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Tales of Ex-Leader's Role In Revolt Stun Cameroon

By Jonathan C. Randal
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 15, 1984; A01

YAOUNDE, Cameroon, April 14, 1984 -- A week after loyalist troops crushed a coup attempt by the elite palace guard here, shocked Cameroonians are assessing the damage to their once proud image as a rare example of African political stability and prosperity.

The official Cameroon Tribune summed up the gloomy mood in an editorial lamenting that now Cameroon had "joined the list of 32 out of 51 independent African states that have suffered at least 62 attempted, or successful, coups since 1960."

But perhaps the most disheartening aspect for residents here is the widespread belief that behind the episode is former president Ahmadou Ahidjo, the man who put Cameroon on a stable footing following independence in 1960 and voluntarily turned over power in 1981 to his hand-picked successor, President Paul Biya, to finish his term.

"I simply cannot believe," a financial analyst said, "that Ahidjo would want to wreck his own monument."

Biya, a Christian from the southern part of the country, has worked hard not to alienate Ahidjo's constituency in the northern Moslem section.

But now the bad blood between the two men may force Biya to take harsh steps against the mainly northern rebels in an effort to bolster his image as a strong leader.

"If he Biya doesn't come down like a ton of bricks--and soon," a diplomat remarked, "he is as good as through."

Biya has acted forcefully in the past week. He dissolved the Republican Guard, the unit behind the April 6 coup attempt. He also fired his personal military aide and the officer commanding the capital military district, both northerners. Neither man was accused of being involved in the uprising, but Biya blamed them for doing nothing to stop it.

Armed Forces Minister Gilbert Andze Tsongui said in an interview today that the government investigation, begun three days ago, was almost complete and that a military tribunal would be called into session "as soon as possible."

"There's not the shadow of a doubt" about Ahidjo's role, Tsongui said, citing confessions by the coup ringleaders who planned to put the former president's political partisans in power.

Although Ahidjo has refused to comment about the plot, influential government officials insist they also have no doubt about his role and maintain they were right to have put him on trial in absentia in late February for his alleged involvement in an attempted coup last June. He has denied any part in that plot.

In retrospect, many Cameroonians fault Biya for not having moved long ago to disperse the heavily armed Republican Guard, the 1,500-member elite palace unit that his predecessor had hand-tailored and recruited almost exclusively among his mostly Moslem fellow northerners. The guard, commanded by a northern colonel, Saleh Ibrahim, constituted the spearhead of the coup troops, which also included some gendarmes and police officers as well as civilians, especially northern businessmen who provided the financing, Tsongui said.

According to Biya's critics, Ahidjo, 59, felt he had somehow been tricked into resigning on the advice of doctors who had warned that remaining in office could cost him his life. Throughout 1983 the two men's relations deteriorated until Biya in August accused his predecessor of plotting the June coup attempt.

In September, Biya was elected president of Cameroon's single political party unopposed. He replaced Ahidjo, who had held onto that office and claimed that as party leader he should formulate policy that the government should carry out.

With Ahidjo living in exile in southern France, Biya was elected president of the republic, once again unopposed, Jan. 15. The next month Biya put two men associated with Ahidjo on trial for plotting the first reported coup attempt. He also had the former president tried in absentia. The military court condemned the defendants to death. But Biya later commuted the sentences to life imprisonment.

His clemency was widely taken for weakness by Cameroonians, who recalled that in similar circumstances Ahidjo had executed plotters without benefit of trial.

"Either Biya should never have brought Ahidjo and company to trial or he should have had them shot," reasoned a longtime resident. "It was an unnecessary trial which only served to frighten the Republican Guard."

Despite the calls for tough action following last week's coup attempt, Biya has gone out of his way again not to alienate the north. Ahidjo still is a force to reckon with there.

Yet the president's insistence that the coup plotters did not represent "a single province or a single religion" does not jibe with what Tsoungui, Armed Forces Chief Gen. Pierre Semengue and other officials have said about the responsibility of northern Moslems.

Semengue told reporters that the leading mutineers, "mostly captains and junior officers," had been preparing the coup "for a long time." According to reliable informants, the day before the coup an unusual number of bank clients in the northern part of the country withdrew cash from their accounts.

According to a persistent report here, Biya got wind that the coup was planned and decided on the spot to reassign many of the officers in the Republican Guard.

In turn, the plotters were said to have jumped the gun, which could explain why, in Semengue's words, the uprising was an example of "perfect organization but lousy execution."

In retrospect, Biya was lucky to survive the attempt since the guard was the only major military force in the capital and the plotters took over the radio station, ammunition dump, major depots and the airport without much initial resistance. But Biya, protected by his personal bodyguard in the fortress-like palace Ahidjo built for just such an occasion, was able to call in loyal units from the provinces.

Thirty-six hours after the coup started, rebels were doffing uniforms and fleeing in shorts or in some cases disguised as women. Officially, the government said nine loyalist soldiers, four civilians and 58 rebels were killed in the fighting.

Many Cameroonians believe these figures are grossly underestimated, especially the civilian casualties. Many civilians were buried privately.

More than 260 gendarmes are listed as missing and presumed to be in flight or dead. The government is holding 1,053 mutineers amid suggestions that many are guardsmen who were misled by the ringleaders and then surrendered when they realized what was afoot.

Their fate also poses a dilemma for the government. The punishment for treason is the death penalty. Presumably, Biya would prefer to commute sentences for such a large number of suspects rather than provide Ahidjo with so many martyrs if indeed the former president is tempted to try to seize power again.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company