Mama Chantal Biya
Yves Mintoogue* traces the nepotism and political patronage that are the weave in the wig of Chantal “Chantou” Biya, who is widely regarded for her philanthropy and humanitarian and social work around Aids, but is first and foremost the high-profile half of the predatory presidential couple of the Republic of Cameroon
*Translation by Karen Press
On the home page of the Presidency of the Republic of Cameroon’s website, a news item among the many displayed carries the heading: “The First Lady”. The article presents Chantal Biya as the “spouse of the second president of the Republic of Cameroon” and, since her marriage in 1994, “the third first lady of the country”, a “position that she has used to serve the interests of a commitment [sic] against Aids”. A page, headed “Activities”, recounts the receptions attended and visits undertaken by Mrs Biya in Cameroon and abroad. But the website offers, above all, information about the Chantal Biya Foundation (FCB), the Circle of Friends of Cameroon (CERAC), the African Synergies Organisation and the Chantal Biya International Research Centre (CIRCB). These are non-governmental organisations created by Chantal Biya and which function as institutional channels for the welfare activism that she has undertaken since coming under the spotlight.
In her role as a public – that is, political – personality and organisational activist, Chantal Biya reveals a certain configuration of state power in Cameroon, as well as exposing some of its machinery and its modes of operation. The first lady’s involvement in various charities, the operating practices of the NGOs that she directs, and her high profile in the media illuminate local forms of clientelism and predation, as well as strategies through which allegiances, forms of subjugation and political domination can be constructed through non-state initiatives and through the redirection of state resources toward personal ends.
Paul Biya’s marriage to Chantal Vigouroux was his second, following the death of his first wife, Jeanne Irène, in 1992. Thirty-eight years separate the president, 61 years old at the time of the marriage, from his young bride, who was born in 1971.
The child of a single-parent family of very modest means, Chantal, who it seems had a difficult youth and a fairly tumultuous path to adulthood, was fed by the conversations of ordinary people from an early age, something which attracted sympathetic public opinion from some quarters, and hollow contempt from the local bourgeoisie on her arrival at State House. Her immediate participation in public affairs turned her into an object of popular attention and sustained media interest, which served to reinforce the cult of the presidential couple. Some took offence at her awkwardness in public or mocked her flashy style and her brightly coloured wigs; others expressed their admiration (often self-interested) and beatified her for her charitable activities and her lavish generosity.
Hardly had she exited, as a consequence of her fortunate marriage, the conditions of anonymity and precarious existence of the large majority of Cameroonians of her generation, Chantal Biya founded her first organisation, FCB, devoted to “the prevention and relief of human suffering” and particularly active in the battle against HIV/Aids. In 1995, “Chantou” (as she is generally called by ‘ordinary’ Cameroonians) found herself at the head of a second NGO, Cerac, whose members were mainly the wives of foreign diplomats posted to Yaoundé and the spouses of Cameroonian ministers and other members of the government. In 2001, to give her humanitarian work an international dimension, Chantal Biya took advantage of the Africa-France Summit being held in Yaoundé and initiated a parallel summit, the Forum of First Ladies against Aids, which led to the creation of African Synergies against Aids and Suffering. The NGO brought together several African first ladies, and dedicated itself to improving the living conditions of African women and to the protection of childhood.
This is an excerpt from Yves Mintoogue‘s “Mama Chantal Biya”, published in the print (or PDF) edition of the Chronic.
In this issue, artists and writer from around the world take on the philanthropic complex to unravel the philosophies of dependency and power at play in the civil society of African states.
Dame Patience Jonathan
For some Nigerians of a certain class, the first lady, or ‘Mummy’ as she is often referred to, is too ‘bush’. But, as Adewale Maja-Pearce writes, her self-appointed role as “other half” on the altar of a powerful presidency is firmly entrenched and she can shut down Lagos in no time for no reason.
“The presidency is an opportunity that fell unto us on a platter of gold.” – Dame (Dr) Patience Jonathan
Everything seems to come back to Mummy, as in: “Mummy told me to support Wike and I have told Mr Speaker, otherwise I would have supported Oruwar.” Thus the Honourable Evans Bipi, a member of the Rivers State House of Assembly, explained the extraordinary scenes we recently witnessed when he physically assaulted a fellow Honourable with a fake mace, the original having been removed for safe-keeping by the embattled governor, the ultimate target of this unseemly spectacle if we are to believe what we hear.
For a certain kind of Nigerian – educated, citified, probably been abroad – Dame Patience Jonathan is too ‘bush’, “an illiterate Okrika woman”, as one commentator unkindly dubbed her on account of her many grammatical gaffes: “My heart feels sorry for these children who have become widows by losing their parents for one reason or another”; “We should have love for our fellow Nigerians irrespective of their nationality”; “The people sitting before you here were once a children”.
But there is no intrinsic reason why she should be able to speak the ‘Queen’s English’, this not being her first language. Nor, for that matter, is it the language of most Nigerians, for whom the snobbery of being able to speak through one’s nose, as the saying has it, can only endear her to them the more. She is of the people – she speaks their language – and is all the more dangerous for that, and not necessarily for any fault of hers, or at least not consciously so.
Dame Patience’s excesses are, of course, the stuff of legend. As everyone else has pointed out, she has taken the unconstitutional post of first lady to new levels of ostentation and vulgarity. Where her predecessors concerned themselves with improving the lot of their rural sisters, she behaves as though she is the other half of the presidency. The most bizarre occasion was an official trip to New York to attend a UN meeting soon after “we” took office, when she charged out of the aircraft and was photographed shaking hands with the assembled dignitaries on the tarmac while the hapless husband was still negotiating the steps. She also consistently outdoes him on the domestic front. In the last month alone, she shut down Lagos for eight hours – on a working day – in order to attend a naming ceremony. Later, in her native Rivers State, she cordoned off the ‘Government Reserved Area’ (former white colonial residential enclaves now populated by new elites) for eleven days in order to campaign for her husband’s 2015 ambition, during the course of which she also found time to attend the wedding ceremony of her pugilistic ‘son’, Bipi, who was moved to call her “Jesus Christ on earth”. As Wole Soyinka put it in his own inimitable English: “This is getting to a state where an unelected person, a mere domestic appendage, can seize control of a place… and as a result of her presence, the governor of that state was told by policemen that you cannot pass here because the queen was there. What sort of jungle are we living in?”
This is an excerpt from Adewale Maja-Pearce ‘s “Dame Patience Jonathon”, published in the print (or PDF) edition of the Chronic..
In this issue, artists and writer from around the world take on the philanthropic complex to unravel the philosophies of dependency and power at play in the civil society of African states.Buy The Chronic