March 15, 2018 / 2:52 PM / 5 months ago

Cameroon's aging Biya holds first cabinet meeting since 2015

DAKAR (Reuters) - 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, using it to urge better economic policy and touting successes against insurgents.

FILE PHOTO: President Paul Biya of Cameroon addresses the 71st United Nations General Assembly in Manhattan, New York, U.S. September 22, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar/File Photo

Biya very rarely convenes his cabinet, and past meetings have resembled lectures more than discussions. It was not clear if anyone else spoke on Thursday.

The letter calling his council of ministers to the Unity Palace did not reveal the agenda, but unusually, later in the day, the President’s office published his speech.

A billboard depicting Cameroon's President Paul Biya is pictured in Yaounde, Cameroon March 15, 2018. REUTERS/Josiane Kouagheu

“Despite an unfavourable global economic context ... the improvement of our people’s living conditions and the fight against unemployment must remain the government’s core priorities,” Biya told them.

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

The meeting came as Cameroon, which is mostly French-speaking, faces a violent separatist movement in its western Anglophone region and a much more deadly threat from Islamist militant group Boko Haram in the north.

“Thanks to the firm action of our defence and security forces, we have been able to drastically curb the atrocities perpetrated by criminal groups in the Far North, North-West and South-West Regions,” Biya said.

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The economy has been sluggish because of low prices for its main exports of 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 a crackdown began in 2016, had been emerging as an unlikely hub for start-up tech firms.

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

Biya urged his cabinet to “provide concrete answers to the legitimate concerns of our people”.

As in the last cabinet meeting in October 2015, he urged ministers to make extra efforts to prepare for Cameroon’s hosting of the soccer Africa Cup of Nations next year.

“I strongly reiterate my instructions on the need for judicious use of public resources, reduction of public spending and the fight against corruption,” he told the council.

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

Additional reporting by Josiane Kouagheu in Yaounde; editing by Andrew Roche

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