The Cameroon government has launched a nationwide campaign to wipe out corruption, but citizens and diplomats are watching with a dubious eye this latest of several endeavours.
President Paul Biya’s government launched the anti-corruption drive on 18 January, two weeks after sacking two magistrates accused of graft – the first such move in Biya’s 23 years in power.
The wave of anti-corruption fervour began as the Cameroon leader rang in the New Year denouncing the scourge and vowing to do away with it.
"There is a clear mismatch between our efforts to alleviate poverty and the scandalous enrichment of a few individuals,” Biya said in his New Year’s address to the nation.
“Public funds are embezzled, it should be recalled, at the expense of the nation. I want to say very solemnly today that this must stop….Such a drain on the national wealth is intolerable especially as part of our population, particularly the unemployed, are still suffering hardships.”
Weeks later the National Anti-Corruption Observatory launched a nationwide information and awareness campaign against graft.
The drive is aimed at educating civil society on tackling corruption through roundtable discussions, debates and conferences, according to the chairman, Georges Christol Manon.
Manon said the anti-corruption body will install “local observatories” in all of Cameroon’s 10 provinces to educate civil servants in techniques for identifying and fighting corruption. “Everyone is involved,” he said.
But Cameroon has had an anti-corruption body in place for eight years and this is not the first such national campaign in the country of 15 million. Civil society and diplomats remain sceptical.
“The fight against corruption in Cameroon, if it is to be sincere and effective, must not be limited to merely an awareness campaign,” the prominent newspaper Mutations said the day of the launch.
“Everyone knows the consequences [of corruption] but everyone also knows it has become systematic in government.”
And those who try to spotlight the practice in the highest spheres of government risk paying a high price.
President Biya's one-time Minister of Public Service and Administrative Reforms Garga Haman Adji said he had to leave government after trying to combat corruption.
"When I complained that there were too many state servants who have been amassing wealth from state coffers, I was told to show proof,” the former minister - who later ran against Biya in the 2004 presidential election - said on a state-run radio talk show.
“When I showed proof by forwarding 32 names to the head of state, nothing was done, these people were never sanctioned, and I had to resign.”
Named worst for corruption in Transparency International’s (TI) 1999 global index, Cameroon remains among the world’s 10 most corrupt nations according to the 2005 list of 158 countries.
TI says the judiciary, police, customs service and educational sector are rife with corruption.
The group says police officers are to the point of inventing infractions to stop taxi drivers and shake them down for money.
“Drivers are routinely forced to bribe police officers 1,000 FCFA (US $2) or more for imaginary offences such as ‘refusal to carry passengers’, ‘blocking the public highway’, or having a ‘double windscreen’ in the case of taxi drivers who wear glasses,” TI’s report said.
Diplomats in the country deplore the culture of corruption that has taken root in Cameroon in recent years.
US Ambassador Neils Marquardt told reporters on 19 January: “No institution seems to be immune from this scourge, and corruption is being practised and condoned by ordinary people including small children, their parents, their grandparents, ordinary civil servants, virtually everyone, it often seems.”
Analysts say worsening corruption in Cameroonian society is linked to poor pay for government workers.
Civil servants' salaries were slashed by over 70 percent in 1993, when the International Monetary Fund demanded cuts in government spending. Analysts say this encouraged the practice of dipping into the state coffers to make up for personal financial shortfalls.
The real value of civil service wages fell further in 1994 as the result of a 50-percent devaluation of the CFA franc.
Ambassador Marquardt echoed his predecessors in the country, warning that corruption is a major factor scaring off US investors.
He challenged Cameroon to “show itself and the world that this type of crime does not pay.” He added that the country has the necessary structures in place to tackle corruption “but must fully implement them.”
The Cameroon government created anti-corruption units in 29 ministries in 1997, but 75 percent of these units still are not operational, according to the public services and administrative reforms ministry.
Article 66 of the constitution requires that all those overseeing public funds declare their possessions but, observers say, the law is not being applied.
Today Cameroonian citizens have no illusions about the government’s resolve to eradicate the problem.
"How can you bite the hand that feeds you?" said Theodor Ngamaleu, an unemployed university graduate. "Those in government cycles are simply concerting to stay in power till death on some rather opaque management of state issues, hence corruption.”
Mutations newspaper said: “One fears that this new awareness campaign will end like the last one years ago - just fizzling out.”