Cameroon: The secret to the exceptional longevity of Martin Mbarga Nguélé, Paul Biya’s top cop

By Georges Dougueli
Posted on Tuesday, 11 October 2022 13:24

Martin Mbarga Nguélé in 2010 © MABOUP

At over 90 years of age, this long-time presidential loyalist leads the National Security department with an iron fist. He also happens to be the world’s oldest police officer on active duty.

Every morning in Yaoundé, the police stop traffic when Martin Mbarga Nguélé’s motorcade passes through, all sirens blaring for the two kilometres that separate his residence in the Bastos district from his office in Nlonkak, downtown. Aside from President Paul Biya, the Delegate General for Cameroonian Security is the only one who still grants himself this privilege from another era. He’s aware of the criticism that this has earned him, but he is, at 90, a man of habit. Nor is he ignorant of the sarcasm that made the rounds of social networks when he celebrated his birthday on 1 July, undoubtedly making him the world’s oldest police officer on active duty. But it takes more than that to shake him up.

Paul Biya appreciates the presence of this elder, who ‘rejuvenates’ him and mitigates criticism of his own longevity in power

This man, who holds the rank of minister and officiates as an adviser to the president, could have long ago passed for their grandfather, but his men willingly call him “dad”. Discreet and loyal, two indispensable ingredients for longevity, he is considered one of the pillars of the regime that he has diligently served for several decades. And then, President Biya – who will be 90 years old himself on February 13, 2023 – appreciates the presence of this elder, who “rejuvenates” him and mitigates criticism of his own longevity in power.

Nguélé was far beyond his rookie days when he was appointed to head the police in August 2010. He obtained his inspector’s diploma in 1951: Cameroon was not yet independent and Ruben Um Nyobè was still fighting the colonial administration, gun in hand. The young policeman quickly climbed the ranks. He became commissioner, then head of the judicial police in the Centre, his home region, and soon central commissioner of the city of Yaoundé.

In the late 1970s, he was entrusted with the direction of general intelligence, and the year after Paul Biya came to power, he was appointed for the first time as head of National Security, in 1983. But the experience would not last. He did not take seriously enough the intelligence suggesting that a coup was in the works, and failed to prevent the attempted putsch of 6 April 1984. Surprised by an attack on his own residence, he was arrested and mistreated by a mutinous Republican Guard. The coup de force failed, but the police chief had nothing to do with preventing it.

Purgatory

Martin Mbarga Nguélé with Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu during the 89th Interpol General Assembly meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, 24 November 2021 © sa Terli / Anadolu Agency via AFP

This was the beginning of his purgatory. Paul Biya sent him into exile, as Ambassador to Zaire. Subsequently, he was transferred to Brazil – it was he who organised, in April 2005, the official visit of President Lula to Yaoundé. Then, in 2010, he went to Madrid. Meanwhile, in Yaoundé, Ambassador-at-large Marcel Medjo Akono, an evening visitor to the Palais d’Etoudi, pleaded Nguélé’s case. Martin Mbarga Nguélé had learned from his mistakes, he told the president. Biya had never digested the 1984 episode but eventually allowed himself to be convinced and called Nguélé back to the country. Since then, he has made no mistakes.

Leading the police has never been a sinecure. Every day, Nguélé sends the president an intelligence bulletin, compiled on the basis of the information received from the directorates of general intelligence and territorial surveillance, which are under his supervision. He has to assess threats, monitor political activists, and fight against Islamist terrorism in the Far North and Anglophone separatism in the North West and South West regions while securing the borders and fighting petty and serious crime.

Why does Paul Biya still entrust him with the keys to his security? “For his loyalty,” says a well-informed observer. “Nguélé is not part of any of the clans fighting to succeed Biya. He is of this generation of old-school senior clerks, who serve loyally and to the end”. In fact, the police chief takes particular care to stay away from the intrigues of political Yaoundé. It cannot be said that he is close to the Minister of State and Secretary General of the Presidency, Ferdinand Ngoh Ngoh, or the first lady, nor to Louis-Paul Motaze, Minister of Finance and the president’s nephew. Nguélé knows that choosing a clan would mean taking the risk of losing the president’s confidence.

Loyal followers

But the man is not without a network. He maintains some friendships, notably with Jean Nkuété, the discreet but influential Secretary General of the ruling Cameroonian People’s Democratic Movement (RDPC). He is regularly seen with politicians such as Laurent Serge Etoundi Ngoa (Minister of Secondary Education), Philippe Mbarga Mboa (Minister in Charge of Missions), Luc Magloire Mbarga Atangana (Minister of Trade) or the mayor of Yaoundé I, Jean-Marie Abouna.

The secret to his exceptional longevity? “He has always exercised, does not overdo it and follows a strict lifestyle,” says a close friend, as if they were questioning his health rather than his ability to survive in the Cameroonian political swamp. On a daily basis, this clan leader relies on a group of loyal followers. He has made his nephew, Isidore Nguélé Medza, his all-powerful private secretary. To keep the administration in check, he relies on Dominique Baya, to whom he entrusted the sensitive position of Secretary General of the police in 2015, replacing another of his relatives, Victor Ndocki, whose appointment to the post of Ambassador to Germany he obtained.

Baya’s promotion almost triggered a crisis within the police establishment. Some strong personalities, such as Divisional Commissioner Jean-Louis Messing, then Director of the Border Police, felt that someone older and more experienced than the colt of the General Delegation for National Security (DGSN) should have inherited the title. Informed of the protest, Nguélé convened a crisis meeting. “Tell me what you think here and now, loud and clear,” he thundered. The rebels’ silence did not save them from the wrath of the “patriarch”, who later sacked Messing and several others.

His close guard also includes influential members such as Inspector General Jean-Marie Mvogo or police finance chief Elie-Serge Amougui Atangana. Then there is the controversial commissioner Vincent de Paul Meva’a, head of the investigations unit in the DGSN’s office (Nguélé’s “all-rounder”, they say in Yaoundé), and loyalists such as Raymond Essogo, the head of the coastal police, a retiree whom Mbarga Nguélé is keeping in his post.

Several police officers interviewed, requesting anonymity, called his track record ‘mixed’

Old age does not necessarily translate into conservatism. Sensitive to technological innovation, Nguélé is working on the development of video surveillance in urban areas. He also decided to facilitate changes in rank, adopted a code of ethics and created a police hospital in Yaoundé. But how successful has he been?

‘The crooked cops are the ones wearing the uniform’

Several police officers interviewed, requesting anonymity, said Nguélé’s track record was mixed. Fraud in the issuance of travel and identity documents is still widespread. The “delegate” certainly has a ruthless disciplinary council, but “massive corruption has continued, and even worsened, in the central services”, according to one of our interlocutors. “For years, crooked police officers have extorted large sums of money from passport applicants living abroad in full view of everyone,” our source continues. “To avoid finding themselves in an irregular situation in their host countries, people don’t hesitate to pay 300,000 CFA francs [nearly €460] to benefit from an express renewal. The ‘dirty cops’ are well known, they’re always wearing the uniform”!

Another source of discontent is the “vigilance” of the police, at the expense of their legally recognised missions. In a recording broadcast on social networks, Cameroonians learned with dismay that controversial businessman Jean-Pierre Amougou Belinga enjoyed the protection of thirteen agents. And he is not the only one. Police officers often act as bodyguards for the directors of banks or large companies. Meanwhile, in some parts of the country, the police force is understaffed. In 2014, a police officer in Amchidé (Far North), a town then under siege by Boko Haram fighters, told Jeune Afrique that his police station had “nineteen policemen and [was] tasked with securing the town as well as 100 km of border with Nigeria”.

But in the end, for Paul Biya, the successes and failures of the world’s oldest policeman count for little. It is his loyalty that ensures his longevity far beyond the norm. When he took office in 2010, he pledged to “leave nothing to chance to make the police force what it [should] be, however long it takes”. He probably didn’t think he had that much time.

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