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 3 of a 4-part series
For more than two decades, he has resisted the intrigues and internal quarrels that undermine the presidential entourage. He has avoided pitfalls and dodged cheap tricks. Rear Admiral Joseph Fouda, an aide-de-camp to Paul Biya, is one of the oldest and closest collaborators of the head of state – a unique link that was forged in the corridors of power and which makes him one of the most influential military in Cameroon, even though he does not lead any unit.
Fouda, in Biya’s shadow
What is the secret of the longevity of this silent man from the centre? An almost religious devotion to the head of state, that’s for sure.
He also has an exceptional talent for secrecy and lives a monastic life, far from the mundanities of the capital. Paul Biya, who knows he can count on his loyalty, granted him the title of special adviser a few years ago. In other words, he agreed to waive the sacrosanct principle of the watertight partition between military and political careers for this man who follows him like a shadow.
Even today, at Etoudi, Joseph Fouda is among the few who have access to both the presidential office and the residence of the ‘boss’, the notorious Annex C.
If the army can boast of having a man at the heart of power, it is because this naval officer, uniform always immaculate, is at the forefront of the running of the country. It is through him that confidential letters and intelligence briefs leave the official circuit. Nothing in Yaoundé escapes him.
That Paul Biya could and would put so much trust in an officer was not obvious, even to himself. He has never forgotten that part of the republican guard tried to overthrow him on 6 April 1984 – the great trauma of the beginning of his presidency. A tough and vindictive politician, he has been trying for years to establish his control over the army and the rear admiral is, in this respect, an essential link in his strategy to retain power. And even if Cameroonians do not dare to discuss it openly, they all know that, if Paul Biya were to be removed from power, the army could decide to play a role in the succession that is inevitably coming.
The temptations of the military
Of course, the Cameroonian constitution is clear. In the event of the death of the head of state, for example, it would be up to the president of the Constitutional Council (in this case, Clément Atangana) to publish a declaration of vacancy under the emergency procedure and to insert it in the Official Journal, in French and in English.
But for this to happen, he himself would have to have previously gathered two-thirds of the members of said Council, at the request of the President of the National Assembly (in this case, Cavaye Yeguie Djibril). It is then up to the president of the Senate to organise elections in no longer than 120 days.
This is how it should work in theory, but it remains to be seen how soon the latter will be informed of the president’s ultimate end. “Thanks to the military doctors of the presidency and the collaborators from the defence forces placed in the entourage of the head of state, the army has the upper hand in setting the process in motion. The staff will be among the first to be informed”, says an expert, who requested anonymity. “This moment is crucial. There must be no wavering. The uncertainty is conducive to the risk of instability. The risk itself tends to legitimise an interruption of the process by the military.”
Could the Cameroonian military be tempted? “They see other African armies succumbing to temptation, using disorder as a pretext to seize power. They listen to the putschists of neighbouring countries who denounce the vagueness of the succession scenario, the lack of visibility of the future, the corruption of politicians, the gentrification of the elites,” says a retired officer. “These issues are also plaguing Cameroon, and in other countries, they have pushed the military to take power.”
However, Rear Admiral Joseph Fouda is not a popular figure within the troop.
Our source recalls that very often, coup plotters justify their actions by the desire to ‘safeguard the interests of the nation’. And in a country where the president of the national assembly, who has been in office for nearly thirty years, is over 82 years old and his counterpart in the senate (Marcel Niat Njifendji) is close to 88 years of age and takes many medical trips to Europe, it is not unreasonable to imagine that neither of them would want to take on additional responsibilities. The military may thus see this as a perfect opportunity to present itself as guardian of order and continuity.
Without a charismatic or popular leader
But the army, in all its components, would have to be able to share this vision and, above all else, to rally behind one or more of its leaders.
What about Joseph Fouda? As things stand, he plays a more important role than the president’s private chief of staff, General Emmanuel Amougou. The latter remains relatively unknown to the general public and does not have the influence of Blaise Bénaé Mpéké, his predecessor who died in January 2007.
“However, Rear Admiral Joseph Fouda is not a popular figure within the troop,” says an observer. “He is not likely to unite the 50,000 men and women who make up the defence force behind a project, whatever it may be.”
Ivo Desancio Yenwo, who is in charge of the president’s close security, cannot act as a rallying force either. The English-speaking general, who owes his entire career to the head of state and who occupies a position usually attributed to a policeman, has only a meagre influence on the troops.
What about Colonel Jean-Charles Beko’o Abondo, who commands the presidential guard? He was not the first choice of Paul Biya, who had initially preferred General Joseph Nouma before changing his mind. A Bulu from the south region (like the head of state), Beko’o Abondo is careful not to conceal any connections with politicians and to stay away from palace intrigues. Relatively unknown before his appointment in 2014, he is no more known today.
That leaves René Claude Meka, the army chief of staff. This 83-year-old is a visually impaired soldier with limited physical capacity. A man with a reserved temperament, even when he was in full possession of his abilities, he does not envisage going into the limelight, and no one is thinking about it for him either.
It must be said that, apart from the ‘supreme leader’ Paul Biya, this army has no real charismatic and popular military leader. “There is no head in the ranks,” says our source.
While it is fighting two wars, one against Islamist terrorism in the far north and the other against Anglophone secessionists in the northwest and southwest regions, the army carefully avoids putting forward its ‘heroes’. No soldiers are presented to the public for their feats of arms.
Popularity is perceived by the government as a threat to its stability. The political establishment is just as suspicious of ambitious people climbing the ranks in the army as it is of soldiers, even if they are high ranking, who show the ability to think globally, or even to write (and publish!) essays with or without permission from their superiors.
Rivalries and injustices
The different arms of the military coexist in a climate of mistrust. Everything is done to avoid any rapprochement that could potentially threaten the stability of civil authority.
“If four officers with the rank of general meet in the same place for a reason that has nothing to do with military service, a party, for example, they are obliged to explain this in writing to the high command,” says a former military officer.
From top to bottom, the members of the military do not think as one. Like the civilians with whom they live, they are influenced by the political opinions and currents of thought that run through society. Internally, the army is divided into clans.
These may have ethnic contours, which are superimposed on structural cleavages. Indeed, each of its components is imbued with a different ‘military subculture’ which competes with its rivals for both the best share of the budget and the best way to ensure the country’s security.
The cohabitation between the gendarmerie, the army and air force and the navy is not always harmonious. The other point of contention is the unfair distribution of privileges, granted to some but denied to others. It is true that the Cameroonian army is traditionally well resourced. This year, for example, the state plans to spend 348.9 billion CFA francs on defence and security issues – an amount that represents 10.8% of its total budget, according to the 2022 finance law.
But not all units are on the same footing. The members of the presidential guard are the best off in terms of pay, equipment and training. This inter-army formation (gendarmerie, army, air force, navy), created in 1985 in place of the republican guard, is trained and supervised by Israeli contractors – and in particular by Eran Moas, a retired colonel whose name does not appear in any official organisation chart – who are not under the authority of the minister of defence, Joseph Beti Assomo or that of the military command.
The same Israeli contractors also control the Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR). With 5,000 men, multipurpose war equipment (land, sea and air) and special training, it plays a leading role in the defence of the territory. In practice, the BIR is financed by the National Hydrocarbons Company (SNH), whose powerful Ferdinand Ngoh Ngoh, the secretary-general of the presidency, heads the board of directors. The BIR, like the presidential guard, has developed electronic surveillance capabilities that give it a strategic advantage over the rest of the army.
These two units are in a way the life insurance policy of power. They are also the ones who, at the time of the succession, will be the first to pose as a bulwark of the Constitution or, on the contrary, as the essential protagonists of a military interlude.
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