Mbingo, Cameroon
Mbingo, Cameroon

YAOUNDE - In Cameroon, a book published March 7 by an imprisoned former government minister has sparked heated debate. The book's author, along with some fellow politicians and rights activists, say the government is using its crackdown on corruption as a pretext to target potential political rivals of longtime President Paul Biya.

At least two dozen former government officials have been arrested in Cameroon in the past eight years, including several ex-ministers and heads of state-owned corporations.

Ex-Health Minister Urbain Olanguena Awono said in his book, titled Mensonges d’Etat (or Lies of the State), that he and other detainees are “prisoners of conscience.”

Other detainees have recently published letters in local media saying their arrests and long detentions are politically motivated.

The roundup has become known locally as “Operation Sparrowhawk,” referring to a predator that hunts and eats other smaller birds.

But Cameroon's government spokesman, Issa Tchiroma Bakary, said at a news conference Thursday that people have been erroneously accusing the government of witch hunting, abuse of legal procedures and political persecution, whereas the president is simply asking those arrested to account for public funds.

Cameroon President Paul Biya, Sept. 15, 2011 (file
FILE - Cameroon's President Paul Biya waves to supporters during the opening of his party conference, in Yaounde, Sept. 15, 2011.

Biya is not and never will be afraid of political competition to the level that he arrests his opponents, Bakary said, adding that detained officials were plotting to challenge state authority.

Embezzlement charges

Awono is serving a 20-year jail sentence. He was arrested and convicted of corruption and embezzlement in 2008, the same year Biya changed the constitution to allow him to run for two more terms in office.

Local press had reported at the time that Awono and his senior staff were plotting to oust Biya.

Awono's defense counsel, Barrister Andrew Litumbe, denied the allegation.

"Paul Biya is like — I cannot even term him a dictator. He is a super dictator," Litumbe said.

Last year, Cameroon's justice minister, Laurent Esso, said $4 million of public funds had been recovered so far, though he did not give further details. The state estimates as much as $152 million in public funds has been stolen.

Cameroonian law states that corruption suspects can be detained and have travel documents seized while investigations are ongoing.

‘Supra president’

At least four corruption detainees have died in prison. Family members told VOA they did not receive proper medical attention.

Only 15 of the at least two dozen ex-officials arrested since 2008 have been charged, according to human rights activist Robert Mbile.

"It is in rare countries like Cameroon where you find a president who is the head of the armed forces, the judiciary, the government and everything," Mbile asid. "So he is a supra, a supra president. He appoints the judges, even the constitutional council he has to lord on it. Biya has been taking care only of his chair and nothing else. The interest of the people is nothing to him."

The government counters that lengthy judicial processes and difficulties tracing embezzled funds in foreign banks have made investigations long and cumbersome.

Biya's mandate ends in 2018, but his supporters have been calling publicly on the 83-year-old leader to organize elections sooner and run again.