The Washington Diplomat / July 2010
By Larry Luxner
Foreign ambassadors, once they finish their tours of duty in Washington, often go back home and write books or become private consultants. Others join the faculty of prestigious universities. If they’ve had an especially distinguished track record, they might be named foreign ministers by their country’s president, and — in a few cases — they end up as presidents themselves.
Jerome Mendouga’s career took a very different path — taking him all the way from the comfort of Washington’s Embassy Row to the squalor of Cameroon’s most notorious slammer.
After serving for 15 years as Cameroon’s ambassador to the United States, Mendouga returned to his African homeland in November 2008 — and five months later was arrested and jailed on suspicion of embezzling millions in state funds, largely in connection with an aircraft deal that’s become known in Cameroon as the “Albatross” affair.
Since April 15, 2009, the 72-year-old career diplomat has languished in a filthy cellblock as the government he once proudly represented tries to build a case against him. Yet almost a year and a half later, no formal charges had been filed as of press time, and Mendouga’s numerous friends and supporters — including his cancer-stricken wife and two daughters in the United States — adamantly proclaim his innocence, insisting he’s a victim of circumstance.
In late May, The Washington Diplomat traveled to Cameroon on a press trip to mark the country’s 50th anniversary of independence. During the trip, we attempted to visit Mendouga at Kondengui maximum-security prison, located on the outskirts of Yaoundé, the capital. This reporter got as far as Kondengui’s heavily guarded entrance before being told that Mendouga was a “special prisoner” and that special permission was needed to see him.
Such permission never came, despite The Diplomat spending an entire morning being shunted from one low-level government bureaucracy to another. But we did finally manage to reach Mendouga through his Yaoundé lawyer, Simon Essama.
“It’s not my official residence on Normanstone Drive, I can tell you that,” Mendouga remarked when asked about his current digs. “I’m in a room built for 12 people, with three bunk beds, one on top of the other. For the time being, there are six or seven of us here. We have three boxes for showering and three toilets — one normal Western-style and two Turkish squat toilets.”
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Turkish toilets, bunk beds and prison food. That’s a bitter pill to swallow for a high-ranking diplomat used to chauffeured limousines and glitzy receptions at the Willard InterContinental. In fact, Mendouga spent the better part of his life in the Foreign Service of Cameroon — a California-size, impoverished nation of 20 million that’s been ruled by President Paul Biya for nearly 28 years, more than half of its post-colonial existence, in fact.
“I was a professional diplomat for nearly 50 years,” Mendouga said. “Before Washington, I served as ambassador in Kinshasa and Dakar, and was head of our economic mission in Brussels, and had at least 10 other postings. I’ve learned that before you die, anything can happen. But this is the last thing I ever imagined.”
Mendouga said his fellow inmates respect him due to his age and social standing.
“I have not been brutalized by the people who are detained with me, but prison is not heaven,” he said matter-of-factly. “We live with common criminals, people who have killed. We’re in a different area, but you cannot get out of this area without running into these people.”
Janet Garvey, the U.S. ambassador to Cameroon, briefly discussed Mendouga’s situation on the sidelines of an international conference in Yaoundé attended by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and 17 African heads of state.
“It is my understanding that Mr. Mendouga has been questioned, but we have not seen any public statements about the topics discussed or whether he’s been charged,” she told us. “Many of those arrested under this [corruption] operation have not been charged. Under Cameroonian law, you can hold people while you’re investigating.”
And a good number of officials are being held under an ongoing campaign to root out corruption known as Operation Sparrow Hawk, which the government claims has led to 100 arrests, including those of nine former ministers. That campaign, launched at the end of 2004, was in part triggered by pressure from international donors and widespread condemnation of Cameroon after Transparency International ranked it the most dishonest country on Earth in 1998 and 1999.
Garvey, who’s been in Yaoundé for three years now, said that in the Cameroonian context, the Mendouga case isn’t unusual — and that the Biya government’s crackdown on corruption in general sends a positive signal to foreign investors such as ExxonMobil, which has sunk billions into Cameroon’s petroleum industry.
“Right now, we really don’t have any information, so we’re not able to discuss the reasons why he’s in jail. But I can say that investors are happy to see the government tackle corruption,” Garvey told The Diplomat. “We of course watch all of this and want to be sure this effort is done in a way that is all about corruption and not [taking] revenge on political enemies.”
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At the heart of Mendouga’s case is a complex and at times convoluted web of accusations and counter-accusations, many of them bandied about online in colorfully blunt chat rooms and pro-government websites. The charges center around the Cameroonian government’s attempt, beginning in 2001, to purchase a new aircraft for President Biya, which precipitated the Albatross saga.
According to Mendouga, his own government — which at the time was negotiating a painful economic adjustment program with the International Monetary Fund — didn’t want to publicize the fact that it was buying a luxury Boeing BBJ2 jet for the president. So it decided to make the $31 million purchase through state-run Cameroon Airlines, with a $4 million nonrefundable deposit to Boeing.
Apparently, an Oregon-based front company called GIA International had been set up by the airline’s general manager, Yves-Michel Fotso, with the full approval of Marafa Hamidou Yaya, secretary-general of the presidency. But Boeing never received the remaining balance of $27 million, so the plane was not delivered to the Cameroonian crew that had been waiting for a week in Seattle to take delivery of the aircraft.
Mendouga — who said he knew nothing about these previous arrangements — told The Diplomat that on March 27, 2003, he was asked by the newly appointed secretary-general of the presidency, Jean-Marie Atangana Mebara, to visit Boeing’s headquarters in Seattle to try to salvage the deal.
“The president had been waiting for the plane for two years. This new man [Mebara] came in, and he was asked to clarify the matter of what had happened to the money [the president] had given to buy the plane,” Mendouga said, explaining that Mebara then told Biya that they should “talk to our ambassador in the United States. This is how I came into the picture.”
As a consequence of Mendouga’s Seattle trip, he said, Boeing agreed to reopen and conclude the transaction. The company promised to deliver the aircraft upon receipt of another $4 million and the drawing up of a payment schedule for the remaining $23 million.
At that point, according to Mendouga, the president — surprised to learn that Boeing had received only $4 million out of the $31 million he had originally allocated for the plane — ordered Mebara to investigate and recover the money allegedly kept by GIA, which has since declared bankruptcy. Biya also reportedly decided, because of the IMF constraints, to temporarily delay purchase of the new aircraft.
Mendouga said he then received instructions to negotiate with Boeing the 36-month lease of a B767 jet nicknamed “Albatross” until the purchase of a new plane could be finalized. The negotiations were carried out by attorney Malcolm Benge of the Washington law firm Zuckert Scoutt & Rasenberger LLP.
That leased plane was thoroughly checked by Delta Airlines in Atlanta and given a certificate of airworthiness by the Federal Aviation Administration. It was delivered to Yaoundé on April 23, 2004 without problems, yet the following day — while on its inaugural flight to France — the pilot noticed a “flap” failure, told the president about it, and decided to return for repairs to the Cameroonian port city of Douala. The mechanical engineer was able to fix the problem and the plane continued onto Paris without incident.
Nevertheless, said Mendouga, the president and his wife, first lady Chantal Biya, were unnerved by the scare and decided they no longer wanted the Albatross jet.
Yet the story of the “flap failure,” Mendouga claims, was blown way out of proportion in the local media. Some reports claimed it was actually part of an elaborate plot designed to eliminate Biya and seize power, purchasing an older — and more dangerous — aircraft and disguising it as new while pocketing the difference.
Or, more likely, the perpetrators just wanted to pocket the cash. A confidential government memo, provided by Mendouga’s supporters, appears to support the notion that this is the theory the government is operating on, saying “a more candid version of the tale was that out of greed, the secretary-general and the ambassador had mismanaged and embezzled the funds disbursed for a new aircraft to purchase instead an old and unfit one that almost killed the president and his whole family.”
In April 2009, five months after returning from his long tour of duty in Washington, Mendouga was called in as a witness to testify on what he knew about the matter — and was promptly arrested and jailed. Today, the entire debacle has ironically become the proverbial albatross around Mendouga’s neck.
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So what happened to that $31 million allocated for the original presidential plane? Did it go to Fotso, Yaya, Mebara, Mendouga — or a completely different set of actors? Are the charges being trumped up to target potential political threats to Biya and his cronies?
On Feb. 5, a judicial decision presented formally by the investigating judge in the case established that of the $31 million disbursed at the president’s request, $29 million had been “embezzled” through the now-defunct GIA International, with the principal beneficiaries being Cameroon’s current senior minister of interior, Marafa Hamidou Yaya, and the then-general manager of Cameroon Airlines, Yves-Michel Fotso (other unidentified individuals have also been accused with diverting public funds as part of the investigation).
The detailed, 52-page ordinance names another dozen or so people who received varying amounts of cash accounting for the remaining $2 million in missing funds. Neither Yaya nor Fotso could be reached for comment, and it is believed that at least some of those “persons of interest” named in the ordinance have left Cameroon.
Mebara, the former secretary-general, and Mendouga were also named in the ordinance, which, among other things, says the ambassador defended the transactions he made in the course of securing the plane deal with Boeing, listing letters he submitted to Boeing to deduct various payments for the aircraft. Yet the ordinance asks why Mendouga seems to have a designated a certain bank in the contracts instead of referencing Boeing directly. According to the ordinance, Mendouga responded that he went by Boeing’s rules and that this was the way the corporate giant conducted business.
The ordinance concludes that to confirm the diversion of public funds by Mebara and Mendouga, the government will have to verify where the expenditures went with Boeing, the Washington embassy and the various bank entities named in the contracts.
In the meantime, Mendouga and Mebara remain incarcerated at Kondengui along with another official caught up in the scandal, Hubert Patrick Otele Essomba.
Yet Mendouga insists he has nothing to do with the officials suspected of embezzlement, with the missing money, or any kind of “plot” against the president. Rather, he argues he’s been inadvertently roped into an anti-corruption dragnet largely by virtue of the fact that he was asked to secure the deal with Boeing.
“I know people have fooled the president,” Mendouga said. “They’ve told him stories that have convinced him I was not the professional I have been my whole career. But there is absolutely no substance to either the story of my being associated with a group that was against the president, or that I had anything to do with the mismanagement of public funds.”
Regardless — besides the ordinance, which seems to raise as many questions as it does answers — it’s difficult to say for sure what the government is accusing Mendouga of because it hasn’t made formal charges against him public, leaving the ex-ambassador in a waiting game behind bars for the past 14 months.
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Malcolm Benge, the attorney at Zuckert Scoutt & Rasenberger who handled the Boeing negotiations on behalf of the Cameroonian government, declined to elaborate on the affair for this article.
“I don’t represent [Mendouga] in terms of the problems he’s having in Cameroon,” he told us. “I advised the ambassador in connection with the purchase of the aircraft. It’s all covered by attorney-client privilege, and I cannot talk about it unless I get a waiver from the Republic of Cameroon, and that’s not going to happen.”
Meanwhile, Boeing seems to be washing its hands of the entire matter.
John Catron, chief legal counsel for Boeing Capital Corp., a financing vehicle for Boeing products, confirmed in a phone interview from Seattle that no plane was ever actually purchased from his company.
“The government of Cameroon wanted a VIP airplane for the president, and they came looking to lease an aircraft,” he said. “The airplane was leased, but the president decided not to use the aircraft and terminated the transaction. That’s it. There’s no other fancy story behind it.”
When asked about the persistent reports of fraud in the African media, Catron dismissed suggestions that Boeing had anything to do with the scandal, telling us flatly: “There was no hanky-panky. We are bound by the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and there is no basis in fact for these rumors,” referring to speculation that a refurbished plane was somehow substituted for a new one.
Furthermore, as to the accusations that the plane was unsafe, John Kvasnosky, a spokesman for Boeing Capital, confirmed that the Albatross remains in service today, though he declined to specify where. Kvasnosky said that while he wasn’t familiar with the details of the Cameroonian investigation that followed, “as far as we can determine, we have not been aware of any technical issues with that airplane as it went to other customers.”
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President Biya first came to power in 1982, following the forced departure of Cameroon’s independence hero and only other president, Ahmadou Ahidjo — who from his exile in France publicly accused Biya of abuse of power and paranoia about supposed plots against him.
Interestingly, during the four-hour military parade on May 20 in Yaoundé commemorating Cameroon’s 50th anniversary of independence — which The Diplomat witnessed and photographed — Ahidjo’s name was barely mentioned; all the banners and slogans lavished praise on 77-year-old Biya, who for years has been criticized by watchdog groups ranging from Human Rights Watch to Amnesty International.
“Tyrants: The World’s 20 Worst Living Dictators,” by David Wallechinsky, ranks Biya at the bottom of the barrel, along with Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Swaziland’s King Mswati III and Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea.
“Every few years, Biya stages an election to justify his continuing reign, but these elections have no credibility,” Wallechinsky wrote. “In fact, Biya is credited with a creative innovation in the world of phony elections. In 2004, annoyed by the criticisms of international vote-gathering groups, he paid for his own set of international observers, six ex-U.S. congressmen who certified his election as free and fair.”
Yet in early June, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, on an official visit to Cameroon, praised Biya’s five-year campaign to stamp out corruption, Operation Sparrow Hawk (also known in French as L’Opération Epervier). “I welcome the measures taken by your government to promote good governance and fight corruption,” Ban said in a speech broadcast on Cameroonian TV from the presidential palace. “I hope the fight continues, in the interest of the nation.”
The most recent arrests from the anti-corruption sweep came in January, when the “anti-embezzlement sledgehammer,” as one website put it, fell on two former members of government: Catherine Abena, former secretary of state for secondary education, and Henri Engoulou, ex-minister delegate in charge of the budget. That followed the jailing of two other prominent former officials: Haman Adama, ex-minister of basic education, and Roger Ntongo Onguene, former general manager of the Cameroon Airports Authority.
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Despite all the official anti-corruption hoopla, Mary Barton-Dock, World Bank country director for Cameroon and six other Central African states, said Cameroon still ranks “very poorly” when it comes to overall investment climate.
“I think the government is trying to do something about both real corruption and the perception of corruption,” she said during a conversation in Yaoundé. “It’s reassuring to investors that the government is aware there’s a problem, but I’m not sure if the way in which they are going after this is reassuring.”
Amadou Ali, Cameroon’s minister of justice, doesn’t seem to need any reassurance. An imposing man in a traditional sky-blue Islamic boubou wide-sleeved robe and a taqiyah on his head, Ali proudly discussed his role as head of the Biya government’s war on unscrupulous officials.
“The government didn’t begin fighting corruption just today. Our first step to do something against corruption started back in 1997, and in 1999 and 2000, many high-level officials were arrested,” he told The Diplomat. “These are people we put confidence in. There is no political revenge here. Justice is being carried out. These people have international lawyers and can be defended. There is no secret behind this. Some of these people aren’t even from the opposition, but from within the ruling party.”
Ali said that in Mendouga’s case, “the government wanted to buy an official plane for the president, $31 million disappeared, and he was not alone. It was clearly identified that they stole this $31 million.”
“Where did the money go?” he mused. “We are trying to research this, but it is a problem. Maybe there’s a financial link in the U.S. or Europe. But when [Mendouga] was arrested, he was no longer an ambassador. He had already been replaced by somebody else.”
Asked specifically why no charges have been filed against Mendouga, Ali responded that the former ambassador is in “provisional detention,” though he couldn’t say how long that detention would last. All he’d say is that “they’re taking witness for and witnesses against. There is a judge who is taking care of this case until official charges are filed.”
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Haman Mana is director of Le Jour, a brave opposition newspaper that isn’t afraid to criticize the government. Interviewed in his dingy second-floor office fronting one of Yaoundé’s busiest commercial streets, Mana wouldn’t say outright that Mendouga is innocent — but he strongly feels that the former ambassador was framed, or just thrown in with a bad lot.
“The man was in the wrong place at the wrong time. The hurricane took him,” Mana told us. “In a hurricane, some people come out alive and some come out dead.”
Mana’s French-language newspaper, which has an average daily circulation of 5,000, recently published a special report titled “L’opération Epervier.” It detailed the cases of 11 top Cameroonian officials — Mendouga among them — whom it says were victims of Biya’s anti-corruption drive.
“I sold 10,000 copies of that issue in one day,” Mana said. The issue features a doctored cover photo of an all-star soccer team, superimposed with the faces of the 11 officials now in prison.
“Embezzlement may be the legal reason [these men are incarcerated], but you have people walking around freely, doing their business, who have embezzled a lot more money than the people in jail,” the publisher told us. “In Cameroon, you have two former ministers of finance in prison, one former minister of health in prison, and two former secretary-generals of the presidency in prison. So many people are in jail, and so many of them were very close to the president,” suggesting that political rivalry played a strong role in the arrests.
“Prison is a way of eliminating political opponents,” he pointed out. “Here in Cameroon, the way judicial procedures are carried out, they could put you in jail without any proof, and while you’re in jail, they will look for the proof to justify it. But there’s nothing in the files accusing them.”
Indeed, one of the men netted in Biya’s anti-corruption sweep — a bank chairman who had once been Cameroon’s finance minister — died after a 215-day detention at Kondengui prison. Like the former ambassador, he had never been charged with any crime.
It was also at Kondengui where, on April 22 of this year, newspaper editor Germain S. Ngota dropped dead after having been detained for looking into allegations of corruption involving top presidential aide Laurent Esso and state-run oil company SNH (Société Nationale des Hydrocarbures).
Ngota, editor of the private bimonthly Cameroon Express, was one of three local reporters jailed in connection with that investigation. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists condemned his death, citing claims that security agents used psychological and physical torture to force all three journalists to reveal their source for a document on which the allegations were based.
“I feel sorry for Mr. Mendouga,” said Mana. “I’m afraid, because many people have died in prison. Conditions are very, very difficult in Cameroonian prisons, particularly in Kondengui.”
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Indeed, the U.S. State Department, in its 2009 Human Rights Report on Cameroon, noted that “prisoners were kept in dilapidated, colonial-era prisons, where the number of inmates was as much as four to five times the intended capacity. Overcrowding was exacerbated by the large number of long pretrial detentions. Some NGOs released a report claiming that cells meant for 30 or 40 persons held more than 100 detainees.”
In addition, the report said, “Yaoundé’s Kondengui prison, originally built for 700 inmates, held 3,500 prisoners in September 2008, according to a statement by its administrator.”
The State Department, citing Cameroon’s National Commission on Human Rights and Freedoms, also noted that in 2008, the daily food ration per prisoner was less than 100 CFA francs (about 21 cents) — though it adds that “some high-profile prisoners, including officials imprisoned for corruption, were separated from other prisoners and enjoyed relatively lenient treatment.”
That wouldn’t be much consolation for Mendouga, however, given that he’s unlikely to get out of Kondengui anytime soon. Government statistics show that — even though Cameroon’s criminal procedural code provides for a maximum of 18 months’ detention before trial — government statistics show that a shocking 62.5 percent of Cameroon’s 24,000 or so inmates are there without charges.
In 2008, the Cameroon Bar Association reported that many of these inmates had been awaiting trial for five to 10 years “due in part to the complexity of cases, judicial inefficiency, staff shortages and corruption.”
Mendouga himself seems doubtful that he’ll see freedom anytime soon.
“An investigation is going on, and they’ll determine at one point or another where there are grounds for charging me or not,” he said, adding that “it will take all sorts of legal tricks to keep me here as long as possible.”
At least some of those locked up in Kondengui and other Cameroonian jails are political prisoners opposed to the Biya government.
In February 2008, the Cameroonian Embassy in Washington was the scene of a large protest that was sparked by violent anti-government demonstrations in Douala in which at least 100 protesters were killed by police.
Later that year, two prominent opposition musicians — Lapiro de Mbanga and Joe La Conscience — were arrested for singing songs critical of the regime. Mbanga’s ditty, “Constipated Constitution,” warned of the dangers created by a constitutional amendment that allows Biya to run for office indefinitely while granting the president immunity for any acts committed by him during his time in office.
At the embassy itself, pro-Biya propaganda is everywhere — in the form of posters, magazines and brochures. A bilingual French-English book, “L’appel du peuple” (The People’s Call) in the waiting room warns against international attempts to condemn the regime. Among other things, the 336-page tribute to Biya attacks a June 2009 report by a Paris-based NGO, Comité Catholique Contre la Faim et Pour le Développement (CCFD), for “fabricating reports of alleged ill-gotten wealth by President Biya.”
It cites a letter endorsed by an umbrella organization of 32 farm groups throughout Cameroon that calls the CCFD report “a vicious attempt to tarnish the reputation of President Biya and to further destabilize the institutions of the republic by intoxicating public opinion.” Consequently, the letter warns, “We call on all farmers, who make up the majority of the population, to be vigilant and to report any agents of such intoxication to the appropriate authorities.”
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Mendouga, asked about Cameroon’s current ambassador to the United States, Joseph Foe-Atangana, said he’s not in contact with the man who replaced him in Washington, “but I know that his financial adviser is under investigation for huge embezzlement of public funds. An official delegation went [to Washington] to investigate this, but he’s been trying to divert attention from that by putting out stories saying that I want to destroy the president and that I’m doing things to hurt the country.”
Foe-Atangana, reached by The Diplomat, had little to say though about Mendouga and his accusations.
“The matter is pending and is under investigation. Under Cameroonian law, you cannot make any declaration until the justice system produces a judgment,” he told us. “The matter is in the hands of justice now.”
Yet others who crossed paths with Mendouga during his 15-year tenure in Washington appeared eager to talk, and confused by the conflicting images of Mendouga as an amiable ambassador on the one hand, and crooked official on the other.
Djibouti Ambassador Roble Olhaye, dean of the Washington diplomatic corps, knew Mendouga for more than nine years — mainly through meetings and African national day receptions. He said he’s astonished at the imprisonment of his former colleague.
“It has been a very strange story for us, to hear that this man who served his country for all these years in the diplomatic service is behind bars now,” Olhaye told The Diplomat. “Why would he be in prison for 14 months without any charges? It’s just difficult to comprehend what did he do to deserve that — and if he did, why did he? I really don’t know. We’re puzzled. It’s a mystery to all of us.”
Another ambassador who knew Mendouga is Washington business consultant Frances Dee Cook, who served as U.S. envoy to Cameroon from 1989 to 1993.
“When I was in Cameroon, it was unthinkable that a government minister would be arrested,” Cook told us. “I’m happy they’re investigating corruption because it’s put an enormous brake on foreign investment and economic development.”
But she thinks that what’s happened to Mendouga —whom she described as “a very gracious man” — is a travesty of justice. “He obviously needs to be charged or released. As an American, I don’t think people should be held indefinitely without charges. It violates all the norms of justice that you and I know.”
Cook — who also directed the State Department’s Office of West Africa Affairs and went on to become U.S. ambassador to Oman before leaving the Foreign Service in 1999 — pointed out that if Mendouga thought he was in serious trouble with the government, it’s doubtful he would have gone home like he did.
“The fact that he returned to Cameroon obviously means that he didn’t think he was guilty … or he wouldn’t have gone back home,” she said, suggesting that “there are lots of ways” a former African ambassador might legally stay in this country if they wanted to, aside from requesting political asylum.
Longtime Washington tennis coach Kathy Kemper, founder of the Institute for Education, spoke highly of Mendouga and his dedication to family and church.
“I didn’t know him professionally, but more as a citizen of the local community,” she recalled. “He and his wife were always involved in the community, and they were very close friends of ours. He was a very involved father, coming to basketball and volleyball games. He was generous, kind and loving, and his children always held him in high regard.”
Kemper described Mendouga as a “devout Catholic,” noting that “the family went to church all the time. Their religion and spirituality was a big part of their lives.”
God aside, some in Washington social circles have their doubts about Mendouga’s innocence.
“We are from the same ethnic group. We speak the same language,” said one African ambassador in Washington who previously served in Cameroon and who is familiar with the case. The envoy heard that after Mendouga acquired the Albatross aircraft on behalf of Biya, “the ambassador accompanied the plane to Yaoundé, but after the president boarded the plane to go to France, there was a technical problem. A week later, all the ambassadors [posted to Yaoundé] were informed that the plane wasn’t new, in fact, but was used.”
Asked what might happen with Mendouga, the envoy declined to speculate. “These are internal issues. I don’t know if he’s in jail because of the plane or not. Many people are jailed in Cameroon for corruption, and I think they should face judgment.”
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Meanwhile, vicious rumors continue to fly though cyberspace regarding Mendouga’s guilt or innocence. It’s hard to tell what’s true and what’s not, because not all the postings are signed, and even fewer of them cite tangible evidence to back up their strident claims.
One article, posted by Jackson W. Nanje, education and publicity officer for the U.S. branch of Biya’s ruling Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement, claims the Cameroon Embassy was a festering cesspool of corruption under Mendouga’s supervision.
In his article, Nanje — who is based in Burtonsville, Md. — claims that Mendouga and his team confiscated thousands of dollars in nonrefundable visa fees from Cameroonian citizens who had received political asylum in the United States but later wanted to visit their homeland. Their applications were denied, he claimed, but the fees, paid in the form of money orders, were cashed by Mendouga’s treasurer and deposited into an account different from that of the embassy.
An August 2005 article by Bouddih Adams reports that Mendouga was accused of embezzling 2.3 billion CFA francs (roughly $4.6 million at current exchange rates). The money was reportedly sought to renovate the deteriorating embassy building on Massachusetts Avenue, but a subsequent investigation by government official Joseph Fru found that “not even a tin of whitewash paint was used from those disbursements of millions of taxpayer money to give the embassy a facelift.” That same article accuses Mendouga of having cooked up similar “renovation” schemes when he was ambassador to both Senegal and Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo).
Another website posting, this one subtly titled “Jerome Mendouga: The Dog That Must Return to Its Vomit,” insists that the former ambassador himself sought political asylum in the United States immediately after his term of office had ended. The post’s author, Avitus Agbor, wrote in an Aug. 25, 2008, opinion piece that Mendouga’s petition was declared “dead on arrival” by U.S. authorities.
And that’s exactly what he deserved, said Agbor, who alleged that, “as chief diplomat to the United States where Cameroonians seek political asylum based on past or well-founded fears of future persecution, Jerome Mendouga established a system that penalized such individuals, confiscating passports that were sent to the embassy for renewal.”
He added: “As moral author of the atrocities of the regime, he must return to Cameroon to eat, and if possible, choke in his own vomit. One lesson he did not know but must learn is that a political system that does nothing to protect the oppressed is a political system that will do nothing to protect the oppressor.”
Like many other online posts, Agbor’s article generated dozens of “talkback” comments from angry readers in both English and French. These Cameroonians hide behind nicknames such as Afreaka and BamiaGirl who taunt each other with insults like “ignorant, corrupted, jealous moron” and “crackhead spitting despicable lies out of your stinking mouth.”
One Cameroonian (identified only as M.M.M.M.), seeking to rise above the gossip and name-calling, wrote: “I beg you, if you have a concrete reason for why this man is in prison, share it with us all. I would love to hear it, because at this point, I haven’t found a single soul who can give an explanation behind the arrest…. Every day, the country is becoming a sadder place, when I see the disinterest our people have in the simple act of seeking justice and equality for all.”
For its part, the Mendouga family vehemently denies that the ambassador ever requested asylum, pointing out that he threw a goodbye party for his Washington diplomatic friends on Aug. 18, 2008, and never considered remaining in the United States because he had done nothing wrong and had no reason to fear returning home — which is exactly why he did in fact head home instead of seeking refuge in the United States, or anywhere else in the world for that matter (presumably something he could have easily done with the millions he allegedly embezzled).
Unfortunately, the only officials in Washington who know for sure whether or not Mendouga sought political asylum are prohibited from commenting. “We put asylum under our humanitarian protection program. Because of that, we can’t say for privacy reasons whether someone has or has not applied for asylum,” said Chris Ratigan, spokeswoman for U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services. “Even if someone has not applied, that would jeopardize all of the other people who have applied, so we wouldn’t be able to discuss that either.”
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For now, the ex-ambassador said he’s generally in good health, but that he’s been having problems with his knee. “It took me over four months to get an appointment with the doctor outside,” he said. “The prison doctor said he could not treat me. My knee was really in pain. I could hardly walk.”
Family members are bringing him his meals, since prison food, he said, is horrible. Except for a few trips to his doctor, Mendouga has not been outside the gates of Kondengui for more than 14 months now.
Even so, Mendouga appears far more concerned about the health of his 57-year-old wife, Louisette, who lives in Alexandria, Va., and has stomach cancer.
“My wife has been fighting for her life back in Washington, and her doctors requested she should stay there,” said the diplomat — though her sickness itself is yet another bizarre target of the online rumor mill. At least one website claims Louisette Mendouga has run up medical bills of over $100,000 at Cameroonian taxpayers’ expense; another insists she doesn’t really have cancer and that she’s secretly plotting to overthrow Biya from her suburban Virginia command center.
“There is absolutely nothing to those accusations,” Mendouga said. “I think the whole thing has to do with political motives. Some people have been fighting among themselves, internally, and the best way to get me in trouble is to position me as being against the president, and working with people who want to seize his power.”
Neither Louisette nor the 34-year-old daughter who takes care of her, Ndzouli, agreed to be quoted for this article. Another daughter, 18-year-old Mballa, goes to school in North Carolina and recently had her leg amputated due to a rare cancer. Ndzouli works in the District as an administrative assistant to pay the family’s mounting medical bills.
Once an influential government official, Mendouga of course now remains powerless to help his family as he languishes behind bars, awaiting his fate.
Before wrapping up its conversation with Mendouga, The Diplomat asked what President Biya would think if he knew all the facts of the case.
“I worked for him as ambassador for nearly 25 years, but people were coming to the president and telling him all sorts of stories about me. He resisted until there was a lot of pressure, and at some point he gave in,” said the disgraced diplomat, seemingly resigned. “This is all part of a game which is far beyond me.”