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Peaceful leadership change in Africa

By Tom GilroySpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / November 8, 1982



Douala, Cameroon

The voluntary resignation of President Ahmadou Ahidjo offers new hope to other Africans that there is an alternative to the pattern of military coups and assassinations that have marked most changes of government on the continent.

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The peaceful transfer of the presidency Nov. 6 to Mr. Ahidjo's longtime prime minister, Paul Biya, would also appear a fitting political end to a man who forged this extremely diverse nation of 8.5 million into one of Africa's few peaceful and prosperous countries.

The decision to step down after presiding over the country since independence in 1960 was vintage Ahidjo.

''No one knew about this, no one,'' said a northern Cameroon businessman who liked to think he was well-informed of the President's activities.

In his Nov. 4 announcement of the change, Ahidjo simply thanked the population for its untiring support during his rule. He called on them to show the same kind of loyalty to Mr. Biya, a career politician from a small tribe near Yaounde. He gave no reason for the move, which caught the nation completely by surprise.

Speculation at first tended toward the notion that he was ill. But the consensus view here, among both Cameroonians and Western diplomats, is that Ahidjo, who has said several times over the years that he wanted to ''rest,'' decided that the time was ripe.

''Politically, I think its a very good move,'' said a French diplomat. ''He goes out in all his glory, with the country in good shape.''

In fact, Cameroon's economy ranks among the strongest in black Africa. Real growth has averaged 6 percent a year for several years, and is expected to continue that pace for the foreseeable future. Rapidly expanding oil production - about 100,000 barrels per day currently, and perhaps double that in a couple of years - a low debt ratio, and what a French banker called ''prudent management'' by the team of technocrats Ahidjo has placed in the key economic posts in recent years, has brought businessmen flocking to the country in the last five years.

And while Mr. Biya must name his own government - something he is expected to do early this week - neither Westerners nor Cameroonians expect any dramatic shifts.

''It's in their interest to stick with continuity,'' said a French economic analyst here.

A northern businessman concurred, saying, ''There may be a few changes, but nothing dramatic.''

Cameroon's evolution into a stable, prosperous country has astounded many longtime observers - particularly those who knew the country at independence. An unlikely product of colonial convenience, Cameroon comprised more than 200 ethnic groups, mutually distrustful populations of northern Muslims and southern Christians, and an English speaking minority that had been administered as part of Nigeria and had little in common with the French-speaking majority.

Until the early 1970s a bloodly civil war raged in the mountainous western region, threatening to plunge the country into chaos.

But after crushing the revolt, Ahidjo sought no retribution. Instead, he engineered a power-sharing arrangement within his government that took account of all the major ethnic and regional groupings. Though there were countless ministerial shifts over the intervening years, the tenuous balance remained constant and there has been no serious civil disturbance in the country since the end of the war in the early 1970s.

Some regional tensions, particularly between the northerners and westerners, remain. And Ahidjo's autocratic style, as well as his harsh measures during the war, have left some detractors. But the mood of the country after his announcement was clearly one of loss, and not a little uncertainty about the future.

''I don't know if we'll ever have another leader like him,'' said a government worker, and a member of the anglophone community, which has not always been content under the Ahidjo government. ''He brought peace to Cameroon, and I think that's what Cameroonians will always remember.''