11 Apr 2006
Cameroon is passing through one of the most challenging times in her recent history and is treading precariously at the edge of a precipice. Never before has there been a bigger mass of educated but unemployed youths. At no time since the turbulent days of the early nineties have Cameroonians become bolder and more vocal. There has been no time since Biya became president than today that Cameroonians expect him to compel his collaborators to render account of their stewardship to the state. Lists are flying around with names of highly placed people alleging that they have embezzled billions of francs.
President Biya has tried to stem the tide of the rising fury by arresting a couple of people and setting up an anti-corruption body headed by himself. “Too little too late” lamented a vocal critic.
Given the deeply seated and widespread nature of the problem coupled with the calibre of suspects and the shear sums of money ‘stolen’, it becomes imperative that a cool headed approach be adopted in handling the issue. It is quite tempting to say that everybody involved in the theft of government funds be arrested and tried because that is the right thing to do in an ideal situation. I can attest that the situation in which Cameroon finds herself today is far from ideal. Who is that clean government official that will give the order to arrest who? Who will prosecute? Who will judge and when? Where are the prisons to house the guilty?
Take note that the overcrowded Cameroon prison system has one of the highest number of pre-trial detainees in Africa (some sources talk of over eighty percent of inmates). The situation in the prisons alone tells a lot about the justice system of this country. You can cite reasons ranging from understaffing, incompetence, laziness, frustration and possibly corruption within the police and judicial circles that can be responsible for this unusual size of ‘awaiting trial’ people in our prisons.
In pressing the case for action to be taken, the human, historical and other factors must be taken into account. Biya took over from Ahidjo when Cameroon was a one party state with no real functional checks and balances and no press freedom. Ahidjo had a status of an infallible demi-god. The then president of the Republic and a close circle of trusted aides were not accountable to anybody. Biya inherited the system but tried to loosen the tight grip that his predecessor had on Cameroonians. In the process of ‘liberalizing’ the social and political life of the nation, it seems the culture of unaccountability took advantage of the more relaxed atmosphere to spread to the larger society. One thing led to another and before long vices like corruption, fraud, tribalism and shamelessness became the trademark of Cameroon. It must also be borne in mind that Paul Biya apart from being the president is a human being like you and I. It is obvious that some of those accused of embezzlement may turn out to be his close friends and family members. Just like anybody else, he cannot get up and arrest these people without enormous pressure being exerted on him by loved ones for them to be released. I believe he is in a ‘no win’ situation.
Now that we find ourselves entangled in an abyss of poverty and bad governance, we need to find a way of climbing out of that abyss without tearing ourselves apart. If we agree that today’s Cameroon is an abnormal place with dysfunctional institutions. If those governing us are humble enough to admit that they alone cannot resolve our present crisis. If on the other hand every Cameroonian (especially those that have been at the receiving end of bad governance) accepts to extend a hand of forgiveness, I will propose the following approach to let us get out of this tight corner.
- The President of the republic should take the initiative to bring together most opinion leaders etc with a view to discussing how we can move forward.
- They should consider giving amnesty from prosecution to all those that have stolen government money on condition that they disclose and return all the stolen money. (We must recognize the need to give the alleged embezzlers a safety valve because Cameroon’s current dysfunctional institutions cannot handle this problem in such a way as to satisfy demands of the rule of law).
- If need be, assistance of friendly governments or that of International Organizations like the UNO be sought to reorganize our judiciary and other strategic institutions that are valuable for the credibility of this country.
Other middle-of-the-road corrective and less punitive actions in addition to the above should be seriously considered in order to steer Cameroon away from the perilous path on which it seems to be moving. It is understandable that many Cameroonians are calling for repressive measures against the alleged embezzlers. This is because our political and bureaucratic leaders have subjected Cameroonians to years of humiliation, suffering and provocation. Painful as it is, I believe Cameroonians can still put this behind them if those governing the country genuinely demonstrate that they sincerely want to reform the system. In my opinion, the actions taken so far do not seem to demonstrate that commitment beyond reasonable doubt.
Black South Africans were even more furious with the whites that had used the system of Apartheid to subjugate and humiliate them for long. Majority of them wanted a vengeful change of the governing system. The apartheid leaders had to reach across to the black leadership to arrange a peaceful transition. The black leadership had to reciprocate by granting amnesty to most of the whites when they took over power.
Today’s rulers of Cameroon can copy the South African example and reach across to all political forces in the country and propose a sort of conference to chart a new path for this country. Cameroon is like a falling fragile object that needs soft landing to avoid an implosion.
Njei Moses Timah