There is some irony in Winne Madikizela-Mandela choosing a hotel that is the namesake of her former husband to celebrate her 80th birthday in 2016. Their separation 24 years prior wasn't a friendly one, but by then, he had been dead for three years and this had been shifted to the background.
This is part 7 of a 7-part series
On 4 January 2019 in Yaounde, the ballet of loafers and high-heels did not stop fluttering across the scarlet carpets of the Mont Fébé Hotel. The lifts followed the relentless rhythm of the establishments’ visitors and occupants.
From the long hotel bar to the small circular restaurant overlooking the iconic swimming pool and tennis courts, a rare presence makes the atmosphere particularly electric. Célestine Ketcha Courtès, the dynamic mayor of Bangangté, is among the guests, and so is the rambunctious lawyer Jean de Dieu Momo. The two mayors, the first from the Far North and the second from the West, have recently taken up residence in this four-star hotel.
It is no coincidence: In the presidential palace of Etoudi, on one of the other hills of Yaoundé, Paul Biya is finalising the composition of his government. He has been in power for 36 years and has well-formed habits. Before each reshuffle, he analyses the files of the candidates with his closest advisers, loyal followers and confidants. They look at CVs, the geographical origin, family history and past of each candidate… Biya hates to leave anything to chance.
After selecting the best candidates, he imposes a final test on some of them: That of Mount Fébé. Aspiring candidates who do not have accommodation in Yaoundé are asked to stay in a suite of the hotel, reserved for them by the services of the presidency, and to wait there for a final interview, away from the hustle and bustle of downtown Yaoundé, where secrets evaporate so quickly. In the building, with its typical 1960s look, the light colour of the 11-storey high hotel does not disturb the lush greenery that surrounds it and an anxious wait begins for the ambitious candidates.
Good fortune or dashed hopes
Between Etoudi and Mont Fébé, the ballet of the president’s advisers is incessant. The journey, through the backroads of the residential district of Golf – which takes its name from the sports club located at the foot of the hotel – is only a few kilometres long. A few dozen minutes are enough to refine, in person, the final contours of a role, erase any last doubts, to try to overcome a final reluctance.
Some candidates are content to discuss and answer questions from the president’s advisers in the salons of Mont Fébé. Others, promised more prestigious posts, must follow another way and are summoned to the palace to meet the head of state.
The day can drag on, with some people avoiding the wait through relatives or delegates from the ruling CPDM, and others preferring to be alone in their anxiety. Then the decree on the reshuffle is released. On 4 January 2019, for Celestine Ketcha Courtès and Jean de Dieu Momo, respectively appointed minister of urban housing and minister delegate for justice, it was all joy. For others, Mont Fébé was crueler.
In September 1996, when she took up residence at the invitation of the presidency, the university student Dorothy Njeuma was moving at great momentum and could legitimately hold serious hopes. An excellent tennis player, she did not come to play on the courts of Mont Fébé. The great lady of the South West is expected to be the first woman in the country to occupy the post of prime minister.
Many hailed the symbolism and expected her to take over from Simon Achidi Achu, but Biya decided otherwise. He appointed another Anglophone, Peter Mafany Musonge. Dorothy Njeuma left Mont Fébé without a ministerial portfolio, and ended up pursuing a brilliant career in academia (she joined the Supreme Court in 2011). Cameroon’s primacy remained in the hands of men.
Noah and the socialites
950 metres up the slopes of Mount Fébé, the history of the Republic of Cameroon stares out at you. Built in 1968 under Ahmadou Ahidjo, the hotel was often frequented by the country’s first president. He appreciated its tranquillity and enjoyed looking down on his capital, whose sprawl had not yet reached the foot of the hill.
“It was still a suburb of Yaoundé,” says a regular. “Everyone, at least among the elite, went there to enjoy the peace and quiet or to have fun.”
First under the Sofitel banner, then administered by the Société nationale d’investissement (SNI) – which is still the case today – the hotel established itself as the place to be in the 1970s.
Jean-Gaston Noah, Zacharie’s brother and Yannick’s uncle, was then the general manager, on the direct recommendation of Ahidjo. A great friend of the president, who appreciated his taste for French cuisine and his knowledge of fine wines, this socialite gave the place its noble prestige. The whole of Yaoundé would meet there to relax at the Golf Club (which adjoins the hotel and whose president is Zacharie Noah), to share fine meals at the clubhouse on Saturdays and Sundays. Biya, who likes to jog in the vicinity, was often seen there.
It used to be the most popular nightclub for businessmen, young political decision-makers, ministers’ children and foreign diplomats.
The future president frequently walked on the hotel lawns with his future ministers John Niba Ngu and Victor Anomah Ngu, and he too became friends with the Noahs, so when Ahmadou Ahidjo left office, Mount Fébé lost none of its appeal.
In the 1980s, ministers sipped drinks in the hotel bar, sometimes attending meetings at the palace afterwards. Discussions there stay completely private. Problems are solved casually. On Thursday afternoons and Sundays, buses would take the children of the elite from the Yaoundé cathedral roundabout to the hotel, where they spent their afternoons playing pinball, table football and table tennis, as well as swimming in the pool.
For older people, there is another exciting area: the discotheque Le Balafon. “It used to be the most popular nightclub for businessmen, young political decision-makers, ministers’ children and foreign diplomats,” says a former regular. Today, the place has lost its appeal compared with the clubs in the city centre.
Cocktails and communion wine
The 1990s saw the slow decline of the hotel. The state stopped investing and businessmen began to prefer the more central – and more modern – Hilton, with its panoramic view of the capital.
Though the walls of the Hilton have ears, even more than at Mont Fébé, the economic elite appreciate its glitz, its “bling-bling”, according to its detractors.
The National Hydrocarbons Company (SNH) holds its (rare) board meetings there, and its boss, the powerful Adolphe Moudiki, occasionally lunches at the Safoutier restaurant. The Freemasons of Yaoundé also converge there discreetly, not far from the fitness rooms, where some of them recently met a certain Alexandre Benalla. The suites, named after Cameroonian rivers, are more spacious.
Joggers and businessmen
The off-beat Mont Fébé is becoming more and more the hotel of connoisseurs, nostalgics… and the discreet. In the Golf district, which has become a favourite place of residence for many ministers and dignitaries, it is not uncommon to come across illustrious joggers at dawn, directors of administration, politicians or businessmen making their way along the road that winds its way to the hotel.
The influential Jean-Claude Ayem, who is one of Biya’s closest advisors, likes to meet in one of the hotel’s restaurants, while the minister of territorial administration, Paul Atanga Nji, is also a regular visitor. It is at Mont Fébé that the regional governors, of whom he is the superior, are housed. When they are called to meet in the capital, the debates end with a big meal at the expense of the state.
If the walls of Mont Fébé could speak….
One of the guests was particularly fond of the surroundings. Governor Adolphe Lele Lafrique is a connoisseur of Mont Fébé, in the broadest sense. Leaving the hotel, this close friend of the minister of defence, Joseph Beti Assomo, often takes the winding road leading to the Mount Fébé monastery and chapel, a place of meditation and retreat located a few blocks away.
A few years ago, Prime Minister Ephraim Inoni used to attend mass there, accompanied by part of the government, which sometimes took advantage of the opportunity to extend the reunion by the hotel’s swimming pool or in the coolness of its salons. Even today, the minister of labour, Grégoire Owona, regularly makes the journey to the monastery with his wife before treating himself to a round of golf.
A nest of spies?
Do the walls of Mount Fébé, a place of quiet power, have ears? In Ahmadou Ahidjo’s time, the father of Cameroonian national security, Jean Fochivé, often frequented the place. Later, in the mid-1980s, one of the establishment’s VIP clients was none other than Meir Meyuhas.
The Israeli, who had been in Mobutu Sese Seko’s Zaire, had just become Biya’s first security advisor. A former member of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, he had praised the expertise of his compatriots to the head of state, who was shaken by the attempted coup in 1984 and had settled at Mont Fébé, making suite number 802 his headquarters. It was from there that he supervised the reform of the presidential guard and the creation of what would become the Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR).
Another securocrat, the notorious Frenchman Paul Barril, also took up residence there in the early 1990s. Officially, ‘Monsieur Paul’, commander of the French Gendarmerie’s Groupement d’intervention (GIGN), was in charge of training soldiers in riot control and ensuring the good conduct of the presidential guard.
The mission, which only lasted a few months, was in fact broader and should be seen in the context of the opening of the country to a multi-party system and the rise of the opposition Social Democratic Front (SDF) in the northwest. A stone’s throw from Etoudi, Barril discreetly received the heads of the intelligence and security services.
Over the years, the latter have become accustomed to Mont Fébé, enjoying the privacy of the place and regularly having lunch there with valuable contacts or with the successive general managers of the hotel – these “tactful control towers from whom nothing escapes”, according to the testimony of a regular client.
At the circular restaurant, it is not uncommon to see Moïse Mouiché, a national intelligence figure, having lunch with the hotel’s current number one, Nicolas Tchobang. Martin Mbarga Nguele, the emblematic and all-powerful director of National Security and General Intelligence, makes more discreet incursions. If the walls of Mont Fébé could speak….
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