Cameroon’s veteran leader basks in glory of hostage release

French former hostages at the presidential palace in Yaounde Cameroon on April 19, 2013.  By Reinnier Kaze (AFP/File)

French former hostages at the presidential palace in Yaounde Cameroon on April 19, 2013. By Reinnier Kaze (AFP/File)

YAOUNDE (AFP) – The freeing of a French family kidnapped in West Africa is a huge personal triumph for veteran Cameroon leader Paul Biya and could serve to thaw frosty ties between Paris and its former colony, analysts say.

French President Francois Hollande went out of his way to thank Biya, 80, for his role in the release of the Moulin-Fournier family after two months of captivity at the hands of Islamist militants.

Greeting the family on their return to France on Saturday, Hollande offered a “special thought” for Biya, who he said had “played an important role these past few days.”

Hollande praised the behind-the-scenes style of the Cameroon leader, who is rarely seen in public, adding: “We are at our most effective when we are being as discreet as possible.”

Biya, who has been in power for more than 30 years and was re-elected for another seven-year term in October 2011 after a controversial election, is now reaping the rewards, analysts said.

“France has tended to call into question Paul Biya’s lengthy stint in power … he has gained in authority and in credibility,” said Pascal Messanga Nyamding from the International Relations Institute of Cameroon, who is close to the ruling party.

Stephane Akoa, political scientist from the Paul Ango Ela research centre in Yaounde, said Biya was gaining a “clear benefit” from his role in the successful resolution of the hostage crisis.

The most obvious consequence of Biya’s intervention has been in “his relations with Hollande, which had until now been glacial or very, very cold,” Akoa said.

“The freeing of the French hostages, especially if it emerges that Cameroon made certain commitments, could serve to kick off a thawing of relations between Paris and Yaounde,” concluded the expert.

Hollande has never been to Cameroon as president but hosted Biya for a “working visit” in January where he raised the thorny topic of human rights in the African nation.

Critics frequently point to what they say are poor conditions in prisons, the muzzling of political opponents and journalists and attacks on gays.

Tanguy and Albane Moulin-Fournier, their four children and Tanguy’s brother, Cyril, were kidnapped in Cameroon on February 19 and taken to neighbouring Nigeria.

Their captors were from the Boko Haram group, an al-Qaeda-linked Islamist sect blamed for a string of deadly attacks since 2009 in an insurgency in northern Nigeria.

The French government has not so far shed any light on how their release was secured — except to say that no ransom was paid and there was no military operation to free them.

Paris merely said the freeing of the family, which included four boys aged between five and 12, was the result of “several contacts we were able to establish” with the support of authorities in Cameroon and Nigeria.

Here too, Biya’s extensive “secret network” of contacts came to the fore, said Antoine Glaser, a writer on African affairs.

“Since the coup attempt in 1984, he has trusted only them. He set up the Rapid Intervention Battalion and one could imagine it was they who extracted the family from Nigeria,” said Glaser.

This was apparently confirmed by a Cameroon military source who told AFP the elite Rapid Intervention Battalion had indeed had a hand in the release.

“It was President Biya who took it upon himself to carry out this operation,” the source told AFP on condition of anonymity. “That’s why he sent his secretary general to get the hostages and bring them back to Yaounde.”

Glaser said he could not rule out that Cameroon gave in to the kidnappers’ demands to free prisoners in exchange for the family’s release.

“There’s been a debate over ransoms but one should note that the main demand of the kidnappers was the freeing of members of their families held in Cameroon and Nigeria,” he said.