Ivory Coast, Liberia’s neighbor to the east, is also scheduled to hold elections this year. A model of African political stability and relative prosperity, the country has been led since its independence from France in 1960 by Felix Houphouet-Boigny, 79, who likes to be called “the old man.”
A moderate, pro-Western statesman, he is expected to run for a sixth five-year term and faces no opposition — other than old age. Houphouet-Boigny has been in failing health for some time now and his unwillingness to groom a successor has caused some to worry that a destabilizing political change may be close at hand.
Houphouet-Boigny has hinted at announcing renewed diplomatic ties with Israel on a number of occasions, most recently last month, but for now Israel is pleased with productive, though unofficial, relations based on economic and military interests. One of Houphouet-Boigny’s concerns about resuming full diplomatic ties with Israel is the response of Ivory Coast’s Moslems, who make up 40 percent of the country’s population.
A STRONG ISRAELI PRESSENCE
There is a strong Israeli presence in the Ivory Coast where Sonitra, a local division of Israel’s largest construction company, Solel Boneh, has built most of the country’s major roads as well as industrial complexes, hotels and the presidential palace in Abidjan, the capital.
Sonitra is currently completing one of its most ambitious projects, the largest Catholic cathedral in the world outside of the Vatican. The structure, towering over the modern Abidjan skyline, is scheduled to be consecrated by Pope John Paul II upon its completion in August.
CRITICAL ROLE OF CAMEROON
There are only a handful of Israelis in the Cameroon, further east and south of Ivory Coast, but its relations with Israel are pivotal in Africa. “Cameroon is critical for us,” an Israeli official noted, adding a bit cryptically, “we do important things there, military and otherwise.”
It is known that Israel has a flourishing economic relationship with Cameroon, as well as offering expertise in areas of agriculture, water problems and de-forestation. But officials in Yaounde, the lush and hilly capital, were sensitive to reports in the French and Israeli press that Israel is training a presidential guard to protect President Paul Biya.
Unique among African leaders, Biya is considered a pragmatic intellectual with a sincere desire to help his countrymen, more committed to enriching his nation than his own pockets. After serving in government for 22 years, he assumed the presidency in November, 1982, following the resignation of President Ahmadou Ahidjo. Biya was re-elected in 1984.
Cameroon is a model of African-style democracy, which is to say that strides are being taken to give citizens more freedom but within the framework of a one-party system. “One has to view democracy in Africa in a different light,” explains an Israeli official. “Experience shows that when there is more than one party, the people tend to follow their tribes rather than an ideology. Nigeria has frequent elections but they also have frequent coups.” He praised Biya for his policies in general and his relationship with Israel in particular.
During a 45-minute meeting with Biya in the splendid Yaounde executive palace — photographs were not permitted; Biya is reportedly embarrassed by the lavishness of the palace, built by his predecessor — the soft-spoken President gave every indication that formal relations with Israel were forthcoming, it was just a matter of time and timing.
“It is natural for us to have relations with Israel,” said Biya, speaking in French and recalling the “warm cooperation” Cameroon shared with Israel up to the Yom Kippur War. “We are re-evaluating our relationship with Israel positively. If we are a sovereign people, concerned with our own interests, why can’t we have a cooperative friendship with Israel?”
He spoke of how the Jewish people have contributed so much to mankind, of his people’s respect for Judaism and their warm feelings towards Israel. If a referendum were held today in Cameroon, he said, 70 percent of the population would favor renewing full diplomatic ties with Israel.
What Biya did not say is that he is moving cautiously towards this step for several reasons: he is pragmatic by nature, he has only been in power three years and wants to further solidify his position before making such a move, and he is concerned about reactions among Cameroon’s Moslems (about 20 percent of the population) and the Arab states, especially Libya.
For now, Israeli officials are pleased with the pace and depth of their relationship with Cameroon and do not want to pressure Biya. But all indications point to a continuing trend of improved relations between Israel and Cameroon as part of a major effort for the Jewish State to regain influence in Africa.