Paranoia and despair rule Cameroon

President Paul Biya is slinging accusations of murderous conspiracies and imprisoning officials accused of embezzlement.

Cameroon''s President Paul Biya holds a ballot paper before casting his vote at a polling centre in Yaounde
Paul Biya, who has been president of Cameroon for 29 years, has jailed many of his former deputies [Reuters]

“You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!
– Oliver Cromwell to the “Rump Parliament” of 1653

Paris, France – It is not an everyday thing to read an address to the Rump parliament by Oliver Cromwell, the most famous signatory to the death sentence of King Charles I. It is less common to read it in a public letter written by a minister of a Central African state. Marafa Hamidou Yaya, formerly a senior official in Cameroon, recently delivered this warning to President Paul Biya, who has ruled the country for 29 years.

Cameroon has been in turmoil for the past two months. On April 16, Yaya and Chief Ephraim Inoni, a former prime minister and head of government under Biya, were placed under pre-trial detention in Kondengui prison in Yaounde, the nation’s capital. The two were arrested on suspicions of embezzling public funds in order to purchase an aircraft for Biya – the jet has come to be referred to as “The Albatross” – in a country often criticised for corruption.

The arrests followed those of Jean-Marie Atangana Mebara, former secretary-general of the office of the president and minister of state, and Jerome Mendouga, Cameroon’s former ambassador to the US. A popular joke ironically suggests that a parallel government could be formed in Kondengui prison, with all the top-level politicians currently held within it. Indeed, three of the country’s four most recent secretaries-general have been placed in detention over the past 12 years. In Cameroon, the secretary-general plays an important position, in charge of relationships between the government and the president.

Among these famous prisoners, Yaya has been waging an unprecedented battle against Biya in the court of public opinion. In four different letters addressed to Biya, the president’s former favourite son delivers the secrets of Cameroon’s Mount Olympus. Some believe that Yaya, fearing that he would be arrested, wrote these letters before being jailed.

Worse, Yaya has dared expose to the world his political ambitions: to one day don the costume of President of Cameroon. A 2007 WikiLeaks cable revealed that the man was favoured by the United States, France, and other Western diplomats in the country. In other times, this would have probably been enough to get him to the sacred throne. But times have changed, and it will take Yaya more than international backing and four letters published in the press convince Cameroonians of his ability to rule.

The Albatross affair: A political plot?

A study of the Albatross affair is necessary to understand the arrest of Yaya and the consequences for Cameroonian politics. In 2001, according to another WikiLeaks cable, written in June 2008, Biya announced that he wanted a new plane for his personal and official trips. He informed his close entourage, including Yaya, who as secretary-general of the presidency was the second man of Cameroon at the time, and they decided on a Boeing Business Jet. Unfortunately, at that time, Cameroon was trying to reduce its debt under a World Bank and IMF programme, due to its status as a highly indebted poor country. The decision was then reportedly made to set up a financial package and buy the plane through what was then the national airline company, Camair, ostensibly in order to avoid suspicion from financial institutions on the purchase of such a luxury item.

According to the 2008 WikiLeaks cable, the money came from the account of the National Hydrocarbons Corporation, which transferred by wire the $31m needed for the purchase to US-based company GIA, which reportedly acted as an intermediary for Camair. Negotiations with Boeing were said to be handled by a US law firm specialising in aircraft transactions, airworthiness and registration, Zuckert Scoutt & Rasenberger, in the name of the Cameroonian state.

But the jet was never delivered to Cameroon. Instead, it was agreed that a pre-owned Boeing 767-216 – the Albatross – would be leased to Cameroon by the US aircraft company. But, during its inaugural flight to Geneva on April 24, 2004, in which the president was with his wife and children, the Albatross had to return to Douala after the pilot noticed a flap failure on the wings of the machine. Many believed that the plane’s near-failure was an attempt on Biya’s life, the leaked US diplomatic cable states. This episode, along with the fact that the $31m used to buy the plane appears to have disappeared, explains why the politicians in the president’s entourage were arrested.

The Albatross affair raises many questions. If Cameroonian citizens are eager to know where the $31m went, another preoccupation may concern the head of state: who might have attempted to cause his death?

Biya’s plane was reportedly issued a certificate of airworthiness by the US Federal Aviation Administration – yet it appeared to be affected by a mechanical problem that nearly cost the lives of the president and his entire family during its “inaugural flight”. Could there have been foul play at work after the aircraft was given officials’ permission to fly?

These images and details provided by amateur aviation enthusiasts purport to demonstrate that the plane was at least 15 years old before it was even delivered to the Cameroonians, and allege that it has since flown for several other companies, and is currently leased to the Government of Djibouti. Could an aging plane have been selected for Biya by nefarious agents with a wishful desire for a calamitous failure?

The vanishing of the $31m might have convinced Biya that the money had been used to prepare a criminal coup against him and his family. Indeed, the amount was paid to Oregon-based GIA, which later filed for bankruptcy after being sued by Indian Airlines for alleged fraud – and, according the the 2008 cable mentioned above, Boeing said it had returned whatever funds it had received to GIA.

These possible US financial implications pushed embassy officials to suggest that an investigation be conducted by US law enforcement officers. But despite this suggestion, neither the technical aspect of the incident nor the diversion of the $31m appear to have been examined. Yet this is the biggest political and financial scandal in Cameroon today, and may be having an effect on local politics: after the flight incident, the president decided to change the constitution and stay in power, and now has much of his cabinet and many of his senior ministers from the time in prison.

Oil in exchange for power?

It is an open secret now: each time an African politician who has his eyes on the presidency is backed by a foreign power, first make sure of what might have been dealt in exchange for the support. What has Yaya possibly done to deserve such glowing words from Niels Marquardt, former US ambassador to Cameroon?

“A dynamic, personable and energetic man, Marafa Hamidou Yaya has an excellent relationship with the U.S. Embassy – as well as the French, Japanese, British, and others. Like PM Inoni, Marafa’s intelligence and effectiveness have raised his national profile and make him a possible presidential candidate – perhaps even the front-runner… He is also the likely preference of every Western Ambassador in town, including this one.”

To get a possible answer, one should go back to 2002, when the International Court of Justice ruled in a territorial dispute that the Peninsula of Bakassi was part of Cameroon. Believed to be rich in oil, even though no formal commercial discovery had yet been made, the peninsula represented a hope for the Cameroonian government to increase its oil production. According to this cable from the US embassy in Yaounde, the Hydrocarbons National Company (SNH) boosted its exploration in the region with the precious help of foreign private companies, most of them US-based. Between 2006 and 2007, investment in exploration doubled, reaching $246.75m.

In that same period, Yaya chaired the SNH board, a company where he started his career as a petroleum engineer and as chief of the exploration and production department. Needless to say, Yaya is one of the few people who knows exactly how many barrels of oil leave the Cameroonian coast everyday, and the oil production capacity of the country. A battle is currently raging between Western and Chinese companies for exploration and exploitation contracts. It is well known that in the past few years Biya tended to favour his Chinese counterparts to those of France, Cameroon’s historic economic partner. This has displeased the United States. Yaya, however, graduated from a US university and has always gotten along well with western parties.

Beyond his international supporters, what has Yaya actually done for the Cameroonian people during his 20 years in the Biya government? Did he renegotiate the unfair oil contracts that tie Cameroon to France? What did he do in October 2011, when his former boss won the presidential election under suspicion of fraud? As the minister of the territorial administration and decentralisation, he supervised the work of the “independent” electoral commission and presided over the adoption of the electoral code.

Finally, this affair is a sad reminder of something we have long known. Whether or not one sees conspiracy or simply corruption behind the Albatross incident, one thing is certain: African people, and Cameroonians in particular, continue to suffer both from other countries’ opportunism and the disinterest and corruption of their own leaders.

Julie Owono is a Cameroonian freelance journalist and international relations consultant based in Paris.

Follow her on Twitter: @JulieOwono