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Can Cameroon’s PM Ngute hold on to his job?

By Georges Dougueli
Posted on Monday, 5 July 2021 20:14

Joseph Dion Ngute, at the national dialogue, in September 2019. © Maboup

Prime Minister Joseph Dion Ngute, who was recently questioned by investigating judges over the mismanagement of funds earmarked for Cameroon’s Covid-19 response, is in a sticky situation, all while facing challenges from powerful rivals. Is he paying the price for going his own way in President Paul Biya’s administration?

State secrets are not very secret in Cameroon. Despite taking every precaution, in no time the news leaked that prime minister Joseph Dion Ngute had appeared on 12 June before investigating judges of the Tribunal Criminel Spécial.

It made little difference that they chose to meet with him at the weekend and in the privacy of his own residence, located along the banks of Yaoundé Lake, to hear his side of the story regarding the mishandling of Covid-19 funds.

In early June, judges heard the testimony of Ngute’s cabinet director, Balungeli Confiance Ebune. It seemed at the time that they wouldn’t cast their net any wider. A serving prime minister being grilled by investigators is, after all, heretofore unheard of in Cameroon.

Even influential justice minister Laurent Esso, who is no ally of Ngute, declined to get involved in the unprecedented proceeding. Yet, as if directed by an invisible hand prepared to break every rule in the book, the investigating judges managed to summon the head of government for questioning.

For better or for worse

Under the country’s constitution, Ngute, 67, an anglophone Cameroonian who became prime minister on 4 January 2019, is the second highest-ranking official in the executive branch. In practice, however, he vies for power with Ferdinand Ngoh Ngoh, who has been serving as the presidency’s secretary-general over the past 10 years.

As the pair’s turbulent rivalry shakes up Cameroon’s political class, President Biya is letting the battle play out. He himself gave top billing to Ngoh Ngoh, a close associate, granting him extensive powers and elevating him to the rank and role of minister of state.

Since then, the President’s two allies have been coexisting, for better or for worse. While Ngute’s post is provided for and regulated by the constitution, Ngoh Ngoh answers to the President alone. What matters most to Biya is that his prime minister and secretary-general strike a balance that allows him to maintain a certain peace of mind.

He meets with Ngoh Ngoh almost every day, but tends to have a more distant rapport with his prime ministers. Ephraïm Inoni, who was head of government from 2004 to 2009, never so much as entertained the idea of stirring conflict with Esso, the president’s top dog at the time.

Keenly aware of his powerlessness, Inoni spent the better part of his prime ministership tending to his personal business, using his position to enrich himself, by the account of a Cameroonian court.

His dealings eventually came back to haunt him. After being arrested in April 2012 on a misappropriation of funds charge regarding a sum totalling 1.7bn CFA francs ($3.1m), which was used to buy a plane for Biya through Cameroon Airlines (Camair), Inoni was sentenced in September 2013 to 20 years behind bars.

Attacked in August 2019 during a prison riot, he was airlifted to France to receive medical treatment. Now that he has recovered from his injuries, he is living out a peaceful existence in Paris while his sentence continues to run.

Philémon Yang, Inoni’s successor, was discreet as they come. Occupying the post from 2009 to 2019, he never became a household name among Cameroonians. He refrained from interacting with journalists and made few public appearances, staying under the radar. Challenging Ngoh Ngoh quite obviously never figured into his plans.

Strong willed

Ngute is a different story altogether. The Bongong Barombi-born tribal chief, who belongs to an ethnic minority from the South-West anglophone region, is not one to let people take advantage of him. Within the English-speaking community, he fought for his place alongside the Bakweri and Bayangi groups, who are present in greater numbers and better represented in high-level government posts.

While teaching law at the Université de Yaoundé II, Ngute spent 21 years working behind the scenes for a number of external relations ministers, serving as minister delegate in charge of relations with the Commonwealth.

Patience is the virtue of the strong willed. During discussions about who would replace Yang as prime minister – a role reserved for Anglophones on account of the country’s geopolitical situation – Ngute’s name was floated as an outsider candidate. Figuring higher on the list was Paul Elung Che, a 52-year-old rising star who had made his career at the finance ministry and the Caisse de Stabilisation des Prix des Hydrocarbures. His meteoric ascent is unlikely to stop at his current role as the presidency’s deputy secretary-general.

Other names under consideration were Francis Faï Yengo, who coordinates the Comité National de Désarmement, de Démobilisation et de Réintégration, and Paul Atanga Nji, who currently serves as territorial administration minister and permanent secretary of the national security council. Nji’s firm hand is appealing to Biya.

The ‘boss’ relishes in the situation

Against all expectations, the president chose Ngute, who finally got his chance in the spotlight and, more importantly, is now in a position to leave a stamp on his country’s future. Even if that means rocking the status quo as he chips away bit by bit at the power of his rival for the presidency.

Right after assuming office, Ngute moved to consolidate his decision-making power over appointments to leadership positions at state-owned enterprises and public institutions – until Ngoh Ngoh intervened. Like two alligators sharing the same swamp, they keep tabs on and size up one another, while taking care that their rivalry doesn’t become too disruptive.

Biya, meanwhile, closely follows the high-level showdown and has even contributed to their mutual animosity. So long as their blows do not degenerate into all-out trench warfare, the ‘boss’ relishes the situation. At 87, recognising that his succession is high on many minds, he is letting a clash of egos play out to contain Ngute’s and Ngoh Ngoh’s ambitions.

As if to counterbalance his secretary-general’s influence, Biya is now working to raise Ngute’s profile, which is why he meets with him every Friday afternoon. It is a novel approach for Biya, who makes fewer and fewer public appearances and rarely receives cabinet ministers.

Ngute’s triumph over the administration’s hawks, who form a majority in the president’s inner circle, on the issue of anglophone separatists is proof that his voice is taken into account, despite his outsider status. In September 2019, he chaired the Grand Dialogue National, an initiative aimed at resolving the Anglophone crisis.

Backing a negotiated solution to the conflict, Ngute spared no effort to persuade separatist forces to lay down their arms, while his rival moved to impose a mediation process led by the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. Neither of the competing initiatives was successful, but Ngute scored points by garnering the support of Cardinal Christian Tumi and, by extension, the Catholic Church.

Violence on the decline

Cardinal Tumi, opposed to military intervention and incensed at the government because he felt it had foiled the All Anglophone Conference that he was adamant about holding, met with Ngute to have an honest dialogue. “Their first discussion was heated and came close to ending badly,” said a source close to Tumi, who died on 3 April.

“Let’s agree to disagree,” the Cardinal told Ngute, before backing off in light of the prime minister’s willingness to compromise. After all, Ngute wanted to hear him out, unlike Yang, who had never extended an invitation. Out of their conversation grew a collaboration that has significantly reduced violence, with many separatist rebels choosing peace over war.

The prime minister’s diplomatic prowess has yet to live up to expectations, particularly when it comes to senior government members, who have a poor record of taking advice. But straightening out the likes of Esso, who Ngute once served under as minister delegate to the minister of external relations, or Louis-Paul Motaze, Cameroon’s high-powered finance minister, is no small feat – even for the prime minister.

For the last two years, the political class has been awaiting the formation of a new government, but President Biya is taking his time.

In the meantime, Ngute is trying to consolidate his popularity. On 18 May, he courted private-sector leaders at a meeting, delivering a pro-business address in French. Those in attendance were impressed by the humble, polite manner of the University of Warwick-educated legal expert.

The event ended with a fundraising initiative driven by entrepreneurs seeking to set the stage for “an economic solution” to the downturn impacting the anglophone regions. Creating youth-employment opportunities was put forward as one way to get the situation back on track. Pending the outcome of ongoing legal proceedings, Ngute’s sound performance assures him of some popularity that provides a buffer against his competition.

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