The Story Behind the Hair: Contemporary, Repressive Cameroon

There's so much more to Africa, both good and bad, than Chantal Biya's hair. But you'd never know it from the stories of the last 48 hours in mainstream American media outlets.
08/07/2014 11:12 am ET Updated Oct 07, 2014
Cameroon’s President Paul Biya, right, and his wife Chantal Biya, attend a meeting at the Itamaraty presdiential palace in
Cameroon’s President Paul Biya, right, and his wife Chantal Biya, attend a meeting at the Itamaraty presdiential palace in Brasilia, Brazil, Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2010. Biya is on a two-day official visit to Brazil. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)

As soon as she stepped off the airplane, she became the instant, unexpected hit of the White House's summit of African leaders in Washington, D.C.

No, it's not Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president of Liberia, who cancelled plans to visit Washington in the wake of the devastating Ebola outbreak in west Africa.

Africa's only other female head of state, Catherine Samba-Panza, who is struggling as interim president of the Central African Republic to pacify what's now been a year of civil war, wasn't even invited to the summit. (Under the African Union's rules, no CAR leader was eligible to attend until the country holds new, democratic elections.)

Instead, it's Chantal Biya, whose flamboyant hairstyle has grabbed headlines from New York to Los Angeles. The Washington Post's hard-hitting coverage noted when Chantal Biya "and her hair" touched down in Washington, DC. It's disappointing that the U.S. media, given so many governance crises across sub-Saharan Africa, has emphasized style over substance during this week's summit.

Chantal Biya's husband, Paul Biya, has served as president of Cameroon, a west-central African country that shares a long border with Nigeria, since 1982 -- the second year of the Reagan administration in the United States. His 32-year record isn't exactly admirable. It's a country that has a GDP per capita of less than $1,300, according to the International Monetary Fund, and it would be even less if not for oil production. For a first lady who confesses a weakness for Dior and Chanel, her husband presides over a country of nearly 22 million people where nearly 40 percent live at or below the poverty level.

Freedom House ranks Cameroon as "not free." Chantal Biya's biographer, Bertrand Teyou, who wrote a book about Chantal's rise, The belle of the banana republic: Chantal Biya, from the streets to the palace, was imprisoned for his literary efforts.

Transparency International's 2013 corruption rankings place Cameroon 144th out of 177 countries, alongside Nigeria -- a bit below Mali and a bit above Sudan. Biya's ruling party, the Cameroon People's Democratic Movement, which controls 148 of the 180 seats in the country's national assembly, is neither democratic nor particular of the "people." Biya is just the second post-independence president of Cameroon, taking power seamless after the autocratic rule of Ahmadou Ahidjo.

The country, which won independence from France in 1960, incorporated a strip of English-speaking territory in 1961 on its western border with Nigeria, known as the "Southern Cameroons," creating a linguistic divide that, to this day, causes tensions. Predominantly Christian, one in five Cameroonians is Muslim, and its ethnic mix includes the Faluni of the Sahelian north as well as Bantu in the equatorial south. Though you can credit Ahidjo and Biya with keeping a very diverse population united for a half-century, but only at the expense of liberal freedoms and truly democratic rule.

For a first lady who's been compared to a drag queen, Cameroon has an equally abysmal record on LGBT rights, and activist Jean-Claude Roger Mbede died earlier this year following his imprisonment for the crime of texting his love to another man.

The story of 21st century Africa is far from grim, of course. Democratic institutions have been slowly gaining ground throughout the region, and Steve Radelet and others write convincingly about the emerging economic power of Africa, with the rise of 'cheetah economies' from Ghana to Tanzania. Nigeria, which recently overtook South Africa to become the continent's largest economy, could be the world's most populous country sometime in the 22nd century. There's a strong narrative in a healthier, richer and happier Africa, but that shouldn't mask the serious challenges that the continent faces.

  • Central Africa, with ongoing civil war in the Central African Republic and South Sudan, remains more fragile than at any time since the Democratic Republic of the Congo's civil wars inflamed the heart of the continent a decade ago.
  • South Africa, the continent's economic pacesetter, which last December lost its leading beacon of hope and its symbol of unity with the passing of Nelson Mandela, is straining under an increasingly calcified and unimaginative leadership dominated by the entrenched African National Congress. Its president, Jacob Zuma, who has faced corruption charges for more than a decade, most recently over "security improvements" to his home in Nkandla, easily won reelection after the ANC's victory in May elections.
  • Kenya, once a beacon of stability in east Africa, has become a clientelistic state led by Uhuru Kenyatta, a president under investigation by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, who seems more interested in settling ethnic scores and boosting the fortunes of his Kikuyu ethnic group than facing up to the growing security challenges that his country faces from Somali-based terrorists.
  • Ethiopia, which is on the verge of becoming (or has already become) a Muslim-majority country, is one of the most repressive countries on the globe, with a shady leadership that censors the press, individual rights and inhibits minority empowerment, especially the southern Oromo ethnic group. Make no mistake -- a Tigray vanguard led by deputy prime minister Debretsion Gebremichael holds far more power than figurehead prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn.
That's in addition to the ongoing Islamist threats that two years ago so destabilized northern Mali and today threaten Nigerian security in the form of Boko Haram. It's in addition to the crisis of governance that's empowered the current Ebola outbreak to expand far wider than it ever should have. It's in addition to the widespread human slavery that
possibly 20 percent of Mauritania's population, where president Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz, welcomed by the Obama administration in Washington this week, 'won reelection' in June with nearly 82 percent of the vote against anti-slavery activist
.

There's so much more to Africa, both good and bad, than Chantal Biya's hair. But you'd never know it from the stories of the last 48 hours in mainstream American media outlets.