A constellation of Israeli firms, businessmen and consultants with a long-standing foothold in Africa are leveraging their connections to local corridors of power, to indirectly serve the interests of their country. This brand of back-channel diplomacy is thriving – and thoroughly devoid of transparency.
This is part 2 of a 4-part series
One drink after another is poured behind the bar that runs the length of the restaurant. A cocktail bartender handles the shakers like a pro, drawing patrons’ eyes towards him. A few bottles of stronger stuff await their new owner in a bucket brimming with ice that won’t take long to melt.
On this evening, the city’s nightlife delivers for the VIP, affluent customers of The Famous, the trendiest restaurant and bar in Cameroon’s capital, Yaoundé. It takes the form of the amber hue of whisky and the bubbly flavour of champagne.
In the heart of the upper-class neighbourhood of Bastos, The Famous has become a favourite watering hole among Yaoundé’s wealthy set. Retired footballer Samuel Eto’o was recently spotted partying there alongside FIFA head Gianni Infantino. Singers like Charlotte Dipanda and Lady Ponce have performed there, not to mention the rapper Gims and the late musician Wes Madiko.
Amid the crowd of African and international celebrities, one in particular catches our eye: Eran Moas. The bar’s most frequent clientele easily recognise the face of the adviser to the Rapid Intervention Battalion (Battalion d’intervention rapide – BIR), Cameroon’s special forces unit.
This past 3 November, the Israeli national, who has been living in the central African country for 23 years, celebrated his 45th birthday at The Famous in the company of his closest friends. The festive atmosphere lends a decidedly unguarded air to President Paul Biya’s shadowy elite forces trainer. He feels at home, and with good reason: he is.
Known as ‘the Israeli club’ to members of Yaoundé’s high society, The Famous is run by a company named Danaet. Though its owner isn’t identified in documents provided to the trade and companies register, Moas is one of its main financial backers.
From Kinshasa to Yaoundé
According to several associates, the military adviser manages (or used to manage) stakes, purchased by members of Cameroon’s Israeli community, in a variety of companies, including the communications firms MegaHertz and Ringo, the restaurant Espresso House and the nightlife venue Safari Club, which less than a year ago was renamed Trust Club.
The past sheds some light on how he came to occupy such a central role in Cameroon. Right after completing his mandatory military service in Israel, a then 22-year-old Moas landed in Cameroon in 1998. He worked as a communications technician for Israel-based Tadiran, a leading company in the field of surveillance radar technology. Yaoundé was already on good terms with Tel Aviv at that time.
Following the nearly successful coup against Biya in 1984, the President has placed his trust in the Israelis to reform his security apparatus. He wanted to free himself from French influence, believing France to be too close to his predecessor, Ahmadou Ahidjo. His Zairian neighbour, Mobutu Sese Seko, introduced him to Meir Meyuhas, an Egyptian Jew, who knew Central Africa like the back of his hand.
After working as a secret agent for the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) in the 1950s in Egypt, where his cover was once blown, leading to his arrest and imprisonment, he was moving in Mobutu’s orbit in Kinshasa in the early 1970s. When Zaire severed its relations with Israel after the eruption of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, Meyuhas was the first person to inform the Israeli ambassador to Egypt, a close confidant of his, of the new development.
In 1982, while he helped train the Zairian leader’s security forces, he was behind the push to re-establish the two countries’ relations, acting as an intermediary between Mobutu and Israel’s prime minister, Ariel Sharon, and defence minister, Shimon Peres.
The Israelis never had to fret about funds drying up: at the express request of President Biya, the BIR was financed through an off-budget account of Cameroon’s national oil company.
Meyuhas jumped at the opportunity to renew his country’s ties with President Biya. Back in Yaoundé, the regular guest at Mont Febe hotel – suite no. 802 became his headquarters – invited a fellow Israeli, Avi Sivan, to join him. Initially appointed as Israel’s defence attaché to Cameroon, Sivan was quickly put in charge of reforming the Presidential Guard, which had until then been trained by the French military.
He lent his share of expertise, being a founding member of one of Israel’s most storied forces, Unit 217. This elite counter-terrorism unit – originally made up of Druze fighters trained to operate in Arab areas – was also called Duvdevan, the Hebrew word for cherry, in honour of its ‘cherry-on-top’ status.
The golden years
Sivan’s training methods drew on Meyuhas’s own strengths. The former secret agent owned several private firms and had – for his prior service – received an exclusive export licence for military equipment from Israel’s ministry of defence.
Reeling from the 1982 Lebanon war, Tel Aviv moved to privatise its defence industry and facilitated the creation of a bevy of arms companies at which former IDF members took on leadership roles.
In other words, it was a great time for anyone looking to get into the security business, especially in Central Africa. Following Sivan’s stint with the Presidential Guard, he threw himself into training Cameroon’s light infantry battalion, which was later rechristened the BIR.
Sivan fully outfitted his troops, providing, among other supplies, uniforms, Galil assault rifles, Negev machine guns and armoured personnel carriers, thanks to his connections to Meyuhas and his son Sami, who joined the family business. The Israelis never had to fret about funds drying up: at the express request of President Biya, the BIR was financed through an off-budget account of Cameroon’s national oil company.
The BIR answered solely to the secretary-general of the presidency. In 1998, when a youthful Moas first arrived in Yaoundé, Sivan was the BIR’s undisputed head, working under Biya’s supervision. Fond of the city’s nightlife, it wasn’t uncommon to see him dancing at a club into the wee morning hours. He also owned a villa in Kribi, where he loved to spend his days fishing.
Though Israel’s defence minister revoked Meyuhas’s exclusive export licence around 2000, business remained lucrative and the BIR continued to be an excellent customer for Israeli companies like Israel Weapon Industries.
The Israeli community’s ranks in Yaoundé had swollen under Sivan’s watch, who was serving as security adviser to the president. In addition to Moas, brigadier generals Meyer Heres and Erez Zuckerman – who resigned from the IDF in 2007 after being involved in a failed operation during the 2006 Lebanon war – joined the BIR as trainers.
In 2010, Sivan died in a helicopter crash under unknown circumstances. Heres and Zuckerman took the reins, but Zuckerman eventually left Cameroon in 2017. Moas worked alongside the pair, becoming adviser to the BIR forces.
Primates and business dealings
Moas picked up French quickly, married a Cameroonian, Lucie, and carved out a life for himself in the heart of Central Africa, in the hills of Yaoundé. Described by a close associate as “an active philanthropist and community member in Cameroon”, he supports NGOs like Ape Action Africa (AAA), which was founded by Sivan in 1996.
In fact, one of his former military comrades, Ofir Drori, is also an ape conservation activist. Whenever Moas meets someone new, he whips out pictures of a chimpanzee that has shared his moniker, Eran, after it was rescued by Mefou Wildlife Sanctuary. He owns at least three villas in Yaoundé and one in Douala, on top of various luxury homes he has bought over the years in the United States, including in Los Angeles.
Though he meets with President Biya several times a year, another Israeli, Brigadier General Baruch Mena, occupies the role of technical adviser to the BIR. According to several sources, Moas is in charge of the business side, such as equipment supply contracts, in addition to the strategic relationship with Ferdinand Ngoh Ngoh, who has been serving as the secretary-general of the presidency since 2011. Both men – and their wives – are on familiar terms.
For years, they have been spending holidays together in Kribi, where Moas still uses Sivan’s old boat, a powerful quad-engine vessel ideal for offshore fishing. What do the decision-makers tied to Biya’s presidency and the Israeli entrepreneur discuss when they are out on the Atlantic?
According to documents we have obtained, two companies linked to Moas – PortSec SA (registered in Panama) and Tandyl Development – have records that were signed or drawn up in the past few years by Ngoh Ngoh’s office, including an order of expropriation regarding a real estate project in Yaoundé, and a security agreement – concluded without a tender – involving the Autonomous Port of Douala.
Moas declined to comment when we reached out to him on 6 October. His name missing from the BIR’s organisational chart, he now introduces himself to his less informed interlocutors as a ‘consultant’ and ‘freelance entrepreneur’. It’s quite a half-truth.
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