarmed. But he would have to bear in mind that under every tombstone in that graveyard is a seed of vengeance in hibernation.