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Are Cameroon’s Embezzlers Made or Born?



President Paul Biya has undeniable mastery of the art of using poverty to twirl people around his little finger; manipulating them for his own existential political ends. What with the chopping and changing in his cabinets – a crossbreed between Russian roulette and a fast-moving chair dance?

Most of all, what with the frequency with which he Humpty-Dumpties his worshippers? He lifts them from abject poverty and obscurity to the very pinnacle of material ease, lets them swagger arrogantly around, splash crazily about in money like a duck in a pond; then with a kick in the small of their backs he sends them hurtling through the gaping gates of jail. They disappear, thoroughly degraded by the stigma of embezzlers. Reminds one of how, in the Ahidjo days, being branded a “terrorist” would estrange you even to your own family. The Edzoas, Ava’a Ava’as, Marafas, Atangana Mebaras, Forjindams, Inonis, Mendo Zes and Vamoulkes of this world have been there – from grass to grace and then down to Limbo.But if virtually all those we have trusted with the very highest offices in the land have fallen in this snare of embezzlement then isn’t it about time we asked if the fault is in them or in the system?

Misappropriation of public property is unconscionable even in poverty. Cameroon’s high placement on the world corruption scale has often been explained by generalized poverty – by the fact that the average worker’s pay cannot meet half his basic needs if he is to live a moderately decent life. But when you lift people from quasi-penury and pay them more than 10 times their original salaries, give them palatial lodgings, lavish allowances and other perks beyond their wildest dreams – what makes them want to steal so much in addition? Greed? Of course the more people have, the more they want. But that is too easy an explanation for the apparently generalized lack of integrity among almost all the people President Biya has chosen to trust. Either he appoints people without really knowing them, or there is something in the very offices or the environment in which they operate that predisposes them to kleptomania. Another simplistic explanation may be that they had seen and touched so little money in the past that once in the place where they have to manage billions, the coffers look bottomless and they imagine nobody knows, or should even bother to know, how much money was therein at any time.

And that simplistic argument leads us to the very crucial question of accountability. The dizzying sums that are often reported embezzled are not usually overnight loot but the aggregate of all the pinching and scooping done over a number of years. It is true that monitoring the daily transaction ledger of every ministry or parastatal in the land can be a crippling workload for State Audit. But what about internal audit? What is computerization for? Each ministry and state corporation should have a unit that monitors daily spending and all these should be connected in real time to a central server in the State Audit bench, with an early warning system that will set off an alert when huge sums are about to leave the system without adequate justification. State audit should, for this purpose, have the latitude to question and even block mass money movements before they happen.

But, no, that would be too much transparency, which our system finds dangerous. We can spend FCFA 125 billion of borrowed money to buy computers for young people but that does not mean we accept computerization as a good tool of governance. Rather, we embrace it as a form of window dressing – as a half-hearted political expedient. There must be room for the establishment itself to tweak the system for its own benefit. That is why we accepted biometric voter registration but could not accept connecting the registration units to a central server in real time. We needed to provide room for double registration as long as it was to favour the right side. That is why, years after the computerization of our identification system, you cannot lose your National Identity Card and be issued with another of the same number. In fact, some do have two IDs, because they lost the first, and eventually found it after the second had been issued, with a completely different number.

Most of the managers of our public institutions who have now become embezzlers quickly learned on the job, that the system itself does not want transparency and accountability; that the same rules don’t apply to everyone in the same way. While in office they found themselves obeying instructions to bend the rules and carry out illegal transactions for the benefit of someone high up. And if you can steal for someone else, you would be a fool not to steal for yourself. And those who deem themselves favoured by the gods, take their liberties and fill their pockets. And they get away with it until one thing or the other puts them at odds with the godfather. And the system knows about the skeletons in their closets but chooses to brandish them in blackmail if, at any time, they seem unwilling to toe the political line. Then ultimately someone dances amiss and steps on the godfather’s toes and the Kondengui portcullis swings wide open to take them in.

It would be interesting to know if the newest arrival, Ahmadou Vamoulke, has met with his predecessor, Prof. Mendo Ze. It would be even more exciting to listen to the tone and thrust of their conversation. Such a conversation should be of real interest to Charles Ndongo.

By Charlie Ndi Chia
The Rambler

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