An excerpt from Dibussi Tande, Reform and Repression: A Chronicle of the Smoldering Years, 1990-1992. (Forthcoming).
Plans for nationwide CPDM rallies in favor of early elections were scuttled when First Lady Jeanne-Irène Biya died suddenly in the early hours of July 29 from an undisclosed illness.
"Madam is Dead" - Cameroon Tribune, July 30, 1992.
Only a week earlier, a beaming and and apparently healthy First Lady had been on TV receiving American musician Stevie Wonder at Unity Palace. Her sudden death, just hours after President Biya left for a meeting in Dakar, Senegal, led to widespread rumors that she had been assassinated:
It was rumoured that President Biya had arranged for her to be killed and had left the country (for a meeting where his presence was not mandatory) as an alibi. His behaviour, the rumour claimed, was very suspect. Why had he not allowed her body to be laid in state? Why such a rush to bury her? Why had CRTV and Cameroon Tribune, the official media, been so economical with information regarding her ‘brief illness’, the purported cause of her death? When soon after her death, two European reverend sisters whom she had visited shortly before were found murdered at Djoum, it was alleged that they had been killed because they must have known the truth surrounding the circumstances of her death. (Nyamnjoh, 2005: 212).
Although some die-hard opponents of the Biya regime seemed to derive pleasure from the First Lady’s untimely death, the virulently anti-Biya private media demonstrated a rarely seen “softer side” as it declared a truce and appealed to the public and opposition leaders to honor Jeanne-Irène Biya. For example, the “extremist” Challenge Hebdo appealed to Cameroonians to
break away from this infernal logic (of intolerance) and go back to the tradition of paying our respects to the dead. Dead, Madam Biya deserves our respect. Our political differences with Mr. Biya should give way to the ethical obligation of respecting the dead.
“Let us forgive JIB and pray for a kinder and gentler Cameroonian nation,” chimed in Cameroon Today. Jeune Afrique Economie, which only a few weeks earlier had lambasted the First Lady for her alleged role in the collapse of the SCB paid her a glowing tribute, particularly for her charitable activities. The “hard core” opposition parties also followed suit with messages of condolence to the Head of State. The SDF went a step further and temporarily suspended all public rallies and meetings in honor of the fallen First Lady.
During a high mass at the Yaounde Cathedral attended by thousands of national and foreign dignitaries including Zairean President Mobutu Sese Seko, Bishop Jean Baptiste Ama declared: “Now that Jeanne Irene is dead, there is absolutely nothing she can do about her fate. Only our prayers can make God have pity on her.” And on September 1, 1992, the First Lady who, according to Bishop Owono Mimboe, had “undergone moral and physical torture just like Christ,” was buried in Paul Biya’s village of Mvomeka’a as a nation which seemed to have lost its soul in the acrimony and violence of the last two years remorsefully looked on.
On September 3, a condolence register was opened at Unity Palace and by the time it closed on September 7, thousands of Cameroonians from all walks of life and all political persuasions had stopped by to pay their last respects to the departed “madam” as she was fondly called.
Regime strategists, however, refused to be distracted by the nationwide outpouring of grief or by the conciliatory attitude of the regime’s political enemies. Thus, as soon as Jeanne-Irène Biya’s funeral was out of the way, the campaign to drum up support for early presidential elections resumed in earnest in mid September when traditional rulers from the West province were dragged to Unity Palace to make another public appeal for early elections. CPDM sections all over the country immediately joined the fray with rallies begging President Biya to run for another mandate.
On August 25, 1992 President Biya announced during a nationwide address that he would seek another term as President and that early elections would take place on October 11, 1992.
And the rest is history...