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Wikileaks Cable 1: Biya and U.S. Envoy on Corruption, Elections, Army Generals 

* Biya: ‘Corrupt officials will be freed if they confess’
* U.S. Ambassador: ‘Biya revealed a mischievous side’
* Biya: ‘PM Inoni didn’t steal much money’
* U.S. Ambassador: ‘Biya tired toward the end of the two-hour meeting’

This cable is based on a discussion between President Paul Biya and then U.S. Ambassador in Yaounde, Janet Garvey. It took place on February 4, 2010 at the Etoudi Palace in an audience granted the ambassador by the president. Wikileaks released the classified cable in June 2011.

Garvey and Biya

In the discussion, Mr. Biya impresses the U.S. ambassador with his profound knowledge of national and international issues. The President therefore debunks an oft advanced argument by some of his apologists that he is not personally responsible for the ills of his regime because “bad advisers” withhold essential information from him.

The Cameroon strongman also demonstrates that he is the prosecutor and judge in his ongoing anti-corruption crackdown. He told Ms. Garvey that arrested regime barons could be freed if they confessed to wrongdoing, implying that the trials were just a show, since it was Mr. Biya to determine if the suspects would be freed or not.

In another indication of his overriding judicial powers, Mr. Biya also told the ambassador that former Prime Minister Ephraim Inoni was not going to be arrested on corruption charges because the evidence against him was thin and he didn’t steal much money. He also promised more anti-corruption arrests, suggesting that the orders came directly from him.

Already known for his lackadaisical style of management, Mr. Biya confirmed that in his discussions. He promised, for instance, to submit a comprehensive electoral code to parliament, which he never did, and to organise senate elections in 2010, which he also has not yet done.

Equally known to pay lip service to democratic progress, the ambassador reported how when she reacted to the president’s expressed belief in strong institutions with the retort that they also have to be democratic, “ Biya just smiled”.

While one might not categorically say that Biya tends to be economical with the truth, a claim he made to the ambassador that he did not personally know all the members of ELECAM appears far-fetched. ELECAM member Dorothy Njeuma, for instance, was a long-serving politburo member of the CPDM who had attended several conclaves chaired by the president with only a few persons in attendance.

The president’s commitment to competence was also put to question. He complained about the performance of the then Minister of Agriculture, Jean Nkuete, in February 2010, but left him in government until December 2011, when he was appointed to the very powerful and coveted post of CPDM secretary general. He also complained about the Minister of the Economy and Planning, Louis Paul Motaze, but also left him in government until December 9, 2011.

While announcing plans to appoint some aged army generals into the senate, the president also informed Ms. Garvey that this was to possibly include the head of the navy, whose corruption and incompetence Mr. Biya recognised.

Ms. Garvey reported in the cable, which was basically a report to the U.S. State Department, that although Mr. Biya was alert and well informed, he tired out towards the end of their two-hour discussion. She also saw a mischievous side to the Cameroon strongman, whom she said appeared helpless when confronted with major problems in his government.

Read the full text of the unedited U.S. diplomatic cable below:

CAMEROONIAN PRESIDENT BIYA GIVES AMBASSADOR POLITICAL/ECONOMIC OVERVIEW

Created: 2010-02-05 11:38
Released: 2011-06-09 00:00
Classification: SECRET
Origin: Embassy Yaounde
Classified By: Janet E. Garvey, Ambassador, State

Summary: On February 4, Ambassador met with President Paul Biya for a two-hour tour d´horizon of domestic and international issues. Biya was concerned about the threat of Islamic extremism. He praised growing Central African regional cooperation and improved relations with Nigeria.

He was positive about the recent Copenhagen summit although frustrated with China´s role. The President appreciated strong US-Cameroonian commercial ties, especially Boeing´s interest in CAMAIRCO. He predicted more anti-corruption arrests, affirming that he would not let corrupt officials out of prison until they had shown remorse.

He agreed that a lot of money had been stolen by corrupt officials and that budget transparency needed to be improved. The Electoral Commission (ELECAM) "keeps me awake at night," he said, arguing that the main problem with ELECAM was creating a "mechanism" for it to function well and independently within a system which is so dominated by the central government.

He is working on a new electoral code, which he plans to submit to parliament in March, and he hopes Senate elections will be held in the second quarter of ¶2010. Biya was warm and chatty, obviously pleased to be meeting, venturing into numerous tangents. He gave nothing away about possible early elections or his running for president while cryptically (maybe wistfully) mentioning retirement. End summary.

Islamic Extremism

Biya began the meeting by thanking the Ambassador for U.S. intelligence cooperation with Cameroon. He was beginning to worry about Islamic extremists infiltrating Cameroon from Nigeria and making inroads through Cameroonian mosques.

Regional Developments

Biya saw a new spirit of cooperation in Central Africa. He was pleased with the January heads of state meeting of the Monetary and Economic Community of Central Africa (CEMAC) in Bangui, which brought significant reforms to the institution and the Central African Bank, BEAC (septel). He gave much of the credit for renewed regional cooperation to Gabonese President Ali Bongo. Chadian President Idris Deby feels more secure and is engaging more in the region, including asking Biya for advice, the President said, while engagement by the Central African Republic was limited because of its instability.

Biya opined that CEMAC was too small but that merging with the Economic Community of Central African States, CEEAC (which has been discussed for years) is probably not likely in the short-term. He had directed the Minister of External Affairs to explore greater synergies between CEMAC and CEEAC. Biya praised ongoing BEAC reforms, stressing that "a lot of money was stolen."

The President saw the need to facilitate transportation, border crossing procedures, and airline connections within the region, although he frowned on a regional airline being based in Douala because it might compete with the future CAMAIRCO, Cameroon´s nascent airline. Biya gave the impression that he recognized Cameroon´s strength and stability in the region but was not looking for a bigger diplomatic role in Central Africa.

Relations with Nigeria/Bakassi

Biya was grateful for the 2006 Greentree Accord which led to the final settlement of the Bakassi Peninsula dispute with Nigeria. To build on this, Cameroon needed to construct more roads to Nigeria and strengthen its capacity to supply electricity to its neighbor. Biya asked Ambassador about the current Nigerian political situation, praising President Yar´adua as a "good partner" who had always treated Cameroon "properly." Biya was saddened by Yar´adua´s illness.

Cameroon and Nigeria were working together to address what he thought were valid allegations that some Nigerians had been mistreated in Bakassi. The GRC was trying to "do it right" in Bakassi, balancing development and security. The GRC´s elite military group, the Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR), had been successful at reducing petty crime (although Biya saw the need to augment BIR efforts to combat highway bandits called "coupeurs de routes" in northern Cameroon). The President lamented a recent fire in Bakassi, hoped to find oil in the Peninsula, and stressed the need to improve the security environment.

Copenhagen/China

The outcome of the Copenhagen summit was "positive," especially its inclusion of forest resources, Biya said. Cameroon would associate with the Accord, he noted. He was particularly frustrated with China – "what´s wrong with them?" he queried, criticizing them for "throwing their weight around" in Copenhagen.

He didn´t understand China´s treatment of the Dalai Lama and Taiwan, pointing to the need to "bring China along."

Economic/Commercial Issues

Ambassador pointed to the growing U.S.-Cameroon commercial relationship. She noted that the bauxite mining consortium Cameroon Alumina Ltd. (CAL), which includes American company Hydromine, had fulfilled the conditions of its exploration license and hoped to be granted a mining permit. She also noted that American cobalt mining company Geovic had just resolved a long-standing dispute with its GRC partner which should facilitate completion of the project in 2010, although there were some lingering issues.

She also highlighted our desire to see Cameroon take better advantage of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). Biya supported AGOA and agreed "there is a lot to do." He was frustrated with the human relations management of American electricity company AES, although he thought Cameroon´s water problems were more severe than electricity shortages.

He was delighted with Boeing´s interest in Cameroon. He recognized it would take time to build an airline but said that discussions with Lufthansa to manage the new airline were almost completed and he had just selected two directors for CAMAIRCO, one from the Netherlands and one from Austria.

Biya did not discuss the overall economy in any depth but noted the "need to get the economy going." He was unhappy with the Minister of Agriculture for not doing more to boost the sector. He hoped the Kribi gas-fired power plant project would stay on track.

Corruption/Budget Transparency

Ambassador praised Cameroon´s continued focus on fighting corruption, including renewed arrests of alleged corrupt officials, but also expressed concerns that legal procedures be fully pursued. She detailed USG support for anti-corruption efforts. Biya said he wouldn´t release those arrested for corruption "until they admit they did something wrong."

He was pleased with USG cooperation in combating corruption and stressed that corrupt officials "stole a lot of money." He 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.

The USG is particularly concerned about Cameroon´s slow progress toward improving budget execution and transparency, the Ambassador noted, explaining that a failure to improve budget transparency could trigger a cut-off of bilateral assistance under U.S. law. She also hoped that Cameroon would be successful when it comes up for validation in March under the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI).

Biya agreed that Cameroon needed to do better in budget transparency and utilization, singling out the National Investment Company (SNI) as having a particularly nontransparent budget. He would talk to the Prime Minister and Finance Minister about this issue and EITI.

Elections

Ambassador stressed the need for free, fair, transparent and well-administered elections and asked how he could help us overcome the perception that ELECAM lacks credibility. How to make Electoral Commission (ELECAM) work well, "keeps me awake at night," Biya responded, stressing that he wants it to function with true independence. He claimed he didn´t personally know the members of the ELECAM Council (who have been widely criticized for being partisan senior ruling party officials).

His main problem with ELECAM was in creating a "mechanism" for it to function well and independently within a system which is so dominated by the central government. It was important to have a large voter turnout in order to ensure stability in the country, he said. He was frustrated with opposition parties and the Ministry of Territorial Administration and Decentralization for being "enemies of ELECAM."

Biya noted that later in the day he would review the new electoral code, which he hoped would harmonize all electoral laws and could be ready to submit to parliament during the upcoming March session of the National Assembly. He hoped to hold Senate elections in the second quarter of 2010, which would be "a test" for ELECAM before presidential elections "next year."

He hoped to put some military generals in the Senate (possibly also the Navy Chief, who Biya said "we have to do something about, " presumably because of the Admiral´s reputation for corruption and incompetence). Biya also said he plans to create a Constitutional Council soon.

(Note: Biya has never created the Senate or the Constitutional Council called for in the 1996 constitution. In his New Year´s address, Biya said he would create the Senate in 2010. End note.)

The President admired Ghanaian President Mills and South African President Zuma, who have both reportedly accepted an invitation to a conference on 50 years of African independence to be held in Cameroon later this year. The conference would discuss the progress and challenges of African rule, although "there hasn´t been much progress," Biya quipped, adding that Africa needed stronger institutions. When Ambassador inserted that these institutions should be democratic, Biya just smiled.

Comment

Biya was the most relaxed and talkative of all his meetings with Ambassador. He was gracious, generally well informed, mentally sharp, and seemingly in good health, although he tired toward the end of the two hours. He seemed eager to keep the conversation going, venturing into concerns about Afghanistan, Iran (which he feared threatened Israel), and Haiti (he praised the U.S. response).

Ambassador commended Cameroon´s $1 million offer of assistance to Haiti; Biya said the Cameroonian public was praising this decision. He put a heavy value on discipline, highlighting its strength among northern Cameroonians and its weakness in the Indomitable Lions (the national soccer team, which lost in the Africa Cup) and among some of his colleagues (such as Minister of Economy and Planning Louis Paul Motaze, who Biya thought lacked discretion).

At the same time, however, he revealed a mischievous side and projected a degree of helplessness when confronted with key problems in his government (such as managing the budget, jumpstarting agriculture, and making ELECAM more independent).

He did not seem well informed about the poor state of the navy, which Ambassador mentioned in discussions about the BIR. He gave no hint as to whether he will run in the next presidential election or whether he might change the composition of the ELECAM Council.

His concerns about Islamic extremism echoed similar concerns we have been recently picking up in the north and among our moderate Muslim contacts, who worry about dangerous influences both from Nigeria and Iran. Biya´s odd insistence that corrupt officials should repent reflected his religious background (he started his career in the seminary) and his emphasis on personal loyalty.

His professed frustration with China contrasts with the rising profile of Chinese investments in Cameroon; it probably reflects some real ambivalence about China and Cameroon´s desire to balance Chinese, U.S. and French interests. Biya seemed very concerned about climate change, noting at one point that he was moving to a more energy efficient house.

Biya´s affection for the U.S. appears genuine (he talked fondly of his one visit to the U.S.) Some in the media are already interpreting the length of this meeting (which some journalists report as unprecedented) as a sign of the importance of the U.S.-Cameroon relationship.

Biya´s wide ranging comments and questions encompassed American car manufacturers, Tiger Woods, the Massachusetts Senate election, the U.S. economy and health reform debate, former President George W. Bush (who he liked because he is a farmer and reads the bible), and President Obama (who he admires).

He hoped Cameroon could benefit from Millennium Challenge Corporation funding, noting that Senegalese President Wade had told him how much he likes the MCC, but acknowledging concerns about the GRC´s current capacity to implement an MCC compact. Biya appreciated USG exchange programs and offerings of training. He mentioned retirement and said he would love to visit the U.S. again, especially Detroit (presumably because of a love of automobiles.) Ambassador stressed that America was a friend of Cameroon.

Biya had earlier cornered Ambassador during a New Year event to say "we have much to talk about". He obviously did. His eagerness to engage us, his positive interest in the U.S., his questions to Ambassador about a wide range of global issues, the unusual length of this meeting and breadth of conversation suggest the President may be receptive to further discussions with senior USG officials in such areas as corruption, elections, democratic transition, and Cameroon’s global role.
GARVEY
 

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