New government embarks on anti-corruption drive

Cameroon’s new government this week published the names of 73 top civil servants accused of embezzling public funds in local newspapers to spotlight a sudden anti-corruption drive.

Most of the doctors, prison directors and other eminent officials said to have pocketed sums ranging from a modest 80,000 CFA francs (US $158) to 42 million CFA francs (US $83,000) - as well as equipment totalling 126 million CFA francs (US $249,000) - are being sacked.

Some are to face criminal charges and all have been ordered to return the missing cash and state property.

Organised by Polycarpe Abah Abah, the newly-appointed Economy and Finance Minister, the campaign follows President Paul Biya’s promise to cleanse Cameroon of corruption following his landslide re-election last October.

On Wednesday several top civil servants, including the head of taxes in the capital Yaounde, were removed and newly appointed Prime Minister Ephraim Inoni urged citizens to place their complaints about corruption in special letter-boxes being made available to the public.

President Biya has been at the helm for 22 years and the opposition has repeatedly accused him of rigging the polls to stay in power. His new-found determination to crack down on corruption has therefore been viewed with a dose of cynicism by Cameroon's 15 million people, over half of whom live on less than two dollars per day.

Cameroon is viewed by businessmen as being as one of the world’s 20 most corrupt countries, according to the 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index published by corruption watchdog Transparency International.

Its survey showed that more than 50 percent of Cameroonians admitted to paying a bribe in 2003, the highest figure anywhere in the world.

“Cameroon continues to rank low on all corruption perception indices, discouraging investor interest even before it starts,” US Ambassador Neils Marquadt said on 11 January.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) last August excluded the country from its Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) debt relief scheme due to the government’s poor record on public finances.

Of the 73 civil servants sacked by Inoni’s new government, 19 were from the Education Ministry, 18 from the former Budget Ministry, 12 from Public Health. The remainder were from other government departments.

This was the second wave in Cameroon’s clean-up. Last week, Abah Abah replaced all the cashiers at Yaounde’s tax offices and put their replacements under close supervision.

Shortly after his appointment last December, Inoni made surprise visits to various ministries, sacking workers on the way for corruption or simply for turning up late to work.

But this is not the first time Cameroon has taken a stab at eliminating the rot, and some of the public and the press remain sceptical.

“How far will Inoni go?’ queried “Le Messager” one of the most authoritative newspapers in the West African country, formed from an unusual amalgam of former French and British colonies.

The French language daily remarked that his campaign was unlikely to be effective if it only punished the small fry in government without tackling the bigger fish

“Neither Prime Minister Inoni nor Minister Abah Abah can sack a minister appointed by the head of state, or a senior civil servant who is a baron in government,” said a customer in a Yaounde bar, drinking a beer. “The real whales need to be touched to show the fight against corruption is effective.”

Observers moreover say lack of punctuality and corruption is related to poor pay for Cameroon’s civil service. Salaries were slashed by over 70 percent in 1993 when the International Monetary Fund (IMF) demanded cuts in government spending.

That reduced incentives to work hard and encouraged the practice of dipping into state coffers in times of personal financial crisis.

The real value of civil service wages fell still further in 1994 as the result of a 50 percent devaluation of the CFA franc, the currency shared by Cameroon with 13 other countries in West and Central Africa.

Today a clerk in a government office earns about 52,000 CFA francs (US $102) per month, a driver is paid half of that.