By Dibussi Tande
Beyond legitimate questions about the guilt or innocence of all the individuals arrested in the Albatross affair, or concerns about the “instrumentalization” of the justice system for purposes of “political cleansing”, there is one element in this complex and convoluted story that everyone seems to agree on, albeit in varying degrees, i.e., that in a bid to swindle money, government officials colluded to purchase an ageing and defective presidential aircraft which put President Biya’s life in danger during the aircraft’s maiden flight from Yaounde to Paris.
The Nose of the "Albatros" (c) Steve Hill
For example, The Post newspaper recently described the Albatross as "an old bucket that rattled Biya", while François Mattei, author of Le Code Biya, a praise book commissioned by the Biya regime, was more scathing, labeling the aircraft as a "Flying Coffin" – a view shared by newspapers such as l’Independent, which claims that « l'Albatros était tout simplement un cercueil volant destiné à tuer le chef de l'Etat et toute sa famille. » (The Albatross was simply a flying coffin meant to kill the Head of State and his entire family). Although it did not go this far, even Le Messager once described the Albatross’ maiden flight as “pénible et émouvant” (painful and emotional)…
And, during preliminary investigations into allegations of financial impropriety related to the purchase/lease of the presidential aircraft, the judicial police urged the investigating judge to dig deeper into the matter. In its report to judge Pascal Magnaguemabé, the judicial police accused all individuals involved in the Albatross lease of “gross negligence that could be interpreted as an attack on the security of the state”.
While this seems to have become the accepted narrative in unofficial and official circles, the question remains whether these allegations actually hold up to scrutiny. In this regard two key questions come to mind:
- Did the technical problems that were detected during the Albatross’ maiden flight so serious that they put the President Biya’s life in danger?
- Did the Albatross have defects so severe that they substantially impaired its use, value, or safety?
What exactly happened during the maiden flight of the Albatross?
In Le Code de Biya, Francois Mattei, supposedly relying on highly credible sources within the Biya regime, gives a hair-raising account of what happened during that fateful flight to Paris. According to him:
Very serious technical problems occurred during the new aircraft's first official trip to Europe with the President and his family aboard. The situation became so dangerous at one point that the President requested for an emergency landing in Nigeria. The vital organs of the aircraft betrayed such extensive wear and tear that the pilot feared that they would not be able to make it back to Cameroon. Paul Biya insisted to return to Cameroon, finding it undignifying for the President of Cameroon to crash land in a foreign country.
However, in his Order Instituting Separate Proceedings of January 2010, Judge Magnaguemabé tells a much different and less dramatic story:
[The "Boeing 767-200 ER" known as "Albatross"] was transported to Cameroon in a flight leaving from Atlanta in the United States on 04/22/2004 and landing in Yaounde on 04/23/2004.
It departed again from Yaounde on 04/24/2004 for the Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, with the President of the Republic and his family aboard, as well as a large delegation of important persons from Cameroon traveling to attend a summit planned for the following days in the French capital.
Only, the plane had barely taken off from the Yaounde-Nsimalen airport with the illustrious person and his delegation aboard, when it experienced an incident while it was crossing the "Foumban" area.
This incident made it necessary for the pilots to turn back to Douala.
It was described as purely technical, in which "the leading edge flap was not retracting" and the plane could not reach cruising speed.
While the plane was turning back to Douala, the onboard mechanic was called upon "to go down into the fuse room."
While he was there, the mechanic "reset the circuit" and, after another try by the pilot, the flaps retracted and the situation returned to normal.
The plane then resumed its heading toward Paris.
This account is based on the information from the flight crew and members of the President’s Etat Major Particulier (Personal Military Staff) who are responsible for his security, some of whom were on the plane. This was definitely not the life-and-death situation that the media has been reporting for close to a decade, and which the regime has never bothered to refute or clarify, and which some officials have actually been promoting discreetly, ostensibly in a bid to discredit potential rivals.
The Albatross at Atlanta Hartsfield Int'l Airport - KATL (c) Gregg Stansbery
The Flight Crew Speaks
During his hearing before the investigating Judge on March 19, 2009, Colonel Justin Mitlassou, then Director of the Department of Presidential Travels, unequivocally refuted claims of catastrophic technical breakdown of the Albatross or of an attempt on the President’s life:
When the problem (with the flaps) occurred, the pilots (Lieutenant Colonel Ndongue and Colonel Babodo Lewono) should have called for the mechanic seated at the end of the aircraft. All they needed to do to rectify the problem was to refer to the flight manual and to call for the mechanic... Instead, flight captain Betham chose to inform the President of the Republic that there was a problem with the aircraft and that it had to return to Douala for checkup. He reassured the Head of State that this would not take long. In my opinion, the captain demonstrated a lack sang-froid by rushing to alert the President. He should have tried to solve the problem first.
On March 24, 2009, Colonel Ndongue Charles, Chief of Aircraft Operations with the President’s personal military staff who was in the cockpit during the flight also minimized the incident:
We should exclude any criminal hand. Even with this problem, we would have been able to make it to Paris, albeit at a slower-than-normal speed... one has to be in the aviation field to understand this type of incident; it can be caused by dust, a loose screw, an electrical surge.... this was a minor incident that was poorly handled. The aircraft arrived in Paris without problems and departed without problems.
Co-pilot, Alexandre Fochive also reiterated the same points during his April 15, 2009 appearance before the judge:
A breakdown like the one we had can happen... this was not a criminal act, that is, sabotage. Regarding the incident which occurred … I fully confirm the explanations of lieutenant-colonel Ndongue Charles Nouvelon... Flight Captain BETHAM decided to inform the President about the incident without consulting us. While he was updating the President of the Republic, we fixed problem. I reassured the President of the Republic that everything was in order, and we headed for Paris.
When he appeared before the investigating judge on 30 December 2010, Flight Captain Betham Benoit Marie Joseph did not refute any of these statements.
Colonels Mitlassou and Ndongou would again repeat these statements under oath when they appeared before the Mfoundi High Court on December 10, 2011 as as witnesses in the Atangana Mebara trial. Colonel Ndongue insisted that the flap issue was a minor incident: «C'était un incident mineur et ne pouvait pas porter atteinte à la sécurité du président de la République, la preuve, l'avion a atterri à Paris et l'équipage a reçu les félicitations du chef de l'Etat».
Was the Albatross a Flying Coffin?
Even if claims that the Albatross had a catastrophic breakdown during its maiden flight are false; even if the claims of sabotage or an attempt on the President’s life are outlandish to say the least, the question remains whether this “second hand” aircraft was safe and airworthy, or was indeed a “flying coffin” leased at the behest of corrupt or negligent government officials.
This will be the focus of Part II of this article.
To be continued...