To start off, I think I’m a very privileged African. I come from the Cameroonian middle class. My parents were both college-educated, in fairly high-level managerial positions. My dad was in the civil service; my mother was in the civil service, but also worked in the NGO world. They both believed very strongly in education as the most important investment for their children. So I got a very good education in Cameroon and then went to university in the United States. I also say that I was probably in that last generation where we came here to go back there. We were not coming to the West, whether it was the U.S. or to Europe, in order to stay. We were coming to get an education and go back and build our countries. My parents were the independence generation. They got independence for us and, in my home, it was very much about, “We fought for independence and we achieved that and now your responsibility as the next generation is to build the continent and build the country.” It ended up in my generation that we were 50/50 — I think 50 percent of us went back and 50 percent ended up staying, because things were already getting quite bad in in Africa by the late 1980s, early 90s when I went back. We are also the generation where our parents said, “Build the country, but don’t do politics.” They had just gone through independence, and independence in Africa was a very painful, violent process, especially in some countries, including Cameroon. And so for your safety— they’re your parents – they don’t want you to be on that path. They said, “Don’t do politics.”
Now, I had had an interest in politics since I was about eight, nine years old. But, you know, you listen to your parents when you’re young. And so, I had done an MBA, and I thought the way I’m going to change Cameroon, the way I’m going to contribute to building Cameroon, is by building an excellent company where we hire Cameroonians, we build up Cameroonian expertise and we take it out to the rest of the world. And we did that. We have a consulting firm, STRATEGIES!, that’s 28 years old now, that is based in Cameroon with 100 percent Cameroonian consultants who work all over the world. Since 2017, we have a branch office in D.C. We work in over 30 countries in Africa. So, you know, we did alright as far as businesses go. We did alright for our staff. Maybe did well with our clients. But we were certainly not changing Cameroon.
And so, I began to get interested in civil society activities and became very active in certain associations, in community projects and so on — building wells, building schools, doing entrepreneurship, training for women, for young people. We had success. We would train 500 women and 400 of them would improve their sales and increase their market share and be able to hire other people. I had my vision on scale. What I had as a vision was the transformation of my country into a place with peace, justice, democracy, a vibrant economy. And I felt like we were doing things for pockets of people, but we’re not reaching for the fundamental system.
I often say that my work in my company and in civil society led me to politics because where the barriers were—where the hurdles were, where people with an enormous amount of will and energy and even resources would get stuck—was always the political barriers. It was always the fundamental system, the system that didn’t provide infrastructure, water, electricity, roads. It would be political decisions that didn’t make sense for people who were trying to build a small business or even sometimes for people who were trying to build a school, it would be the corruption of public officials. The parents would get together and pool their money together to build a school for their kids and then find that they had to bribe an official to get the land or to get the space.
I realized the problem is political. And I got to a stage where I felt like I had a choice: Either you get involved at the core of the problem or you shut up and stop being an armchair politician where you’re fixing everything from the armchair but you’re not actually involved in providing solutions. I also got really mad. I was really, really angry. My country is an amazingly rich country; name the resource and we have it: oil, gold, cobalt, diamonds, huge mineral resources, huge natural resources. Cameroon is abundant in terms of water, in terms of rainfall, in terms of land. The fertility of the land is amazing. And probably most important, human resources. We are lucky in that the first president of Cameroon invested heavily in the educational system and we have a high literacy rate and Cameroonians are very dedicated to school and really do well in school. And we have a very entrepreneurial culture as a country. So, here we are with everything anybody could ask for in the world and 40% of our population is living in poverty. Sixty percent at the time did not have access to electricity.
Cameroon has only had two presidents since independence. The first one was president for 22 years. The second one is still in office and has been in power for 41 years. And I thought, “We have got to offer ourselves—and the world—something better than this. We have got to show that Cameroon has something else to offer.” And that was what really drove my path to running for president. It’s also a presidential system. I had been a local government official. I’ve been elected at local office and understood through holding that office how the Cameroonian government works. I saw that change, real systemic change at scale, can only happen from the top. So, I decided to run for president.