-The Case of Iya Mohammed and Sodecotton
By Hafis Rüefli *
As the sun continues to slowly but steadily set on the long reign of President Biya, one of the legacies that will sure survive him is endemic corruption. For all the wealth and riches that Cameroon has, the unfortunate truth is that the common good of the people has not been a priority. Using political, and ethnic affinities, a few people pompously referred as the elite have held the country hostage through rampant acts of corruption.
In my previous op-ed, I commended Cameroonians for expressing generous support to help the military fight corruption. One must however admit that a country so richly blessed as Cameroon should not be relying on hand outs from its citizens to fund its army. What happens the Defence budget which is always the largest in the country?
The kind of corruption experienced under President Biya is unprecedented in the history of Cameroon. People may say all there want about former President Ahmadou Ahidjo but during his time, corruption was almost inexistent. In cases where it took place, it was swiftly dealt with. It has been the opposite under President Biya.
When asked by Eric Chinje of CRTV about corrupt practices of senior state officials, President laconically asked for proves. Fast forward to today and there is an entire government complete with Directors of some of the biggest companies in jail. The operation pompously referred to as Epervier, takes delight in the highly dramatized arrests of public officials for acts of corruption. Former Prime Minister Inoni Ephraim, former SG at the President Atangana Mebara, former health Minister Olanguena Awono, former CRTV Director Gervais Mendo Ze, Yves Michel Fotso of Camair, former Territorial Administration Minister Marafa Hamidou Yaya, etc.
With such high profile arrests, one would have expected that that corruption in high places will reduce in Cameroon. Unfortunately, this has not been the case . The reasons for this are many . President Biya definitely has not shown the political will to fight corruption. It is now known that by injecting politics into the fight by selectively targeting those he considers as threats to his powers while some perceived loyalist heavily involved in scandals go free, President Biya has destroyed whatever credibility it could have had.
In trying to destroy real and perceived enemies, there are people and regions which have suffered. The prime example is the cotton giant Sodecotton which has been the pride of the people for the Grand North regions of Cameroon.Infact Sodecoton was the biggest employer after the government. It was one of the most profitable companies and the time Iya Mohammed was thrown behind bars for mismanagement, it had circa 5 billion frs cfa in profits.
The current Secretary General of the ruling CPDM lauded the company in 2011 as a model for sound management while urging the people of region to jealously preserve the success story of Sodecoton. Nkuete who was Minister of Agriculture then,was reacting to a criticisms on the management of the company done by the President of the National Assembly. During his visit, Nkuete noticed that for 2010 alone, Sodecoton registered profit in excess of 2 billion frs cfa. Was the President of the National Assembly setting the stage for some sinister agenda with his statements?
From nothing, Sodecoton metamorphosed into the giant it became under the watchful eyes of Iya Mohammed who joined its management while still a very young man. The company steadily grew to a point where it became a reference. Besides employment and taxes that were paid, Sodecoton embarked on numerous development and social initiatives that ameliorated the lives of the citizens.
One of the big achievements of the company was the creation of a football club which became one of the very rare clubs to meet the minimum standards of professionalism. From infrastructure, to management and salary scale, Cotonsport created by Sodecoton was the embodiment of excellence in the pathetic state of affairs in Cameroon football.
Many believe that while the reason advanced for the imprisonment of Iya Mohammed is because of mismanagement, the real reason is his reluctance to drop his ambition of seeking an extra mandate at the helm of the Cameroon football federation. In 2013, against pressure from many from the powers that be, Iya Mohammed insisted on seeking reelection as President of the Fecafoot. Ahead of the elections he was thrown into jail for mismanagement at Sodecoton , but curiously Iya still won the elections while in jail. The elections were eventually annulled by FIFA.
At the time of going to jail, Sodecoton was in excellent financial shape but to the consternation of many two years after , the company is literally at the brink and is now forced to relying on bail outs with state subventions. This was something unthinkable when Iya was there . What happened to the profits he left behind? In addition to the management problems there now, the morale of farmers has reduced, the social initiatives of Sodecoton not as vibrant as before, production levels have droped,and even the football club Cotonsport is no longer benefiting from the same support.
The case of Sodecoton is symptomatic of the dangers that are there when the fight against corruption has political under currents. While it is no news that there is unbridled corruption within the higher echelons of the Biya government and the ruling party, when only those perceived as threats to the President are arrested, the message does not go across. Prove is that more money has been embezzled since 1998 when the first major arrest for corruption took place .
Yet the solution to fighting corruption remains simple. It starts with the implementation of article 66 of the 1996 constitution which requires public official declare their assets prior to assuming office and before there leave office. If the President was sincere about fighting corruption, the basis is to start implementing article 66.
Cameroonians have little faith in the current fight, it is shrouded in politics, it is not fair, justice is not been served and it is not stopping others from embezzling even larger sums and receiving kickbacks from bad deals like the acquisition of planes from the Chinese.
Unfortunately corruption is one of the legacies that Biya is going to leave Cameroon with and everyone knows no society can be built on such a foundation. It is up to Cameroonians to figure out how to address this. It is a daunting task, but at the same time it is not one that is impossible to address. Like the President himself says, the impossible is not Cameroonian. If anyone doubts this take the recent case of IRIC where it is the public outcry that shamed the government into including the names of meritorious students on the final list.