Cameroon’s War Economy & Corruption
By Rebecca Tinsley*
Two months ago, on January 20, Global Affairs Canada announced a diplomatic feat: facilitation of talks to resolve the destructive “Anglophone Crisis” in Cameroon’s English-speaking Northwest and Southwest Regions. Three days later, the Cameroon government denied the talks, despite having participated in several rounds of pre-talks.
Diplomats may be puzzled by Cameroon’s abrupt U-turn. Multiple factors—including government factionalism, leadership competition, domestic concerns such as the assassination of journalist Martinez Zogo, and funds on tap from abroad—likely contributed. Yet, after six years of conflict, the role of the war economy cannot be discounted. At this stage, the conflict is not solely about political grievances but also opportunistic extortion and maintaining a corrupt ‘operating system’ for the future.
Corruption has been called Cameroon’s ‘worst-kept secret.’ Corruption extends from high offices to roadside checkpoints, and has been this way for decades. However, the advent of the Anglophone Crisis has provided further options and motives for stealing with impunity.
The crisis has allowed Cameroon’s military, gendarmerie, police, and prison officials to extort significant amounts of money every day at road checkpoints, legion posts, stations, and jails. Those in uniform loot from village homes and shops, sometimes burning them afterward, while searching for separatist fighters.
According to local sources, soldiers posted at roadblocks near Bamenda, the capital of the Northwest Region, charge a daily rate of the equivalent of US $1.65 at each checkpoint. Traveling 20 kilometers through the 10 barricades between Bamenda and nearby Bali is an expensive undertaking in a region where most people earn the equivalent of $1.00-2.00 a day. In Buea, the capital of the Southwest Region, small vehicles are $4.00 daily, buses are $6.00, trucks are $7.00 and business vehicles transporting goods are $9.00. In some cases, checkpoints are mounted by local officials “to collect money from drivers and share it with the soldiers,” suggesting that this practice may extend through the hierarchy.
One source alleges that Cameroonian police and gendarmes demand between the equivalent of US $1.50 and $150 in ‘fees’ for detained civilians, depending on the victim’s status. Amnesty International confirms that Anglophone civilians are routinely arbitrarily arrested on spurious charges; their families must then pay police for their release.
Prisons also offer opportunities to extort. Amnesty has condemned overcrowding where prisoners must sometimes pay for a space to lie down. One prisoner said that at his trial, the judge—through the court registrar—offered to set him free for 1 million francs CFA ($1600). His prison is “filled with Anglophone men arrested for ridiculous reasons, but they can’t afford to bribe their way out.”
According to one soldier, speaking anonymously: “Any soldier who doesn’t make a huge sum of money dubiously from the two conflict zones would be considered a fool.” He said that ex-separatist combatants who have come out of the bush to claim amnesty, pay “huge fines” to soldiers to then free themselves from the government’s Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) programme.
These examples seem to be freelance initiatives, not Cameroon government policy. However, while top authorities may not be directly involved, they turn a blind eye. It is possible that the government allows stealing from civilians to save the administration from paying its defense and security forces adequate salaries.
Extortion is not unique to the Cameroonian forces. Separatist militias frequently kidnap unarmed civilians for ransom, demand protection money and ‘taxes’ in the areas they control, and collect payments at roadblocks.
In some cases, the military and separatists converge around extortion. Sources indicate that the security services and separatist groups may set up roadblocks in close proximity, aware of the other’s presence—theoretically at war with each other but united in their desire to extort.
There are also reports of security forces selling weapons and ammunition to the separatist groups they are fighting, a treasonous but profitable activity. The administration may be indifferent to the fate of frontline troops, knowing there is a supply of unemployed young men willing to replace fallen soldiers.
On January 24, the day after Cameroon denied the Canada-led talks, the Ministry of Defence launched a recruitment drive for 6,000 soldiers. Each applicant must pay between $21 and $25 to apply, as a ‘fee.’ Transparency International points out that Article 71 of Cameroon’s Public Procurement Code of 2018 exempts from scrutiny the procurement of defense and security items related to weaponry; another chance for enrichment.
Opportunities for money-making thus exist at all levels. Even at the governance level, the crisis has presented new avenues for self-reward. For instance, the Northwest Regional Assembly—an entity created to implement ‘Special Status’ for the Anglophone regions following the Cameroon government’s largely cosmetic Major National Dialogue—chose to buy eight new cars for its executive members with funds ostensibly meant for road reconstruction or other needed development.
Joseph Siegle of the US National Defense University describes the monetization of violence as “incentives in the perpetuation of a conflict.” The opportunities for corruption during the Anglophone Crisis have likely discouraged some members of the Cameroonian government and military apparatus from seeking to resolve it.
For instance, on January 28, separatist fighters burned down Eshobi village near Mamfe in the Southwest Region, killing one civilian and kidnapping five more, as Cameroonian soldiers looked on. One commenter suggested there may have been no monetary gain for the soldiers to protect civilians.
Cameroon’s daily ‘operating system’ is so reliant on corruption across the country, and so enhanced by the Anglophone Crisis, that if peace talks are perceived to be a threat to the ‘extra’ money taps for the security services and other government figures, it may be understandable why some factions in President Paul Biya’s government will not champion them. For them, the status quo in the regions is preferable.
The Canada-led talks offer a momentous chance to chart a peaceful and prosperous future for Cameroon’s long-suffering citizens, but corruption may be in the way. The local population understands this, and the international community must factor it into their calculus when encouraging Yaoundé to return to the table.
**Rebecca Tinsley is a journalist and the author of When the Stars Fall to Earth: A Novel of Africa.