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What’s to celebrate?

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The death of a journalist mars Cameroon’s 50th anniversary independence festivities. 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 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 banners and beating protesters. Similar scenes were being played out in Cameroon’s second city, Douala.

Stefan Simanowitz
Demonstrators at the 50th anniversary celebrations. Stefan Simanowitz

Whilst the focus of the protests was the Independent Electoral Commission’s lack of transparency in overseeing next year’s 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 26-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.

The protests reflected a wider sense of malaise towards the government and frustration that the promise augured at the time of independence has not been fulfilled

French-speaking Cameroon gained its independence from France in 1960 whilst Anglophone Cameroon became independence 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.

Stefan Simanowitz
Bernard Muna with former French prime minister Alain Juppe. Stefan Simanowitz

Another source of anger is the attempt to airbrush Ahmado Ahidjo, Cameroon’s first President, out of the nation’s 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 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.’

Although Cameroon is theoretically a multi-party democracy, the ruling CPDM party, in coalition with three other parties, occupies 153 of the 180 parliamentary seats and in 2008 Paul Biya amended the constitution to allow himself 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.

‘The most corrupt country in the world’

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 organized determines whether or not corruption can flourish. 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 kickbacks of around 2 million euros (US$2.5 million) for the purchase of a luxury hotel ship was leaked to several newspapers in February. One journalist, Bibi Ngota, decided to approach Esso directly with the evidence.

‘Cameroon has the all the props of a true democracy but the substance of democracy is not there’

Ngota, along with two other journalists, was 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. 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 adviser and he had to be doomed.’

Stefan Simanowitz
Yaounde central prison. Stefan Simanowitz

‘The way in which a society is organized determines whether or not corruption can flourish. The only way to deal with corruption is from the root – by blocking the gaps in the system that allow corruption to happen’

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 22 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 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.

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