Cameroon’s President Paul Biya has been privately visiting Switzerland for a long time.
The Hotel InterContinental in Geneva with its swimming pool and view of Mont Blanc is the residence of choice for the Cameroonian presidential couple.
A report by the Wall Street Journal in November 2018 said that since Biya became head of state in 1982 the hotel is transformed several times a year into a kind of offshore presidential palace, with the president and his entourage taking over an entire floor of the 5-star hotel and sometimes adding around 30 rooms on other floors.
Sometimes the long-time leader stays for several weeks at a time, holidaying in the Alpine country, that questions have been raised if it’s proper for a president to govern his country from a foreign land.
According to a 2018 report by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), the Cameroonian president has spent at least 1,645 days on private visits abroad since he came to power, and Geneva is by far his favourite destination.
“According to reporters’ conservative calculations – based on publicly available hotel room prices and a compilation of entourage lists – the total hotel bill of Biya and his colleagues for one stay at Intercontinental adds up to around $40,000 per day,” says OCCRP.
“At that rate, the cost of all of the president’s private trips (1,645 days in total) would add up to about $65 million since he came to power – and that’s not counting food, entertainment and the rental of a private plane.”
Biya’s visits to the rich European country have been characterised in the recent past by small protests of a few Cameroonian exiles gathered in front of the Geneva InterContinental to express their opposition to his rule.
His latest visit however witnessed perhaps the biggest of any protests staged by Africans in Europe against a visiting president from the continent.
A normally quite private visit of the president and his wife to relax in the beautiful Swiss city turned to a nightmare when more than 250 protesters stormed the Geneva hotel in the afternoon of Saturday (29 June).
Reports show Swiss police, using tear gas and water cannon, holding back protesting Cameroonians while a major road of the city was blocked to traffic.
Presidential guards who accompanied Biya’s entourage also got involved in almost hand-to-hand scuffles with the protesters, who attempted to enter the hotel. Luckily no one died or was seriously injured during the protest. However, Cameroon suffered a diplomatic embarrassment.
A Swiss journalist, Adrian Krause, was manhandled by some of President Biya’s guards who seized his camera. The Swiss authorities reacted swiftly after the journalist’s complaint by arresting five of the guards.
The protest has started yielding result for its organisers and participants. A Swiss parliamentarian Sylvain Thevoz has meanwhile launched a petition to bar President Biya from Switzerland. The campaign, captioned “Paul Biya has nothing to do in Switzerland”, has gathered more than 10,000 signatures with many parliamentarians supporting it. However, the Swiss authorities are most likely not going to accede to the request of the petitioners, say analysts.
Protesters, mostly from the political opposition and the English-speaking north-west and south-west regions, say Biya should not be allowed to enjoy the wealth of their country in Switzerland while his soldiers are killing unarmed civilians and burning villages at home.
Hundreds of people have been killed in clashes between Cameroon’s security forces and activists in the regions since December 2016 and up to 50,000 have crossed the border to Nigeria to seek refuge.
“We Cameroonians demand that Cameroon enter the modern era of democracy, having lived for 37 years under the senile dictatorship of Paul Biya,” said Robert Wanto, head of the council for the Cameroonian Diaspora, who has been living in exile in France for almost 30 years.