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Congestion in Cameroon

(This blog was written a couple of weeks ago during our time in Cameroon and has been scheduled to post automatically.)

As we wait at traffic lights in the center of Cameroon’s capital, six other cars were trying to push ahead of us. My driver was frustrated “Traffic in Yaoundé never used to be this bad” Moses said “ten years ago we could drive freely here, every day of the week. These days I don’t like to come downtown, unless its a Sunday, then its not too bad” he added. Cameroon’s population grew by 2.5% last year, but with 40% of people still living below the poverty line of a dollar a day, moving to the city to find work is common. As we pull away from the lights we are all overtaken by a enthusiastic motorbike delivery driver, crossing four lanes he weaves between the moving cars, carrying his precious cargo of sixteen double mattresses, all stacked neatly on top of each other and teetering precariously on the back of his bike.

For an African capital, the tree-lined streets of Yaoundé are comparatively peaceful, calm and clean. But there are still plenty of reminders here that you are in the slightly chaotic, hard to control region of Central Africa. Like many other African nations, Cameroon has that potent combination of raw human energy and abundant natural resources, two factors that will be key to its future prosperity.

But Cameroon’s drive to prosperity is struggling to get moving.

At 81 years of age, President Paul Biya, has been in power for 32 years. As he prepares to run again for another seven year term his Government is promising heavy investment in infrastructure. New hydroelectric dams are planned as well as a high-speed railway that would connect Yaoundé to N’Djamena, the capital of neighbouring Chad, but progress has been slow and final completion of projects evasive. In July last year, a brand-new deep-sea port welcomed its first vessels in Kribi. But according to the project chairman, the ultramodern port will not actually be completed and fully open until 2040.

“Promises are one thing, but delivering them is another,” said Elvis, an accountant I met buying his lunch from a market stall. As we drank in the sweet, caramelised smell of roasting bananas, he explained to me how the cost of living was increasing and how corruption and incompetence were getting in the way of Cameroon’s development. “Our President is getting tired and things are slowing down.” he argued “we have power cuts every day, how am I supposed to run my business without electricity?”

In Yaoundé blackouts and water cuts are a part of daily life and the Government’s lack of capacity in managing major projects is causing frustration. In order to find the money to spend on big projects, President Biya has been implementing unpopular decisions. In July, he decided to cut fuel subsidies, prompting a 15% increase in the prices at the pumps.

Meanwhile, the agricultural sector, which employs 70% of the population, continues to struggle. Harvests of coffee, a once flourishing cash crop, have hit an all-time low, production slumping more than 50% from the previous year. Climate and weather play their part, but growers, dealers, experts and farmers’ organisations have all been calling for the government to reform agricultural policies.

The country is also having to deal with international crisis on its Northern borders. To the North East, Cameroon’s porous border is exposing it to huge refugee flows from the conflict in the Central African Republic. Up to 85,000 refugees are thought to have crossed the border since 2013. To the North West, Boko Harum Islamist militants launch frequent raids from Nigeria. Young Cameroonians are being recruited and radicalized and attacks from the radical group have intensified this year.

Back in the taxi, Moses reveals there is another area which should be concerning President Biya. As we sit in yet more traffic, engines revving and horns blaring, he explains the colonial history of Cameroon. How it was first a German colony, before being carved up by the French and the British following the First World War. In 1960 the French colony declared independence, with the British colony voting to join the new republic a year later. Today’s legacy of that history is that the South Western provinces, along the border with Nigeria, are Anglophone, while the rest of the country is Francophone. Both are official languages of the country, but the French speakers dominate.

Moses is an English speaking Cameroonian, and proud of it. He is also resentful of the domination of the Francophones, telling me that while they take all the comfortable Government appointed posts, English speakers do the real work of making the country run on the ground. Thinking that this is little more than the passing complaint of a taxi driver, I am surprised when he tells me that there is in fact an independence movement for the English speaking regions.

For the last 20 years, the Southern Cameroons National Council has been campaigning for independence for the English speaking regions. Their plans sound relatively well developed, if ultimately unlikely. The SCNC is a banned organization and their members are routinely attacked, arrested and tortured.

Moses does not hold out much hope. “Maybe my children will see this change,” he says “I do not think that I will see much progress in my lifetime”.

Overdue reforms, widespread corruption, slumping production, unfinished infrastructure and a frustrated population; these things would be enough to hold most countries back. Combine these with attacks from Islamist militants, an influx of civil war refugees and a fledging separatist movement and it is no wonder that Cameroon’s progress is somewhat congested.

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