This is an anxious city, groggy from the 100-plus heat, fearful that it will be blamed for the abortive palace guard coup two weeks ago against the Cameroon government.

In Yaounde, the capital 500 miles to the south, it all seems so cut and dried--or so the triumphant military that saved President Paul Biya and his government have sometimes suggested.

They say that all the ringleaders of the coup attempt were northerners--the businessmen who financed the adventure, the 1,500 mutinous Republican Guards and former president Amhamdou Ahidjo, now in exile in the south of France, who is suspected of giving the initial order.

Garoua, with its 130,000 residents, is Ahidjo's hometown, its privileged status evident in the paved streets so often lacking elsewhere in Cameroon, and its attractive, air-conditioned airport terminal.

The governor of the province, the lamido, or traditional chief, and concerned citizens all convey the same message. They swear they were as surprised and shocked at the coup attempt as any of the other 8.5 million citizens of this prosperous central African nation.

They accept the necessity of exemplary punishment for the ringleaders. But they desperately want the business to end with what they anticipate will be the inevitable executions that a military tribunal is expected to hand down in a matter of weeks.

But as Lamido Ibrahim Apo remarked, wiggling his left leg nervously as he reclined on a blanket-covered mattress before prostrated acolytes in his court, "the population is very uneasy and fears future trouble. We want Cameroon to remain united."

The lamido's message seemed to be that civil war and strife in their neighbors' lands, Nigeria and Chad, had made northerners acutely aware of the price of violence and instability, but that southerners should realize that loose talk could provoke the north.

The day of the attempted coup "there was not a single incident in Garoua," provincial Gov. Fusi Yakum-Ntaw said proudly, "or anywhere in the north."

A recently assigned southerner and traditional chief, who finds that status helps him with his northern counterparts, Yakum-Ntaw laughingly recalled that a central government colleague had telephoned from Yaounde during the attempted coup, apparently expecting trouble.

"He asked to speak to the governor and from the sound of his voice," Yakum-Ntaw said, "he seemed surprised to hear mine and realize I was still in charge."

The governor noted that northerners living in the south were returning at a rate of 350 a day to Garoua and doubtless other families were also heading north.

Neighborhoods inhabited by northerners in Yaounde and the coastal commercial center of Douala have been cordoned off and searched by police and soldiers looking for fugitives from the coup attempt.

And unconfirmed reports suggested that some southern civil servants, who form the majority of the administration, had found it prudent to send their families back home.

"All it'd take to blow things sky high," said a foreign resident "is for the gendarmes or the soldiers the government has brought in to start something stupid in town. And the way they drink beer, that is not impossible."

"Just suppose the coup had succeeded. Its leaders still could not have governed Cameroon," one member of the local elite remarked, drawing on his experience in many parts of the nation. "This is a very complicated country and the ringleaders must have taken leave of their senses."

He noted that the Republican Guard had been recruited by Ahidjo, himself a northern Moslem.

"Too many southerners who are Christians think that all northerners are Moslems," he said. "In fact we Moslems make up only 30 percent of the northern population compared to 40 percent for the Christians and 20 percent animists."

"And many of the guardsmen were chosen from among Christians or animist tribesmen," said a knowledgeable French resident.

Moreover, Ahidjo apparently is not universally revered in the north.

"For us the Ahidjo era ended when he resigned from the presidency in November 1982," a Garoua resident said emphatically.

If influential northerners were instrumental in persuading Biya to commute death sentences handed down last February against Ahidjo and two henchmen for alleged responsibility in an earlier coup, they were motivated less by devotion to the former president than by fear that the north would be singled out for punishment.

"In his later years, Ahidjo used to come up here and summon his cronies out of bed at two in the morning to talk to them about anything that came into his head," a prominent Garoua resident said. "And he angered the farmers by dragging them away from their crops and trucking them down to Yaounde to applaud him. Even his favorites entrusted with important responsibilities now complain he treated them like slaves."

"Toward the end of his 22 years in power Ahidjo did not even need the policy," he added. "People were scared stiff to step out of line."

And despite the roads and other projects he lavished on the north, Ahidjo is faulted for having done little to provide education, especially among the large number of nomads in the north.

Indeed one of Biya's most popular decisions was breaking up the old north into three provinces, thereby diminishing Garoua's importance.

"People in Maroua," a city in the extreme north near the Nigerian and Chad borders, "actually danced in the streets for joy" when they got their own administration, according to a diplomat in Yaounde.

"Now Biya has got to get the balance just right," a resident here said. "He's got to come down hard on the mutineers. Otherwise he won't last long in an Africa that likes its leaders to be strong and macho."

"But those Army guys just care about what they consider to be the facts and they see northern responsibility in the attempted coup writ large," he said. "Even if Biya privately shares that view, his job is to glue the pieces back together, not to shatter them further."