Monday, July 21, 2008

What's Wrong with Cameroon III - Corruption

July 21, 2008

Here’s part three in my series. And here’s the Disclaimer: I’m not professing to be any kind of expert in stating my opinions of what I see wrong with Cameroon. They’re just that – opinions. I’ve been living in Cameroon for about a year now. I’ve been living a little better than the average Cameroonian, but no where close to the luxury of the average ex-patriot. I’ve been living among and working with Cameroonians on a day to day basis and this is what I see.

In 1999, Transparency International called Cameroon the most corrupt country in the world. They repeat the study every year, and since then we’ve moved in front of some 30 other countries, but we’re still just a few tenths of a point from the bottom. It doesn’t take much to notice it either. Even a tourist coming for a week could see plenty of examples.

Probably the most visible examples are police and gendarme traffic stops. This is where police are set up on the road stopping almost every car that passes. They are set up under the guise of making sure that the vehicles and drivers have proper documentation, but they don’t try to hide anything. What the driver is expected to do is to get out of the car, walk over to the officer, pay him 500F (one dollar), and be on his way. If you don’t pay, the officer will ask for your documentation. He will go through it very slowly and probably tell you that you’re missing something (even if you’re not) or that something is expired (even if it isn’t). I’ve been in a bush taxi multiple times where a driver was being held up and another passenger voiced his frustration saying “Just pay him already!” or “It’s only 500 francs!” Occasionally they’ll make all the passengers get out and show their ID cards. As a Peace Corps volunteer I have a Cameroon-issued visitor card, but I’ve heard of other Americans that had to pay a bribe because the officer wouldn’t give them back their passport. The Peace Corps stance is to absolutely never pay a bribe, so one American that works in the office told me he always travels with a book. Whenever he gets stopped, he whips it out. The message you want to send is “I’ve got all day.” he says. As annoying and downright wrong as it is for law-enforcement officers to be demanding bribes, it can also get expensive. They’re usually set up outside of every decent-sized town, sometimes on both sides of a town. You might run into four of or five in an hour making it hard for a driver or travel agency to make any money.

Law enforcement is not only corrupt on the roads. The entire legal system has problems. We take a lot for granted in the US. Here it’s your neighbors that look out for you and mob justice that dishes out the punishment. There is a system set up and channels to go through, but lots of people along the way can be paid off. I know an American that came to Cameroon to volunteer for an orphanage. It was a bad sight. The woman running it was using it to get foreign donations. She maltreated, underfed, beat, and allowed the children to be sexually abused. My friend found a way to have the kids legally removed and created his own orphanage. The government was helpful at first, but then started saying he couldn’t legalize the orphanage, that he stole the kids. He started getting death threats. The woman at the old orphanage had money to give to the right people and had friends in high places. When the Cameroonian government actually came to remove the children it took a call from the US Ambassador to make them change their mind. You can check out more at

Government officials and lawmakers also find ways to steal money. Money for projects that goes through five different people might lose 15% at each step of the way. Many people in high places see it as their right to do favors on the side and under the table. I had another volunteer friend that used to hang out with a ‘grand’ or ‘big man’ in his town. His friend would always pay for food and drinks when they went out. He never thought too much about where the money was coming from until he was in his office when one of these transactions took place. The “client” handed over a large stack of 10,000F ($20) bills. When the big man asked where his friend’s part was, the client handed another stack to my volunteer friend. He stood there stunned holding the money until the client left and he refused to accept it.

I talked about corruption in the education system a bit in my last entry. In short – money, sex, and connections can get you a long way. But these actions don’t just help those that use them; they hurt those that work hard. One of my business class students recently took the test to get into a specialized school and was anxious about the results.
“How do you feel like you did?” I asked.
“Really good, but I’m still worried.”
“Do a lot of people pay to pass it?”
“Yeah, I know someone who’s aced it three times and not passed.”

Banks are one area where you would assume there would be no corruption but even they aren’t immune. That’s the main reason people don’t trust them to save their money. Conflict of interest doesn’t have quite the same meaning here. Employees and members of the board will often give themselves and their friends loans that don’t get paid back. And the president of the board of directors of one bank where there used to be a Peace Corps volunteer was also the chief of the village, owned the building the bank was occupying, and made sure no one ever said no to him.

Lastly, corruption has worked its way into the development and non-profit sector. A lot of local non-profits are created not to do good, but because there’s money to be had. This happens especially with HIV/AIDS projects and groups. There are a lot of foreigners willing to give money but not do the legwork. Unfortunately, not very much of this money gets to the cause. A bank manager in a neighboring town went to the European Union Development office in Nkongsamba looking for money to buy a car so he could visit his lenders and do more publicity. The EU told him no, that they only give money to Community Groups. The advice a Cameroonian friend of mine gave him was: “Start a Community Group.”

It’s the way of life here, a cycle and a Catch 22. The country can’t advance with this much corruption, but everyone thinks they need to join in to get ahead.


1 comment:

Omar Mefire said...

Corruption is a big thorn in the side of this country.

it is highly rooted in our country. even high government officials do it.

It will take a lot of energy and will to stop or reduce it.