YAOUNDE — Cameroon is divided over the fate of some of President Paul Biya's closest former aides who have been arrested and detained on charges of corruption, attempted corruption and embezzlement.
The nearly two dozen former ministers and heads of state corporations, including Ephraim Inoni, the central African nation's last prime minister, are said by some to be political victims of Biya's three-decade rule.
For secondary schoolteacher Njika Alain, the arrests may have been motivated by Biya's desire to eliminate possible political opponents.
"It looks like a [doing away] of those who are opposed to the actual regime," Alain said. "It is a political fight instead of the fight against corruption or embezzlement."
Journalist George Alain Boyomo says the arrests began some 20 years ago when President Biya had already been in power for a decade.
"At the beginning, the fight against corruption in Cameroon had good intentions, but today people have come to understand that the campaign is to eliminate opponents of the president of the Republic," he said, adding that recent arrests have significant political implications.
Among the dozens in jail are Marafa Hamidou Yaya, President Biya's former secretary general and senior minister for territorial administrations; Abah Abah Polycarp, ex-minister of finance; Jean Mariie Atangana Mebara, a former minister of higher education; and Sieyam Siwe, former minister of mines. Some have been jailed for more than a decade, and it is not clear how many of the prisoners have faced trial.
According to human rights campaigner Dr. Richard Tantoh, the incarcerations do not align with standard judicial procedures involving charges of corruption and embezzlement.
"The treatment that is given to those who are caught does not give us an impression that the objective is to recover what has been stolen," he said, explaining that corruption or embezzlement indictments typically involve the creation of, for example, a special fund to ensure recovered finances are dedicated to public service or development projects.
"That is not happening," he said. "[These] people are locked up, some for 15 years, and they are released without us knowing exactly if money has been recovered or not."
But Laurent Esso, Cameroon's justice minister, says some money has been recovered.
"Today the public treasury has recovered more than $4 million," he said, adding that the money was obtained from suspects who opted to stop the judicial process via financial settlement.
Elvis Ngole-Ngole, minister of forestry and wildlife and one of Biya's close collaborators in the ruling Cameroon People's Democratic Movement, denies that charges are fabricated.
"There is nothing to tell me that it is politically motivated and I think that the initiative is a deliberate public policy which is intended to make Cameroon a better country," he said. "If there are manipulators, we will know how to take care of those manipulators. A good policy such as the fight against corruption should not be manipulated upon or should not be distorted or should not be rendered a mockery by those who do not understand the moral foundations, the legal foundations, the legitimacy of that policy."
Four of the suspects, including Catherine Abena, former secretary of state for education, and Henry Engoulou, former minister delegate of finance, have died in detention. Their deaths have fueled rumors that suspects are not being given medical attention. Government spokesperson Issa Tchiroma denied the claims and said the case of Engoulou, who died 2 weeks ago, disproves the critics.
"During his detention, Mr. Engoulou benefited regular medical care at the Yaounde Central Hospital," he said. "As his health condition was growing worse, he was transferred to the intensive care unit where he later passed away."
None of the incarcerated suspects ever publicly declared their intentions to run for president. While Biya recently granted presidential clemency to some of the corruption suspects, only the minister of justice can determine who will be eligible for clemency and when.
In almost all of his public messages, Biya vows to intensify the fight against corruption, indicating that all those who have stolen will be punished without exception.