Biya aide named premier, cabinet reshuffled

Paul Biya, Cameroon’s president for 22 years and fresh from re-election, has named a trusty aide as the new prime minister and brought a few new faces into government.

Ephraim Inoni, a 57-year-old English-speaking financier who has served as a top presidential aide for the last ten years, was appointed to take over as premier from fellow anglophone, Peter Mafany Musonge, national radio announced last week.

The new premier, a member of the ruling Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (RDPC), is a long-time public servant and has notably represented Biya at talks to resolve the dispute with Nigeria over ownership of the oil-rich Bakassi peninsula.

But lingering expectations that the cabinet would include key opposition figures were dashed.

Hopes had been raised at the end of October when Biya, in his first public speech since winning election, promised a broad-based government of consensus to cement unity among the 16 million people in Cameroon, a country made up from the unusual union of British and French colonies where people speak different languages and practice different faiths.

"If we rally in a wide consensus, if we unite in great patriotic spirit, then I believe we can bolster our democracy and accelerate progress," Biya said in a national broadcast.

Leaders of the main opposition parties, the Social Democratic Front (SDF) and the Cameroon Democratic Union (UDC), said at the time that they would turn down portfolios. SDF leader John Fru Ndi was the runner-up to Biya in the October elections.

Fru Ndi, who won just 17 percent of the vote to Biya's 71 percent, has accused the president of resorting to massive fraud to perpetrate his rule over the Central African country.

International observers from the Commonwealth said the October poll had "lacked the necessary credibility".

The new cabinet, expanded by four to 36 positions, does however include members of a few groups other than the ruling RDPC.

The choice of English-speaking Inoni as premier is a nod to anglophone Cameroonians, who account for about a quarter of the population and have often accused the majority francophones of marginalisation and complained about being treated as second-class citizens.

And there are also 17 cabinet members from the Muslim minority, which makes up about 20 percent of the population and is based largely in the north.

Among the old faces removed from the government team is Finance Minister Michel Meva’a Meboutou. The International Monetary Fund last August excluded Cameroon from its Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) debt relief scheme due to the country’s poor record on public finances.

Also shown the door were Livestock and Fisheries Minister Hamadjouda Adjoudi, who has been in the job for more than two decades and Education Minister Jospeh Owona, in successive cabinets for almost as long.

In an editorial comment last Friday, the independent newspaper “Le Messager” said the reshuffle was cosmetic.

“(It) is one of conservatism which has characterized Mr Biya’s successive governments in 22 years,” the paper said, adding that there were more pressing problems than the make-up of the cabinet.

“How will the government function without money in a country which is unable to pay its internal and external debts and civil servants’ salary?” the paper continued.

Sleaze watchdog, Transparency International, accuses Biya of presiding over one of the most corrupt governments in Africa. Its 2004 Global Corruption Barometer, published last week, found 51 percent of Cameroonians had admitted paying a bribe in the past year -- a higher proportion than anywhere else in the world.