Cameroon’s president-for-life spends at least 15% of his time outside his country

Paul Biya speaks at the UN, on one of his many foreign trips.
Paul Biya speaks at the UN, on one of his many foreign trips.
Image: AP Photo/Richard Drew
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Americans frustrated with president Donald Trump’s golfing habits can take solace: Their leader isn’t as elusive as the president of Cameroon.

President-for-life Paul Biya has been in power since 1982—35 years in total. But the 85-year-old spent less than 30 of those in Cameron itself, according to an investigation by the OCCRP, an anti-corruption NGO. In 2006 and 2009, Biya spent a third of the year abroad.

After combing through 35 years of reports in state newspapers, the OCCRP makes the “conservative estimate” that he’s spent at least 4.5 years in total on “private trips” and an extra year on official visits. That number could be much higher since archives of the Cameroon Tribune have gaps that “span several years,” the report says. It’s apparently unknown what he does on these trips, with rumors veering from shopping trips to hospital visits.

The vast majority of the trips are to Geneva, where Biya frequents the five-star Intercontinental Hotel, accompanied by his wife and a cabal of up to 50 people often with government jobs. Pressing government business doesn’t seem to impede these jaunts. When 75 people died in a train crash in 2016, it took Biya two days to return from Switzerland and eventually express his sadness at the airport, the OCCRP reports. As protests surged last year over his government’s oppression of Cameroon’s English-speaking minority, Biya apparently remained ensconced in Geneva for three weeks.

He manages to get government business done at incredible speed between those trips. In 2017, the OCCRP reports, Biya signed twelve laws in the space of three days—thus dealing with the entire year’s legislative agenda.

The OCCRP suggests the total hotel fees and chartered jet costs could be around $182 million over all those trips. The average Cameroonian earns $1,400 annually, according to the World Bank. The president’s office didn’t comment to the OCCRP on how many of these trips were paid for by funding allocated to Biya’s office from the national budget—the president’s salary is reportedly just 200 euros per month (link in French). Transparency International ranks Cameroon as one of the most corrupt countries in the world, ranking 145th out of 176 countries in its Corruption Perception Index.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly described the OCCRP as an anti-corruption NGO. It is a non-profit investigative journalism network.