Cameroon: A 50th independence anniversary amid joy and pain

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Last week dignatories from around the world joined President Paul Biya to celebrate 50 years of independence in Cameroon. But beyond the pomp and ceremony Cameroon is a nation still struggling to embed democratic structures, eradicate corruption and overcome internal divisions. The recent death in prison of a journalist investigating kickbacks by the state owned oil company, an uneven political playing field and discrimination against Anglophone Cameroonians all give food for thought.

Stefan Simanowitz reports from Yaounde

It was meant to be the highlight of Cameroon’s 50th anniversary celebrations but as the procession filed passed the presidential stand in central Yaounde last Thursday, May 20, members of the SDF, the main opposition party, held signs aloft denouncing the country’s electoral commission. Watched by heads of several African states, two Nobel Peace Prize winners, a couple of former French Prime Ministers and a small contingent of international journalists this was just the type of embarrassing incident that Paul Biya, Cameroon’s president since 1982, had been keen to avoid. Once the marchers were out of sight, the police moved in, confiscating their banners and beating protesters. Similar scenes were being played out in Cameroon’s second city, Douala.

Whilst the focus of the protests was the Independent Electoral Commission’s lack of transparency in overseeing next years general elections, it also reflected a wider sense of malaise towards the government and frustration that the promise augured at the time of independence has not been fulfilled. “I am observing the procession but I am not celebrating” Richards Manga, a twenty-six year old unemployed driver tells me as army generals parade past. “For me there is nothing to celebrate.”

This view is not shared by everyone and Minister of Communications, Issa Tchiroma, is keen to point out that Cameroon has enjoyed far greater peace and stability than most nations in the region. “Our image has been tarnished by Cameroonians in the Diaspora who would like to undermine or weaken our government,” he tells me.

French-speaking Cameroon gained its independence from France in 1960 whilst Anglophone Cameroon became independent from Britain in 1961. The two sides joined together as a federation and later, in 1972, Cameroon became a unitary state. Despite being home to large oil supplies those in Anglophone Western Cameroon feel that they do not receive a fair share of the oil revenues and are also victims of discriminatory treatment. “We experience discrimination on all fronts,” Anglophone lawyer Bernard Muna says. “The roads, schools, hospitals and infrastructure in that region are in a terrible state.” Despite growing frustration, Muna assures me that the 2004 destruction of the Mungo Bridge, which links Anglophone and Francophone Cameroon, was the result of an oil-tanker crash rather than an act of political sabotage.

Another source of anger is the attempt to airbrush Ahmado Ahidjo, Cameroon’s first President, out of the nations’ history. Following a major feud with Biya in 1984, Ahidjo was forced into exile and died in Senegal in 1989 where his body has remained ever since. Although there are no pictures of Ahidjo in the streets during the celebrations and his name is not mentioned in any of the many speeches made from the podium, his presence is keenly felt. “Do you regard him as the father of the nation?” I ask Diana Okah. She looks at me with incredulity. “He is the father of the nation,” she replies “He should be brought back and buried here in Cameroon,” she adds with feeling.

Although Cameroon is theoretically a multi-party democracy, the ruling party, the Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (CPDM) in coalition with three other parties occupies 153 of the 180 parliamentary seats, and in 2008 President Paul Biya’s government amended the constitution to allow him to run for a third term in office in 2011. “Cameroon has the all the props of a true democracy but the substance of democracy is not there,” Bernard Muna explains.

In 1999 Transparency International described Cameroon as “the most corrupt country in the world” and despite a recent anti-corruption initiative, Operation Epervier (Sparrowhawk), Cameroon still suffers from systemic and endemic corruption. Indices of corruption can be misleading and groups such as the British-based Tax Justice Network point out that corruption in financial centres in the West dwarfs that of any African state. Nevertheless, the problem of corruption in Cameroon is openly acknowledged. “Cameroon has suffered from poor governance, mismanagement and corruption,” says Issa Tchiroma who believes Cameroon’s problems must be named before they can be addressed. “We are far from perfect but we are perfect-able.” As a result of Sparrowhawk, six former government ministers are currently in jail for corruption but Muna believes that the punishment has never acted as an effective a deterrent to crime. “The way in which a society is organised determines whether or not corruption can flourish,” he says. “The only way to deal with corruption is from the root by blocking the gaps in the system that allow corruption to happen.”

One recent corruption scandal that threatens to shake Cameroon’s political class to its core and expose bitter internal rifts within the CPDM involves Laurent Esso, Secretary-General of the Presidency of the Republic of Cameroon and Chairman of the Board of Cameroon’s biggest oil company SNH. A copy of a letter instructing payment of commissions of around 2 million Euros for the purchase of a FCFA 17 billion (about $35 million) luxury hotel ship was leaked to several newspapers in February. One journalist, Bibi Ngota, decided to approach Laurent Esso directly with the evidence.

Ngota, along with two other journalists were accused of falsifying the letter and of trying to defame Esso. “They were arrested and tortured by the secret services in order to try and find the source of the leak,” says Innocent Ngoungang, a journalist with Le Jour who is confident that the leak must have come from someone within the government’s inner circle. “They were beaten on the soles of their feet, denied food, and kept in stress positions in dark rooms for over a week,” Ngoungang, who has spoken to the prisoners, tells me. But Issa Tchiroma strenuously denies that Ngota was arrested for political reasons or that he was tortured. “He was arrested because he was a rascal” Tchiroma says. “The devil became his advisor and he had to be doomed.”

Whilst the exact circumstances of what happened remain unclear Ngota, who suffered from hypertension, was transferred to the prison infirmary where he contracted tuberculosis. He died on 22nd April and was buried by his wife and two small children in his village of Mengali. Following international concern, a judicial inquiry has been ordered to investigate the circumstances of Ngota’s death. Meanwhile the other two journalists, Serge Sabouang and Robert Mintsa, remain confined in terrible conditions in Yaoude Central Prison.

Cameroon with its varied landscape and over 200 tribal groups is often referred to as ‘Africa in miniature’. But the description also applies to other aspects of a country whose tainted political system mirrors that of many nations in this troubled continent. “I am celebrating today but that does not mean I am happy,” says Bernard Muna. “It’s like when you celebrate your birthday. It doesn’t mean that you had a great year but you still thank God you’re are still alive.” Bibi Ngota cannot offer such thanks to God and his widow Antoinette is one of many who, despite 50 years of independence, is not in the mood for celebrating.

Stefan Simanowitz is a freelance journalist and political analyst.

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