Former Cameroonian Interior Minister Marafa Hamidou Yaya, the politician at the centre of the Cameroonian Presidential Jet scandal, is currently on trial in Yaounde facing charges of embezzling USD$31million that should have been used to buy a new Presidential Jet sourced from the Boeing Company for President Paul Biya.
The story goes, in 2001, Yaya, then Secretary General at the presidency, and his co-accused, amongst whom are the ex-head of the now defunct Cameroonian flag carrier Cameroon Airlines Yves Michel Fotso, Chief Ephraim Inoni, a former Prime Minister and head of government under Biya, Nkounda Julienne, and two others, were mandated by the Cameroonian Government to secure a Boeing Business Jet Second Generation (BBJ-2) for USD$31million for use by the President. It is then alleged that in early 2004 they instead colluded to hire a used Boeing 767 - The Albatross - for USD$2.6million and pocketed the remainder of the money for themselves.
But, as fate would have it, with the President and his family on board, the Boeing 767-216ER (TZ-AAC) developed technical problems on its maiden flight to Paris, France on 24 April 2004 and was forced to make an emergency landing. So irate was Biya at this embarrassing scenario that he launched a full investigation into the mishap, which culminated in Marafa's arrest along with that of the other five co-accused.
|"The Albatross" (Stephan Gimard)|
Since the story broke in April 2004, there have been numerous wild allegations in the Cameroonian press that the aircraft itself was 'totally unsafe' and was in reality "a flying coffin" thereby putting the President and his family at risk each time it flew; some even claim that the purchase of the defective plane constituted an "attack on the nation of Cameroon itself".
Deeper investigation reveals that official testimony seems to dispute the claims that the President's life was in danger and that the situation was so dire as to warrant the emergency landing, though ironically, had this not happened, then perhaps Marafa and his associates could have gotten away with it all.
Presiding Judge Pascal Magnaguemabé, in his Order Instituting Separate Proceedings of January 2010 stated:
"[The "Boeing 767-200 ER" known as "Albatross"] was transported to Cameroon in a flight leaving from Atlanta in the United States on 04/22/2004 and landing in Yaounde on 04/23/2004.It departed again from Yaounde on 04/24/2004 for the Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, with the President of the Republic and his family aboard, as well as a large delegation of important persons from Cameroon travelling to attend a summit planned for the following days in the French capital. Only, the plane had barely taken off from the Yaounde-Nsimalen airport with the illustrious person and his delegation aboard, when it experienced an incident while it was crossing the "Foumban" area.This incident made it necessary for the pilots to turn back to Douala. It was described as purely technical, in which "the leading edge flap was not retracting" and the plane could not reach cruising speed. While the plane was turning back to Douala, the onboard mechanic was called upon "to go down into the fuse room." While he was there, the mechanic "reset the circuit" and, after another try by the pilot, the flaps retracted and the situation returned to normal. The plane then resumed its heading toward Paris."
Then, the captain made an unwise move which turned an otherwise simple malfunction into a political debacle:
"When the problem (with the flaps) occurred, the pilots (Lieutenant Colonel Ndongue and Colonel Babodo Lewono) should have called for the mechanic seated at the end of the aircraft. All they needed to do to rectify the problem was to refer to the flight manual and to call for the mechanic. Instead, flight captain Betham chose to inform the President of the Republic that there was a problem with the aircraft and that it had to return to Douala for a checkup. He reassured the Head of State that this would not take long. In my opinion, the captain demonstrated a lack sang-froid by rushing to alert the President. He should have tried to solve the problem first."
Subsequently, the Cameroonian Government returned the aircraft to Boeing who disputed their claims that the aircraft was in terrible shape. Eventual litigation led to the Cameroon Government being forced to pay Boeing USD$2.6million for breach of contract.
But, at the end of the day, the case is not about the overall airworthiness of the Boeing 767, its about 5 high ranking government officials who were tasked with the responsibility of buying a brand new BBJ but instead hired a second hand 767 and whose actions, by a strange twist of fate (had the Captain kept a cool head and treated the flap malfunction as routine instead of informing the President then this whole incident may never have come to light), were exposed for what they are - fraudulent.
At the beginning of May, a former Cameroonian ambassador to the United States, Jerome Mendouga, was jailed for 10 years in connection with the case.
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