By Dibussi Tande
Even though it was not completely unexpected, the arrest of Chief Inoni Ephraim, former Prime Minister and Head of Government, and Hamidou Marafa Yaya, former Minister of State in Charge of Territorial Administration and Decentralization, is a bombshell that is still reverberating across the Cameroonian political landscape.
According to reports by the State-owned CRTV, both men had showed up at the offices of investigative judge Pascal Magnaguemabe for what was expected to be a routine encounter, but were instead bundled off to the Kondengui Maximum security prison in the latest chapter of the decade-long probe into the Albatross Affair, or the botched attempt to purchase a brand new aircraft for President Biya – a dizzying fall from grace of two “golden boys” of the Biya regime who were once considered (particularly in the case of Marafa) potential heirs to the octogenarian Paul Biya.
So what exactly was the role of the former Prime Minister and former Minister of State in the Albatross affair? We will attempt make sense out of a complex, multifaceted, and convoluted case characterized by sensational accusations and counter-accusations, and widespread belief that politics, rather than justice, has been the driving force behind it all.
Marafa the Fallen Heir Apparent
When President Biya decided to purchase a new presidential aircraft, he turned to Marafa Hamidou Yaya to handle the matter. Marafa’s His search led him to a luxury Boeing Business Jet 2 (BBJ2 ). At the time, Cameroon was trying to attain completion point of the the IMF/World Bank-supervised HIPC (Heavily Indebted Poor Countries) debt reduction Initiative, and these institutions frowned at luxury expenses that did not help in this regard. To avoid the scrutiny of the Bretton Woods institutions, the Biya regime decided to pass off the purchase as a new acquisition of the state-owned Cameroon Airlines. GIA international, an Oregon-based front company, allegedly set up by Yves Michel Fotso, then Director General of CAMAIR, with Marafa’s blessing, was charged with making the $31 million purchase ( $4 million of which was a non-refundable deposit to Boeing).
In August 2001, Marafa ordered the transfer of the $31 million to GIA International, however by the time he was replaced by Jean-Marie Mebara as Secretary-General in 2002, the aircraft had still not been delivered. In 2004, GIA filed for Bankruptcy. It was later discovered that all Boeing had received from GIA was the non-refundable deposit, with the remaining balance of $27 million simply vanishing into thin air.
Was Marafa part of a plot to defraud the government of $31 million via GIA International, or had he acted in good faith in his dealings with GIA? Evidently the investigative judge does not think hence his current sojourn in Kondengui
According to The Washington Diplomat (July 2010),
On Feb. 5 , a judicial decision presented formally by the investigating judge in the case established that of the $31 million disbursed at the president’s request, $29 million had been “embezzled” through the now-defunct GIA International, with the principal beneficiaries being Cameroon’s current senior minister of interior, Marafa Hamidou Yaya, and the then-general manager of Cameroon Airlines, Yves-Michel Fotso (other unidentified individuals have also been accused with diverting public funds as part of the investigation).
Nonetheless, Marafa stayed on as Minister of State for Territorial Administration, until December 2011 when he was ousted from government in a cabinet reshuffle.
In a meeting with US ambassador Janet Garvey in February 2010, Marafa talked about fears raised by the Albatross scandal. According to an embassy cable dated February 19, 2010:
When asked about President Biya's aggressive anti-corruption campaign called "Operation Sparrow hawk" ("Epervier" in French), Marafa half-joked, "I might wind up in jail." Epervier was making many senior officials nervous, he said, adding that even those who recently gave their stolen money back to the government in exchange for staying out of prison fear that they could be jailed at a later date. He criticized the lack of professionalism in implementing Epervier, acknowledging some truth in criticism that Biya is using Epervier to get rid of his opponents, although "this is not 100% of the story."
A victim of his political ambitions?
In spite of his involvement in the Albatross scandal, there is widespread belief that Marafa is primarily paying the price of his presidential ambitions, which he freely discussed with foreign diplomats. As US ambassador Niels Marquardt stated in a February 2007 cable, ”He is the sole Cameroonian to have admitted, albeit privately, to the Ambassador that he harbors that ambition.” A heresy in a country where the issue of presidential succession is a taboo topic, and where the labeling of any political figure as “ un homme ambitieux” (an ambitious fellow) is not a term of praise/endearment, but a political death sentence. It did not help matters that Marafa was the favorite of western diplomats among the pack of real and imagined presidential “heirs.” As ambassador Marquardt noted in his 2007 cable,
A dynamic, personable and energetic man, MARAFA HAMIDOU YAYA has an excellent relationship with the U.S. Embassy – as well as the French, Japanese, British, and others. Like PM INONI, MARAFA's intelligence and effectiveness have raised his national profile and make him a possible presidential candidate – perhaps even the front-runner… He is also the likely preference of every Western Ambassador in town, including this one.
As an article in Jeune Afrique, published barely three weeks before his arrest (titled “an heir apparent in troubled waters”) pointed out, Marafa acted recklessly and committed a “major tactical error” by discussing his presidential ambitions with the US ambassador – an act which, when revealed by Wikileaks, instantly made him a marked man to the various ethno-regional lobbies and political clans waiting in the wings to replace Biya, and who have refined the art of discrediting and humiliating potential rivals, and even sending them off to Kondengui whenever possible.
Inoni Ephraim, the man in the middle
While Marafa’s involvement in the Albatross affair is a fairly straightforward one, Inoni’s involvement in the Albatross saga is murky at best, as evidenced by the contradictory, and sometimes mitigating and even exculpatory statements attributed to high ranking government officials familiar with the case, including President Biya himself.
According to a June 2008 cable from the US embassy in Yaounde published by Wikileaks,
“Inoni told the Ambassador that he has provided convincing evidence to Biya that he was not involved in the Albatross shenanigans. An Inoni family member told Poloff May 29 that GRC-insiders know Mebara hated Inoni (his deputy) and never would have included him in such a sensitive dossier. Despite sensational headlines suggesting that Inoni will be caught up in the Albatross investigation, Inoni seems confident he will emerge unscathed and Post is not aware of any credible information indicating Inoni's involvement.”
In an August 2008 meeting between former US ambassador Janet Garvey and President Biya, the President discussed Inoni’s alleged role in the Albatross affair. According to the ambassador,
Admiring Ephraim Inoni's energy and performance as Prime Minister, Biya worried that Inoni might be weakened by allegations that Inoni had profited from the Albatross corruption scandal (ref c). Biya said he was convinced Inoni was not directly implicated, but worried that Inoni would be considered guilty by association, since the scandal happened while Inoni was the Deputy Secretary General at the Presidency. Biya said he had been disheartened to learn that Jerome Mendouga, Cameroon's Ambassador to the U.S., had been so deeply in implicated in the scandal.
And in yet another meeting between Ambassador Garvey and President Biya in February 2010, the President:
Confirmed that more corruption-related arrests were coming under his anti-corruption initiative Operation "Epervier" (Sparrowhawk), although (contrary to rumor) he thought this would not likely include former Prime Minister Ephraim Inoni because the evidence against him was thin and he didn´t steal much money. Epervier had sent a useful anti-corruption signal which has had some effect, he thought; however, he wanted to rethink the approach of arresting officials and focus more on getting the stolen money back. He had more information about corruption committed by former Secretary General in the Presidency Jean-Marie Atangana Mebara.
So why is Inoni in jail?
If Inoni was not directly involved in the ill-fated purchase of the Albatross, why is he in Kondengui? The beginnings of an answer may be found in a very detailed 51-page ordinance issued by Pascal Magnaguemabe in January 2010 in the case against Atangana Mebara, Jerome Mendouga and others (Affaire etat du Cameroun c/Atangana Mebara Jean Marie, Otele Essomba Hubert Patrick Marie, Mendouga Jerome et autres. Ordonnance de Disjonction de la Procedure No. 617/SOG/08/128). Inoni features in this ordinance as Mebara’s sidekick in financial transactions with a US-based company, Ansett Worldwide Aviation Services, which leased aircraft to CAMAIR. Another company accused of embezzlement in the ordinance is the London-based Aircraft Portfolio Management (APM), which was hired to audit the defunct national carrier. The former Prime Minister’s relationship with APM has been the subject of rampant speculation over the years and was questioned about this back in 2008 when he was still the Prime Minister.
The APM Connection
When Mr. Atangana Mebara replaced Hamidou Marafa as Secretary-General at the Presidency in 2002, one of his priorities was to revive or at least salvage the botched presidential plane purchase. Even though GIA had received $31 million from Cameroon, it failed to deliver the brand new BBJ-2 aircraft, and made no effort to refund this money. On June 5, 2003, Mr. Mebara received a letter from Kevin Joseph Walls, Chief Executive Officer of Aircraft Portfolio Management (APM), advising him that GIA could claim the $31 million as arrears for aircraft it had leased CAMAIR. Mr. Walls suggested that the Secretary-General "protect" these funds by transferring them into APM’s escrow account in London.
They (GIA) also might try and offset any funds that they currently hold against unpaid rental amounts or use the funds that they hold as leverage to stop the aircraft being returned. As a result, it would be prudent to request immediately the transfer of funds which GIA currently hold to the account of Aircraft Portfolio Management (APM). This way we can assure that the funds belonging to the Presidency are protected against any fallout or potential dispute against Cameroon Airlines.
Mebara agreed that the funds be secured in APM's account.
In his 2010 ordinance, the investigating judge concludes that this was an attempt by Mebara and Walls/APM to embezzle public funds; an attempt which failed only because GIA refused to transfer the funds to APM. Mebara and Walls are also accused of attempting to rescind the contract signed between CAMAIR and GIA, without legitimate reason, and authorizing APM to recover the $31 million for hidden purposes - Acts punishable by articles 74, 94, 96, and 184 of the penal code.
Kevin Walls fumes at this “ludicrous” conclusion. In a 2011 interview with Pan-African Visions, a Cameroonian online news site, Mr. Walls states the following:
So please let me restate again that APM was never actually involved in the acquisition process of a Presidential aircraft. Mr. Atangana Mebara had been ordered by President Biya to clean up the mess that his predecessor had left behind. We did bring to the attention of the Minister of State that the Government of Cameroon had a large financial exposure to this company GIA and should they get into financial distress, the Government of Cameroon could lose their money. As the official aviation advisor to the Minister of Transport we felt it was our duty to recommend to the Minister of State that he try and protect the funds. That was our only involvement with the Presidential aircraft affair. On hindsight, our advice was proven absolutely correct; GIA went bankrupt and Cameroon did indeed lose everything.”
If this case was brought to court in England it would not even get to court. The judge would laugh at it and throw it out of court. He would ask the prosecutor why you are wasting his time. It is unbelievable to think that the chief prosecutor Mr. Pascal Magnaguamabe has stated that a letter from APM to the Minister of State advising him that there was an imminent danger that the funds sent to GIA could be lost and should be protected by transferring them to into an escrow account with APM is "attempted embezzlement." You have to be a really sick twisted person to interpret a letter like this. Even an 11 year old child would recognize we were acting in the best interests of our client.
APM is also accused of “attempted embezzlement” over and additional 1.5 billion Francs CFA, which SNH transferred to the company as payment to Ansett World Wide for debts owed by CAMAIR. According to the judge, this debt does not feature in CAMAIR’s books, and there is no proof that the funds were ever transferred to Ansett World Wide. Kevin Walls retorts:
We have provided three letters from Ansett clearly acknowledging receipt of funds. It is very suspicious why no one has picked up the phone to Ansett in New York and independently confirmed this with them directly. As I said there is absolutely no evidence against Otele or Atangana Mebara. This is a clearly politically inspired show trial and is a deep travesty of justice.
The third charge against APM is the embezzlement of 287 million F CFA, this being the amount that the Government of Cameroon paid to the company for its audit of CAMAIR. The judge qualifies this as "embezzlement" because the contract between APM and the Ministry of Transport allegedly violated the decree governing public contracts (Decree No. 2000/155 of June 30, 2000 modifying and supplementing some of the provisions of Decree No. 95/101 of June 9, 1995 regulating procurement) which requires that a procurement commission sign-off on all public contracts worth over 30 million FCFA.
During his appearance before the Mfoundi High Court as witness for the Prosecution on April 7, 2011, in the case of Atangana Mebara and others, former Minister of Transport John B. Ndeh revealed that he had been pressured by an increasingly irate Rene Owona, then the second Assistant Secretary-General at the Presidency, to sign the contract with APM. He signed the contract on January 15, 2003, after Rene Owona told him that that the Head of State had personally approved the deal.
APM insists that it did nothing wrong because it was the Presidency of the Republic which specifically asked it, in writing, to audit Camair, and that the contract signed between Kevin Walls, representing APM, and John B. Ndeh, representing Cameroon, was a standard contract, and that APM did its audit according to the terms of the contract with no complaints from the government of Cameroon.
Says Kevin Walls:
We produced a very comprehensive deep investigation and submitted a report over one hundred and fifty pages long which was worked on full time by our staff at APM for over five months reviewing all of the aircraft leases, aircraft purchases documents, maintenance costs and records etc. We worked extremely hard to produce a comprehensive report which we would be happy to share with you and all of Cameroon to review. I think the report speaks for itself. It is interesting to note that seven years later all of the events and recommendations by APM in the report happened.
It is worth noting that the London-based Aircraft Portfolio Management (APM-London) was the parent company of the Cameroon-based Asset Portfolio Management (APM-Cameroon), which was hired in January 2003 to conduct an audit of CAMAIR, and to negotiate a reduction in the cost of CAMAIR’s exorbitant leasing contracts.
What were Inoni’s ties with APM?
When APM was created, Mr. Inoni was listed as the company’s Board Chair. It is on this basis that he has been routinely accused of using his position within the Government to facilitate APM’s alleged financial impropriety. However, Mr. Inoni has always claimed that the information that he is the APM Board Chair is incorrect. As he explained in a 2009 interview with Repères newspaper:
“I had proposed, within the framework of the second audit (of CAMAIR), that payments to APM be made in Cameroon so that the Cameroonian treasury would benefit from the transaction. Recall that for the first audit, APM was paid in London. It is in this context that officials at Aircraft Portfolio Management (Apm London) created Asset Portfolio Management (Apm Cameroon). They then went ahead and made me chairman of the board, without consulting me. Perhaps to get into my good books. Once I became aware of this, I contacted the AMP lawyer and informed him in no uncertain terms that I could not be the Board Chair. And my name was taken off. I have the minutes.”
The judge's ordinance, however, tells a different story. It states that on the same day that APM Cameroon was created on August 12, 2002, it held its first board meeting during which Inoni, who was incidentally not an APM shareholder, was made Board Chair. Otele Essomba, Director General of APM Cameroon, stated during his deposition of February 15, 2009 that he personally asked Inoni to become board chair because the company needed an Anglophone Cameroonian who was familiar with the inner workings of the Cameroon government at that position. According to Essomba, Inoni accepted the position and even signed the presence sheet for the board meeting which took place in the offices of notary Beatrice Rufine Assena.
The judge reveals that during the Prime Minister's deposition of July 27, 2008, it came out that Inoni stayed on as Board Chair for close to one and a half years, that is, until the story got out. He was replaced by Kevin Walls.
In his own deposition of May 24, 2008, Atangana Mebara claimed that it was only much later that he discovered that APM Cameroon was an affiliate of APM London, and that Inoni was the Board Chair of APM Cameroon [Note: This is not a far-fetched claim considering that Mebara was still the Minister of Higher Education at the time when APM was created]. Mebara claims that when he confronted Inoni, the latter told him that he had accepted the position of board chair at the request of his colleague, the late Rene Owona, who wanted to help Otele Essomba, his nephew. Mebara says when he asked Owona about it, Owona said he had nothing to do with the APM matter, and that it was his nephew who was simply trying to find his way.
In 2010, the judge concluded that there were “yet unknown persons” who were involved in APM’s attempt to embezzle state funds embezzlement. Did the judge finally unearth evidence that the former Prime Minister was indeed one of those “unknown persons,” and that his ties with APM were much deeper than acknowledged, and that they were improper in nature? did the judge conclude that Mr. Inoni was in fact the board chair of APM who used his position as Secretary-General at the Presidency and close collaborator of the Head of State to enable APM to secure contracts with the government of Cameroon in violation of existing procurement laws (for example, the deal to audit Camair) and to embezzle state funds?
Another claim contained in the 2010 ordinance is that during their time at the Presidency, Mebara and Inoni authorized and/or facilitated improper payments to Ansett Worldwide which had leasing contracts with CAMAIR. In the first case, Mebara, backed by Inoni requested that SNH wire 4 billion Francs CFA to Ansett Worldwide. And in a second transaction, Inoni, who was the Board Chair of the Standard Chartered Bank Cameroon, prodded the bank into wiring 3.2 billion Francs CFA (3.242.486.530 F. CFA) to Ansett Worldwide. According to the judge, since there was no evidence that this money was actually for services rendered, these two transactions were potentially acts of embezzlement warranting further investigation:
If these two high ranking government officials at the Presidency of the Republic asked [Standard Chartered Bank and SNH] to transfer these funds to Ansett Worldwide when they did not have receipts or any other supporting documents establishing the authenticity and terms of repayment of the debt, then there was embezzlement of public funds carried out by Ansett Worldwide with the complicity of these two officials – acts punishable by articles 74, 94, 96 and 184 of penal code.
Could it be that after further investigation the judge has concluded that there was indeed embezzlement warranting the provisional detention of the former Prime Minister? These questions will eventually be answered when the official indictment finds its way into the public domain.
Impunity, Unaccountability, Lack of Transparency and Abuse of Power – Life in the court of Emperor Biya
Without doubt, in a state governed by rule of law, all individuals involved in the Albatross scandal would have to answer to the people for either mishandling state funds, signing contracts worth billions of Francs CFA without due diligence, and misappropriating dizzying amounts of money which a country like Cameroon can ill afford (the total estimate of losses related to the (non)purchase of presidential plane is at least 52 billion FCFA).
That said, if there should be any justice in the Albatross affair, criminal responsibility cannot end only with those who were directing involved in the purchase process. The individuals who conceived, authorized and implemented the plot to bypass standard procedures for making such purchases, in an ill-advised and ill-fated bid to avoid scrutiny of donor institutions, violated Cameroonian laws in the process – and lost over 50 billion Francs CFA of the hard earned money of Cameroonian tax payers. They must ALL be held responsible, from top to bottom.
The cavalier manner in which colossal and mind-boggling sums of money were wired from one account to another, without appropriate documentary evidence, and without any oversight or checks and balances, and just on the word or the President points to a much more insidious problem; that of a complete lack of transparency and accountability – in effect a total abuse of power and presidential impunity and infallibility reminiscent of the Messi Messi affair of 1992. As Kevin Walls laments in his 2011 interview:
Well, one of the big problems in Cameroon is that all major financial decisions go to one person (President Biya) to make and he makes them alone and everyone acts on them. For example, if the President wants a new VIP-configured aircraft for his exclusive use, then people around him don't ask him if this is a proper use of State funds. Instead, they run around and get him an aircraft!
Certainly no-one(if he wanted to keep his job) would have the courage to ask him if an acquisition of a $75m aircraft was an efficient use of state funds and how many hospitals and schools could be built with $75m? I heard recently that he is still trying to buy a presidential aircraft. It is interesting to note that even the President of France or the UK does not have a presidential aircraft.
What concerns me is the lack of accountability on government decisions made in Cameroon. For example, how can a President order his minister of finance to instruct the Cameroon National Oil Company (SNH) to pay $31 million to a small company like GIA without ever seeing a contract?
is no transparency or accountability for executive decisions made in Cameroon. If the President wants he gets! There is no mechanism in place to prevent abuse of power in Cameroon.
Today, the country is paying the price for its “imperial presidency”, one where the president is more powerful than the constitution and the courts, and where the justice system is instrumentalized for purposes of political control and score settling.
The GRC's zealous pursuit of [the Albatross] files is no doubt colored by politics. Many of those implicated are also believed to be part of the "Upstarts" who we believe seek to replace Biya on their own terms and who the Biya regime wishes to weaken … As Albatross plays out, it could lead to the arrest of a series of powerful Cameroonians, including Marafa, Moudiki, Fotso and others, and may also direct more attention to the American element of these corrupt deals. End comment.
This analysis and prediction by the US ambassy in 2007 has come to pass with the list of potential Biya successors at Kondengui getting longer by the day.
Two quick and easy reads to bring you up to speed on the Albatross affair:
- June 2008 - CAMEROON CORRUPTION: ALBATROSS AFFAIR EMBROILS PM
- July 2010. Ambassador Mendouga, the Albatross Affair and Life in Kondengui -