Cameroon’s aging Biya holds first cabinet meeting since 2015

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Cameroon's President, Paul Biya.

Reuters DAKAR  – Cameroon’s octogenarian President Paul Biya, who has ruled the central African country with an iron grip for decades, held his first cabinet meeting since 2015 on Thursday.

A brief letter calling his council of ministers to the Unity Palace did not reveal the agenda. Prime Minister Philemon Yang read out a statement afterwards on state TV, saying Biya had insisted that they “continue working”.

There was no explanation of why he had called the session and no other officials were permitted to speak about what went on in the conclave.

The president had told his cabinet that “the best way to serve the country is to do everything, to make all the sacrifices that are needed,” the prime minister said.

“There are a lot of things to do,” Biya had added, singling out the Africa Cup of Nations annual soccer tournament that Cameroon is to host next year, and the presidential election in October this year.

Minutes are never published, but if past cabinet meetings – often two or three years apart – are anything to go by, there would have been just one man talking.

One in 2011 lasted ten minutes during which Biya entered, read out a speech, then left.

Biya has ruled virtually by decree since taking over from a retired predecessor in 1982 and then winning an election by 99.98 percent a year later.

The meeting came as Cameroon faces a violent separatist movement in its western Anglophone region that a military crackdown has failed to quell.

The rest of Cameroon speaks French.

In an apparent attempt to smooth it over, Biya appointed two officials from the region to top positions earlier this month.

The economy has been sluggish because of low prices for its main exports oil and cocoa, and falling crude oil production.

It was not by helped a shutdown in the economy of its restive Western region, which before the first crackdown in 2016 was becoming an unlikely hub for start-up tech firms.

Cameroon currently ranks 153rd on the UN. Human Development Index, and average life expectancy is 56.

At the last council in October 2015, shortly after a sweeping reshuffle, Biya was similarly pre-occupied by sport, according to local press reports.

He ordered ministers to “accelerate preparations for the important sports celebrations” that Cameroon was to host, namely the men’s African Cup of Nations match next year and women’s one that was held in 2016.

Outside of such meetings, Biya often meets his ministers at the airport between private trips abroad with his wife Chantal, famed locally for her luxurious dresses and bouffant hairdo. Their favorite destination is Switzerland.

Additional reporting by Josiane Kouagheu in Yaounde; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg