DAKAR (TrustLaw) - Cameroonians could face serious problems producing and accessing enough food to feed themselves unless the government and its citizens take on corrupt agricultural officials, a prominent campaigner in the Central African country said.
Bernard Njonga, the head of a non-governmental organisation that filed a lawsuit last year against a group of agriculture ministry officials for misappropriating funds, said bad governance had stalled initiatives to boost local agricultural production.
“Corruption is a calamity which has torpedoed all efforts to improve livelihoods and food security in our country but we can’t just sit and think it is too overwhelming to fight,” said Njonga, of the Citizens Association for the Defence of Collective Interests (ACDIC) which counts 11,000 members.
An ACDIC investigation into the allocation of maize subsidies between 2006 and 2008 revealed that officials in the agriculture ministry had created fictitious farmers’ groups, allocating 62 percent of the subsidies to these groups each year and leaving only 38 percent to reach genuine farmers of Cameroon’s main staple.
Although the accused denied the allegations, Cameroon’s anti-corruption commission (CONAC) confirmed ACDIC’s findings after a separate probe.
Njonga cited preliminary investigations by a state prosecutor and the imminent start of the criminal trial against the agriculture ministry officials as proof that corruption can be tackled even in a country where it is considered as endemic.
“In the ministry of agriculture today, officials think twice before playing shady games with resources meant for rural farmers,” Njonga told TrustLaw in a telephone interview from Yaounde.
“The fear this case has instilled in them has helped us to fight corruption in the ministry of agriculture even if it’s just a bit,” he added.
"CORRUPTION AS THE DEVIL"
Cameroon was ranked bottom of Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index in 1999 and is regularly among the 20 worst ranked countries in the annual survey.
About 60-70 percent of the Cameroon's population depends on agriculture as a main source of income but the country still imports much of its basic food, including 70 percent of the rice and 100 percent of the flour it consumes.
Njonga, who also leads a coalition of consumer groups that launched a campaign this year for Cameroonians to consume locally processed food, argued that the country could turn this around if agriculture was modernised and not hampered by poor governance.
“In every agricultural project that is developed, there is a system of cuts and kick-backs that starts from the top to the bottom. As a result only 5 percent of any agricultural resources ever reaches the farmers on the ground,” Njonga said.
“I hurt when I visit villages and I see people consuming rice from Thailand when they can grow beans or rice behind their homes but cannot do so because corrupt officials have swindled all resources meant to support them,” he added.
Njonga, an agronomist who left the government-run Institute for Agriculture Research (IRAD) to create the ACDIC farmers' group in 1986, shot to prominence when he successfully ran a campaign a few years ago to end imports of frozen chicken into Cameroon, which he argued was disrupting local poultry farming.
His organisation also revealed that 32 out of 60 tractors provided by Indian investors to test their adaptability in Cameroon before the creation of a tractor assembly plant ended up in the hands of ministers and other government officials.
But his activism has not brought him only fame.
In April, Njonga was handed a 3 months suspended sentence for organizing an “illegal” protest in December 2008. He has appealed against the sentence.
Njonga, who also runs a newspaper, La Voix du Paysan/The Farmer’s Voice, and the Eclat d’Afrique magazine focusing on farming and rural development, thinks Africa can survive on its own without international aid if the continent’s leaders and its people showed responsibility and commitment to development.
“If the head of a family allows his children to be corrupt they would think it is a good thing and indulge in it. If he punishes any corrupt child and refers to corruption as the devil they would avoid it …that is what should happen in our ministries and even in our countries,” Njonga said.
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