Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

Biya Comes Of Age:
Tissue Rejection In Cameroon

By Elizabeth Ohene

The phenomenon looks more and more like tissue rejection. What is not quite clear is who the donor is.

Did former President Ahamadou Ahidjo of Cameroon donate his heart to current President Paul Biya or did Ahidjo try to replace his own tired heart with what he thought would be a perfect match - Biya's heart?

Or could it be that an attempt was made to have a spectacular "piggy-back" transplant whereby a fresh heart is implanted side by side with the diseased heart to help it along. Even then, it must be clear to all that, there will have to be a corpse.

The award-winning Harefield Hospital team with all their breath-taking heart transplant operations have not yet devised a way whereby somebody can be given a fresh heart and the donor will still stay alive. The prospects of such an occurrence might come the day all the research into the making of an artificial heart finally pays off.

Until that day, for every successful heart transplant and happy man given a new lease on life through the receipt of a new heart, there will always be one very dead human being and a set of very unhappy families.

In a way, it can be said that the drama unfolding in the Cameroon now was unavoidable, especially when it became evident that instead of one corpse and one healthy body, it looked like there were two bodies, each not quite dead, somebody was bound to start asking for his heart back or at least the doctors would have to make one of those decisions that they are not particularly fond of making either save the mother or the child, or may be in the splitting up of siamese twins linked together by one heart, decide which one to give the heart to!

The heart transplant metaphor appears appropriate because the beginning of the story has a definite medical history.

Last November Ahmadou Ahidjo, undisputed ruler of Cameroon for two decades suddenly gave up power in favour of Paul Biya, his hand-picked successor.

The explanations for this action appeared to be medical. Ahidjo was unwell, and the speculation was that his doctors had told him that he did not have much time left. One thing is clear, Ahidjo himself must have been convinced that he was seriously ill enough to want to give up the power he had wielded so absolutely for so long.

What is not clear is whether it was his body that was tired and ready to give up whilst his heart was still strong or whether the rest of his body was still reliable but his heart had had enough.

Whichever way it was, he could not resist the temptation to keep his influence on the country one way or the other even if it should turn out to be from the grave. What better way than to replace his tired and diseased heart with a fresh and healthy one, he was sure the tissues had been perfectly matched after 18 years of constant tests or was he hoping to remove his strong heart from a tired and abused body and make a piggy-bank supplant in Biya's body?

Whichever way it was, he did not count on the problem that had be- deviled the entire heart transplant programme since its inception - tissue rejection.

Obviously Ahidjo reckoned without a very basic human trait - people don't like to be seen to be obviously manipulated and Biya was bound to try and assert his independence even if only to convince his own supporters that he was his own man.

Ahidjo kept an important insurance policy to ensure that his body was not consigned to the rubbish heap soon after handing over to his protege. He retained the Chairmanship of the Cameroon National Union (CNU) Party.

After the whole world had expressed its appreciation for the smooth transition of power in the country and Ahidjo began to realise that he was not after all at death's door, he started wanting his heart back, or maybe a period of rest away from the trials and tribulations of running a country had rejuvenated his tired body and he began to feel that he need never have given up in the first place. Suddenly he started seeing many faults in his successor and he must also have resented the attempts by Biya to assert himself.

What better way to put a stop to that than by getting CNU Political Bureau and the National Assembly to adopt a constitutional amendment stating the primacy of the party over the function- ing of the state - never forgetting of course that Ahmadou Ahidjo was the Chairman of this all powerful Party.

Now, for Ahidjo to have attempted this, it must mean that he either under- estimated his man or there had been one of those never-ending wonders of people growing very rapidly to fill in the power that has been thrust upon them, for Biya realised he was President and wanted to behave like one and he resisted the move.

To reinforce his position, President Biya reshuffled his inherited cabinet, firing several who seemed to him like Ahidjo loyalists. A surprised Ahidjo tried to draw on sectional support by calling on all "Northern" ministers to resign, but they can tell a dying person when they see one and stuck by Biya, the today man, loyalties to Ahidjo notwithstanding.

After that it was only a question of time and Ahidjo, safely out of Cameroon fired off his broadsides: President Biya, the ex-President said, had "plot phobia, he was surrounded by people who intoxicate him with false rumours and he added that "the President is weak, but I did not know that he was also a cheat and a hypocrite" and then he announced he had resigned his post of Chairman of the CNU Party.

Some might say that the resignation was somewhat gratuitous, since in true West African style, "messages of support had been pouring into Biya urging him to take up the Chairmanship. anyway and to all intents and purposes, nobody in Cameroon still considered Ahidjo as having any power.

The problem will, however, not be resolved even if the last new-born baby from Ahidjo's home village sends in his message of unflinching support to Biya. Nor will the problem go away after Biya gives into the pressure of probing Ahidjo personally and his regime as a whole.

Of course, scandals will be unearthed, people will suddenly discover a lot of courage and come forward to disclose how they had no choice but to do what Ahidjo wanted. Now that there is a breath of fresh air in Cameroon and people are savouring the feel of free- dom, the press will be full of stories about the dreadful past and all Ahidjo's former collaborators would be tripping over each other to put as much distance as possible between themselves and their former master.

Somebody who didn't know better would be right in assuming that Biya suddenly descended onto the earth from the heavens last November untouched and untainted by the past eighteen years in Cameroon.

The crucial part in Ahidjo's uncharacteristic outburst is "the President is weak, but I did not know that he was also a cheat and hypocrite" this was to support his claim that he had been mis- taken in his choice of Biya as his successor.

By his own admission, Ahidjo was well aware that Biya was weak (an assessment obviously needing reassessing now), why then did he choose him, what had the people of Cameroon done to deserve his imposing a leader on them that he knew to be weak?

For as long as African leaders continue to think of countries they rule as their personal properties to be treated and disposed of according to their whims and caprices, there will always be unrest.

This is why it is important for President Biya to keep a level head at this time. It might stand him in good stead to remember that during his time, Ahidjo received even more messages of support, and that the people talking about corruption in the Ahidjo regime now were full of undiluted praise less than a year ago.

"Ahidjo either understimated his man or there had been one of those never ending wonders of people growing rapidly to fill in the power that has been thrust upon them"

What is more, President Biya should not lose sight of his own handicap not only of eighteen years of collaboration with a well-nigh dictatorship but the fact that he was hand-picked by ex-President Ahidjo when that power lies only with the people of Cameroon.

Obviously the liberalization measures he has introduced constitute a great step forward and if his calls for moral probity in public life don't turn out to be a nine-day wonder, he would have shamed his former boss. But the only way he can truly gain his independence from his predecessor is to push the free- doms further and allow free political activity and the emergence of other parties and candidates to challenge him and by putting himself to the test in an election by the people of Cameroon.

When the people of Cameroon have had the chance of an alternative before them and they translate their numerous messages of support into freely cast votes for President Biya, then and only then would he have shaken off the Ahidjo mantle.

Until then one will have to keep on wondering what Ahidjo means when he calls Biya a 'cheat'; could it be he feels that he has taken his heart and shown no gratitude?

It will be to the eternal credit of President Biya if he should resist the calls on him and refrain from behaving as though nothing good had emerged from the Ahidjo years.

It should never be forgotten that the 'unity' of the country today was bought through very illiberal measures and this would come under pressure once people feel free to assert their rights. The spectre of "northern" and "southern" divisions as well as muslim and christian, Francophone and Anglophone divisions are all problems that have not disappeared entirely.

The political problem is likely to attract more noises and headlines and President Biya will play to it to his own doom, his administration will be made or unmade on the economic front and that battle is not fought with words.

Whether President Biya has rejected Ahidjo's tissue, or has successfully assimilated it so well that the donor who had been kept on life-support systems is now pronounced well and truly dead, the next few months will tell when the patient starts taking strenuous exercises.

talking drums 1983-09-19 Cameroon Tissue Rejection Biya comes of age