A Tribute to H.E. Martin Belinga Eboutou, 1940-2019
“From within or from behind, a light shines through us upon things, and makes us aware that we are nothing, but the light is all….”
–Ralph Waldo Emerson.
For close to four decades, the smooth silky silhouette of Martin Belinga Eboutou dominated public life within Cameroon and beyond. In him, and through him, like with all humans, could be seen some bright and beautiful glimmers of light, unless one were quintessentially a seeker of gloom. What is man, but a mere dark screen upon which the light is projected. If we focus on the screen, we may miss the light.
A diplomat by training, Martin Belinga Eboutou was indeed a consummate diplomat from birth. He was naturally gifted with grit and grace. There is no gainsaying that he richly reflected the glow and glory of Cameroon’s diplomacy in his times. He was indeed the “enfant prodige” of Cameroonian diplomacy – the diplomats’ diplomat par excellence.
His career exploded mostly when he was appointed to serve in the Presidency, first as Chief of State Protocol, then as Minister, Director of the President’s Cabinet for two terms, punctuated by almost a decade of service abroad as Ambassador, Permanent Representative of Cameroon to the United Nations Organization in New York.
As can be expected, Martin Belinga Eboutou’s long career in the inner circles of power gave him ample opportunity to garner influence and to display uncommon genuis in statecraft. His tenure, temperament and tactics enabled him to make his mark on Cameroon’s courtly culture, thus projecting him into public prominence.
The functions he held were demanding, difficult and delicate, requiring considerable skills to coordinate and leverage the functioning of various distinct departments – Protocol, security, communication, and Household services….
He had a deep understanding and mastery of his role as “The Lord Chamberlin” – the most senior official of the Palace supervising the departments which support and provide advice to the Sovereign – in our case, the President of the Republic.
He served the President of the Republic with dedication, diligence and distinction, employing all means and methods at his disposal to ease and facilitate the work of the President, but also to nurture, nourish and magnify the presidential function. He quickly won the confidence and credence of the President of the Republic, who himself is a man of extraordinary finesse and savvy. And it is thus that Martin Belinga Eboutou earned his place of preeminence, prestige and patronage in the political set up of the country. He was widely considered the “Custodian of the Crown” and captain–in–chief responsible for the preservation, protection and promotion of presidential power in Cameroon.
Three factors seem to account for the evolution and elevation of this enigmatic personality credited with so much clout and phenomenal power in Cameroon’s political system – Preparation, Perfection and Partnerships.
Martin Belinga Eboutou carefully prepared himself intellectually, philosophically and physically for his high functions. His naturally inquisitive mind was constantly fed through voracious reading. He was addicted to the classics and contemporary works of secular and spiritual writers. He sought knowledge and wisdom not just from ancient manuscripts but from the man on the street.
He developed both his intellect and intuition. He possessed outstanding analytical skills and was alert and attentive to detail. He was eager to learn and kept an open mind.
After his first outing as Chief of State Protocol during Cameroon’s National Day, he paid a nightly visit to the legendary retired former Chief of State Protocol, Dr, Gabriel Happi Tina. To his surprise, Dr. Happi had privately recorded on video the public events of that day, and went through the protocol aspects with him – “Here you did well, there, not so good, because of X consideration and Y obstruction. Next time, position yourself like this, turn in this direction, gently and graciously steer the Presidential party in this manner….”. The following day, he recounted this to us with much gratitude and humility. To know, we must begin from the premise that we don’t know. We must be willing to learn, then know how to find out. Martin Belinga Eboutou was a humble seeker who knew how to find out.
He wasn’t one for a sloppy job. He worked hard and burnt the midnight oil to accomplish his tasks to the best of his abilities. As part of his personal preparation for service, he developed a deep understanding of the human nature. Philosophically, he was utterly aware of man’s predatory propensity. He knew how to assert himself, when to fight and when to flex and flee.
Martin Belinga Eboutou also prepared himself physically. He was remarkably clean and confident in himself. He groomed himself properly to reflect the supremacy and sanctity of his high office. He was a man of style and substance, visibly given to elegance and excellence. He knew he was constantly in the public eye and glare. He was in many respects, the face of power. He ensured that those within his galaxy reflected the same image.
Admired or abhorred, hailed or hated, loved or loathed, Martin Belinga Eboutou knew only too well what it takes to be of service to royalty, and how to maintain the distance and discretion worthy of a trusted confidante of the Prince.
Perfection was Martin Belinga Eboutou’s other name. He was meticulous and methodical, and had an unmatched penchant for doing things well. Afterall, his whole training and career was about order, perfection, civility and courtesy – about etiquette, the principles or guidelines for doing things in ways that make people comfortable, uplifting others regardless of their position on the social pecking order.
He believed in the power of the written and spoken word. As a boss reading through our work, he would first have you change a word or two, then a sentence, then a paragraph. Before you realized it, the entire text had been changed and shining with clarity and new meaning. He had the knack for communicating clearly and convincingly. He knew how to successfully sell his ideas and proposals, and how to obtain almost anything he wanted through the sheer force of persuasive, profound and perspicacious analysis and argument. He was a great communicator and used his communication skills both oral and written, to appeal to the favour and favourable disposition of others.
Martin Belinga Eboutou held exalted functions in an exalted place. He understood that a Palace is more than a place of glitz and glamour. A palace is also about people with manners and majesty. He deployed his skills and talents to reform and refine the various protocols and processes used within the Presidential Palace and for the conduct of public ceremonies in the nation. He sought to establish order, decorum and decency in all public functions. He settled for nothing short of perfection, and was behind much of the splendour and solemnity witnessed in public ceremonies in Cameroon.
Martin Belinga Eboutou understood the power of networking in achieving his goals. He established a network of collaborative partnerships with people in various constituencies within key public and private institutions around the country. This provided him access to vital information and insights which enabled him to inform and influence decisions.
He was gifted with people skills, and understood that “even the dull and the ignorant, they too have their story”. He was a team player and saw people as potential mines. You can discover gold or diamond in them, but be prepared to dig through the dirt to get to the gems. He always sought to explore and exploit the good in others, and was bereft of pride in his quest for the good.
I was one of six young diplomats under his charge in State Protocol at the Presidency of the Republic. I was also the lone anglophone there – Well, not quite, for the janitor whose job it was to clean and clear the offices was also an anglophone. That notwithstanding, my boss, Martin Belinga Eboutou, preferred asking me in every now and then for janitorial duties. While I did not understand why he regularly wanted me to do such chores, I did not also question his motives nor feel any resentment toward it. On two separate occasions a colleague who had noticed the unusual situation reminded me that I was “an officer”, not a janitor. He carefully urged me to assert myself and stand up against such demeaning actions – unless I truly desired to be the lowly Jesus of the towel who would crouch to wash the feet of others. On both occasions, my response was the same: “We are paid to work eight hours a day. If this is the only job available for the day, then I’m content doing it, if only to justify my daily bread”.
Then one day, as I was busy dusting and arranging my boss’ office, our new Minister unexpectedly bumped in. Martin Belinga Eboutou respectfully jumped up to welcome, the Minister, who seeing me in a suite with a rag in hand, seemed perplexed at what was going on. There followed a few awkward moments, and in an apparent effort to break the silence, Martin Belinga Eboutou said to his unexpected eminent guest: “Mr. Minister, in this department, if you want an important task accomplished, this is the person to whom to entrust the responsibility (he said pointing to me). He is so well organized that I have to call on him every once in a while to help put some order into my disorder. His office is right across mine, and if you went in there, you’d quickly notice what I’m saying”.
Listening to that, I was awestruck to realize that in asking me to clean his office, my boss was not seeking to disparage me. He was simply seeking to tap on something positive he found in me. But over and above that revelation, I had just benefitted from a remarkable recommendation to our new Minister, another major power broker in the system, who would later on play a decisive role in shaping my career and destiny.
This early encounter and experience with Martin Belinga Eboutou taught me to shun all pride and prejudice; to avoid assigning motives and intentions to the actions of others; to remain open minded and humble; not to lean on my own understanding; and to remember with St. Paul that “Now we see through a veil darkly, a time will come when we shall see more clearly”.
Martin Belinga Eboutou was always attracted to the light in others. He established fruitful partnerships with all whom he saw as positive and constructive, and in the process, he created around him a constellation of friends and enduring partnerships which were a secret source of his strength.
Finally, and as my Farewell:
Martin Belinga Eboutou was a man of faith. The son of a catechist, he carried with him everywhere his Catholic Missal and Rosary. He was quite often in the company of the clergy and other religious persons. He even built a church in his home village. He was visibly impacted by his Catholic faith and education.
Yes, Martin Belinga Eboutou strode the corridors of power, and kept company with kings. He marshalled and managed all etiquettes for pomp and pageantry. But he knew that ultimately, all honour, glory, majesty and power belong to God Almighty – The light eternal that shines in us and through us upon all things, making us aware that we are nothing, but the light is all.
Yes, yet again, You are no more, Your Excellency Martin Belinga Eboutou, Diplomat, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, Cabinet Minister, Statesman, Friend, Father, Husband… But listen, listen now oh child of God as your Maker and Master says to you:
“No longer will the sun be your light by day, or the moon be your light by night. I the Lord will be your eternal light, the light of my glory will shine on you” (Isaiah 60:19)
Fare thee well, and may your soul find eternal rest.
High Commissioner of Cameroon to Canada