In power for almost four decades, Paul Biya has just celebrated his 89th birthday. The end of his reign is on everyone's mind, but few have been able to act on their ambitions without paying a price. Some are nevertheless preparing behind closed doors.
This is part 2 of a 4-part series
How many of them have raised their eyes towards the palace, trying to penetrate the light morning mist to discover its holy secrets? Ambassadors and ministers, businessmen and simple onlookers or curious voters … All have, at one time or another, dreamed of solving the enigma of the Sphinx of Etoudi and finding the answer to the eternal question: who will succeed Paul Biya? Many have failed.
Too arrogant? The ambitious Marafa Hamidou Yaya has been languishing for almost ten years behind the bars of Kondengui. Too hasty? Titus Edzoa paid for his desire to move from the secretariat general of the presidency to the supreme magistracy with two decades of imprisonment. Too sure of themselves? Ministers once described as all-powerful have seen their dreams of greatness dashed in Yaoundé’sruthless game of thrones. One man, alone at the top, holds the keys to his own succession.
‘We are not going to organise a primary!’
Like a Machiavellian puppet master, over the last four decades, Paul Biya has changed the actors around him several times. In February 2022, he prepared to celebrate his 89th birthday in the company of his family. Had he finally completed the script for Cameroon’s future – a script that will one day have to be written without him? In the middle of last year, the head of state launched one of the most anticipated projects of recent years: the renewal of the organs of the CPDM.
“It looked like an inauguration. All the leaders of the party wanted to place their pawns so as to be in the best position possible,” smiles an executive of the CPDM, which Paul Biya has presided over without interruption since its creation. In the South region, Louis-Paul Motaze, the minister of finance, and Samuel Mvondo Ayolo, director of the Civil Cabinet of the Presidency, have been fighting for supremacy in the local authorities of Sangmelima. In the West, ambitious young people such as Célestine Ketcha Courtes and Eric Niat, son of the Senate president, have embarked on a struggle for influence, while the death of Sultan Ibrahim Mbombo Njoya, regional leader of the ruling party, has shaken things up.
The institutions had not been renewed for many years, and everyone hoped to make the most of the situation. The succession of the “national president” is on everyone’s mind, but in public, the subject is still taboo.
“We must not make an obsession of it,” says a source in the CPDM, cautiously. But in private, everyone knows that the process is underway. So everyone is preparing. “If Paul Biya chooses a successor, he will sooner or later have to present him to the party and allow him to take over within our formation”, believes a party leader who was seen in Yaoundé during the excitement of the African Cup of Nations (CAN), which has put for a time the political considerations (a little) aside.
“The party has not held a national congress since 2011. But it announced that it will do so this year or next year, in any case before the 2023 senatorial elections. Naturally, everyone is speculating about possible changes in the organisation,” he adds.
He continues: “The local authorities, which we have just renewed, want to influence the regional bodies, which want to influence the central committee, which wants to have a say in the choice of the political bureau and the national president. This is the normal functioning of a party, but it is new for us, who have only known Paul Biya since our inception.” But will everyone have a say? Or will Paul Biya impose his will?
“We should not be under any illusions, we are not going to organise a primary to choose the successor,” joked one party leader.
Motaze, Ngoh Ngoh and the clans
Back, therefore, to the first question: who will Paul Biya choose? Who will be the elected official who will take advantage of the reorganisation of the CPDM to become its vice-president, second in command of a ship that has only one ambition, to carry on existing after the current head of state?
The profile is clear: someone discreet, close to the family, with experience in government and a regional political anchor sufficient to not be challenged within the CPDM.
Nephew of Jeanne-Irène Biya, first wife of the president, Louis-Paul Motaze hardly hides his ambition. The minister of finance, a pillar of the central committee, is trying to assert himself as leader of the ruling party for the southern region. But he must deal with the influential Samuel Mvondo Ayolo and Jacques Fame Ndongo, the Minister of Higher Education, considered as one of the ideologues of the CPDM, of which he is a member of the political bureau.
“Motaze is part of the president’s family and has a political base in the South. He is not lacking in advantages,” says one of his relatives. But he does not lack opponents either. Among them, Ferdinand Ngoh Ngoh. But the Secretary-General of the Presidency, closer to the First Lady Chantal Biya than the head of state, and with a support deficit in the party.
He is not a member of the central committee and can only count on the support of the Minister of Territorial Administration, Paul Atanga Nji, who is close to him. On the other hand, Laurent Esso, who he regularly confronts through business and the media, will not be of any help to him – to put it mildly. And, within the political bureau, composed of fifteen members, Ngoh Ngoh is hardly better off.
He is not on good terms with Jacques Fame Ndongo and the Minister of Communication, René-Emmanuel Sadi, one of the unofficial patrons of the party. “Ngoh Ngoh has almost no contacts within the party, and not only the leaders of the South but also Laurent Esso and René-Emmanuel Sadi will not stop blocking his way,” said an executive. “If the succession happens within the CPDM, he has no chance,” says a Cameroonian political scientist.
Therefore, who would be the best placed to take up the throne? “The profile is clear: someone discreet, close to the family, with experience in government and a regional political anchor sufficient to not be challenged within the CPDM,” said a diplomat in Yaounde.
A surprise successor?
In the heart of the capital, where every aspiring candidate knows that secrecy can be synonymous with salvation, candidacies often begin with a whisper. However, at the foot of Etoudi Hill, a name has been whispered for several months, that of Alamine Ousmane Mey.
Does the Minister of Economy have a chance? “He ticks all the boxes,” says one of his relatives. Son of Abba Ousmane Mey, the former powerful governor of the North under Ahmadou Ahidjo, he grew up in the seraglio.
His father, who died in 2016, was one of the close collaborators of the first president of Cameroon, before joining Paul Biya. “ He was one of the few notables of the North who knew how to pass from Ahidjo to Biya between 1982 and 1984, at the time of the coup attempt,” says an observer of the time. Paul Biya has not forgotten him.
Between Abba Ousmane Mey and Paul Biya, the complicity eventually turned into friendship. The young Alamine, born in 1966, grew up in contact with the president’s family, especially the latter’s son, Franck, and Christian Mataga, the son of Philippe Mataga, another confidant of Paul Biya. The quartet they formed with the businessman Ghislain Samou Nguewo never disappeared and they still maintain a discreet but solid friendship today.
After studying electronics in Germany, Belgium and Turkey, Alamine Ousmane Mey went into finance and joined the CCEI Bank in 1993, before becoming the general manager of its subsidiary Afriland First Bank in 2003. In Yaoundé, he enjoys dinners with friends and quiet evenings but shows little inclination for ostentation. Every lunchtime, he invites his acquaintances to the restaurant Le Bignou, next to his office.
According to those close to him, he has no appetite for politics. But it eventually caught up with him. At the end of the 2000s, he was seen more and more frequently at international economic summits, notably in April 2010 in Washington, alongside Paul Biya and Cameroonian entrepreneurs. Franck Biya is responsible for promoting him to the Head of State, whom he already advises on occasion.
His friend, a pious Muslim from the Far North, has what it takes to seduce the Sphinx of Etoudi. In December 2011, Paul Biya appointed him minister of finance, at 45 years of age. “This allowed him to develop his international networks, especially in major financial institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank,” explains a close friend. Over the years, he has won Paul Biya’s trust.
Towards a South-North alternation?
The president first took him to regional summits, where many diplomats remember their closeness. A former member of the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) remembers seeing them laughing in the corridors of an event in N’Djamena.
Then, as Paul Biya began to travel less and less, Ousmane Mey became one of his regular ‘replacements’. Carrying messages on his behalf, he expanded his address book with African heads of state. “He has woven his web, in a very subtle way, to the point of becoming an interlocutor of the presidents of the region, while remaining highly appreciated in the world of finance,” says a member of his entourage.
In private, Alamine Ousmane Mey is on familiar terms with Paul Biya, who considers him an adopted son. Paul Biya has quietly been training him in recent years,” says an observer who knows him well. “The president considers him as a son and trusts him. Only Franck Biya could be even closer to the head of state, but I do not think he has the ambition to succeed his father.”
Alamine Ousmane Mey could also count on the support of major players such as Laurent Esso and René-Emmanuel Sadi, who were close to his late father, or even Cavaye Yeguié Djibril, President of the National Assembly from the Far North like him and member of the CPDM political bureau.
“He has no enemies and knows how to stay in the background. He was raised in the political and administrative games of Yaoundé and knows them inside out. His father was president of the board of directors of the National Social Security Fund. He, therefore, knows how the system works and above all how to behave to avoid disillusions”, analyses a diplomat we spoke to.
Married to the sister of the minister delegate for public contracts, Ibrahim Talba Malla, Alamine Ousmane Mey has also taken care to cultivate his status as a leader of the CPDM in the Far North. He never misses an opportunity to organise rallies with militants in his home town of Kousseri, alongside his wife, especially during the Tabaski and Ramadan celebrations.
“Since the departure of Ahmadou Ahidjo, the North has been waiting for an opportunity to return to power,” explains the political scientist. “Cavaye Yeguie Djibil does not seem to me to be able to create unity and Marafa Hamidou Yahya is in prison. Ousmane Mey, therefore, represents an attractive solution for Paul Biya by provoking a South-North alternation, avoiding a ‘dynastic’ succession within the Bulu clan and initiating a generational change, while choosing a successor who will not betray him,” explains a source close to Etoudi.
A source close to the person concerned, who is careful not to appear in the media, concludes: “He knows that he has the necessary qualities and that a door may open. A door to which only Paul Biya holds the key.”
Understand Africa's tomorrow... today
We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.View subscription options