The news generated by the filing of the documents sent waves of surprise rippling through the fabrics of the nation’s public service, to the point where by night fall that day, all of Cameroon’s regional administrators were in the loop on the actions taken by Vincent Ndi’s disciples. Ndam Saidou first heard of the momentous move by the rising opposition barely minutes after Pierre Dumas’s plane took off for Douala. He acted promptly by informing the president, the French ambassador and his favorite wife. Then he contacted his security men in Bamenda. The next few hours found Ndam Saidou bound to the telephone—answering questions and giving out instructions to the various ministerial heads, his indecisive men and some concerned relatives and friends.
With the entire security branches of the government on the alert for agitators by noon that same day, and with the different agencies receiving updates on developments every now and then, Ndam Saidou broke his first kola nut of the day and ate three pieces in rapid succession. However, overzealous subordinates in the nation’s security and intelligence agencies carried out sixteen politically motivated arrests throughout the national territory within the first twenty-four hours of the move made by Vincent Ndi’s men, signaling the determination of the regime to bring everything under control.
Despite Ndam Saidou’s strict orders that the pressing confusion within the government’s ranks stay within the alcove of his department, leaks to the press came from Douala and Bamenda. Words spread around like wildfire. A burgeoning opposition was openly in the making. Black Yondo, Anicet Ekani, and Albert Mukong were being rewarded for their audacity in voicing out the inevitability of multiparty democracy in Cameroon.
Pablo-Nero Essomba was out of Yaoundé at the time the filing of the documents took place. But when the news reached him in his home village in the south of the country where he was flexing his muscles playing golf with his friends, he dropped the golf clubs and raged. However, when he called his trusted clansmen in Yaoundé and got the real gravity of the situation, he cut short his sojourn and returned to the nation’s capital in a hurry. He wasted no time after that and dispatched emissaries to the men of his secret committee, informing them of the severe blow they had just suffered and demanding their presence in the emergency meeting to be held in the Unity Palace that evening.
The Advisory Council that became known as the Essingan Grand Council met at 22:00 hours that night in the president’s special consultative room in the Etoudi palace.
The president and Bernard Onana Melemve, the Lord Mayor of the Yaoundé City council, were the last to enter. They looked haggard and insecure as they strode in and received the men who came forward to offer fraternal greetings. Then the president gestured the men to the available seats before he sat down himself. Bernard Onana Melemve had the appearance of an extremely pensive man as he took the soft seat by Pablo-Nero Essomba’s side and reclined in it.
Silence prevailed in the room for a moment while the president closed his eyes and ruminated. Bernard Onana rubbed his brows and allowed himself to be consumed by reverie. Pablo-Nero Essomba was his junior protégé during the time that they attended the same secondary school in Sangmelima. He had acted, in most respects, like an older brother to Pablo-Nero whose skinny stature and aversion for violence made him a feeble lad in school.
Bernard Onana’s mind reeled further to their student days in France. He had used his influence and affluence again by securing a place for Pablo-Nero Essomba at the Sorbonne University of France. He returned to Cameroon right after his studies, a move Pablo-Nero Essomba emulated two years after, when he too returned home after graduating from the prestigious French university. And once again, he went ahead and used his connections to secure a job for Pablo-Nero in the finance ministry before bringing the young protégé to the full attention of the first Cameroonian president Ahmadou Ahidjo.
But that was not all about it. Bernard Onana relentlessly guided and guarded his secret protégé through the rough years of the Ahidjo regime, doing his best to convince the Cameroonian president that Pablo-Nero was the best and most reliable choice of all his subordinates from the Christian-dominated south.
Bernard Onana looked at Pablo-Nero Essomba by his side and smiled. He was glad his plan worked, or at least a part of it. A man of Beti origin made it to power as the president of Cameroon after all. So what more could he expect?
He remembered the intrigues he got pulled into, just to convince the Gaullist ambassador that Pablo-Nero was the best successor apparent for Ahidjo, while secretly supporting the socialist opposition in France. His deception paid off with the ascent to power in 1981 of the French Socialist party candidate Françoise Mitterrand. The new French president kept his promise to make the future rosy for him and his protégé.
Bernard Onana recalled the fine lines of the plot that caused Ahidjo to unseat himself, and even mused at the irony of it all. He still could not understand why a man who had collaborated in the massacre of hundreds of thousands of genuine Cameroonian souls could believe that he would be bypassed by death if he relinquished power. Even when the tussle for a successor began and Ahidjo resigned, thereby dangling power for their camp to consolidate, Bernard Onana did not dwell on personal ambitions. Instead, he settled on becoming the non-titular head of Cameroon. He kept that role until his semi-retirement in the mid-1980s. He always felt a sense of satisfaction at the prominent role he played in dramatizing Ahidjo’s involvement in the failed bloody coup against Pablo-Nero. He convinced Pablo-Nero Essomba thereafter to consolidate his rule by becoming ruthless, selective, and discriminatory.
Not until an unusual development started taking place a year after the coup did it become apparent to Bernard Onana that he too was being subtly shoved to the sidelines. Now, Pablo-Nero and his aides were earnestly courting him again because of the threat of an organized opposition.
Bernard Onana considered himself a sage in discerning effects and knew that people in his circle also viewed him as a master in uncovering plots and devising counter-strategies. This was owing to his reputation built over the years as a man with an ear to the ground. And it was paying off after all. He was informed. He had invaluable contacts.
Dozens of eyes were fixed on the president as he got up from his seat, held his hands together and addressed his men. He started by offering fraternal greetings, and then proceeded with a softly spoken apology over the suddenness of the meeting. He praised their commitment to the collective power by turning up in their complete numbers. Then he told them about Vincent Ndi Chi. He told them that Vincent Ndi’s men killed their kindred and kinsmen Jean-Baptiste Ondoa, Bertrand Oyono, Maurice Nze Mezang and ‘The Twins’—Gilbert Owona and Roger Eloundo. When he added that their rule was being challenged by an organized opposition, the men sat up in their seats as if prompted to do so.
It took Pablo-Nero Essomba about half an hour to express his thoughts and observations before he sat down again and gestured to one of the three Israeli-trained agents by his side. Serge Ayissi Mbida stepped forward, opened a file, and then started reading from it.
The men listened to the details of Operation Clean Sweep with a peculiar attention unfound even in Lucifer’s trials. It took the Israeli-trained agent more than an hour to do so, moving over to the reports made that day, along to the activities surrounding Ivan Fru’s stunning blow to their power. It covered everything from the impressions of the governor of the Northwest Province, to Ndam Saidou’s analysis, and even to reports from the committee’s special agents in Bamenda. There were beads of sweat on his forehead when he finished.
“Unbelievable!” Joseph Tshoungui, the minister of higher education, exclaimed, breaking the tense silence in the room.
Though in his sixties, Joseph Tshoungui was still as vigorous as a bull and maintained his childhood nickname “The Wrestler”. True, he was involved in wrestling duels during his boyhood and early manhood, but those duels were on the dusty playgrounds in his home village. But he never became a professional wrestler and never took his wrestling venture beyond the district level. However, the indecisive Joseph Tshoungui climbed the academic and career ladders to become a professor, thanks to the absence of a pragmatic education ministry at the time. The position gave him the opportunity to feast and wine on unlimited bribes and embezzled money, to the point where he developed a potbelly that he had to use a corset to support. He even developed pride in his potbelly to the point of calling it his executive belly, that is, until he became the victim of jeers from the university students and of frequent caricatures tagged on walls in the university campus. When he finally told his friends and family that he would do something about his potbelly, nobody took him seriously.
However, eight months of dieting and exercises monitored by a famous judo trainer brought Joseph Tshoungui’s potbelly to the present form that saw a change in his gait and the birth of his virile vendetta. Joseph Tshoungui’s claim to have bedded more than five hundred student lassies before he left his job at the university became an open secret in Yaoundé. The university students who expressed their indignation over his blatant dishonesty and favoritism were either ignored or victimized, leaving many to wonder what his limits were. The professor and some of his colleagues masterminded a racket that awarded certificates to many of their female students based on their “Bottom Power”, a practice otherwise known as BP. The fact that nobody brought them to justice for abusing their powers said so much of the system in the country. Instead, he, like most of his partners, saw his days brightened even further with the rise to prominence of Pablo-Nero Essomba. When Joseph Tshoungui rose up the ranks to the position of Chancellor of the sole university, and then became the minister of higher education shortly afterwards, the population did not rejoice with him.
“But it is real,” the president replied in the Ewondo dialect.
The men quickly understood the president’s intention as they fidgeted in their seats. He was trying to strike a familiar note that they conduct the rest of the proceedings in their native tongues that were mutually intelligible. Pablo-Nero was obsessed with the belief that a shared sense of purpose would reign in their midst if they deliberated in a pervasively Beti-Fang atmosphere.
“You may excuse me,” Gilbert Emana Ewane intoned in Ewondo, corrupted with Bulu words.
All eyes riveted on him as he rose from his seat and moved to the center of the room, to the president’s side.
“You are welcome. Now, tell us what you have in mind,” the president said.
Gilbert Ewane coughed lightly, and then grimaced. “Accept my respects, Mon Président and my brothers. Please share my modest analysis of this problem with me. I thought about it deeply, but I may be wrong. After all, I am human,” he said, paused for a moment, and then cleared his throat.
Like his cousin, Joseph Tshoungui, Gilbert Ewane was also as vigorous as a bull. He was the territorial administration minister during Ahidjo’s last years in power, but opted for retirement two years into Pablo-Nero’s presidency, surprising many by the unusual act. However, the president found his deep insight into administration invaluable to his hold onto power and decided to make him an honorable member of the Advisory Council.
“Go ahead. Your brothers are anxious to hear you,” the aggressive-looking Brigadier General Louis Oyono urged.
This high-ranking military officer abhorred talks from his colleagues to the effect that he was promoted beyond his capabilities. His mental soundness was beginning to pose as a source of worry to a rising number of associates.
Gilbert Ewane nodded, grunted lightly to himself, and then continued. “We can deduce from today’s move that Joseph Lambo’s movement has been active for quite some time now. How he managed to keep us completely in the dark about it, I don’t know.”
“Uh-huh!” the president muttered.
“Yes, my brothers, they surprised us with the signatures. That means we were intentionally kept in the dark, or our insiders and agents could not come across the right information and leads that we badly needed. Being kept in the dark can be explained thus: Our contacts and administrators in the provinces of dissidence knew about Joseph Lambo’s activities but decided to be quiet about it. If that’s the case, then they welcomed this opposition. The only information from our Anglophone friends pointed to an unpopular movement led by John Morchu who is currently based in Nigeria. But that man is fickle. He is someone who can easily be bought. Besides, nobody needs to be reminded that Cameroonians of the Anglophone provinces detest affairs that have a Nigerian bearing.”
“You are right. Anglophone Cameroonians hate any association with Nigerians, especially the Biafrans—that is, the Igbo people. I almost received a slap from my Anglophone colleague the other day after I called him a Biafran. I am glad he didn’t raise his hands against me because I would have shot him,” Louis Oyono said, stirring laughter from the other men in the room.
“That goes to confirm my point,” Gilbert Ewane accepted with a nod, “No Cameroonian movement can afford to have a base in Nigeria and expect to be taken seriously. Now, we uncovered Vincent Ndi without any outside help. But he was unimportant all along. Joseph Lambo was and is still the real brain behind this inconvenience that we are facing today. I became firmly convinced a few hours ago that he instigated Anicet Ekani, Black Yondo, and the stubborn Albert Mukong into making an open attempt to form a political party. Then, after creating a scene to his favor, he brought Vincent Ndi into the picture. Joseph Lambo was smart enough not to entrust Vincent Ndi with the real documents. He didn’t even let him know of their existence. Instead, he used him to set us up with fakes. Our success in getting hold of those fakes made us to become complacent. Yes, we let our guard down because we were convinced we had done the job and nothing further would happen.”
“Uh-huh,” Pablo-Nero said again.
“What did Joseph Lambo do with Vincent Ndi out of the picture?” Gilbert Owona proceeded.
“Tell us,” Louis Oyono offered.
“The bait he has chosen this time around is a shopkeeper, someone we didn’t plan to incapacitate under Operation Clean Sweep. I strongly believe that our security men were either tricked into downplaying this shopkeeper’s importance or he got shoved into the scene and limelight at a late stage, or just recently.”
“I share the last assumption. That’s why he was always an unknown entity,” Louis Oyono said.
Gilbert Ewane nodded politely, smiled benevolently at the president, and then continued. “But I was also thinking that perhaps this shopkeeper is the real brain after all. Perhaps he truly is the person directing the affairs of that movement. If that’s the case, then he is getting his financial assistance from the Bamileké people, and probably the Maguida people as well, with Joseph Lambo acting as the principal donor. People from those two ethnic groups have been out to get to this government since our brother made it to the helm of power.”
The men in the Advisory Council were quiet and thoughtful as they watched Gilbert Ewane recollect his thoughts. His assumption was weighty enough to merit some concern, especially over the Bamileké support. The council members had supported Pablo-Nero Essomba when he tried to curb the Bamileké economic hegemony, a move that brought very little success with it.
But none of the men seated there that day wanted to talk about the failed unofficial policy. The mafia-style ethnocentric oligarchy had scooped out of the public coffers and invested some of the embezzled money on members of the Beti ethnic group, with the intention of creating new competitors against the Bamileké commercialists. The money got squandered without the Beti business persons getting themselves into positions that were strong enough to enable them dislodge the Bamileké commercialists from the business fields they wanted to lead or take over. What Pablo-Nero and his close kinsmen found irksome was the fact that the Bamilekés grew stronger instead and resorted to discriminatory business practices of their own. Banks with high government stakes that were already faltering from mismanagement, corruption and low liquidity were deprived even further as many Bamileké people withdrew their savings, forcing the financial institutions to collapse in their numbers. Gross mismanagement, corruption, and disorder reigning in the public services further aggravated the looming economic crisis. The public sector workers, dominated by ethnic Betis, ended up suffering the most as they found themselves in the cold and forced to adapt or perish. State-owned enterprises collapsed in their numbers, but the Bamileké business community did not crawl, leaving many people wondering what their next reprisal would be.
“But I was also thinking,” Gilbert Ewane continued with a stern face and narrowed eyelids, “Ivan Fru’s move today was too hasty, unexpected and damaging. He must have been signaled to act, or he sensed our likely move. We were talking with the president yesterday about plans to work out a new legislation that would have altered the rules governing the formation of political parties, and today, while the old laws are still in place, Ivan Fru made his move.”
“There is nothing to convince me that the imbecile isn’t wielding supernatural powers! He must have figured out our likely move because you were the only ones I talked to about my plans to change that law,” the president said.
“Then he sensed it,” Gilbert Ewane affirmed, “He used time against us. He caught us unawares. Time is of the most essence in any game. We shouldn’t delude ourselves that we haven’t suffered a grave blow. We should reduce the impact immediately by returning a fast one. Operation Clean Sweep should be executed next week. Ivan Fru should be in that list as well.”
“Please, let’s be clear-headed about this. I see no reason why we should alter the timetable the intelligence service came up with,” the president said casually, and then coughed lightly, “Brothers, take my words for it. Pierre Dumas is working things out with Ndam Saidou. We shouldn’t do a thing without their consent or input. Also, I won’t tolerate another hasty and messy job that has the potential of getting us into trouble, or landing us into another inglorious fix.”
The men in the council understood the mess he was talking about. The poor handling of the Black Yondo/Albert Mukong-led defiance against the government tarnished its reputation at home and abroad, forcing the Pablo-Nero regime to contradict itself, to the point of accepting that there was nothing unlawful about responsible citizens forming political parties because the constitution said so. The affair also stirred a sense of awareness among Cameroonians and revamped their daring spirits. And as if that was not bad enough, the private press led by the local newspaper mogul Pius Njawe was getting bolder and bolder every day, doing a commendable job of fueling the growing sense of confidence among the dissenting voices in the country.
Gilbert Ewane nodded and took a deep breath. “We can’t afford a repeat of that mess. Those men should have been eliminated and not put on trial.”
“The territorial administration minister ordered the police to arrest Black Yondo and his two associates without consulting even a single one of us here. Hmm! I never trusted that man. He is sly like a snake, their totem,” said Pierre Amba Ayissi, the bald-headed and onerous minister of defense.
“Those men are free today because of that premature move. Phew, and some of our people here even consoled themselves that the men’s plans were thwarted,” said Bernard Onana.
“Can I make a suggestion?” Joseph Tshoungui offered.
“You are welcome,” the president answered with a nod.
“Those men in the list should be put under surveillance right away. There is something else I need to add on this issue. The intrinsic knowledge of this operation should stay within this council. I strongly recommend an increase in our numbers to twenty. The future members of this think tank should be our Beti kindred residing in the other provinces. They should be men who are well versed with the activities and people out there. It is good to have Ndam Saidou fully involved in this. Not inside this council though,” Joseph Tshoungui said.
There was a moment of murmurings and private conferences in the room as the men shared ideas and sought each other’s opinion. Joseph Tshoungui who was ruminating in a reclining manner in his seat, noticed Bernard Onana whispering into the president’s ear.
“There should be a greater representation from the military!” Louis Oyono bawled.
The president waved the brigadier general quiet, and then turned to Joseph Tshoungui. "We were coming to that,” he said.
“Also, I strongly suggest that the information and territorial administration ministries be headed by our men,” Joseph Tshoungui offered.
“This isn’t an alarming crisis to warrant such drastic and hasty moves. The men in those ministries are close to me and are proving to be effective in their duties. A slip or two from a loyalist shouldn’t be dealt with like it was an act of betrayal,” the president said.
“You can’t call that man a loyalist. I trust that Bamoun minister as much as I trust an untamed cobra,” Louis Oyono disagreed forcefully.
The general’s sudden outburst caused a chilling silence in the room. The men in the council knew the basis of his resentment. The territorial administration minister slept with his girlfriend and daughter, all within a month. Louis Oyono’s vocal claims that he used charms were often laughed upon by the few he mentioned the scandals to, but who were kindly aware of his low values as a family head.
“Tougher times are still to come,” the president said, downplaying the military man’s sudden outburst.
“We should be prepared,” Joseph Tshoungui offered.
Commencing in a low tone, the president told them about his own plans. He told them that he was planning to transfer all his outspoken generals to the provinces as operational commanders. The council members were made to understand that he intended to replace most of the divisional and senior divisional officers with Beti people and his loyalists. Describing how the administrators would coordinate their activities with the security forces, the president gave the impression that the whole set-up would be an efficient machinery to stamp out any future political upheaval and threat to their rule. He told them that their people would be appointed as governors to the restive provinces in the upcoming gubernatorial reshuffle. Then he explained the details of how the provincial heads of the government would work out coherent strategies to be applied in the lower administrative bodies under their jurisdiction.
The president’s voice rose as he harangued. He assured the men that their elite powers would stay entrenched for years to come, and in the same breath, he downplayed the Bamenda and Black Yondo/Albert Mukong incidents as minor setbacks that were actually helping to stir them out of their complacency. Now, they had a good grasp of the changing mood in the country, coming at a time that they had just secured and strengthened France’s commitment to their stay in power. The president promised his men that the whole affair would work in their favor, and that the backward Graffis, primitive Northerners, ignorant Anglophones and chauvinistic Littoral people would be made to crawl.
Pablo-Nero Essomba’s body started trembling from his nervous exertion as he continued speaking. “When I became the president of this country, my intention was to transform it into a modern nation-state and usher in a special type of democracy. But I experienced betrayal from within my own camp. I was even attacked by our enemies who closed their eyes to my honest intentions and purposes. Yes, I was left alone in the cold to brave matters out when affairs became messy. But you, my people, stood by me all the time. I would have resigned, but you made me see the light, the true essence of my stay in power. This power is our power. We must get the best out of it before it slips out of our hands. That’s why we need to be on our guard; that’s why we need to be prudent all the time. We could have spared ourselves the trouble of an opposition today had we avoided careless mistakes. Still, I must reiterate that they are of no consequence. We have unflinching allies in the French. They are the only external power we can fully rely on, not forgetting our mutual interests though. That is why we must cooperate with them all the time to defend those common interests against this UPC-inspired specter.”
Then in a fashion that would have won applause in a comic show, the president got up from his seat, whirled and stamped his feet several times on the floor as if treating himself to a solo Bikutsi dance. He went on to hit his forehead with his left hand as if hoping to jolt it into full function, and then he started pacing the room.
“You know, as a teenager, I even harbored ambitions to become a priest. But it was my destiny to become a politician and protect my people. When I became the president, I wrongly thought that the people to be protected were the entire Cameroonian people. I even held the Bamileké people closely, believing that we shared some aspects of our history as centers of past liberation movements, only to discover that they too had an eye on my seat. Even the Anglophones who prevented the northerners from seizing power in the last coup are now against me as if I never did anything right for this country. But what do they know? So I was wrong about my faith in the entire Cameroonian people. The people I should truly protect are our own—we who have been cheated and abused, we who have been insulted as poor administrators, poor nation builders and an extravagant people. Yes, my brothers, our receptiveness and hospitality are being insulted today. Our women are being made to weep today, through no fault of theirs, simply because they understand the true act of nature and value the demands of love. So our purpose is simple. We shall do all it takes not to relinquish power; we shall preside over the destiny of Cameroon until our people have attained the financial and socio-political strength to wade into any conspiracy against their pride and integrity; we are not going to cede power until our region has attained a very high level of development with prospects for greater advancements. We cannot achieve those objectives unless we retain power for the next twenty to thirty years and get the best out of the other regions. We can even choose the final option after.”
The president went on and on with his rant, reciting his plan for his chosen people, especially those of the elite group. He wondered aimlessly to his early days in school, on to the Sorbonne University in France, and then to the events of his post-student days. He also talked about the time he served as a functionary before taking his narcissism a step further by describing himself as an honest, duty-conscious and kind man who had great visions for the country. He spoke of his attempts to bring democracy to Cameroon, of the great ideas he had put down in writings—both published and unpublished, and of his earlier intentions to put Cameroon at the forefront of Pan-Africanism.
“I introduced Cameroon to glasnost and perestroika even before Gorbachev began the process in the Soviet Union. But I realized early enough that we risked losing power in an open election to those Graffis, Anglophones, Muslims, and Littoral people. So it is of utmost importance that we sabotage their drive to seize power from us. We have the unflinching backing of the French and the subtle support of the other big powers to realize our goals. They too do not want a resurgence of the Lake Nyos specter that nobody wants to account for,” the president slurred, nodded, and then sat down again.
The next two hours were spent on other issues, though related to the pressing crisis. These were the transfer of funds to private accounts and the opening of an emergency account for the purchase of arms, the training of a paramilitary force and the hiring of instructors. When it came to the issue of those to be chosen as senior divisional officers, divisional officers, governors, and operational commanders, Pablo-Nero asked each man there to come up with five names. The men in the council gave their blessings to Operation Clean Sweep after that, before finalizing the proceedings with the choices of the twelve new members to join the Advisory Council. The meeting ended in high anticipation.