By Dibussi Tande
With the verdict in the Marafa/Fotso case scheduled for tomorrow, here's a quick look at the key issues and players in the presidential aircraft cases...
A decade after it all began, very few people can confidently and/or correctly explain what the “Albatross Affair” or the “presidential plane affair” is all about.
Scenes reminiscent of the 1971 Ndongmo-Ouandie trial - Marafa Yaya arrives in court under heavy military escort. (c) Patrice Nganang
With the passage of time, the story has merged with fiction to become a complex, convoluted and confusing urban legend. However, at the heart of it all is a fairly straightforward story, albeit with numerous sub-plots, of how an attempt to buy an aircraft for the President of Cameroon via unorthodox channels resulted in a very tangled web of poor financial judgment, appalling managerial incompetence, a complete lack of oversight, financial impropriety, political intrigue, and to crown it all, a series teleguided judicial proceedings.
To help untangle this complex web, here is a cheat sheet that outlines the five main sub-plots of the “Albatross affair,” the albatross itself being just one of these sub-plots. Although these sub-plots are presented here as chronological or linear stand-alone events, there is significant overlap because most have the same set of actors, and are linked to the original $31 million disbursed in 2001 to purchase the presidential aircraft.
1. The GIA International Affair (or the BBJ-2 Affair)
Origins: Project to purchase a brand new a second generation Boeing Business Jet (BBJ-2) for the President of Cameroon. [This case – The Government of Cameroon vs. Marafa Hamidou Yaya, Fotso Michel Yves, Kounda Julienne, Sandjon Geneviève, Chapuis Jean-Louis, Assene Nkou – is currently being heard before the Mfoundi High Court in Yaounde. The verdict is expected tomorrow September 21, 2012].
Amount involved: About 31 million dollars
Dates: 2001 – 2003
- Marafa Hamidou Yaya (at the time Secretary General at the Presidency of the Republic, currently incarcerated at the SED after a brief stay in the Kondengui Maximum security prison. Was in charge of the BBJ-2 project).
- Yves Michel Fotso (at the time Director General of Cameroon Airlines (CAMAIR), accused of colluding with GIA International Ltd., the US-based firm which was to serve as the intermediary with Boeing, to embezzle the $31 million. Currently incarcerated at the SED, after spending 2 years in Kondengui).
- Jean Marie Assene Nkou (Director General of National Airways Cameroun (Nacam) and former Member of Parliament, currently on the run. He introduced GIA International to Yves Michel Fotso in July 2001, and received $1 million out of the $31 million as commission for his hard work).
- Michel Meva'a M'Eboutou (at the time Minister of Finance, authorized the transfer of the $31 million to GIA accounts in the United States. He was a witness for the prosecution in the Marafa/Fotso trial).
- Adolphe Moudiki (Director General of the National Hydrocarbons Corporation, SNH. He transferred the $31 million dollars to GIA via an SNH account in Paris. He was never charged and was not called to the witness stand during the Fotso/Marafa trial).
- Jean Louis Chapuis (at the time Director General of Commercial Bank of Cameroon, CBC, owned by the Fotso family. Accused of assisting Yves Michel Fotso in his attempt to swindle the $31 million. Said to be on the run).
- Julienne Kounda (at the time Assistant Director General of CBC. She allegedly created an CBC account for a certain Beith Ltd, the front company supposedly used by Fotso and his accomplices to divert 16 of the $31 million. Currently incarcerated at Kondengui).
- Russell Meek (President of GIA International, never charged; his deposition before a bankruptcy court in Eugene, Oregon, USA, on December 9, 2004, helped unravel the mystery of how the $31 million was used for purposes other than paying for the BBJ-2 once it landed in GIA’s coffers).
- Fernando Gomez (Vice President of GIA International, never charged)
- Jean Marie Atangana Mebara (Replaced Marafa as Secretary General at the Presidency of the Republic). Accused of attempting to jointly embezzle the $31 million with Kevin Walls, CEO of the London-based Airport Portfolio Management (APM), and Essomba Otele, head of APM’s Cameroon subsidiary, Asset Portfolio Management (APM). This was after he authorized Kevin Walls to retrieve the money from GIA following its failure to deliver the BBJ-2. All three were found not guilty on this particular charge by the Mfoundi High Court on May 3, 2012 (See Government of Cameroon vs. Jean Marie Atangana Mebara, Hubert Patrick Marie Otele Essomba, Jerome Mendouga et al.) The case is currently being heard on appeal.
2. The Albatross Affair
Origins: The lease of a Boeing 767, The Albatros, to serve as a temporary presidential plane for President Biya after botched purchase of the BBJ-2.
Amount involved: About 5 million Dollars
Dates: 2003 – 2004
- Jean Marie Atangana Mebara (at the time Secretary General at the Presidency of the Republic. Was in charge of the project found. Was found not guilty in the GIA case and in two other charges related to the Albatross affair, but is still detained in Kondengui pending new charges/government appeal).
- Jérôme Mendouga (at the time, Cameroon’s ambassador in Washington, DC, USA, sentenced to 10 years for embezzling 121 Million Francs CFA, this being the remainder of the sum of 720 million Francs CFA that the Ministry of Finance wired to the Cameroon Embassy in Washington, DC, to pay for costs related to the lease of the Albatross).
- Adolphe Moudiki (Director General of the National Hydrocarbons Corporation, SNH, was in charge of all monetary transactions related to the Albatross).
- Michel Meva'a M'Eboutou (at the time Minister of Finance, Authorized the various payments related to the Albatross lease).
- Members of the President’s Personal Military Staff, namely the late General Benae Mpecke, at the time Presidential Chief of Staff, and Colonel Mitlassou Justin, at the time Director of the Department of Presidential Travels. Were responsible for confirming that the Albatross was a viable, safe and secure aircraft.
3. APM Affair
Origins: Contract between the Ministry of Transport and APM to perform an audit of CAMAIR’s fleet and renegotiate all of the company’s leasing contracts.
- Ephraim INONI (Assistant Secretary-General No. 1 at the Presidency of the Republic, founding Board Chair of APM, currently incarcerated at Kondengui).
- Joseph Kevin WALLS (General Manager of APM, found not guilty in the Mebara/Mendouga case but new arrest warrant allegedly issued pending new charges/government appeal).
- Hubert OTELE ESSOMBA (General manager APM-Cameroon, found not guilty in the Mebara/Mendouga case, still detained in Kondengui pending new charges/government appeal).
- The late Rene OWONA (Assistant Secretary-General No. 2 at the Presidency of the Republic, uncle of Otele Essomba).
- John Begheni Ndeh (at the time Minister of Transport who signed audit contract with APM, not charged, and was witness for the prosecution in the Albatross case).
- Jean Marie Atangana Mebara (at the time Secretary General at the Presidency of the Republic, the direct boss of Inoni and Owona).
4. The SYGMA Affair
Origins: Contract between CAMAIR and the London-based Sygma Finance Ltd. to renegotiate or rescind contracts for two Boeing planes (767-231 SN22564 and 747-312 SN23033 aka Big Boss) which Camair leased from GIA during Fotso’s tenure. Sygma was brought in because Camair owed GIA about $40 million in arrears and GIA was threatening to repossess its planes.
- Francis NANA (Founder and Managing Director at Sygma who revealed in his final report that the two planes were actually bought with part of the $31 million meant for the presidential BBJ-2, then fraudulently leased to Camair as GIA-owned property. Nana thus concluded that “Camair was the victim of an embezzlement scheme implicating Mr. Fotso, the CBC and GIA International Ltd.” Sygma’s discovery that GIA had filed for Bankruptcy in Eugene, Oregon, allowed Cameroon to file adversary proceedings in the GIA bankruptcy case (Republic of Cameroon v. Wurst (In re GIA International, Ltd.). Nana is also the one who set Swiss authorities on Fotso’s trail (see below).
- Yves Michel FOTSO (former Director General of Camair. Sued Nana for defamation after the Sygma report was leaked. The case went all the way to the Cameroon Supreme Court. On July 21, 2011, the court overturned an earlier verdict of the Wouri High Court which had handed Nana a 6-month suspended sentence and asked him to pay 3 billion FCFA in damages to Fotso).
- Thomas DAKAYI KAMGA (Fotso’s successor at Camair who brought Sygma into the picture).
- Avipro Finances/SG Avipro (A company set up to receive future payments from Camair after GIA International Ltd. sold all of its assets (contracts, cash and debt) to an Irish firm TLL (Treasury Leasing Limited) in 2002. Avipro eventually repossessed the Boeing 747 (Big Boss), and successfully sued Camair in New York where it received $8-million in compensation - SG AVIPRO FINANCE LTD. v. CAMEROON AIRLINES, United States District Court, S.D. New York, June 7, 2005. The Boeing 767 was never reclaimed and is currently rotting at the Douala Airport. Avipro was supposedly a front company co-owned by Fotso and Shanmuga Rethenam (Shan), the company’s Indo-Singaporean Chairman and CEO.
- Gérard Sautebin. The Swiss federal judge who in January 2007, instituted criminal proceedings against Fotso in Switzerland – based on information provided by Nana - on “suspicion of money laundering, fraud, participation in a criminal organization and disloyal management of Camair” regarding the use of the $31 million. The judge issued a series of Letters Rogatory on the basis of which Fotso was forced to give a deposition on the matter before Wouri High Court judge Eyikè Vieux in 2008. Interestingly, immediately after his arrest in December 2010, Fotso invoked the principle of international lis pendens, arguing that Cameroonian courts were incompetent hear the case of the $31 million since an identical case was already before the Swiss courts. The Cameroon Supreme Court quashed his motion in July 2011 thereby paving the way for the ongoing Marafa/Fotso case.
The GIA-owned Boeing 767 abandoned at the Douala Airport (c) Michael Fabry
5. Ansett Worldwide affair
Origins: Payment of arrears that Camair owed Ansett Worldwide Aviation Services (AWAS) for leased aircraft, resulting in charges of double billing. The accused are charged with attempting to bill SNH and Standard Chartered Bank twice for the same services (case yet to be heard by the courts). This is the sub-plot with the weakest link to the presidential aircraft affair.
Amount: About 4 billion Francs cfa
- Jean Marie Atangana Mebara (at the time Secretary General at the Presidency of the Republic, accused of attempting to jointly embezzle about 4 billion Francs CFA with Inoni Ephraim via SNH).
- Ephraim INONI (Assistant Secretary-General No. 1 at the Presidency of the Republic, attempt to jointly embezzle the 4 billion Francs CFA with Mebara via Standard Chartered Bank).
- Adolphe Moudiki (Director General of the National Hydrocarbons Corporation, SNH).
- Standard Chartered Bank, Douala.
In addition to the five main sub-cases, a new one has emerged - Cameroon Airlines liquidation vs. Yves Michel Fotso, CBC and and others. This new case is related to the Boeing 747-200 Combi, Cameroon Airlines' flagship aircraft, which went out of business after it overshot the runway at the Roissy Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris on 5 November 2000. A report by the BEA (Bureau d'Enquêtes et d'Analyses pour la sécurité de l'aviation civile), the French authority responsible for safety investigations into accidents or incidents in civil aviation concluded that the accident was the result of overloading and having two individuals who were not members of the crew in the cockpit. [Click here for downloadable (PDF) version of the report ]The plane was eventually decommissioned and the wreckage given away because, according to Camair officials, repair costs far exceeded insurance payments. In its report, the BEA stated that "The structure of the airframe was severely damaged at the level of the electronics bay; it was impossible for the aircraft to be returned to service".
On February 28, 2012, Emile Christian Bekolo, the liquidator of Camair, filed a complaint with the Mfoundi High Court accusing Yves Michel Fotso of embezzling public funds totaling 69 billion Francs CFA in relation to the dispposal of the Boeing 747 wreckage. According to Bekolo, Fotso gave away the wreckage of the Boeing 747-200 Combi to GIA International, without compensation; a wreckage which GIA later sold to third parties for the sum of one billion Francs CFA.
In August 2012, the case file was forwarded to the newly created Special Criminal Court as Cameroon Airlines liquidation vs. Yves Michel Fotso, CBC and others. It is alleged that Marafa Yaya has also been included as an accused in this case - a fallback for the Biya regime in case the Mfoundi High Court finds him not guilty in the BBJ-2 case by some miracle...
End of the Road: The Boeing 747 Combi at the Charles de Gaulle Airport.