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Vol 64 No 18

Published 7th September 2023


Will Biya be next?

The nonagenarian President has been shaken by the coup against his Gabonese counterpart, whose relationship to the military was similar to his own

President Paul Biya has shuffled military posts and reorganised defence ministry departments to forestall any attempt by the army to take power. Whether he has done enough to avoid the fate of his southern neighbour, President Ali Ben Bongo Ondimba, remains to be seen. Whether Biya, a master-manipulator of his security forces for decades, will succeed this time is the dominant question in the country.

On 30 August, the day of the Gabon coup, Biya reshuffled officers within the defence ministry and four days later created a new 'School for Peacemaking' in the East Region town of Motcheboum, far from Yaoundé, and posted senior officers there in the hope this would nip coup plotting in the bud, we hear.

Biya's reshuffles did not post generals to new, less central positions to neutralise them, which could have provoked them. Instead, he created new posts to head armed forces branches of equipment procurement, logistics, training schools and human resources.

These departments are now headed by newly promoted colonels, who will – Biya evidently hopes – be loyal to him and act as a buffer between potential putschists in the higher ranks and the rank and file. The dispersal of the new posts around the country will also help Biya's aims.

Demonstrators fed up with Biya's rule are clamouring for a coup and causing endless guessing about who, if anyone, among the securocrats would put himself forward to rule – or would dare. Even WhatsApp groups including Biya loyalists who would normally toe the regime line have joined the speculation.

Social media especially has been ringing with calls for Biya to go. Tibor Nagy, the former US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs has remarked that Biya and President Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea were watching Gabon nervously while Julius Malema, leader of South Africa's radical Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) has been tweeting in French, pleading with Cameroonians to get on with throwing out Biya.

Many Cameroonians, fed up with the Anglophone insurgency, the stasis of political life, the absence of civic rights and the Islamist revolt in the north long for a coup, although they also mock the army as a corrupt pleasure-seeking force blind to their country's ills. They may long for the end of the regime, but have no love of the military.

Biya loyalists, meanwhile, rallied round their president as September began. Cameroon joined other members of the Communauté Économique des États de l'Afrique Centrale (CEEAC), which includes Gabon, in a virtual meeting to condemn the Libreville coup on 31 August. Grégoire Owona, Deputy Secretary General of the ruling Rassemblement démocratique du Peuple Camerounais (RDPC) and minister of labour and social security, tweeted his admiration for President Biya in the light of events elsewhere and called for his countrymen to consolidate democracy.

It will take more than such timid pleas to keep the military in their barracks but the armed forces are far from united, their very diversity and varying loyalties having been designed by Biya to keep political ambition in check.

But to the many social grievances of Cameroonians can now be added resentment in the military at a prolonged war in the Anglophone region which some army leaders have called unwinnable, and many say was inadvisable from the start (AC Vol 58 No 11, The Anglophone spring). Officially, the army is on the point of victory over the rebels but the reality is that army casualties continue to rise, with most Cameroonians distrustful of the official death toll.

The jihadist insurgency in the Extreme North is kept well under wraps by the censored media (AC Vol 55 No 17, Biya's answer to Boko Haram). Many believe the army cannot master its counter-insurgency brief at the same time as keeping Biya, or a successor from within the current elite such as his son Franck, in power (AC Vol 57 No 24, Family bonds & Vol 54 No 2, Après Biya fears).

Biya has been protecting himself against military and civilian conspiracies for 40 years and until recently at least, was judged to be exceptionally skilled at it (AC Vol 54 No 2, Old man trouble).

Cameroon's last coup attempt was in April 1984, only two years after Biya took power. Officers supporting the founding president Ahmadou Ahidjo launched a coup against Biya after the two leaders fell out. It failed when General Pierre Semengue and other unit commanders supporting Biya converged on Yaoundé and defeated the plotters.

Thereafter, Biya developed his coup prevention mechanisms, dismantling Ahidjo's networks, purging hundreds of soldiers and building his security around the men who had saved him.

Biya has taken great care to avoid a military esprit de corps. With over 250 groups and politics embedded in the ethno-cultural calculations of power, unifying forces behind any one rebel is unlikely. The government has built a narrative that if power returned to northerners, people from Biya's Francophone south would be victimised. Both a northern backed, and an Anglophone coup are unlikely.

Biya's options are limited, many in Yaoundé feel. A coddled, corrupt military, such as many believe both the Gabonese and Cameroonian armies to be, is no safeguard against overthrow, and relying on relatives and clansmen to run the army and the government risks uniting the opposition against that group. 

Yet those most likely to be involved in any takeover in Yaoundé come from Biya's kinspeople, the Beti, Bulu and Fang, who stretch from the centre of the country to the south and over the Gabon and Equatorial Guinea borders. (the father of Gabon's new military leader, Gen Brice Clotaire Oligui Nguema is a Fang from Gabon, which borders Biya's native South Region).

Ferdinand Ngoh Ngoh, Secretary General of the Presidency, is known to nurse ambitions to succeed Biya and was frequently spoken of as a potential successor. He has some sway over the army and is very close to First Lady Chantal Biya and normally oversees movements in the army for the president. 

Joseph Beti Assomo, the minister of Defence; Martin Mbarga Nguélé the police minister; Galax Etoga, gendarmerie minister and the recently disgraced former head of intelligence, Léopold Maxime Eko Eko are all kingmakers from within the ruling elite.

The Biya regime will be looking at all anti-coup measures. Biya must be seen to be active and in control of both civilian and army leadership. From now on, any event, from trade union protests over work conditions, cost of living and the 2025 elections could spark trouble. His priority will be to prevent any chemistry developing among senior force members.


The army's charisma shortage

Cameroon lacks visible, charismatic army leaders who could unify the forces organised along parallel hierarchies. President Paul Biya set them up this way precisely to make such unity difficult.

Highly regarded officers do emerge, but some have been killed in battle, others are deployed to far off posts where they fall into obscurity, and others succumbed to luxury.

Gen Pierre Semengue, who crushed the 1984 coup attempt, is long retired. Popular General Martin Tumenta fell ill and died in November 2015, one year after his deployment as Commander of the UN peacekeeping force in Central African Republic, MINUSCA.

General Jacob Kodji, another star, was killed in a helicopter crash in January 2017 while coordinating counter-insurgency operations in the north. Gen Bouba Dobekreo, a cherished figure, was deployed to fight Anglophone separatist rebels in the west of the country in July 2022.

Gen Ivo Desancio, who defended the presidency where Biya was holed up in the 1984 coup, is embroiled in corruption controversies after papers were leaked from the files of the murdered journalist Martinez Zogo. Gen Réné Meka is current army chief of staff but is 84 years old.

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