Cameroon: Can the mess ever stop?
For more than three decades, Cameroon has made the headlines for corruption and each time a senior official is arrested, the public feels that things will get better. But for three decades now, things have moved from better to worse with the future looking really bleak.
Way back in the mid-80s, only very few people were known to have stolen state funds and this did not look like an epidemic. In 1986, two years after the country’s President, Paul Biya, came to power, there were rumors of senior officials of his government stealing state funds. He promptly organized an interview with CRTV, the country’s national network, to dispel such rumors.
In his interview, he asked for proof and many Cameroonians were displeased with his statement on national TV. Many Cameroonians thought that it was incumbent upon the government to investigate any allegations instead of asking ordinary citizens to bring any evidence in their keeping.
The business of embezzling money is very sophisticated for an ordinary man to understand and it is only the government with its vast resources that can get to the bottom of things if it really wants to know the truth in a country like Cameroon.
But the truth did not take time to come out. No sooner had the president challenged the population than the very first managing director of CRTV, Elie Florent Etouga, absconded with the corporation’s budget. This was a sign that things were not as tidy as the president had portrayed in his interview. He later came on TV to acknowledge that some of his collaborators had stolen state money and were living out of the country.
This announcement was not only an indictment of Mr. Biya’s government, but a clear indication that the president was blissfully unaware of what was happening around him. Indeed, his statement in defense of his collaborators only served as the opening of the floodgates. After Mr. Elie Florent Etouga, Mr. Messi Messi, a managing director of a popular government financial institution, also fled the country with huge amounts of money in the early 90s as Cameroonians started demonstrating for multiparty politics and as things looked like Mr. Biya was losing his grip on power.
Mr. Messi Messi later alleged that the financial institution had been ruined by Mr. Biya’s wife and her family who constantly showed up at his office with bits of paper to collect money at the behest of the president’s wife. From that date, Cameroon made its way into the spotlight for the embezzling prowess of its government officials.
The last two decades have seen hundreds of Cameroon government officials being sent to jail for embezzlement. Even a Prime Minister, Ephraim Inoni, is also languishing in jail for dipping his hands into the government’s coffers. Cameroonians now joke that there is an entire government in jail and that the only vacancy in the country’s maximum security prison, Kondengui, is the post of president.
This implies that Cameroonians are looking forward to the day Mr. Biya will be taken to jail for presiding over a corrupt system. Cameroonians are at a loss for words. They argue that much of the embezzlement cannot be occurring without the president’s knowledge. They point to the fact that most of those in prison are people who are from the president’s ethnic group or region, arguing that there should have been a well-defined background check system to ensure that the public service does not get filled with criminals.
The public has been calling for a computerization of the system to ensure that a few people do not have absolute control over state funds, but these pleas have fallen on deaf ears and the looting of the system has continued unchecked. The embezzlement of state funds has not only hurt the president’s reputation as a leader, it has also hurt the economy.
Stealing state money has become a favorite sport among Cameroonians. Most Cameroonian civil servants, especially customs officials, tax inspectors, and heads of national corporations are clearly living well beyond their means and most of them have their children out of the country, mostly in Western countries where the stolen money is safely kept.
But this week, the country has been asking if the country’s economy will ever recover following the arrest of a former minister of defense, Alain Edgar Mebe Ngo’o, for the embezzlement of billions of taxpayers’ money. Pictures of the former minister’s mansion have been trending online and many Cameroonians are shocked at the display of opulence by Mr. Biya’s ministers.
Mr. Mebe Ngo’o’s case seems to be the worst in the country’s history. His wife, children and nephews are all involved and the list of his assets has left many Cameroonians wondering if this will ever stop. For more than three decades, the country’s government has been conducting itself like a crime syndicate and many members of the president’s ruling party are considered as Mafia kingpins who hold that they are above the law.
While the country is bleeding money and jobs, many members of the country’s ruling party have become very rich. The country’s economy is in a free fall and if something is not done, it will collapse and many lives will be exposed to hardship and death. The corruption has become all pervasive and it has now reached other sectors of the economy.
Schools, banks and hospitals have not been spared by this cancer that is tearing the country apart. The country’s hospitals have been ruined by corruption and most of them are more of consultation clinics. The country’s death rate has risen and it is even unsettling to know that medical doctors are more interested in money than in the health of their patients.
Regarding the financial sector, it could be said that it too has been hit hard by corruption as a result of what is happening in government circles. Late last year, the Central African Banking Commission (Cobac) issued sanctions on Cameroonian bank managers for various acts of corruption. This followed its September 22, 2018, meeting, the conclusions of which were published by Abbas Mahamat Tolli, the commission’s Chairman and Governor of BEAC.
The concerned managers reportedly violated exchange regulations and did not comply with prudential standards. Those affected by that decision included Alphonse Nafack, MD of Afriland First Bank; Isong Udom of United Bank for Africa; Gwendoline Nzo-Nguty Abunaw of Ecobank Cameroon; Waidi Loukoumanou of BGFIBank Cameroon as well as André Alexis Megudju, Managing Director of Crédit communautaire d’Afrique, a former microfinance institution that received Cobac’s banking accreditation in March 2017.
Furthermore, Cobac also examined seven financial institutions accused of non-compliance with banking regulations, lack of internal control and money laundering, among others. According to the regulator, these institutions have freed themselves from the rules governing the foreign exchange market.
This is the story of a country that has made corruption its hallmark. The story of Cameroon’s corruption is one that will continue for a long time, as long as the government does not find anything wrong with its ways. Corruption has blighted many lives. Many young Cameroonians are unemployed and millions are looking outwards for opportunities in distant lands. Today, it is normal for young Cameroonians to hold that their country has no plans for them and this is causing the country to lose many talented people. The brain drain has reached alarming proportions and it will be difficult for the government to reverse this unfortunate trend.
By Kingsley Betek and Linda Embi