Thirty-eight Cameroonian soldiers who died fighting the Nigerian extremist group Boko Haram in northern Cameroon were honored in a ceremony presided over by the country’s Defense Minister Edgar Alain Mebe Ngo'o on March 6, 2015. Noticeably absent from the event was President Paul Biya, who had travelled to Europe a few days earlier for a “brief visit.”
The president had also been absent from a similar ceremony in August 2014 even though he was in the country at the time. To many observers, the president’s continued absence from these ceremonies is a sign of indifference towards soldiers who died defending the country. As the French-language Journal Du Cameroun lamented:
Pas un geste de compassion envers les soldats tombés sur le front dans le grand nord, absence récurrente du chef de l’Etat aux obsèques des soldats tombés dans le grand nord, pas un mot sur ceux qui sont sur le terrain, aucune visite de terrain d'encouragement, moult de questions qui attendent l’appréciation du président de la République dont le silence laisse songeur…
Not a single act of compassion towards the soldiers who died at the frontline in northern Cameroon; repeated absence from the funerals of the fallen soldiers; not a single word to soldiers still on the field; no trip to encourage the ground troops. These are among the many questions that President of the Republic, whose continued silence is food for thought, has to answer.
Critics were quick to point out that just weeks earlier, President Idriss Deby of Chad, Cameroon’s key ally in the war against Boko Haram, had personally honored Chadian troops killed by the group, and even visited wounded Chadian soldiers at the military hospital in Cameroon’s capital, Yaounde.
One can therefore easily understand the outrage that erupted when barely three days after the Yaounde ceremony, the website of the Presidency of the Republic published a photoshopped image of the president bowing before the coffins of the dead soldiers.
“The insensitivity is simply mind-boggling and inexcusable… This is an unbelievable shame, and Cameroonians deserve full explanation for the embarrassment,” wrote US-based Cameroonian journalist Ekinneh Agbaw-Ebai. Bate Felix, another Cameroonian journalist working with Reuters news agency, concurred in a series of tweets:
— Bate Felix Tabi Tabe (@BateFelix) marzo 10, 2015
— Bate Felix Tabi Tabe (@BateFelix) March 10, 2015
An exasperated Nelson Simo wondered:
Si difficile d'assumer le fait que Biya n'ait jamais rendu hommage aux soldats? Grossier montage de la Présidence. pic.twitter.com/L4tHJ8JlVl
— Nelson Simo (@lesikanel) March 9, 2015
Is it so difficult to live with the fact that Biya did not personally honor the dead soldiers? What a crude montage.
Faced with the avalanche of complaints on social media, the photoshopped picture was taken down within a couple of hours and replaced with a picture of flag-draped coffins:
— Dibussi Tande (@dibussi) March 9, 2015
The entire article was eventually deleted from the website.
‘Why do you take Cameroonians for morons?’
This, however, did not end the controversy as the story was picked up in the following days by the print media.
The French-language daily, Le Messager published the photomontage on its front page with the title: “Après avoir déserté… Le Chef des armées nargue les soldats.” (After Deserting… the Commander-in-Chief Mocks the Troops.)
The headline of another French-language daily, Quotidien Mutations, was equally blistering: “Manipulation: Le scandale qui vient de la présidence” (Manipulation: Scandal at the Presidency). Foreign news agencies such as France24 also picked up the story.
Confronted with an embarrassing story that refused to go away, the government finally decided to respond two days later. In a statement in French read on the government-controlled Cameroon Radio Television (CRTV), Issa Tchiroma, Cameroon’s minister of communication and government spokesperson, claimed that the image was the work of a hacker:
Toutes vérifications faites, la fausse nouvelle attribuée au site officiel de la Présidence de la République résulte d'un grossier montage photographique, qui est l'œuvre d'un pirate informatique entré par effraction sur ledit site, et sans doute mû par la volonté de porter atteinte à l'honneur et à la dignité du Chef de l'État, de nos forces de défense et de sécurité et de la nation camerounaise tout entière.
Cette ignoble manœuvre intervient au moment où le peuple camerounais dans son ensemble, a décidé de former une union sacrée autour du Chef de l'État et des forces de défense et de sécurité dont il est le Chef, pour sans doute créer la diversion et la distraction, tenter de saper le moral des troupes sur le front de guerre et de démobiliser la nation tout entière, dans le formidable élan de solidarité qu'elle est en train de manifester.
After thorough verification, the false news attributed to the official website of the Presidency of the Republic is the result of a grotesque photomontage by a hacker who broke into the site, and who was undoubtedly motivated by a desire to undermine and dishonor the Head of State, our defense and security forces, and the entire nation.
This despicable maneuver comes at a time when the Cameroonian people are in a sacred union with the Head of the State, Commander-in-Chief of our defense and security forces. No doubt, the person set out to create a distraction in an attempt to undermine the morale of troops at the frontline and break the nation’s extraordinary spirit of solidarity.
The government’s claim was instantly met with derision. An incredulous Felix Bate asked:
— Bate Felix Tabi Tabe (@BateFelix) March 11, 2015
Pierre Christian could barely contain himself:
Waaaaaaa ahaahahahaahhaaha tchiroma parle d'un piratage du site de la présidence. Mais quelle idiotie !! Un grossier mensonge !!
— Pierre Christian O. (@PierreChrist_) March 11, 2015
Whaaaaaaaat! Tchiroma says the presidency site was hacked! What stupidity!! What a blatant lie!!
Twitter user Jess Dina asked the minister:
Tchiroma, pourquoi tu prends les camerounais pour des cons. C'est tres dommage#LRT
— JD (@Jess_Dina) March 11, 2015
Tchiroma, why do you take Cameroonians for morons? This is very disgraceful.
The French-language daily, Le Jour, roundly dismissed the hacker excuse:
Le site Internet de la présidence et la page Facebook du chef de l’Etat sont truffés de photos grossièrement montées. Contrairement aux dénégations de Issa Tchiroma, les administrateurs de ces sites sont coutumiers du fait.
The head of state’s website and Facebook page are chock-full of photos that have been clumsily photoshopped. Contrary to Issa Tchiroma’s denials, this is a common practice by the administrators of these sites.
Internet sleuths confirmed Le Jour’s assertion as they combed through the social media sites managed by the presidency for evidence that the “grotesque photomontage” was not the first of its kind by the presidency’s webmaster:
— Florian Ngimbis (@ngimbis) March 11, 2015
— Dibussi Tande (@dibussi) March 11, 2015
The Camerooon-info.net news portal also posted an extensive compilation of photoshopped images from the president’s website and Facebook page.
Arrests and releases
In spite of mounting evidence that the photomontage was not the work of a hacker and most likely the handiwork of an overly creative staff on the president’s communications team, the government stubbornly stuck to its story. In an interview with the government daily Cameroon Tribune, Minister Tchiroma vowed that they would track down and punish the culprit.
According to news reports, the investigation is being carried out by agents of the Ministry of Defense and the Directorate General for External Research (the rather innocuous name for Cameroon’s dreaded intelligence service).
In their desperate bid to catch the alleged culprits, security forces have thus far made two rather bizarre arrests. On March 14, they arrested a certain Foyet Eric Kennedy in Yaounde on suspicion that he was the hacker after he challenged the government’s version of events on a local radio station. He was subsequently set free. That same day in Douala, Gerard Kuissu, a prominent human rights activist and journalist was also arrested in Douala and accused of being the hacker. The evidence? He had shared the photo on his Facebook page. He was subsequently transferred to Yaounde for further questioning then finally released three days later. (Click here for Kuissi’s chilling narrative of his harrowing experience in jail).
Interestingly, while security forces continue to search for what many believe to be an imaginary hacker, officials at the presidency have been busy deleting all photoshopped pictures from the president’s website, Facebook page and Twitter feed. Links that once led to pages with these pictures are no longer active or no longer carry the pictures. However, as Cameroonian journalist Thierry Ngogang has cautioned on his Facebook page about the ongoing cover-up attempt:
La vérité est comme la queue d'un singe: il peut essayer de la cacher entre ses pattes, elle apparaîtra toujours.
The truth is like the tail of a monkey; it always reveals itself no matter how hard the monkey tries to hide it between its legs.