On April 6, 1984, a segment of the Cameroon’s armed forces took arms in an attempt to topple Paul Biya and regain full control of national institutions. Contrary to popular belief, the initiative was undertaken by members of a secret society that has been operating within Cameroon’s army since 1975, and carried out by a coalition of junior combat men reunited around the Jeunes Officiers pour la Survie de L’Etat/Young Officers for the Survival of the State (JOSE). Still, it transpires from oral history sources that participants of the JOSE movement included junior officers from other provinces; and that some civilians like Issa Adoum, Director of the National Fund for Rural Development (FONADER), was just a representative of civilians in the JOSE movement. I guess the case of Frederic Godwe, who was one of the youngest CEO in the history of public corporations in Cameroon –SOTUC-, could be read in this light as well.
If it remains true, as Captain Guerandi Mbara contends, that the highest ranked officers of the JOSE movement had the grade of Captain, one should question why the government identified senior officers like Colonels Saley Ibrahim and Ngoura Weladji as the ringleaders of the failed coup. One potential answer could be that since Ahidjo has built a Republican Guard and the Quartier General along tribal lines by staffing it with Northerners, political observers equated the April 6th incident with a revenge of Northern Muslims whose hegemony was seemingly threatened by the Biya regime.
The absence of historical sources, archives and government documents make it extremely hard to conduct substantial research on Cameroon history. This situation explains the fact that rumors – “On Dit Que”-, are tremendously evolving as primary sources of historical research. On this ground, unclassified sources allege that Paul Biya, assisted by seven close security staff led by Ivo and Holong, left the Etoudi palace through a security underground bunker that was specially designed by construction engineers for such purposes. The residences of Army General Pierre Semengue (Chief of Staff), Colonel Asso’o Emane Benoit (Commander in chief of the Quartier General), and Gilbert Andzé Tsoungui (Minister of Armed Forces) were all bombed. Other senior state officials that were arrested by rebels included the Secretary General of the Presidency, Joseph Zambo; Director of Presidential Security, Rene Claude Meka; and General Delegate for National Security, Mbarga Nguele. Some contend that when rebels arrived at his residence in order to capture and kill him, General Semengue managed to sneak out from a self-created air-conditioner fissure; he then organized a resistance strategy with Colonel Asso’o Emane Benoit of the Quartier Général and immediately ordered paramilitary troops from Koutaba, Djoum, Ebolowa and Douala that fought the rebels in order to regain control of the capital city.
Relevant information that was never confirmed by official sources is the fact that Foumban was slatted to become the new capital city of Cameroon. Some sources tend to defeat the widely-circulated thesis that FONADER chairman Issa Adoum was going to act as interim president and organize the return of Ahidjo. In a recent interview to Montreal based CameroonVoice on April 2009, Captain Guerandi Mbara, another ringleader of the coup who was at the time a training officer at the Military Academy-EMIA, argued that the vast majority of young officers in the JOSE movement were Marxist Leninist in thought, completely disagreed with both the Ahidjo and Biya regimes, and that the idea of bringing back Ahidjo to lead the country never crossed the mind of the brave men who gave their live for a patriotic cause. He further argued that the next head of state was supposed to be chosen by consensus by members of the Conseil Militaire Supérieur (Higher Military Council).
Convicted plotters went through a very short period of “death row phenomenon” and death sentences were carried out within delay. As in most armed and non armed conflicts, no reliable statistics exist on the final count of April 6, 1984. Information gathered from several sources reveals the following: 48-51 death sentences and executions; 64 sentenced to more than 5 years of detention; 122 sentenced to 5 years in jail; 38 detained without trial; 3 plotters managed to escape; 25 deaths in the course of detention due to malnutrition and poor diet; 15 were still in detention by the onset of the Amnesty law of 1991. Culprits were summarily executed around Mbalmayo on the Oyack Hill, located about 10kms from the city centre along the itinerary from the Nyong River to the Ecole Nationale des Eaux et Forêts (ENEF). They were all buried in three mass graves set up on the occasion at Nkolguet (what population later baptized “Colline de la Rigueur”/Hill of Rigor) and Ekam Bitié between 11am – 1pm respectively. Most detainees regained their freedom after the December 1991 Amnesty (Law 91/022 of 26 December 1991).
UNDERSTANDING THE FAILURE
Why did the coup fail? The first reason is than an informant denounced the plot the day before, April 5, 1984 at 3pm. The commander in chief of the presidential guard Colonel Rene Claude Meka took preventive steps, reinforced and changed the security apparatus within and around the palace. Meka then removed and sent on leave at the last minute the entire batch of military guards that were initially scheduled to be posted at the main entrance of the presidential palace on the night preceding the coup. Such officers were initially prepared to ease the process by facilitating the seizure of the palace/headquarters of national institutions as well as the capture of the head of state. The second reason is the sudden and last minute withdrawal of the Koutaba airbone division (division aeroportée). The Koutaba paramilitaries will rather join the loyalist group, play an instrumental role in the recapture of the capital city and the defeat of rebels. The third reason is that some strategic instructions were poorly transmitted, applied and carried out. The rebels also failed in their initial plan of designing and implementing an urban guerilla front to counterattack loyalist forces. Some sources also contend that the rebels made full use of inexperienced and unprepared military trainees (élèves-gendarmes) that were called after midnight by their supervisors and forced manu militari to join the movement.
The reason that was widely circulated to justify the failure of the coup in the public mindset was the failure of strategic telecommunications. In the early times of the coup, Major Benai Mpecke of the loyalist forces took control of the Mount Mbankolo radio transmission office. Though rebels managed to enter and seized the central office of Radio Cameroon and held its personnel hostage, their victory message to the nation did not go through the waves because a technician willingly disconnected transmission cables at the Soa High waves station. As a result, the message was heard only in Yaoundé. One wonders whether the outcome of the coup would have been different should the alleged message have gone through. Cameroon radio spent two days broadcasting infantry music in lieu of normal business schedule. Later on, the alleged rebels’ speech was widely published by the local press. In his state of address message, Paul Biya energetically condemned the coup and praised the armed forces for their courage and determination to save national institutions: “L’armée a fait son devoir, tout son devoir et rien que son devoir.”
GOVERNMENT OF THE VILLAGE, BY VILLAGE AND FOR THE VILLAGE
The primary and most important consequence of the coup was the emergence of ethnic belonging as a tool of decision making in the Paul Biya administration. Tribalism, otherwise stated, evolved as the leading factor in the political market and nearly influenced major decisions affecting the future of the nation state, including, but not limited to political appointments, administrative restructuring, electoral coalitions, elites participation into political processes and grassroots support. It is from there that we can reasonably trace the emergence of the concept of “Pays Organisateur” in the Cameroonian vocabulary, a French expression style – la litote- referring to anyone belonging to the ethnic group of the head of state because they are in control and enjoy exceptional privileges compared to people from other ethic groups. The end result of this policy was the development of a vast network of clowns generally known as “griots” around the president’s inner circle to showcase both their loyalty and commitment to his ideals, philosophy and personality.
In aftermath of the coup, an undisclosed number innocent Muslims from the Great North were physically attacked, lynched, raped, murdered, and looted. Such events took place mainly at what is known as Briqueterie, a primarily ghetto neighborhood of the capital city of Yaoundé, as well as in other remote cities known for their tribal allegiance to the head of state. As a result, many Muslims and Northerners invaded the Yaoundé railway station, fled the South and travelled to their stronghold and homeland of Northern Cameroon where they believed to be in security. What is striking is the fact that such civilians knew little about politics and could barely spell their last name.
Paul Biya completely reshuffled his cabinet and purged most northerners from strategic leadership positions in the military and civil services. Though it is difficult to draw an exhaustive list of such victims, we may mention Sadou Daoudou and Maikano Abdoulaye, the two Northerners that served as ministers of armed forces under Ahidjo’s twenty two years of power. Some Northern elites whose responsibility could not be legally established were nevertheless arrested and sentenced. We could mention Dakolé Daissala, ex Managing Director of Cameroon Mass Transit Corporation (SOTUC), who, after a speedy trial by the military tribunal spent several years of detention at the Saa maximum security prison; Issa Tchiroma Bakari who at the time was a senior manager at the Cameroon Railways Authority (REGIFERCAM) in Douala. Some politicians occupying strategic portfolios in the state administration were forced into exile. This is was primarily the case of Bouba Maigairi, Paul Biya’s inaugural Prime Minister, who fled to Nigeria. For memory, Ayang Luc had initially replaced Bello Bouba as Acting Prime Minister following the discovery of a plot on August 22, 1983.
Reacting to the coup, Paul Biya changed the Union Nationale Camerounaise (CNU) Central Committee. Jean Fochivé, the almighty National Security Officer and Chairman of the Cameroon Intelligence Police (CENER) was removed and sent to rest as Ambassador to China. It remains unclear whether the removal of Fochivé was motivated by the fact that he is originally from Foumban, one of the strongest bases of Islam in Cameroon. There is no doubt that April 6 wrought more press censorship and the torture of progressive writers and critical scholars.
Paul Biya used the 1984 coup to reaffirm and strengthen his political leadership by making substantial changes in the political apparatus, a move that would have the effect of reinforcing the ties between the party and the state. In May 1984, seven new members joined the UNC Central Committee, which was expanded from forty-eight to fifty members. Ahidjo loyalists that remained on the Politburo included English speakers Egbe Tabi and Solomon Tandeng Muna. Joseph Charles Doumba, in contrast, replaced Felix Sabbal Lecco in the UNC Politburo. This appointment sound surprising because Doumba was initially part of the “Big Four” that were excluded, in what is generally known as the Moussa Yaya affair, from the UNC by Ahidjo in January 1983 for opposing the selection of Paul Biya as his constitutional successor. Long time Paul Biya’s speechwriter, Doumba previously worked as Director of the Ecole des Cadres du Parti, the UNC Party School.
In the course of July (24-27) 1984, the UNC Central Committee toured the provinces to communicate with the grassroots and campaign in favor of Paul Biya’s New Deal plan. In the meantime, the head of state had initiated his sixth cabinet reshuffle in less than two years of presidency on July 7. The president also changed the senior management of most corporations such as Cameroon Airlines (CAMAIR), the National Petroleum Corporation (SNH), the National Produce Marketing Board (ONCPB), the National Electric Corporation (SONEL), the Cameroon’s Urban Mass Transit Corporation (SOTUC) and the National Fund for Rural Development (FONADER). By surrounding himself with close allies and trustworthy individuals, Paul Biya incidentally laid the foundations of the paternalist state. Citizens had to develop special relationships and networks to be part of the governing class in order to acquire special privileges.
Here is the English version of the April 6, 1984 coup proclamation, reportedly written by Issa Adoum, the civilian head of the coup and former CEO of Fonader, who was executed in Mbalmayo on May 2, 1984. The proclamation was read on the national radio station in Yaounde by 2d Lt Yaya Adoum.
The National Army has just freed the Cameroun people from Biya and his gang, from their tyranny, their fraud, and their incalculable and unspeakable plundering. Yes, the army has decided to put an end to this man's criminal policies against the national unity of our dear country. In fact, in the fifteen months that the Biya regime has lasted, Cameroon has gone through the darkest period of its history, its unity in jeopardy, its economic prosperity compromised and its national reputation tarnished.
You have all been witnesses to the dreadful act put on by the ousted government that claimed to talk of liberalism, democracy, and national integration whereas its daily conduct undermined these high values in the most scandalous manner. The fundamental human rights and freedoms of the individual, as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, were never respected.
The constitution was toyed with at will out of considerations of political calculations. The government and its agents propelled to the top of State machinery behaved as if their only motto was not to serve the nation but to serve themselves. Yes, things went on as if the immediate task was to get pockets filled as quickly as possible lest it would be too late.
And, in fact, that was what it was all about. Finally you can see for yourselves the discredit brought to our country by the recent trials, which were merely a parody of justice. It was therefore high time to cut the Gordian knot. That time is today. Today, thanks to God, my fellow countrymen, the nightmare is over. The army through the impetus given by young officers and non-commissioned officers, ready to make the supreme sacrifice for the nation, stuck together within the "I Dare Movement", intend to give again real meaning to national unity and to restore trust and understanding among citizens.
The Cameroun people and its army have today won a big victory over the forces of evil and history will celebrate this victory with the honour due to it.
Right now, the High Military Council is obliged to take a number of decisions in the interest of national security. The High Military Council requests the Cameroun people to bear with it. First of all, air, land and sea links as well as telecommunications are suspended until further notice. A curfew is imposed on the entire national territory from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m.
Furthermore, the consultation is suspended, the National Assembly dissolved, the government is dismissed; all political parties are suspended; all provincial governors are relieved of their functions, and, finally, at military level, all senior and field officers commanding operational units are discharged from their duties. The immediate subaltern officer with the highest rank and longest serving in the rank takes over command.
Long live the National Armed Forces! Long Live Cameroun!