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AP Photo/Sunday Alamba
Cameroon’s president Paul Biya and wife Chantal voting in Yaounde, Cameroon, last October.
CONFLICTED

The Swiss luxury getaway of Cameroon’s president Biya has become a hotbed of conflict

Geneva

Cameroon’s longtime president Paul Biya’s latest “private visit” to his usual retreat at the Intercontinental Hotel in Geneva has sparked more than its usual mix of political controversy and quiet embarrassment.

Over the last decade, Biya, 86, who has been in power since 1982, has made the top floor suites of the five-star luxury hotel into his home away from home spending months at a time even as his country has slowly descended into conflict from Boko Haram Islamic terrorists in the north and an Anglophone-led insurgency in north- and southwest of the country.

The knowledge of his presence there has long infuriated various sections of Cameroonians at home, particularly in the opposition, but also in the Cameroonian diaspora in Europe who have been protesting in larger and larger numbers with each Biya visit.

This past weekend Swiss police fired tear gas and water cannons at Cameroonian protesters who clashed with security at the hotel where dozens of Biya’s personal security agents and federal police have stayed on guard in- and outside.

And even while Geneva has long been seen as a personal break for Biya, it has now become the venue for possible peace talks between the Anglophone and Francophone sides and mediated by Switzerland. And the arrival last week of Biya and his wife, Chantal, is now seen as problematic.

Paula Dupraz-Dobias
Intercontinental Hotel, Geneva

“Not helpful” is how one source close to the diplomatic process described the arrival of Biya just days before a second meeting between factions from the predominantly Anglophone regions was to take place in Saint Luc—some 200 kilometers to the east of Geneva. The International Crisis Group reports that some 1,850 people have been killed and more than half a million left homeless, as an armed separatist movement evolved in response to political and social tensions.

Switzerland’s foreign affairs ministry, together with the Geneva-based Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, are leading the mediation process aimed at putting an end to the deadly conflict which evolved after peaceful protests by English-speaking professionals to structural discrimination in October 2016. Groups in the two western regions of the country want the creation of an independent state called Ambazonia. President Biya has branded separatists as terrorists.

Ebenezer Akwanga, chairman of the African People’s Liberation Movement, one of the main participants at the peace talks said that Biya’s repeated visits to Geneva “complicate” the peace talks, given he spends so much of his time here “rather than running the state he claims to be president of”.

Nfor Hanson Nchanji, a Geneva-based Cameroonian journalist emphasized that parties to the discussion need to communicate with their communities back home for talks to succeed.“The presence of Paul Biya in Switzerland has caused some Ambazonians to reconsider whether Switzerland may be the perfect mediator. But should they refuse the Swiss mediation…they will have nowhere to go.”

The Swiss mediated talks have been supported by United States, the European Union and the United Nations.

Meanwhile some Francophone opponents to Biya’s government, regretted that Maurice Kanto, a rival to Biya in the October 2018 presidential election, who won 14% of votes according to the Constitutional Council, was not included in the talks. The opposition accused the government of having rigged results.

Doris Toyou, a Cameroonian lawyer living in New York, who supports groups behind Saturday’s protest in Geneva, said Switzerland could not be trusted in talks.

It’s been reported Biya had spent at least 1,645 days abroad on private trips since 1982, with Geneva being his top destination. It estimated it costs Intercontinental Hotel around £40,000 ($50,000) a night for the president and his entourage. “How could Switzerland be trust-worthy in mediating the talks after the way the police treated protesters?” said Toyou.

Meanwhile, Jean Philippe Brandt of Geneva’s police explained that as protesters did not respect the agreed terms for protesting, and left an authorized area accorded for the demonstration, “The use of any accessory or armament was related possibly to the aggression by the protesters and to disobey instructions given by the police.”

The confrontation came just days after a Swiss journalist, Adrien Krause, who was covering Biya’s stay from in front of the Geneva hotel, was attacked. “It is very probable that they were security guards” associated to Biya.

Since then six members of Biya’s security team have been convicted of assault on the journalist.

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