Why corruption is Cameroon's worst-kept secret

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Thu, 18 Nov 2010 13:29 GMT
Author: George Fominyen, TrustLaw
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Not a day goes by in Cameroon without a newspaper article on fraud, embezzlement or other corrupt practices, while conversations with locals are peppered with anecdotes about civil servants and private-sector workers demanding bribes.

But it's rare to find people who've taken graft complaints to court - even when they have enough proof - except for activists from groups like the Citizens Association for the Defence of Collective Interests (ACDIC).


"One of the difficulties in this country is that people make a lot of noise about corruption but they end there," one diplomat who advises the Cameroon government on anti-graft strategies told me on my recent trip to the country.

My experiences chime with this view.

Many people are willing to tell stories of how corruption has affected their families and businesses, but none are prepared to go on the record or take legal action.

A trader at a market in the capital Yaounde told me that when he bought a shop from the council, officials asked him to pay FCFA 700,000 ($1,400), yet gave him a receipt for only FCFA 150,000 ($300). He signed the contract, took possession of the store, and said nothing. But he would like this kind of corruption to end.

"They are all a clique. If I report (what happened), I would be out of business and with the way the courts and police are corrupt, you would end up in prison instead," said the trader, who did not want to be named.

A lawyer whose child died due to what he suspected was negligence on the part of a doctor and nurses who asked for a tip before treating the patient said he could provide evidence for me to write an article, but was reluctant to take the matter to court.

The lack of formal complaints and law suits in the west-central African country has led to a silence in which rampant corruption thrives, experts say.

"It doesn't suffice to know there is corruption. What is important is having the courage to stand up to it and that is the problem we have here in Cameroon. People don't know how to fight corruption," lamented the diplomat.

LACK OF AWARENESS

Corruption in the form of active or passive bribery, extortion, paying off foreign officials, money laundering and the misuse of public funds for private gain is a crime in Cameroon's penal code, and punishment can include a prison term of five years to life, as well as fines and the seizure of assets.

But people say they are reluctant to make use of the law because there are few avenues for making complaints and very little assurance that potential whistleblowers will be protected from reprisal.

A 2009 U.S. State Department report said individuals had reportedly paid bribes to police and the judiciary to secure their freedom, while the police demanded bribes at checkpoints, and influential citizens had paid officers to arrest and abuse people involved in personal disputes.

Cameroon does have a few anti-corruption hotlines, including one advertised on state-run television channel CRTV for people to contact if they come across corruption and need legal help. But when I tried for two weeks to dial the number for an interview, an operator kept saying it was out of service.

"The people are frustrated with the lack of action when they have reported matters, and so they are resigned to live with the situation (corruption)," said Barthelemy Tchepnang, head of CAJAD, a human rights and development group that works on local governance.

Tchepnang said Cameroonians would change their approach to corruption if they were given more information about the importance of making formal complaints and the possibilities for recourse.

"There are good laws in this country - they are just not applied - and if they were, they would give confidence to people that something can be done about their complaints," he explained.