Cameroon’s scandal linked to the mismanagement of Covid-19 funds has considerably damaged relations between Ferdinand Ngoh Ngoh, the presidency’s secretary-general, and Prime Minister Joseph Dion Ngute. But it’s not the first time that the two have butted heads.
In early June, Balungeli Confiance Ebune, director of prime minister Joseph Dion Ngute’s cabinet, was interviewed by investigators of the Special Criminal Court, who were charged with shedding light on suspicions of embezzlement, overcharging and misappropriation of funds regarding the purchase of anti-Covid protection and screening equipment. The damage suffered by the state amounts to several tens of billions of CFA francs.
The head of government may well have experienced the humiliation of being interviewed himself. He was cited in a report by the Chamber of Accounts, which states that businessman Mohamadou Dabo, owner of Mediline Medical Cameroon and Moda Holding, was in possession of public contracts that accounted for 94.93% of the funds used.
When questioned on this subject during his hearing on 19 May, health minister Malachie Manaouda told investigators that he had acted on the prime minister’s orders. This was all it took for Ngute’s detractors to demand an explanation from him.
Opposed on everything
According to those close to him, Ngute only encouraged the health minister to choose the most qualified partner, especially to deliver screening tests, which were out of stock at the time. His chief of staff explained to the investigators that he was only responsible for formalising this encouragement in writing.
Of course, there is no question of tracing this back to the prime minister while he is still in office. But Ngute did not back down from the affront. His entourage believes that it is just yet another manoeuvre by Ferdinand Ngoh Ngoh, who has been the presidency’s secretary-general (SGPR) for 10 years.
This diplomat from the Central region, who speaks fluent French and English, enjoys the confidence of Chantal Biya, the first lady. The president has also delegated power of signature to him, which gives Ngoh a wide range of powers.
Ngoh got along fine with the placid former prime minister Philemon Yang, who had no problem with surrendering his prerogatives to the Palace. But Ngute is quite different. This rising Anglophone star, who was appointed prime minister on 4 January 2019, has quickly made his mark. Made of a different calibre than his predecessor, the 67-year-old lawyer does not hesitate to cross swords with the all-powerful SGPR.
The first disagreement between the two men took place on 13 August 2019, after Ngute asked ministers to propose names of directors general of companies and public institutions to replace those who had reached the end of their term.
Ngoh replied to this demand by writing a scathing memo to the secretary-general of the prime minister’s office. “I have the honour of informing you that the head of state has asked the prime minister, the head of government, to remind the heads of ministerial departments responsible for the technical supervision of public enterprises and establishments, that the power to appoint the social organs of said structures falls within the exclusive competence of the President of the Republic,” he wrote.
He continued: “In this regard, he would like to inform them that, pending several important decisions that the head of state must make, the officials in office should continue to exercise their functions as normal.”
The second dispute was over the organisation of the Major National Dialogue, aimed at resolving the Anglophone crisis. The two men disagreed with each other on almost everything. While Ngoh wanted to calibrate and control everything, Ngute wanted these discussions to be open and inclusive.
On the ground, while the SGPR was coordinating a Swiss mediation initiative, Ngute supervised direct discussions with the secessionist leaders, which were undertaken by Léopold Maxime Eko Eko, head of the special services. In the end, it was the prime minister who defused the anger of the religious leaders within the Anglophone zone, who were disillusioned by Etoudi’s disdainful treatment of Cardinal Christian Wiyghan Tumi’s peace initiatives.
Close to Paul Biya
The prime minister’s attempts at mediation annoy the SGPR to the core, as it feels that Ngute is trying to create a diarchy within Cameroon. However, Ngoh cannot openly criticise Ngute, as he regularly meets face to face with President Paul Biya. Meanwhile, the presidency’s secretary-general only ever receives a small audience.
Finally, the rivalry between the two men has intensified as Ngute – who visited the Groupement Inter-Patronal du Cameroun (Gicam) in mid-May – has made sure to maintain ties with his contacts from within the private sector, where Ngoh has few friends.
This friction will no doubt produce sparks, unless a government reshuffle puts an end to this rivalry within the upper echelons of power.