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Wikileaks Cable 15: Kenya Air Crash Exposes Regime 

This cable is written as testimony to the incompetence and failures of the Yaounde regime. It exposes the administrative lethargy inside the Yaounde regime that made the Kenya Airways crash of May 2005 the international calamity it turned out to be. It was written by Ambassador Niels Marquardt.
– On the morning of 5 May 2005, Cameroon was on the global news spotlight. A Kenya Airways plane with 157 passengers onboard had disappeared from the skies. Authoritative global news channels zoomed attention on the small nation in Africa’s equatorial forest region as an expectant world awaited information and relieving news on the whereabouts of the plane. But there was neither good news nor information of rescue operations in store – the men and women whose responsibility it was to inform the world and search for the missing plane were busy attending to ‘other official duties’.

Result: search efforts were badly coordinated and speculations were rife in the media about the exact happenings in Cameroon with regards to the incident. This cable recounts the gruesome scale of the incident and retraces how the deliberate gaffes of a callous government made things even worse. “For the few days when the world’s attention was focused on Cameroon, the Government was left looking lost, uncaring, and incompetent,” the cable derides.

The underlying message in the cable is that it only takes a gentle breeze to expose a fowl’s rump. And indeed, the Kenya Airways incident made a public display of the messy state of affairs in Cameroon’s public administration. First we learn of the carefree attitude of a transport minister who, under the apparent influence of a nocturnal alcohol-boozing orgy, literally snubbed calls to action. Through the cable, we also saw how an unconcerned government drove luxury vehicles to attend the burial of a departed regime baron. In an even more baleful twist, we are reminded of how Kenya became the crisis management centre of a catastrophe that happened thousands of kilometers away in Cameroon.

Adding more insight to this vulgar parade of carefree management, the cable admits that the Kenya incident is only a microcosm of the litany of reasons why Cameroon is still an underdeveloped country. 

Seen through the crystal ball of the American diplomat, Cameroon’s response to the disaster “was hampered by many of the same factors that impede progress on development and reforms” in the country. Among those listed feature “an aversion to public communication, a stifling regard for hierarchy and protocol, a crippling regard for style over substance, and an inability to react to events in a timely manner”. 

Continue reading below for a full unedited version of the diplomatic cable as published by Wikileaks.

Subject: Kenya Air Crash Puts Cameroon’s Governance Problems in Stark Relief
Classified: 05/25/2005
Classified By: Poloff Tad Brown


The May 5 crash of Kenya Airways flight 507 (reftels) brought to stark relief some of the worst characteristics of governance in Cameroon.  Although the event would have challenged even a capable government, Cameroon’s response was hampered by many of the same factors that impede progress on development and reforms: an aversion to public communication, a stifling regard for hierarchy and protocol, a crippling regard for style over substance, and an inability to react to events in a timely manner.  For the few days when the world’s attention was focused on Cameroon, the Government was left looking lost, uncaring, and incompetent. End Summary.
The Kenya Airways crash would have been challenging to even a capable government. The six-month old Boeing 737, registered to a foreign carrier and including 114 passengers from more than thirty countries, disappeared in the middle of a tropical storm in the deep of the night into an area that can best be described as thick mangrove swamp.

To further complicate matters, the plane’s homing beacon (intended to guide search efforts) appears to have been destroyed by the impact, and signal intelligence provided by a credible international agency led Cameroon’s limited search resources — and those of France, the U.S., and South Africa — on a wild goose chase far from the crash site for more than 24 hours.
…But It Doesn’t Have to Be This Difficult

The Government of Cameroon (GRC) got off to a bad start by not starting at all. During the crucial first hours after the disappearance of the plane, the highest levels of the GRC were all personally participating in the funeral services for a recently departed former vice prime minister. Phoned Saturday morning by the Ambassador with an offer to help, Prime Minister Inoni saiod he was required to be present as the representative of President Biya, which meant that almost the entire cabinet was too.

In addition to the compulsions of protocol, personal political futures were at stake as, with elections looming and a government reshuffle on the horizon, the many hours of mourning would be as much a ruling CPDM party congress as funeral rites. The first interministerial meeting to address the crash did not take place until late Sunday, May 6, more than 36 hours after the plane went missing

. Interior Minister Marafa, to whom the Governor of the Littoral province (where the accident occurred) reports, tried to mobilize resources but could not do so over the Prime Minister’s head.  Indeed, at our suggestion, Marafa convened a meeting with the Communication Minister and the French and U.S. ambassadors on Sunday afternoon, but it had no impact.
Who is in Charge Here?

The GRC’s efforts were further crippled before they began by the lack of an effective government spokesperson and the complete absence of the Minister of Transportation. The public could be forgiven for thinking that Kenya Airways CEO Titus Naikuni was leading the search and relief efforts as his public statements–immediately issued from Nairobi and then from Douala where he arrived the next day–were the only authoritative information available to the Cameroonian and international public.

President Biya, off in his village, was entirely absent from the public eye (and, as far as we can tell, from internal deliberations as well) for the duration of the crisis and he never made any public statement of condolence (though he did call a day or mourning two weeks later). Biya’s silence appeared even worse as he did find time to congratulate the French and Nigerian presidents-elect. Further embarrassing to Cameroon, the Kenyan Minister of Transport was the most visible and active public official on the scene. 

Cameroon’s Minister of Transport and a notorious drunk, Dakole Daissala, only recently emerged from his village in the Far North where he had been campaigning for July Parliamentary elections. In a May 14 meeting with the Ambassador, Prime Minister Inoni wearily recounted having left numerous unanswered messages on Dakole’s voice mail over the 10 days since the crash informing him of the plane crash and the need for his presence.
Given his incompetence, it is unlikely that Dakole’s presence would have helped as all levels of the GRC appeared unable to adapt its strict hierarchical style to allow for the necessary decentralized, rapid decision-making for a proper response.

Nonetheless, his evident absence only served to highlight his irrelevance and had Cameroonians — not to mention foreigners — openly asking what purpose he serves.  Officials in the capital, up to and including Prime Minister Inoni, insisted that the officials in the field (governor and provincial delegate) were in charge of the operation.

But US officials in the field reported that those officials were paralyzed by an unwillingness or inability to take any decisions without first receiving instructions from Yaounde. The absence of clear orders from Yaounde meant the absence of action or decision on the field.  For example, officials from Kenya Airways and their contracted mortuary experts were unable to access the local morgue to inspect recovered remains until they complained to diplomatic officials in Yaounde who in turn were able to pressure Yaounde GRC officials to order the mortuary officials to allow them entry.

On May 16, ten days after the crash, this paralysis continued to the point that National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) team leader Dennis Jones decided to send the rest of his team of experts back to the US because they had been unable to start work. Much of the NTSB’s frustration arose from the GRC’s failure to transfer the “black box” voice recorder — located just two days after the crash — to an overseas processing facility. Ambassador Marquardt pressed Prime Minister Inoni on May 14 to order its immediate shipment to Canada (the Kenyans’ preference), which he agreed to do, but without effect.

Once a decision was formally made to ship the box to Canada (which itself only occurred after the ambassador cornered the Prime Minister, Deputy Transport Minister, Foreign Minister and Director of Civil Aviation after the mourning ceremony on May 18), the GRC was still incapable of quickly tackling the logistics of transferring the box, leaving the ambassador to intervene with the Canadian High Commission, for example, to help the box’s escorts obtain Canadian visas over what had become a five-day weekend.

Now That It’s Over, Doing the Right Thing

President Biya declared a national day of mourning for Friday, May 18, 14 days after the crash and 4 days after his Kenyan counterpart had done the same. A commemorative ceremony that same day was attended by Prime Minister Inoni (representing Biya), the entire cabinet, ambassadors, and perhaps 10,000 mourners.  The event was a welcome if overdue gesture by the GRC, which been pilloried in the press and public opinion for lack of a timely and compassionate response to the crash, whose casualties included 34 Cameroonian nationals.

While obviously reflecting a lot of work under pressure at a difficult site, the ceremony itself was marred by a some significant shortcomings, including an official program that inexplicably failed to list 32 of the 114 victims (entirely omitting the Kenyan victims, for example) and the absence of any statement at all from the government. 

Likewise, a relatively robust and effective effort to secure the area, recover remains and improve access to the remote location was overshadowed by a bureaucratic incompetence and/or friction with Kenya Airways that prevented or delayed the visit of many family members to the crash site. 

The fact that the GRC never appointed a spokesman meant that even its legitimate accomplishments went unnoticed.  An initial sortie before the press by the professorial Communication Minister went over poorly (he appeared to be blaming the French for the initial false start), and was not repeated.
Comment: Crash Crystallized Cameroon’s Governance Problems

The GRC’s handling of the Kenya Airways crash is a metaphor for the problems that plague Cameroon’s governance more generally and stymie even the best efforts for reform. Even observers steeped in the peccadilloes of African governments professed incredulity at what they perceived to be the GRC’s complete disinterest and incompetence in the face of a terrible and enduring disaster.

The characteristics that manifested themselves so starkly in this episode — an inwardly focused ruling elite, a President who takes all key decisions despite being out of touch, excessive deference to hierarchy and protocol, no sense of urgency (even in an emergency), over-reliance on instructions from the capital, an abhorence of initiative, the presence in key jobs of individuals who add nothing other than regional/tribal “balance”, lack of cohesion among ministers, and an aversion to public communication except by turgid, untimely presidential decree — are the same attributes that prevent Cameroon from being a much better place.

What is even more distressing is that the GRC, with a few exceptions, is probably unaware of — and unconcerned about — its lamentable performance.  Minister Marafa, one of the few senior actors who gets it here, told the Ambassador afterwards that he was “fed-up with this entire operation.”

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