Assets in Flight: Cameroon’s Absentee President

Douma in Syria  By Kyodo News

Peter Kirechu, Lead Analyst


Paul Biya, Cameroon’s octogenarian President, was re-elected to a record-setting 7th term in October 2018, becoming the longest serving non-royal head of state in the world. The October presidential election was marred by violence, particularly in the north-west and south-west Anglophone regions where a separatist insurgency has raged since 2016, threatening to split the country along linguistic fault lines. Despite the roiling tensions and escalating violence, President Biya is known for spending an inordinate amount of time outside the country on private, unofficial foreign visits. A February 2018 investigation by the Organized Crime and Corruption Project (OCCRP) estimated that over the course of his 35 years in power, President Biya has spent at least four and a half years on “brief private visits” (often to Europe, and specifically Geneva), including a third of the year in both 2006 and 2009.

Cameroonian President Paul Biya announcing his return from “brief private stay in Europe” on August 25, 2018 from his Official Twitter Page. Source:    President Paul Biya’s Official Twitter Page   .

Cameroonian President Paul Biya announcing his return from “brief private stay in Europe” on August 25, 2018 from his Official Twitter Page. Source: President Paul Biya’s Official Twitter Page.

President Biya’s jaunts into Europe frequently pass through Geneva, where his documented stays have included a 2017 trip for which his entourage booked at least 48 rooms at the Intercontinental Hotel, the site of significant protests during his most recent stay in July 2019. OCCRP estimated that the President has spent at least $65 million for his accommodations at the Intercontinental Hotel. All told, the President and his entourage have spent 1,645 days at the Intercontinental.

A quick look at the President’s Official Twitter and Facebook pages reveals surprisingly candid announcements of his “brief private stays” in Europe, either at the time of departure or return. These announcements are distributed from the Office of the President’s official website, and provide a helpful public guide into both his official and unofficial foreign excursions.

Presidential Foreign Travel Announcement from Cameroon’s Office of the President Website. Source:    Travel and Visits Page   , Office of the President Website, Cameroon.

Presidential Foreign Travel Announcement from Cameroon’s Office of the President Website. Source: Travel and Visits Page, Office of the President Website, Cameroon.

Despite the public nature of these announcements, they provide only a small glimpse into the President’s travels. These public announcements are also fairly sanitized and do not include identifying information like flight itineraries and/or imagery of the transport aircraft – an integral component of open-source analysis of aircraft activity in the public domain.

However, open flight data can help identify not only the President’s destinations, but also the type of aircraft used, as well as the duration of travel. Using public announcements as a starting point, we took a historical look at aircraft associated with the Government of Cameroon and identified at least 30 trips to Geneva between May 2008 and December 2013, many of which are conducted by a government-affiliated Gulfstream III aircraft. Narrowing down to this aircraft’s travel activities, we discovered additional trips to other Swiss cities, some as recent as July 10, 2019. That these flight activities are identifiable through open data serves a specific public interest: removing the veil of secrecy often exploited by the President when his trips abroad are characterized as “brief private stays.”

 

Tracing Cameroon’s Executive Aircraft Fleet

In the absence of a fully accessible civilian aircraft registry in Cameroon, C4ADS investigators consulted the LAAS registry of corporate aircraft, which provides a listing of private corporate aircraft registered under Cameroon’s national aircraft code, “TJ.” This list included two planes, one a Gulfstream III (Registration Number: TJ-AAW), and the other a Cessna 550 Citation Bravo (Registration Number: TJ-ROA).

LAAS Corporate Jet Registry of Cameroon-registered private aircraft. Source:    LAAS   .

LAAS Corporate Jet Registry of Cameroon-registered private aircraft. Source: LAAS.

Cameroon Government Gulfstream III (Registration Number: TJ-AAW). Source:    https://www.jetphotos.com/photo/7834946   .

Cameroon Government Gulfstream III (Registration Number: TJ-AAW). Source: https://www.jetphotos.com/photo/7834946.

While the ownership of both planes is not available through the Cameroonian Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), both aircraft appear in the CAA’s Aviation Safety Information System, which lists the minimum equipment requirements for aircraft registered in Cameroon. This dataset, despite its safety focus, serves as a valuable proxy for a domestically-generated aircraft registry.

Private aircraft linked to the Cameroonian government as listed in the Cameroon Civil Aviation Authority’s (CCA) Directorate of Aviation Security Database (DASIS). Source:    DASIS-CCAA .

Private aircraft linked to the Cameroonian government as listed in the Cameroon Civil Aviation Authority’s (CCA) Directorate of Aviation Security Database (DASIS). Source: DASIS-CCAA.

 

Tracking President Biya’s Frequent Jaunts to Geneva

Since 2008, a community of aircraft enthusiasts (colloquially known as plane-spotters) have aggregated aircraft landing and take-off events at airports near Geneva into a publicly accessible dataset available on the Geneva Airport Movement Enquiries (GAME) website. This dataset is updated on a monthly basis and provides an individual listing of each take-off and landing event. C4ADS investigators explored the GAME database for all take-offs and landings events linked to the two aircraft associated with the Cameroonian government and found 30 events involving the Gulfstream III (Registration Number: TJ-AAW), some of which are displayed below.

Cameroon Government-linked Gulfstream III (Registration Number: TJ-AAW) landing and take-off events in Geneva in 2008    Source: Geneva Airport Movement Enquiries

Cameroon Government-linked Gulfstream III (Registration Number: TJ-AAW) landing and take-off events in Geneva in 2008

Source: Geneva Airport Movement Enquiries

As evident on the GAME site, information on the origin and destination of these flights is often minimal, if not entirely lacking. However, other open source flight data repositories such as ADS-B Exchange can provide a more detailed view into the routes and trajectories taken by the aircraft linked to Paul Biya and the Cameroonian government. Additionally, this type of flight data widens the scope of inquiry beyond specific airports. 

For instance, in a review of 2019 trips involving the Cameroonian Gulfstream III aircraft (Registration Number: TJ-AAW) on ADS-B Exchange, we uncovered at least ten transit events (meaning takeoff and landing events, which are determined based on factors such as an aircraft’s transit speed and altitude) in and around Basel/Mulhouse EuroAiport in Switzerland, many of which were not captured by the Geneva-based public plane-spotting website. As a supplement to data provided by plane-spotter datasets, ADS-B Exchange expands the scope of investigation into route and trajectory analysis, giving analysts more visibility into an aircraft’s transit patterns.

Gulfstream III (Registration Number: TJ-AAW) transit route into Basel, Switzerland on September 21, 2018. Source:    ADS-B Exchange Historical Flight Search   .

Gulfstream III (Registration Number: TJ-AAW) transit route into Basel, Switzerland on September 21, 2018. Source: ADS-B Exchange Historical Flight Search.

 

Exploiting the Charter Aircraft Loophole

Within the Geneva dataset, we discovered that several of the Cameroonian Gulfstream III (TJ-AAW) flights were operated by a UK-based company, Cam Air Management, which provides executive business travel services for a variety of clients flying into Geneva. Some of the aircraft operated by Cam Air Management have included planes owned by the Saudi Royal Family (Aircraft Registration Number: VP-CAL), the government of Kazakhstan (Aircraft Registration Number: UP-B6701), as well as several other private, charter-based aircraft providers that service VIP clientele.

Cameroon Government-linked Gulfstream III (Registration Number: TJ-AAW) landing and take-off events in Geneva in 2013. Source: Geneva Airport Movement Enquiries.

Cameroon Government-linked Gulfstream III (Registration Number: TJ-AAW) landing and take-off events in Geneva in 2013. Source: Geneva Airport Movement Enquiries.

Charter aircraft providers often manage fleets that are registered in secrecy jurisdictions likes Aruba, where an aircraft’s ultimate owner is hidden from public view. Secrecy can be a benefit for those who wish to traverse the globe in non-domestic aircraft whose ownership is much more difficult to identify or trace. In Geneva, we identified 19 private charter flights involving two private airplanes – Aircraft Registration Numbers: P4-CLA and VP-CAL – operated by Cam Air Management and linked to Paul Biya and the Cameroonian government.  

Twelve of these flights involved the Aruba-registered Boeing 767-200 aircraft ­– Aircraft Registration Number: P4-CLA – operated by Cam Air Management, but otherwise owned by Swiss-based VIP charter services company, Comlux Aviation. On September 16, 2016, this aircraft landed in Geneva and declared what appeared to be an airport departure code of “NSI”. This code corresponded to Cameroon’s Yaounde Nsimalen International Airport, which suggests that the aircraft took off from Cameroon before arriving in Geneva as displayed in the Geneva plane-spotters database.

Private Charter aircraft (Registration Number: P4-CLA) landing event in Geneva with a listed departure to Cameroon’s Yaounde Nsimalen International Airport (Airport Code NSI). Source: Geneva Airport Movement Enquiries (GAME).

Private Charter aircraft (Registration Number: P4-CLA) landing event in Geneva with a listed departure to Cameroon’s Yaounde Nsimalen International Airport (Airport Code NSI). Source: Geneva Airport Movement Enquiries (GAME).

The Boeing 767-200 aircraft linked to this event was, in March 2017, chartered by deposed Zimbabwean dictator, Robert Mugabe, for a five-day trip from Singapore to Ghana at an estimated cost of over $1 million. This luxury-laden aircraft boasts private bedrooms with king and queen-sized beds, prestige broadband communication systems and an operational cost of approximately $9,138 per hour – an amount that is nearly 34 times more than President Biya’s reported monthly salary of $271 per month.

Aruba-registered Boeing 767-200 aircraft (P4-CLA) chartered by President Paul Biya and Former President of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe. Source:    PlaneSpotters.net    and the    Zimbabwe Independent   .

Aruba-registered Boeing 767-200 aircraft (P4-CLA) chartered by President Paul Biya and Former President of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe. Source: PlaneSpotters.net and the Zimbabwe Independent.

 

Exploring Paul Biya’s Use of Chartered Aircraft

Using public disclosure of travel plans as a starting point, we also looked into the President’s official foreign travel that was also undertaken via chartered aircraft.  In one case, we identified a Boeing 777-2KQLR (Registration Number: VP-CAL) also operated by Cam Air Management that was seemingly used during President Biya’s state visit to China in March 2018.  

Open Source flight data from the Geneva plane-spotting consortium revealed that the trip originated in Geneva on March 20, 2018, rather than the Cameroonian capital, Yaounde. This departure was also corroborated by the historical flight tracker on ADS-B Exchange, which not only validated the Geneva departure, but also the majority of the eastward flight to China, terminating at the Hong Kong International Airport on March 22, 2018.  ADS-B Exchange data similarly confirmed the President’s return trip (again to Geneva) on March 24, 2018.

Boeing 777-2KQLR (Registration number: VP-CAL)operated by Cam Air Management and owned by Montkak Ltd., take-off event in Geneva in March 2018. Source: Geneva Airport Movement Enquiries (GAME) and ADS-B Historical Flight Search.

Boeing 777-2KQLR (Registration number: VP-CAL)operated by Cam Air Management and owned by Montkak Ltd., take-off event in Geneva in March 2018. Source: Geneva Airport Movement Enquiries (GAME) and ADS-B Historical Flight Search.

Beyond the flight data, President Biya also confirmed his arrival in China via Twitter on March 22, 2018 in a post that also included a partial image of the transport aircraft. We identified other portions of the aircraft by matching the President’s attire at the time of arrival with other videos taken take on the tarmac in Hong Kong. Both the President and his wife’s attire closely matched publicly-shared Youtube videos of the tarmac reception in Hong Kong where larger portions of the transport aircraft, including its tail code (VP-CAL), are visible.

President Biya’s arrival reception in Hong Kong between March 22 and March 23, 2018. His transport aircraft bearing Registration Number: VP-CAL on the bottom side of the wing is visible in video imagery of the tarmac event. Source:    President Paul Biya’s Official Twitter    and PTV News Youtube Video.

President Biya’s arrival reception in Hong Kong between March 22 and March 23, 2018. His transport aircraft bearing Registration Number: VP-CAL on the bottom side of the wing is visible in video imagery of the tarmac event. Source: President Paul Biya’s Official Twitter and PTV News Youtube Video.

Based on the imagery from the tarmac reception, C4ADS swiftly confirmed the identity of the transport aircraft as the Boeing 777-2KQLR (Registration Number: VP-CAL) that appeared in the plane-spotters database in Geneva. This aircraft also re-appeared in arrival logs in Geneva during the President’s return trip on March 24, 2018 which was similarly observable on the ADS-B Exchange historical Flight viewer.

Private Chartered Boeing 777-2KQLR (Registration number: VP-CAL) operated by Cam Air Management and owned by Saudi Royal, Mohammad Bin Fahd Bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud’s Montkaj Ltd. A Cameroonian Flag is seen affixed to the left of the aircraft entry door. Source:    JetPhotos   .

Private Chartered Boeing 777-2KQLR (Registration number: VP-CAL) operated by Cam Air Management and owned by Saudi Royal, Mohammad Bin Fahd Bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud’s Montkaj Ltd. A Cameroonian Flag is seen affixed to the left of the aircraft entry door. Source: JetPhotos.

Altogether, this brief look at President Paul Biya’s foreign travel highlights the relative ease with which researchers and investigators can use public reporting (including official state disclosures) to map the activities of absentee leaders around the globe. This research also identifies the use of chartered aircraft as a potentially understudied aspect of corruption research especially given the high cost of these chartered trips, and the burden placed on local tax payers many of whom cannot afford the luxury enjoyed by their publicly elected officials.