Culled from Atangana Mebara, Jean-Marie. 2011. Lettres d'ailleurs: dévoilements préliminaires d'une prise de l'Epervier du Cameroun. Paris: Harmattan.
On August 1, 2008, Jean-Marie Atangana Mebara, former the Minister of Higher Education, former Secretary-General at the Presidency, and former Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, was remanded into custody for his role in the "Albatross Affair", the botched attempt to purchase an aircraft for President Biya. In December 2011, the Paris-based l’Harmattan published Mebara's book « Lettres d’ailleurs, Dévoilements préliminaires d’une prise de l’épervier du Cameroun ». (Letters from elsewhere: Preliminary revelations of a catch of the Cameroonian Sparrow hawk). Prefaced by Cardinal Tumi, the book consists of a series of letters to his family, friends, and public personalities. In one of the letters to his daughter, he goes at length into the circumstances of his arrest, including his first days behind bars at the Kondengui maximum security prison. Here is an excerpt:
On March 2008, I received a phone call around 6:15 am from a former close collaborator informing me that Minister Abah Abah had just been arrested, and that according to his informants, the team in charge of the operation was on its way to pick up Minister Olanguena, after which they would come for me.
I was home alone, my wife having left for morning mass as she did every morning... I quickly showered and dressed up, then made a couple of calls particularly to my faithful friend and brother, Charles, and to my junior brother MEB's... I tried unsuccessfully to pray. However, I was comforted by the fact that I had a rosary in my coat pocket, along with my identity card.
Then the wait began. I peeped through the windows in our bedroom to see if the house had been surrounded by elements of the Groupement Special d'Operations (GSO), the special police unit in charge of the operation.
About 6:55 am, the gate at the rear of the house opened. I ran out to take a look. I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw my wife drive in. Without a police escort. She stepped out of the car with a smile, and informed me that the GSO were not yet here. I had been afraid that they'll come and pick me up just when I was about to go drop off the kids at school...
Shortly thereafter, my former collaborator called to inform me that Minister Olanguena had been picked up, but that I did not feature on the list of individuals to be arrested, at least, not on that day.
After two days of prayer, meditation and reading, I decided to document what I could still remember of the Albatross affair. Within a fortnight, I was able to put together an eight-page aide-memoire with a few annexes.
I took the document to my uncle, the lawyer and former Minister [of Internal Security] Denis Ekani, and asked him to handle my defense if it ever came to that. He promised to read the document and said he would represent me unconditionally...
On April 23, 2008 I was informed that Commissioner EVINA, head of the DIR (Service d'intervention et de recherche) had come to see me. I asked that he should be let in. ...He handed me an envelope which I opened immediately. It was a summons to appear on April 25, 2008 at the Department of Judicial Police in the Division of Investigation and Finance (Direction de la police judiciaire, sous-direction des Enquêtes et Finances…
On April 25, 2008 [I] arrived at the Judicial Police [with my uncle Denis Ekani] some 10 minutes before our appointment... We were well received [and] led to the office of Commissioner Ntonga Benjamin, Assistant Director of economic and financial investigations... He informed us that an investigation had been launched into the alleged embezzlement of funds allocated to the purchase of a presidential plane... then he informed me that I could return home at the end of his questioning. I was reassured.
The moment when one is taken into custody is special.
Commissioner Ntonga played his cards well. He had informed my uncle and lawyer Denis Ekani on Thursday that I was expected at the Judicial Police the next day, Friday 1st August 2008. The next day, we went to the Judicial Police in my wife's little Japanese car, without any misgiving ... Commissioner Ntonga received us courteously as usual... I quickly noted that his collaborators were acting strangely, and did not dare to look me in the eyes.
Commissioner Ntonga began speaking. He said he owed a lot to my lawyer, Maitre Ekani, who as Secretary of State for Internal Security, had offered him his first post of responsibility... He then told me that given all the respect that he had for Mr. Ekani, he was advising me tell the whole truth so as to bring the investigation to an end. I insisted that everything that I had told him thus far was the truth... My answer did not seem to please him... Then he started asking me a series of questions... we had some heated exchanges. At the end of his questions, he asked me if I had anything in particular that I wanted to add. The words that that flowed out came no doubt from my heart and were documented in the minutes of August 1, 2008:
"I would like to reiterate here that I performed the tasks given to me by the Head of State to be best of my abilities, by associating, whenever possible, my direct collaborators or the competent administrative structures that could help carry out these instructions or missions. And, I did this with complete respect for the laws and regulations of the Republic.
The urgency of certain situations led the Secretary General at the Presidency of the Republic and other high ranking state officials to take special measures in a bid to resolve occasional crises. At no time did I attempt to satisfy my personal interest while carrying out these instructions. I would like to point out that I don't have a bank account abroad and I don’t own real estate abroad. I did my best to serve the state and the President of the Republic with loyalty, probity, efficiency and selflessness. I am willing to contribute, in any way possible, to the triumph of the truth in this affair."
It is at this point that Commissioner Ntonga notified me that I had been remanded into custody as of 10:00 am, that is, from the moment I arrived at the Judicial Police, on the orders of the State Prosecutor at the Mfoundi High Court. He said I would be brought before the State Counsel on Monday, August 4, 2008.
My uncle and I looked at each other intensely as soon as the commissioner announced my arrest. I thought I read in his eyes the following message: "Maintain your courage and your dignity, I am and will always be with you, as a father and as your lawyer.”
I asked the Commissioner if I could make a call. He allowed me to use his office phone. I was only able to get my brother Charles. I asked him to inform the rest of the family. I told my uncle to return home with the driver to update my wife, children and sisters. My uncle gave me a brief but affectionate hug. Then without saying a word, he walked out of commissioner Ntonga’s office.
A few minutes later, I was taken to a room in the basement of the building... that is where I met Mr. Otele Hubert, whom I had not seen ages. His reaction was one of complete surprise: "Mr. Minister of State, you here?!
By the way, let me divert a little with an insight into how some auxiliary officers of the justice system flout the law. Article 119 of the Criminal Procedure Code stipulates that:
1(a) where a judicial police officer intends to remand a suspect in police custody, he shall inform him of the grounds for the suspicion and invite him to give any explanation he deems necessary.
(b) Mention of these formalities shall be made in the police report.
However, Commissioner Ntonga only informed me of my arrest at the end of my hearing. By the way, remanding someone into custody on a Friday, knowing very well that he would only appear before the state counsel on Monday at the earliest, strongly suggests that his detention is not really about the search of the truth; it is primarily to humiliate and demoralize...
From our makeshift cell, Mr. Otele and I tried to support each other as best as we could; none of us had ever gone through such an experience before... Our family members visited us briefly, that is, apart from our spouses and lawyers. I remember one day when my poor wife, completely exhausted, dozed off on my camp bed. I watched her sleep... I was moved by this spectacle and upset to have imposed this ordeal on a young woman who had gotten married just eight years earlier dreaming of happiness...
We were brought before the State Counsel on August 4 in the afternoon under heavy police escort, then taken back to the offices of the Judicial Police…
On August 6, 2008, were brought back to the State Counsel’s. After a three-hour wait, he took us to the investigating judge, a certain Pascal Magnageumabe, who received us one after the other. After a few preliminary questions relating to my identity, the judge read out the accusations against me and announced that I was under arrest and would be transferred to the Yaounde central prison while awaiting trial...
I left the investigating judge's office to inform my family members who were outside that I was “going down” to Kondengui. This announcement unleashed and indescribable reaction. In any case, emotion was at its peak. I was able to hug some members of my family.
Before getting into the police van which would take us to prison, I was once again able to hug those of my family members who were not completely beaten down. I reminded to my brother and friend Charles, and my junior brother Meb's, to take care of the family. My poor wife, who could barely hold back her tears said these heartwarming words which are forever etched in my mind: " Go my husband, I know you're innocent."
I took my seat in the van, surrounded by elements of the judicial police. As the car started up, I glanced at my family for the last time; almost all of them were in tears. I waved as the police car sped off towards KONDENGUI.
I don't know if there is anything more difficult for a man than to watch his loved ones suffer and cry because of the humiliation and injustice being inflicted on him!
But that was just the beginning!
In the first 10 days after my arrival, a mixed brigade of gendarmes and policemen subjected me to what is referred to as hard core searches... For hours, they ransacked and turned my bags and documents inside out. I was even subjected to a strip search by a young female gendarme. The young student gendarmes who had been assigned this task seemed particularly interested in the spectacle of a former Secretary General of the Presidency and a former Minister of health in prison. After they left, the older detainees confirmed that this was how prison officials "welcomed" new VIP inmates.
I have forgiven
In this world that I find myself since August 6, 2008, anything can happen at any time. One can succumb to illness due to a lack of care or sudden sickness; one can also be the "unfortunate victim of a blunder or dangerous incident."
If I were to leave this world tomorrow with the infamous status of an EPF prisoner (Embezzler of Public Funds), tell the world that right to the end, I viewed my plight as the will of God, my God whom I believed in throughout my life...
Tell them that I went with peace in my heart, convinced of my innocence...; tell them that I forgave - As I write these lines to you, I have already forgiven all those who have hurt me, more so those who made all of you - my wife, my children, my brothers and sisters, my relatives, my friends, and dear ones – to suffer unjustly.
*A Scribbles from the Den translation; subtitles by Scribbles from the Den.