Cameroon tense as leader shows he's more radical than expected

The prospering West African oil state of Cameroon has reached a dangerous crossroads only 18 months after its new President, Paul Biya, gained power. An intense power struggle is raging. Its roots are found in religious and cultural differences, as well as in public reaction to radical policy shifts initiated by the new President, who many had not expected to be so forceful. The tensions stem from:

* Biya's accusation that his predecessor, Ahmadou Ahidjo - the man who brought Cameroon into independence in 1960 - and several other former officials plotted to assassinate him. Mr. Ahidjo and the others recently were tried and sentenced to death.

* An actual coup attempt early last month, apparently planned by the Republican Guard, the elite corps that protects the presidential palace. The alleged coup leader was the guard's second in command. Biya put down the revolt, commanding the support of at least half of the 1,000-man guard.

* Conflict between the Muslim north of Cameroon and the mainly non-Muslim south. Biya is a Christian from the south, Ahidjo a Muslim from the north. Northerners, unhappy at seeing the presidency pass from their hands, became alarmed when Biya began trying to split the north into three parts and to consolidate his own power.

* A sense of discrimination alleged by the English-speaking minority in the western provinces, which abut on Nigeria, against the French-speaking majority.

It is the religious-regional conflict that is the major source of instability. But together, the factors are a dangerous mix - and a sad development for a country that was well on its way to becoming a major economic success story in Africa.

Cameroon was considered one of the safest countries in the continent for overseas investors, who were increasingly drawn to it for its oil-producing potential and its wise use of revenues in developing the agricultural sector. (Real growth has averaged a rare 6 percent a year at time when many African countries were registering zero growth rates.)

The immediate pretext for the coup attempt was that Biya, concerned about the preponderant influence of northerners in the Army, had decided to remove a number of senior Army officers whom he regarded as unreliable.

However, the putting down of the coup seems to be only the end of another chapter. The intense power struggle is still developing.

Before he assumed office, Biya was never regarded as strong presidential material. He was seen as a good compromise candidate to take over from Ahidjo, who resigned for health reasons. Ahidjo had brought Biya in as prime minister when the former British Trusteeship Territory, West Cameroon, became part of a unified country, whose official language is French.

Biya, however, did not see himself as the northerners saw him. Once he took office, he began to shuffle the government to strengthen his own hold on power.

In an attempt to reassure his fellow northerners, Ahidjo announced that he would not give up the influential post of chairman of the ruling party, the Union National Camerounais (UNC). In December 1982, he asked a close friend, Alhai Moussa Sarki Fadi Yaya, a wealthy northern businessman and politician, to reassure northern militants.

But instead of reassuring the northern militants, Yaya joined them and began to campaign against Biya. Ahidjo then asserted his role as party chairman of the ruling Union National Camerounais, trying to expel Yaya and several national assemblymen from the party.

From that point on, everything went wrong: Ahidjo lost some of his old influence in the north, and Biya became more determined than before to cut off the militants' challenge. In June 1983 he again reshuffled his Cabinet and dismissed four of Ahidjo's appointees.

Faced with a split in the ruling party, Ahidjo resigned as chairman in August and went to live in France. Soon afterward, Biya alleged that he had uncovered an assassination plot against him and accused his personal bodyguard and aide-de-camp, who were both arrested.

He then embarked on even more radical changes in the government and, more audaciously, proceeded to reform local government to allow for the northern province to be split into three parts.

He also changed the military command. Having displayed this amount of muscle, he summoned a special session of the ruling party and had himself elected as the new chairman in Ahidjo's place.

His next move was to call for early elections, and he secured a popular endorsement as President by the overwhelming margin of victory that is typical of election victories here.

From this position of apparent strength, he initiated more Cabinet changes, strengthening the number of his own appointees. He also expanded his patronage system.

Finally, in February 1984, he had two suspected assassins brought before a military tribunal, which also heard charges accusing the absent Ahidjo of involvement in the alleged plot. Although the prosecutor asked for a life sentence, all three were sentenced to death - Ahidjo in absentia.

Following this trial, Biya convened another military tribunal to try a former prime minister, a former defense minister, and the former head of the national gendarmerie - all of them powerful figures in the Ahidjo regime.

The three were found guilty in a trial that independent observers say was full of irregularities.

Bowing to French and international public opinion, Biya commuted all the death sentences to life imprisonment.

Thus, within a space of just over six months, the nation's politics had become polarized - with the former President and some of his leading lieutenants condemned to death for treason, and with tensions between the north and the south reaching dangerous levels. Under these circumstances, it was not surprising that northern elements in the Army planned a coup.

Multinational oil companies, who have wanted to expand exploration and development in Cameroon, now seem bound to lessen their activities until the country's future political shape becomes clearer.

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