Biya is a weak man, a double dealer with a phobia for coups d’etat”. Ahmadou Ahidjo – RFI, August 23, 1983.
Biya’s first government caused no stir. To all intents and purposes, [it] was Ahidjo’s Bello Bouba Maigari, a young, soft-spoken, affable Northerner was appointed Prime Minister.
At 35, Bello Bouba had been enmeshed in the intricacies and intrigues of behind-the-door politics. In fact, he traveled constantly to foreign capitals as a private Ahidjo envoy.
He was a publicly known Ahidjo protégé. It was murmured that Ahidjo was grooming him for power. In this light, Biya would have served as a caretaker President until 1985 when elections were due and Bello Bouba Maigari would have become President.
That is why, observers reasoned, he had worked as an attaché and Assistant Secretary General of the Presidency – to watch at close range the day-to-day art of ruling; he had been Secretary General of the Armed Forces – to get acquainted with the military; and lately, as Minister of Economy and Plan, he was to acquire first-hand knowledge of the country’s economic machinery.
The Storm Gathers
By the end of January 1983, it was glaringly clear that Ahidjo’s presence on the Cameroon political scene was mounting with an irrepressible desire to meddle in political affairs.
Rumours flared unabated. People pointed out the fact that in December 1982, Ahidjo had visited Shagari’s Nigeria, accompanied by top government officials (just like a Head of State) – all of them from the North: Oumarou Aminou, Ousmane Mey and Mohaman Lamine. Shehu Shagari, a devout Muslim, could, perhaps be used by Ahidjo to fan support for a northern-inspired attempt to regain power by his Cameroonian “Moslem brother”.
Foreign dignitaries like Claude Cheysson after being received by President Biya had to go to Garoua to be received in their turn by Ahidjo, who was to add more fuel to the flame in an interview to Cameroon Tribune’s Henri Bandolo, the “Presidential interviewer”, on January 29, 1983.
In the interview, Ahidjo maintained that it was the role of the Party to define and that of the government to execute national guidelines. With unusual braggadocio, Henri Bandolo informed the National Chairman that public opinion was talking about a conflict between the party (Ahidjo) and the State (Biya) – a sort of power duality.
Ahidjo brushed the question aside and, with supercilious insolence, replied that this so-called misunderstanding between him and Biya was the work of those who no longer wanted to seen him in Yaounde. But, he went on challengingly:
“As a former President of the Republic, I have the right to accommodation and offices in Yaounde…”
In any doubt still lingered in Biya’s mind about Ahidjo’s intentions, this interview dispelled them. Although he did not immediately reply, he definitely pondered long and hard on how to avert a potential crisis. In the impending battle with his predecessor, he would need the support of the people. Thus, he concluded, he had to carry the message to them.
Biya Comes of Age
At the beginning of his reign, Biya believed that could rehash Matthew VII, 17, by putting new wine – rigour and moralization – into old bottles – the CNU barons! This was soon to prove an egregious blunder.
By June, preparations were underway to receive President Mitterrand. There was apparent calm. Until Biya abruptly and unexpectedly reshuffled his cabinet a couple of days before the French President’s visit – June 18 1983.
Since Biya’s ascension to power, on November 6, 1982, this was his boldest and most outrageous stroke and it was to unleash a series of dramatic incidents. The repercussions were to be horrendous. The aftermath would culminate in a stupendous bloodbath.
True, Biya had, on April 12, 1983, carried out a minor cabinet reshuffle. But he had earlier traveled to Ngaoundere to consult his predecessor – in the true spirit of “fidelity and continuity”. However, a piqued Ahidjo, still smarting from the protocol imbroglio during his Dag Hammarskjöld Peace Prize ceremony, treated Biya with disdain and scorn.
Fully aware of the fact that Biya was coming to see him, Ahidjo provocatively left for his ranch and kept the Head of State waiting. And, finally, when he returned he did not view Biya’s visit as a sign of courteous deference but insisted that even if there had to be a cabinet reshuffle, he Ahidjo, would call the shots – having the last word on who was to leave and who was to come in. Obviously piqued by his cavalier treatment, Biya showed no fight. True to his erstwhile image of an unobtrusive, workaholic clerk, he tamely acquiesced.
But on June 18, 1983, he asserted himself. Henceforth, he would both rule and reign. In the June cabinet reshuffle, all the linchpins, the eminences grises, the barons of the ancient regime came tumbling down. Booted out were: Sadou Daoudou, Victor Ayissi Mvondo, Bwele Guillaume, Hamadou Moustapha…
News of Biya’s June 18th Cabinet reshuffle caused a mighty stir within Ahidjo’s entourage. For his part, Ahidjo was, to say the least, stunned, incredulous. He saw this as the height of temerity on his successor’s part and an obvious design to provoke an open crisis. Their relationship though not yet irreconcilable, was nonetheless, fraught with mutual misgivings. The rancour rankled. Those who met Ahidjo at this time, found him ranting with rage.
In spite of the razor-edge tension, President Mitterrand had been given an enthusiastic welcome, and, before he flew back, he visited Garoua where he must have made attempts to mend the fast-deteriorating relationship between Ahidjo and Biya.
Ahidjo reacted to Biya’s ‘betrayal; promptly. He avoided, though, creating a rumpus and summoned all Muslim Ministers to the Lake Residence.
On June 19, he convened and presided over a meeting of the Politburo. Biya refused to attend. The divorce had been consummated. The headlong collision was merely a matter of time. Party and government officials on good terms with both men shuttled between them in an attempt to soothe tempers. They failed.
Nipping a Coup in the bud
…on August 22, 1983… Biya announced that a plot to destabilize the State and its institutions had been uncovered. The first official hint (though everyone suspected) that Ahidjo was involved was given by Ahidjo himself. In his address, Biya had referred to alleged plotters anonymously as “individuals”. But the next day on August 23, Ahidjo, reacting to the announcement, revealed that the individuals in question were Abraham Oumarou (in charge of his household services) and Captain Salatou (his aide-de-camp). Ahidjo the proceeded to spill a string of highly provocative invectives on Biya:
Biya is a weak man, a double dealer with a phobia for coups d’etat”.
According to Ahidjo, the August 22 coup announcement was a red herring manipulated by authorities, who, instead of “taking care of the economic and social situation which was deteriorating glaringly in Cameroon”, wanted to divert attention.
Ahidjo’s statement sparked off an immediate uproar in Cameroon. Motions of support cascaded from all nooks and crannies. To crown it all, even a group of prisoners condemned sent their own motion of support!
The die was clearly cast for Ahidjo. On August 27 he resigned his chairmanship of the party. Goaded by the shrieking complicity of the Cameroon people, Biya gored his opponent. After this, it would be a matter of winner takes it all: foes to be severely punished while friends would be gratified.
Biya Takes Over the CNU
Biya was elected Party Chairman on Sept. 14, 1983. An ebullient Biya drew deafening applause when, in a thinly veiled swipe at his predecessor, he said:
“There is need to consider the CNU as a unified national party not as the property of a single person”.
After Biya’s election, the former Chairman, Ahmadou Ahidjo, in an Interview with Radio France Internationale, said laconically:
“Good luck to Cameroon and Cameroonians”.
This in a way, was an acknowledge – thought sarcastic – of his defeat. He could exclaim with Homer:
“Gods! How the son degenerates fro the sire!”
April 6: The Coup that Almost Was
Ahidjo and his acolytes purported to have fomented the August 22 plot, were judged and sentenced. Biya, in what was dubbed a magnanimous act, commuted their death sentences – including Ahidjo’s – to life imprisonment.
On April 6, 1984 a hastily and poorly executed coup was foiled. The bungled coup had been staged, the plotters said,
“because Biya’s band was filling its pockets so fast before it is too late”.
Ahidjo’s hand – was again – seen in this macabre episode. This was because at the outbreak of what the government preferred to call “mutiny”, Ahidjo had announced over the foreign radio station that if those involved in the coup were his supporters, they were surely going to win.
However, when it became indubitably clear that the coup had failed, a heckled Ahidjo had pleaded – through the foreign press – that he should be left alone since he had no hand in the bloody events. Besides, Cameroonians, who had insulted, denigrated and vilified him, could jolly well stew in their own juices.
That was the last time Ahidjo talked publicly about Cameroon. And it sounded like the “Father of the Nation” was cursing his “fellow Cameroonians.
Scorned at home, Ahidjo became a roving exile – Senegal, France, Morocco… Biya emerged a bruised man from the coup. To be sure that such an incident should never happen again, he had to surrounding himself with trusted friends.
In the event, these “friends” turned out to be or less from one tribe. In a sense, the, he solved one by creating another intractable one – tribalism. Also, Biya seemed jettison his pet slogans of Rigor and Moralization and concentrated on the art of surviving in power. To do this, he back-pedaled on his incipient liberalization moved, muzzled the Press, institutionalized presidential patronage, enhanced autocratic government. Thanks to the coup, he swung full circle. Cameroonians were back to the Ahidjo days.
The smoking guns had killed a dream. The raisin had driveled in the Sun.
(Originally published in Cameroon Life, 1(11), Sept. 1991)