Government bribes in Cameroon divert funds from food amid riots

January 8th, 2009 by admin

PEOPLE carry their produce to the market in Fundong, Cameroon, Africa. The deepening effects of the global food crisis and climate change are affecting Africa’s ability to eradicate poverty. GEORGE OSODI/BLOOMBERG NEWS

Bloomberg Specials
Written by Alison Fitzgerald & Christopher Swann / Bloomberg News
Tuesday, 06 January 2009

Mbanda Leo Ganglii, like any farmer in Cameroon, must contend with roads that turn to mud in the rainy season and fertilizer prices he can’t afford. And then there is government corruption. A local agriculture official demanded a $572 kickback from a $1,850 government contract to provide plantain seedlings for other farmers, Ganglii said. After refusing, he said he was warned that the deal might not be renewed.

“The provincial coordinator called me and said since we are not ready to offer a bribe, the contract we just signed with the minister of agriculture will be the last,” said Ganglii, 36. His farm is in Boyo, about five hours northwest of the capital, Yaounde.

Incidents of this kind are impediments to improving food production in Cameroon and Africa as a whole, farmers say. While Cameroon is fertile and a variety of crops could thrive, it became a flash point in the food crisis this year when riots left 40 people dead. Its problems don’t result from war or drought. Mismanagement and outright graft have led to neglect of farming, said Joachim von Braun, director of the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington.

Cameroon has budgeted $309 million for the military in 2009 and $105 million for the president’s office and services to the presidency, compared with $106 million for agriculture, which employs 70 percent of its people.

“This is not a problem of natural resources,” von Braun said. “It’s a problem of leadership and governance and corruption.”

The condition of Cameroon’s agriculture is central to the tragedy in sub-Saharan Africa, where 236 million, or about 25 percent, of the world’s hungry people live. The total of undernourished grew this year to 963 million of the world’s 6.8 billion people, the Rome-based United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization said this week.

Cameroon is “one of the best-endowed primary commodity economies” in Africa, according to the US Central Intelligence Agency. The CIA reports that 10 percent of the country’s roads are paved and 30 percent of the population is unemployed.

Even former Prime Minister Simon Achidi Achu acknowledges that with better roads and more efficient farming, the country could become a breadbasket for its own people and those of neighboring nations, instead of relying on aid agencies and foreign governments.

“If you drop a seed on the ground in Cameroon, something grows,” Achu said during a tour of his 200-hectare farm in Santa in the Northwest province, where he raises cattle, grows potatoes and farms fish, some of which he exports to Gabon.

Cameroon President Paul Biya, 75, has governed for 26 years. After the food riots in February, Biya’s administration responded with an emergency plan to solicit loans of almost $1 billion from the World Bank and others to double food production by 2012. Yet Ganglii and von Braun question whether indifference and unethical government will undermine the efforts.

The Biya regime didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment. The presidency and the Agriculture Ministry didn’t answer a series of questions posed via e-mail and telephone to Philip Ekaney Metuge of the Ministry of Communications. Ganglii didn’t disclose the name of the Agriculture Ministry official who demanded a bribe.

In 2003 African delegates meeting in Maputo, Mozambique, set a target of spending 10 percent of their national budgets on farms, up from an average of 4.5 percent that year, according to von Braun’s research institute. Four of the 51 countries have met the goal, even though 70 percent of the continent’s workforce is in food production. The nations in June recommitted to spending 10 percent of their budgets by 2010.

Cameroon is among those that have fallen short, devoting 2.4 percent to agriculture in 2009, according to figures released by the government in November.

“You can blame the donors and the international lenders for the food problems in Africa, but the responsibility rests mainly on the national governments,” said Namanga Ngongi, president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, an advocacy group based in Nairobi, Kenya, and former deputy executive director of the United Nations’ World Food Program. “African countries have grossly underinvested in agriculture.”

Those that spend more on farms escaped the worst of this year’s food crisis. Malawi—which suffered from a famine as recently as 2002—now devotes 8 percent of its national budget to farming and 2.4 percent to the military.

Malawi subsidizes fertilizer, reducing the cost of 100 kilograms to $14 from $60 in a country where half the population lives on less than $136 a year. The 2007 maize harvest yielded a surplus of about 1 million metric tons. Malawi became a net exporter, sending 400,000 tons to Zimbabwe and selling 91,000 tons to the World Food Program.

“This is a great source of pride for ministers and government officials,” said Mark Ashurst, director of the Africa Research Institute.

At the same time, because of poor infrastructure, the World Food Program also distributed food to 1.4 million people in Malawi last year.

Cameroon imported 400,000 tons of rice last year and grew 100,000 tons, according to the Agriculture Ministry. It sold 25,000 tons of food to the World Food Program, which distributed 5,772 tons in Cameroon, about a quarter of it to refugees. Cameroonians also eat cassava, plantains, yams, millet, corn, chicken and fish.

Unlike Malawi, Cameroon has sources of wealth beyond its farm industry, including the 85,000 barrels of oil produced each day. At the average 2008 price on the New York Mercantile Exchange, the country’s oil would bring in about $8.8 million a day.

The Cameroon government’s $1-billion, three-year plan unveiled in June includes creating a farmers’ bank to make loans for expanding operations or buying supplies. Subsidies would cover half of fertilizer costs and tractor imports for large operations. A 15-percent import tax on tractors would be eliminated. The government would buy 50 community tractors for each of Cameroon’s 10 provinces to rent to small growers.

Prime Minister Ephraim Inoni said in November that Cameroon will provide financial and technical assistance to 5,000 young farmers next year, subsidizing fertilizers and pesticides and giving loans at reduced rates.

Susan Simon Wembe, who began her plantain grove of 2 hectares, also in Boyo, using just a hoe, might welcome a tractor and fertilizer. To sell her crop, she carries branches of plantains on her head or back 2 kilometers down a narrow, rutted mud road. It takes one-and-a-half hours on foot, she says.

“They are so heavy,” she says. “I get so tired.”

At the market, consisting of a few wooden sheds and tables beside a two-lane paved road, she and neighboring farmers offer plantains, peanuts, sugar cane and chickens to the patients and workers at a hospital. Wembe says a bunch of plantains standing 3 feet tall can fetch about 3,000 CFA francs ($5.90), the currency used in several Central African countries.

Buying the farm tools under the emergency plan requires foreign aid, said Rabelais Yankam Njomou, the technical adviser to Agriculture Minister Jean Nkuete, in an interview at the ministry in Yaounde. Nkuete canceled three appointments for interviews in three days before allowing Njomou to speak.

“The main way to solve this problem is to get money,” Njomou said.

People in the countryside see few signs of a government commitment to farming.

In Ndop, one of the main rice-producing districts, Samuel Wankii, director of the Upper Noun Valley Development Authority, works in an office beside a processing plant that can dry, parboil and bag 10,000 tons of rice a year. The plant sits idle, gathering cobwebs, because the government eliminated the budget, Wankii said during a tour. He demonstrated how he keeps the processor in working order in case the money ever comes back.

“In Cameroon, we do more talking than doing,” he said.

A few miles down the road, a group of young men perform the work that would normally happen in the processing plant, soaking and boiling rice in old oil drums, then spreading it on tarpaulins in a field across the street to dry. They then bag it by hand.

Cameroon is already receiving foreign investment—though it’s for football, not farming. China is financing and building $640 million of sports facilities—a soccer stadium in each of Cameroon’s four largest cities.

The African country’s soccer-mad populace has embraced the plan. Taxi driver Djindje Jean Marc says he hopes Cameroon will one day host the World Cup.

The gleaming steel of a turtle-shaped training center for athletes has already risen in Yaounde. It looms over the cinderblock shacks with corrugated metal roofs that line the roads beyond.

In smaller villages, such as Mvomeka’a in the South Province, most Cameroonians live in shacks made of mud bricks and sticks. Only 20 percent of Cameroon’s households have electricity.

Still, there are pockets of luxury. One country home in Mvomeka’a, designed by French architect Olivier Clement Cacoub, features a personal golf course and a 500-meter landing strip. It’s owned by President Biya.

In a 2007 report, Transparency International, a watchdog group, reported that 79 percent of Cameroon citizens said they had paid a bribe to receive a basic government service. Farmers say they must pay off local officials just to get access to government programs and research.

“For the least service to be rendered in either private or public administration, the official demands something in kind [gifts, sex with regards to women], or money [the most common means],” Transparency International, based in Berlin, said in the report.

What government funding there is seldom reaches the regions that need it most. A study by the Yaounde-based Citizens Association for the Defense of Collective Interests, a group that advocates food self-sufficiency in Cameroon, found that 5 percent of the money allocated to the Ministry of Agriculture actually reaches rural areas.

“They just share it among themselves,” said Amesinda Jonathan Jam, a farmer in Boyo who grows plantains and other produce. “Most people are not trustworthy.”

Since 2005, an anticorruption effort known as Operation Sparrow Hawk, which Transparency International says was started because of international pressure, has led to a growing number of arrests at state-run companies. Gerard Ondo Ndong, the top executive at the Inter-Communal Mutual Aid Fund, was convicted in June 2007 of misappropriating $26 million from the organization and sentenced to 50 years in prison, according to a 2008 Transparency International report.

In Cameroon, cases involving the ruling party “are not settled fairly in court, and bribes are often paid to secure a verdict,” Transparency International said. Critics “see the waves of arrests as the government’s attempt to please donors as well as a settling of scores within the Cameroon administration.”

Not far from Ganglii’s farm in Boyo, Lawrence Chiamoh talks of expanding his pork and poultry operation.

Chiamoh has about 100 roasters in a henhouse. A larger coop stands empty, and Chiamoh says he would like to fill it with 1,000 egg-laying hens.

“A person cannot always afford a whole chicken,” he said. “But anyone can buy an egg. Eggs sell.” An egg costs about 12 cents while chicken can reach $5.50 a kilogram.

He’s trying to get $6,000 in financing and says he slips extra cash to agriculture officials as part of this effort.

“This is Cameroon,” Ganglii said in an e-mail. “Poor farmers like us are enthusiastic enough, but some people of bad faith are there to block us. How therefore do we fight poverty, achieve food security? Only God knows.”