"I was expecting a treasury check [from the Minister of Finance]... instead, three brawny fellows came into my office with a bag containing 250 millions Fcfa... Tell me, where should I have kept this money? You wanted me to keep the money in my home… for them to to come and knock off my kids before stealing the money?" Biyiti Essam
Jean-Pierre Biyiti bi Essam, Cameroon’s Minister of Communications and government spokesperson (whom his detractors like to refer to as "petit Goebbels") is in hot water. He is accused of diverting 140 million Fcfa, meant to prepare for the Pope’s visit, into his private bank account. There are also questions about the 70 million Fcfa paid to a Gabonese firm to supply four giant screens used during the Pope’s mass in Yaounde. The Minister has already appeared before the state prosecutor. Here are excerpts [in English] of an interview which he gave to the French language daily Le Messager (my translation).
This interview gives us a rare first-hand insight into how government works (or does not work) in Cameroon. Even more significant than the issue of embezzlement, is the realization that neither Cameroon nor the entire CEMAC region seem to have modern financial mechanisms to facilitate the transfer of funds within the country or the entire region - bags and bouncers play the role usually reserved for financial institutions… This story would have been quite hilarious had the stakes not been so high…
How Much Money Was Given to Me
The Head of State ordered the release of 770 millions Fcfa to prepare for the media coverage of the Pope’s visit to Cameroon. This money got to the Minister of Communication, that’s me, in four installments. The first installment arrived on Thursday 26 February in the afternoon. The sum was 250 million Fcfa, delivered in bag by 2-3 brawny individuals. The second installment, also 250 million Fcfa, was delivered the next day. The third installment, 200 million Fcfa, arrived on March 4, 2009. The fourth and last installment, exclusively allocated to the renting of giant TV screens, was received a before the Pope arrived, that is, on March 10. It was 70 million Fcfa.
How Money was Distributed
CRTV received 450 million Fcfa. CAMTEL, which was supposed to provide fiber optic links, received 140 million Fcfa. SOPECAM, the publisher of Cameroon Tribune, received 40 million Fcfa. The Ministry of Communications received 140 millions Fcfa, of which 70 millions Fcfa was set aside to rent giant TV screens...
Why and How the Money Ended up in my Personal Bank Account
Let me replay the events. It is February 26, 2009. That morning, I take part in a Cabinet Meeting presided by the Prime Minister, Head of Government. The main topic on the agenda is the insecurity in public buildings. Back then, the Delegation of National Security, which is guarded by the police, had just been robbed. So too had been the Ministry of Defense… That afternoon, I was expecting a treasury check [from the Minister of Finance]…. Instead of the treasury check, three brawny fellows delivered a bag containing 250 millions Fcfa to my office. It is late in the afternoon. So what do I do? I call those to whom part of the money has been allocated, that is, Crtv, Camtel and Sopecam, and ask them to come by quickly. This money was not in my office for more than 30 minutes...
Given the context which I have just described, I freak out at the thought of having that much money in my office. My desire is to get that money out of my office and to secure it as quickly as possible. I ask myself where I should keep the portion of the money reserved for the Ministry of Communications. I call my banker, Mr. Hamidou, the assistant manager of SGBC. Anyone can go to him to confirm my statements. I ask him to find me a safe with two keys, one for my DAG [Director of General Affairs] and the other for the bank… He tells me that SGBC does not offer this service…. Mr. Hamidou proposes that I deposit the money into my personal bank account, on the condition that I declare the origin and destination of the funds. We are talking here of documentary evidence.
Let me seize this opportunity to remind Cameroonians that since 2005, ministerial departments are barred from opening bank accounts in commercial banks. I know this because I was Secretary-General at the ministry at the time.
Where the hell did they want me to put this money? If I wanted to embezzle the money, I would have hidden it in my village. Is keeping money in the bank the only way to embezzle? By the way, I am not even the person who carried out this operation. I sent my Director of General Affairs, madame Ndzié Chantal, who is in charge of financial matters.
Did I deposit public funds in a private account ? Yes! But it was clearly stated that the money in my private account was a “deposit for the Pope’s arrival”. What does that mean? If I had died on that day, my heirs would not have been able to recuperate this money…
Why I Paid a Gabonese Firm 70 Million Fcfa to supply Four Giant TV Screens
On March 7, I wrote to my superiors to inform them of negotiations with the German firm CI Vidéo Rental Gmbh, which was ready to install two giant screens for three-hundred millions, nine hundred and twelve thousand Fcfa (350 912 000 Fcfa). I considered this too expensive. But that was their final offer. A few days later… the artist George Seba (now I am ready to go off because people say a lot of foolish things about Biyiti) informs me that there is a company in Libreville which rents sound equipment and giant screens, and that he would put me in touch with them. He calls a certain Mr. Manyanga who tells me that he can provide 4 giant screens for 70 million Fcfa, including transportation by air. We are one week away from the Pope’s visit. We must hurry… It is war and I have to win. I write to my superiors on March 9 to present the proposal from Gabon, which is affordable… Mr. Manyanga demands 50% upfront payment before he can deliver the giant screens. The money is available in my bank account. I consult my banker who presents me with the requirements to fulfill, and I realize that I cannot meet them. Mr. Manyanga is willing to come to Cameroon to pick up his money. But the 50% which he requires is 35 million Fcfa, a lot of money.
I call Cameroon’s ambassador to Gabon who advises against handing over money to someone’s whose firm I know nothing about. He asks me to send one of my collaborators to Gabon to assess the firm. I plan a kamikaze operation. That is, we carry the money in a bag, we take it to these people; they put the giant screens in the plane and we’re done.
On his Interrogation by the Prosecutor
They asked me why I deposited public money into a private account, and I explained [the circumstances]. This has been the primary question to date. But I would like to send this question back to my accusers. Tell me, where should I have kept this money? You wanted me to keep this money in my home at Mendong, which is not sufficiently protected, for the to come and knock off my kids before stealing the money? In that case, they would have claimed that I had faked a robbery. I don’t have a safe at the ministry, and it would not have been wise to keep it there, given the context of the widespread insecurity of public buildings. I am a Minister, that is, I accept my responsibilities. If the Head of State had thought that I was a wimp, he would not have put me here. I made my decision. I think it was that one that I had to take at that moment. The only question that matters today is what Biyiti did with the money?
On how Much Money is Currently in His Bank Account
This money entered and left my account within three weeks. I have four bank accounts. I will publish the account numbers tomorrow. These four bank accounts had a total of 10 132 625 Fcfa. After the Pope left, these accounts had 10 306 020 francs Fcfa. The Pope did not make me rich. I did not swindle any money.
On the Fate the Awaits Him
I am not a lawyer… from my point of view, this is an administrative fault. It is a management error which cannot be comparable to a crime or an intention to commit a crime. If the law stipulates that state funds cannot be deposited in private bank accounts, you know, there is the law, and also the spirit of the law. And in this case, the spirit of this law is that the funds have to be preserved to serve the public interest. And, I have shown that this is what I did. .. I am serene. I did not kill anyone. Perhaps I committed a management error... but I have explained what I did with the money, and people saw the results. I am untroubled. Now, let’s recognize that I am subject to the law. And, if the legal system of my country considers that I have committed a crime, I am right here. I am an ordinary citizen.