Eugene Nforngwa (Editor and Publisher of The Standard Tribune)
A floppy economic and social outlook lethally combined with a tensed political climate
As a cholera outbreak across up to five regions kills hundreds and affects thousands in the fifth month of the worst epidemic in 20 years, the government has announced it would be unable to meet its 2010 budget target. The state would continue to meet obligations like paying civil servants but many investment projects would be put on hold and government contractors can expect long payment delays. In the meantime, the death toll from the cholera epidemic is expected to rise to more than 500, making about 7,500 victims.
Cameroon has never faced worse times. Oil production which provides more than half the country’s export earning is falling sharply. Next year, the decline would reach 15 percent partly as a result of aging fields and pirate activities offshore, according to the National Hydrocarbons Corporation. The timber sector is yet to return to the performance before the global financial crisis. And with the agricultural sector depreciating, Cameroon imports everything from rice to fish.
By many accounts, poverty is deepening. The department of statistics estimates that more than one in two rural folks is poor while that ratio is about one in three in urban centres. Children are facing malnutrition in northern Cameroon , according to UNICEF. Infant and maternal mortalities have all been rising. Last month, aide group Save the Children named Cameroon , along with Chad and Kenya , as countries with “weak public expenditure management” that are making “slow or no progress” in attaining the goal of curbing infant mortality by 2015. Newsweek described Cameroon as one of the worst places to live on earth.
Yet, there seems to be only bleak prospect. The year is wrapping up without any of the mining projects that were expected to give the country’s slackening economy a push taking off – freezing tens of thousands of promised jobs. And, even though the government has been hiring thousands of workers for several years now, many of them have not started receiving pay and underemployment is staggering at 75.8 percent, according to the Department of Statistics.
Market fires in nearly all the major cities this year and a policy banning street vending in Yaounde has left thousands of people out of work.
The country’s floppy economic and social outlook combines with a tensed political climate building to the 2011 presidential election. President Paul Biya’s 28-year-old regime is believed to be very unstable at the moment. Frictions are resulting from alleged power ambitions among Biya’s lieutenants. The military is widely viewed as torn in a battle between sit tight generals and younger officers facing career stagnation and the imbalanced transfer of resources in favour of the newly created special force BIR. With ELECAM yet to convince the majority of the public about its neutrality, the next election could well fail, thinning dawn the prospects of a change of power through the ballot box.
Analysts say if combined the different factors put Cameroon on the path to a major crisis, a civil war perhaps. Cameroon is “a crumbling state at the verge of an implosion,” says the opposition Social Democratic Front party. In June, Crisis Group, an international body working to prevent conflicts around the world warned of the “dangers of a fracturing regime”. In an earlier report, Crisis Group analysts said an impasse in democratic politics threatened the nation’s future. And, after a May visit, a former US ambassador, Harriet Isom, said “A pool of ‘nothing to lose’ people is growing – who sparked riots in 2008 and could do so again.”
Fear that Cameroon is a fragile state have hardly been this strong and nearly certain before. The country managed to survive the economic crisis of the eighties and the political upheaval of the nineties. But few believe the current situation can be wished away. “There is urgency to fix Cameroon , as the boundary between a crumbling state and a failed state may be crossed within a couple of months,” says Ni john Fru Ndi, the chairman of the SDF.
Today’s problems are partly due to the economic crisis of the eighties and the recent global financial crisis. But analysts say years of poor management of public resources, the absence of transparency, corruption, and an over centralised government that has been sustained by the distribution of favours may combine to play a more significant role. “At its root, this is a slow burn crisis of expectations,” says Richard Moncrieff, West Africa project director at the International Crisis Group. “In the early 1990s, Cameroonians invested considerable hope in their emerging democracy. This hope has been all but extinguished by two decades of democratic pushback by the regime.”
Moncrieff adds that, “The only way to avoid this is to allow Cameroonians to hope again, and that means creating a more democratic climate, in which people’s voices are heard, and their choices are respected.” It is a view that is shared by the vast majority of the opposition. “Today, the only hope of not completely collapsing into the precipice of a failed state is to give Cameroonians their right to vote through free fair and credible elections,” says Fru Ndi.