Wednesday, April 15, 2020

JEUNE AFRIQUE: what do the Bamilekes (really) want?

The magazine Jeune Afrique in this dossier, immerses in the Bamiliké people of Cameroon. The French newspaper seeks to understand whether the Bamileké are really the richest and most numerous in Cameroon and if they aspire to take the presidency of the Republic of Cameroon.

While the business world has long been a favorite playground for many, the political arena still resists them. Unless it doesn't really interest them... 

Sparkling furniture and accessories, imposing columns with 24-carat gold moldings... The room is reminiscent of Donald Trump's New York penthouse. We are at the Congelcam group headquarters, in the waiting room of its president, Sylvestre Ngouchinghé… 

On the phone, we imagine a distant billionaire. We discover in fact a warm, laughing man, who claims to have nothing to tell us, nothing to hide either. He comes from the harsh world of fish sellers at the market, but now monopolizes 80% of the seafood market in Cameroon and declares an annual turnover of 150 billion CFA francs (about 230 million euros). 

During the 2013 senatorials, this native of Bamougoum would have liked to be one of the candidates of the Democratic Rally of the Cameroonian People (RDPC, in power), in the West region, "because it was new". The party did not want it, proposing him to stand in the legislative elections, an offer which he declined, deeming it too time-consuming. 

Nicknamed “Congelcam”, the manufacturer was finally appointed by Paul Biya to replace Marcel Niat Njifenji, senator from the Western region, who was also president of the Senate. Enough to raise the esteem of the entrepreneur for the Biya regime, which allowed him to build a destiny for a billionaire. 


Sylvestre Ngouchinghé is nevertheless one of those Bamilekes who are said to be too rich, too numerous, and who would nurture hegemonic ambitions. Rich?? If the large local private groups belong mainly to entrepreneurs from the West, the Cameroonian economy is dominated by foreign companies. 

Numerous?? No one can assert it ?: the last census dates, and the mention “bamilékée race” does not appear any more on the registers of civil status since 1987. But the Bamilékés remain the most disseminated ethnic group on the whole of Cameroonian territory , where, often traders, they try to prosper, passing in the eyes of some for invaders. In an article in Le Monde diplomatique in August 1965, they were described as "an intelligent, industrious, proud community [...], restless and progressive". 


CEO of the Afriland group (around thirty companies in twenty countries), Paul Fokam Kammogne is, in the eyes of Cameroonians - and his body defended - the iconic Bamiléké determined to conquer power. He refuses to obey any injunction to declare himself for the presidential adventure, in particular as a "wealthy Bamileke personality", he who claims an international profile. "It's a cliché that fuels fantasies and undermines national unity," argues the industrialist. 

For André Siaka, another ideal candidate identified by opinion, "to see in the achievements and actions of economic operators a strategy for gaining power is dangerously simplistic. Politics is first of all an individual adventure, and [he is] not interested ”.


At the head of Routd'Af, a public works group which has established itself, in less than three years, in a sector hitherto dominated by foreign companies, the former director general of the Brasseries du Cameroun believes that political and entrepreneurship are incompatible. A member of the CPDM, he nevertheless declared himself apolitical. "You cannot develop the country's businesses if you are not allied with power. If I had been in the opposition, I would not have raised the employers' organization to its current level, "confides this ex-president of the Inter-employer Group of Cameroon (Gicam).

National Secretary for Human Rights within the Social Democratic Front (SDF, the main opposition party), Célestin Djamen judges the climate around these industrialists to be harmful. “Our governance system does not favor the identification of deserving profiles. To designate a protruding head is to throw it into the pasture. Good souls advise them not to go down into the arena - they would have too much to lose - but to pose as kingmakers. "Afriland has been in the crosshairs of the state since speculation gave Fokam Kammogne candidate," said one of his relatives, who advised him to "discuss eye to eye with President Paul Biya". 

To each "his" Bamiléké 

However, all the regimes governed by relying on the Bamileke. A former legal adviser to the Presidency of the Republic under Ahmadou Ahidjo, then under Biya, recalls that the two presidents each had "their" Bamilekes, who were always part of the cream of the elite and the first circle of power. 

He thus remembers the irremovable Minister of the Interior of Ahmadou Ahidjo, Enock Kwayep, in business continuously for several decades. Or his very close shadow adviser Samuel Kame. Reputed to be rude and known for his verbal outrage, he was so devoted to Ahidjo that after the latter's departure he did not wish to join Paul Biya. 

For our adviser, the casting was more prestigious under Ahidjo, with strong personalities like Victor Kamga, Minister of Justice of the first post-independence government in 1960, who will be dismissed from his functions as Minister of Information in 1966, then thrown in jail.

In comparison, the Bamilekes of Paul Biya seem very pale. Certainly, we have known the bubbling Françoise Foning, businesswoman and mayor of Douala IV, Tchouta Moussa, ex-director general of the National Office of Ports of Cameroon, and Augustin Kontchou Kouomegni, ex-Minister of Communication, ardent defenders of the regime. The first two have died, the third is hardly talked about. 

trial. If the supporters of Marcel Niat Njifenji, second personality of the State, want to believe that he is pulling the strings behind the scenes, his detractors, them, say him "harmless and inaudible" because of his past as general manager of the company Sonel electricity, renamed Eneo (his immense fortune would come from the supply to said Sonel, via his own company, of eucalyptus used as electric poles). The man spends most of his time on his ranch in Nkafeng, about twenty kilometers from Bangangté, settling disputes in neighboring chiefdoms. 


National Secretary General of the CPDM, Jean Nkueté is not spared either by "his brothers" or by people of the president's ethnic group, who regularly sue him for incompetence. “However, notes the political scientist Abasse Endong Manasseh, except for the late Charles Doumba, he is the most influential secretary general that the party has known. Discreet, he remains a highly listened to advisor. Biya and Nkueté have been traveling together for four decades. 

Of all the collaborators of the president at the office of the Prime Minister, he is one of the few still at his side. "Niat and Nkueté consider Biya as a brother and would not betray him to follow a tribal bell," adds Aboya Endong. As long as he lives, the national president of the party remains the natural candidate for the presidential election. A palace revolution is not an option. If pretensions were to arise, it would necessarily be outside the party. " 

In Cameroon, it is sometimes enough to dream of a presidential destiny to find “your Bamis”. This is the case of Joseph Owona, chancellor of the University of Yaoundé in the mid-1980s. He turns to Bernard Fokou, owner of the famous butcher Ben le boucher. He obtains exclusive rights to supply the university restaurant with fresh produce. 

Fokou then embarked on hardware. Inserted into the CPDM, the latter now owns the largest Cameroonian-funded company. His name often appears in the well-known subcommittee on stewardship and logistics, which brings together the most wealthy activists and is responsible for the funding of major events organized by this political party. 


Bamiléké businessmen rarely finance a candidate who is not from the ruling party, for fear of reprisals. Former DPRK activist, twice presidential candidate under the banner of his own party (Dynamique pour la renaissance nationale), Albert Dzongang tells the story of this incredible episode of his 1997 campaign ?: he had received 10 million CFA francs from the hands of a businessman, who was not shy to take them back when he discovered that he was running against Biya. The patron's argument ?: “The president has eyes and ears everywhere. "

To invest, display and assert your positions towards a candidate, it is better to be sure to bet on the right horse. In the 1990s, Joseph Kadji Defosso paid dearly for his support for the SDF and had to rectify the situation after the defeat of this formation. Sheerly, he had returned to the CPDM. Célestin Djamen (SDF) deplores "systematic intimidation, which results in fanciful and punitive tax adjustments" and the fact that any significant economic operator is obliged to join the party in power. 

The SDF activist does not explain why, in seasoned businessmen, these entrepreneurs do not create limited companies or why those who have invested elsewhere than in Cameroon do not decide to relocate their activities if they feel threatened. The state would suffer, and that could serve as a lesson. 

Thus, not a single western industrialist would be ready to openly support a candidate other than that of the CPDM. This does not prevent some newspapers from reporting secret notes from the Cameroonian intelligence services on bosses pro-CPDM by day, pro-MRC (Mouvement pour la renaissance du Cameroun) by night, who are preparing to finance the campaign by Maurice Kamto, in 2018, by Gicam companies, at the request of Siaka. 

Bamilékée solidarity, a lure? 

But “it is to forget that a microtribalism prevails between Bamilékés. Victor Fotso could not finance Kamto ?: one is bandjoun, the other baham ", supports the academic Ambroise Kom by pointing out the competition that people sometimes fight between themselves from the same village. 

If Albert Dzongang recognizes that the much-vaunted Bamileke solidarity is an illusion, except during funerals, he is grateful to Kadji Defosso for having always supported it. In particular when he set out to conquer the secretariat of the RDPC section of the Littoral, in Douala, in the early 1990s. 

The billionaire had then assembled the Bamileke dignitaries to remind them that it was the only chance for one of their own to play a major role in the department, the government delegate and the governor being appointed by the President of the Republic. At the end of the meeting, five of the participants had hurried to sell the wick, despite a pact which they had concluded by a rite. 

Similarly, during the series of strikes called "dead cities", in 1990, when the Laakam was created (a think tank supposed to defend the interests and think about the future of the Bamileke people within the Republic), the betrayal had come from the interior. Not only were very few of them associated with it, but some had even disclosed the project to the government. 

In reaction to Laakam, the Bétis-Bulus (the ethnicity of President Paul Biya) had created the Essingan group, which remains operational. “Because they were developing real power conservation strategies. They reflected and listened to their intellectuals. The Bamilekes are feudalists who attach too much importance to money. Only the word of the one with the biggest portfolio counts, ”regrets Ambroise Kom. "The ruling party exploits the divisions of this atomized society," analyzes Manasse Aboya Endong. It has local relays, including traditional chiefs, ready to follow the laying of Yaoundé rather than their own. "


Albert Dzongang swears that "the Bamilekes, champions of intrigue, do not play politics ?: they are content to please the chief in order to secure their rear". This former campaign director of Paul Biya, known for his outspokenness, remembers, amused, the funeral in 2014 of the ex-councilor of Bangou, Rosette Mboutchouang, the mother of the first lady (Chantal Biya). 

To this end, the President of the Senate had launched a call for contributions. Not that the family was in need, but it was above all a question of locating the stingers, necessarily "opponents". “It was fun to see them congregate to get the portrait taken, as the ultimate proof of their presence, and therefore of their loyalty. " 

Vice President of the National Assembly and member of the Central Committee of the CPDM MP Theodore Datouo, which boasts of being the source of the installation Rosetta Mboutchouang in the West, he also regretted that Bamilékés don't really care about politics, even in the hemicycle. 

He remembers that they had all been "stunned" by the arrest of Yves Michel Fotso. A humiliation for his father, Victor, captain of industry, very close to power. “Our other colleagues had bet on our mobilization. She never came… ”Detained since 2010, the businessman now relies on the sole support of Shanda Tonmé, one of the last guards of Laakam. 


According to Célestin Djamen, who says he is against the advent of an "ethnic republic", this reflects a lack of audacity. André Siaka is annoyed with the idea that the Bamileke are afraid to go to the conquest of power. “It is an a priori that takes away from the heart of the problem. Today, do the rules of the game allow any citizen who wishes to access power properly? Courage is to act in accordance with unifying values." 

If he admits that, as in other tribes, few Bamilekes are available for political adventure, Manasse Aboya assures that they will not be able to win the presidential election alone. The Betis-Bulus either, if the Bamilekes and the Northerners support each other. Far from wishing the arrival of a tribe or an ethnic group in power - "a country is not limited to its tribes" - or any rotation of power, Manasseh Aboya believes that it is necessary to build bridges, create alliances between different ethnic groups. “The Bamilekes are not cut off from other ethnic groups. Open because scattered throughout the territory, they have no interest in excluding others. " 

The idea seduces Théophile Datouo, who suggests lobbying not in favor of any politician, but around well-defined ideas and objectives. And, for Célestin Djamen, “we could start with a reform of regionalism, which implies a return to meritocracy. You don't have to be bamiléké to do this. All Cameroonians are affected”.