Can’t Find Cameroon’s President? Try Geneva’s Intercontinental Hotel

Paul Biya, one of the world’s longest-serving rulers, takes sustained Swiss vacations as his country grapples with crises

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GENEVA—Blinds were drawn at a back office of the Intercontinental Hotel one day last year, as a man known to staff as The General emptied a white cloth bag stuffed with euros. It was time to pay for one of the world’s longest-serving leaders.



For weeks, several former hotel employees recalled, the five-star hotel had been locked in a secret routine serving its best two customers, the first couple of an impoverished oil-exporting Central African country. Paul Biya, president of Cameroon since 1982, and his wife, Chantal, clock so much time on private visits to Switzerland that staff in the Intercontinental’s gilded corridors refer to them by simple code names: Him and Her.

“It’s like they are at home. They live there,” said one of three former senior employees who regularly witnessed the bill-payment ritual.

As with other employees, this person recalled signing a nondisclosure agreement concerning the details of Mr. Biya’s monthlong stays: “If the Cameroonians are not coming, the hotel will close.”



The Intercontinental Hotel said it wouldn’t comment on guests for confidentiality reasons. “Our employees are fully trained not to disclose any information,” a representative said.

The Intercontinental Hotel, Geneva.
The Intercontinental Hotel, Geneva. PHOTO: FABRICE COFFRINI/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

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World leaders dropping top dollar at luxury hotels isn’t by itself unusual. What distinguishes Mr. Biya’s Geneva getaways is the abundant time and hard cash the 85-year-old and his dozens-strong entourage spend here. The president has passed a cumulative four years on personal travels since 1982, the vast majority in Switzerland, according to flight data collected by the website Geneva Dictator Alert, and Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, an investigative group specializing in anticorruption and organized crime that has tracked his travels. In some years he spent a third of the year out of his home country.



“He always pays in cash,” said Herbert Schott, a retired Intercontinental manager who first hosted Mr. Biya in 1969. “Next year he will mark 50 consecutive years of patronage. It’s a record.”

Mr. Schott welcomed a quarter-century’s worth of American presidents and once gave Ronald Reagan a mattress to replace the White House bedroom’s harsher one. But he said Mr. Biya was his best client. “He prefers to come to Geneva and sit down and nobody would bother him.”

“Lion Man,” as Mr. Biya’s supporters call him, is currently the world’s longest serving elected leader, if counting from his June 1975 arrival as prime minister, the same weekMcDonald’s Corp. introduced its drive-through. Since 1982, he has served as president. He is Africa’s highest-paid leader, with a $610,000 official salary annually, according to Africa Review, a periodical.

In Mr. Biya’s fourth decade in power, armed separatists are battling soldiers in Cameroon’s southwest, while Islamist terror group Boko Haram seizes villages and kidnaps children en masse in the northeast. Hundreds of thousands have fled their homes in the past two years. Cameroonian migrants now represent the fourth largest nationality sailing into Greece.



Last month, Mr. Biya won another seven years in office, taking 71% of the vote in an election in which riot police dispersed protesters. In some areas, less than 5% of the population voted. No Western government sent observers.

“We love him, we voted for him and there is nothing new in his habits,” said Cameroon’s Communications Minister Issa Bakary Tchiroma in response to questions about Mr. Biya’s Geneva hotel stays. “We ask everyone, all foreigners, to respect the will of our sovereign people.”

Mr. Biya has rarely given interviews to foreign media in recent years.

In Geneva, the president reserves the entire Intercontinental’s 16th floor, with some 20 rooms and two corner suites overlooking the United Nations’ Europe headquarters and Mont Blanc, said ex-employees, former Cameroon officials, and hotel reservation records reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. The staffs haul armfuls of white flowers for his wife and fresh fruit platters—never cut, per presidential orders—for Mr. Biya, according to former hotel staff.



Mr. Biya’s trips cost millions of dollars apiece, said Christian Penda Ekoka, a longtime chief adviser to the president, turned opposition activist.

Mr. Biya and his wife arrive at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., in 2014 for the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit.
Mr. Biya and his wife arrive at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., in 2014 for the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. PHOTO:CLIFF OWEN/ASSOCIATED PRESS

“He gets the money from Cameroon’s treasury” and pays in cash to keep the trips off books, said Mr. Ekoka, who used to be chief adviser to Mr. Biya and had access to trip details. “They want to avoid any trace.”

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