In something of an oxymoron, you get quite used to being shocked when you’ve lived in the Central African Republic for six months.
Whether it was seeing my first dead body, learning of the staggering levels of corruption and incompetence present here, or listening to the tragic stories of the local disadvantaged: feeling shocked happens all the time.
I’ve put together a collection of eight facts of life that raised my eyebrows when I first heard them:
1. The Park Director steals every penny.
You expect corruption when you come to Africa, but the scale on which it is perpetrated here is breathtaking. When tourists come and visit the Dzanga Sangha National Park, each person spends around €30 to enter the park, a further €60 to visit Dzanga Bai and a chunky €350 for a permit to see the Lowland Gorillas. It would be reasonable to expect that this goes towards funding Rangers to protect the Park, or essential supplies or research. Nope. Every single penny spent by a tourist ends up straight in the pocket of the Park Director. A government appointed lackey, who in this case happens to be the cousin of the Minister of Forestry.
2. The Park Accountant doesn’t know the Bank Account.
While this seems staggering, the person employed as the Accountant for the National Park, genuinely had to contact a local business and ask to be reminded of what the Bank Account Number was for the Park Account. Though to be fair, her life was made more difficult, because…
3. The Park Director has created a false bank account.
Not content with just stealing cash, the Park Director was giving out a false, newly created account for any transfers or electronic payments made to the Park, so he could disappear with this money too. Meanwhile…
4. There are 80 Rangers and only 10 functioning guns.
Of the 80 Rangers that patrol and protect the National Park, only 10 have functioning guns. Whatever your opinion on the use of force to protect National Parks, it is clear that a Park Ranger needs a gun to protect himself against wild animals and armed poachers. Why there are only ten guns is anyone’s guess, but it will be a combination of the guns having been lost, sold by the Rangers for extra cash and quite probably never having been bought in the first place. These 80 Rangers almost might as well not bother with their patrols. Which is quite possibly why I’ve seen them turn up drunk and stoned for work, beat poachers they do catch to death with sticks and fists, and ultimately, why they utterly fail to stop poaching in and around the Park.
It is not just the National Park where you find these crazy situations, there are plenty in the local town and at the nearby border crossing too.
5. Unofficial border checkpoints.
There are two border checkpoints. The official one and the unofficial one. If you enter the country from Cameroon, via the border crossing of Libongo, you conduct your formalities with the Cameroonian authorities on one side of the river, then take a pirogue (a wooden canoe) across the river to CAR. Incidentally, there is no bridge here, but if you want to take a car across then the locals will strap two of their pirogues together, balance your car on top and paddle it across the river for you. Not something to experience while sitting in the car.
Once on the CAR side, you climb up a muddy bank and into a grass hut where there is a rotund man in uniform. He takes your passport, records all your details and then asks you for (around) €7 in local currency. You pay and he gives you your passport back without stamping it. This guy is the unofficial border official. You then do the same with the unofficial policeman and the unofficial gendarme officer, each time paying them around €7. For the pleasure of the €28 you’ve spent you get to pass without trouble. You hop back into your canoe and paddle 20 mins upstream where you go through it all again, just that this time it is official (though it still costs you another €28), your passport gets stamped and you are legally in the CAR.
6. Handwritten official letters.
Official letters from the local Tax Office come hand written on school graph paper. No kidding. I think this tells you all you need to know about the amount of tax that is collected here, plus the level of organisation, funding and credibility with which official positions are held.
7. The Director of Schools has a child who cannot read or write.
This is actually quite tragic, but it is true, I have met him. Literacy is a problem here, around 56% of people can read, but children are getting taught at the local schools. That the son of the man who is responsible for education in the district cannot read or write (the son is in his mid 20s) is both a sad indication of how seriously education is taken here, how meaningless positions like “Director of Schools” are and how far this country has to go.
8. The officialdom economy.
Perhaps the most bizzare fact of life here is the structure of the local economy and the public services. There are some basic signs of private enterprise: there are a couple of dozen women who throng the local market most mornings, selling dried fish, basic fruits and other bits and bobs; there are a few small businesses on the main street of the town; and there are guys who will drive you where you need to go on motorbike taxi. But for a settlement of 15,000, there is very little going on. There is almost no agriculture and apart from the National Park and the logging company, almost no employment. From a public services point of view, there is one school, one very basic hospital and a church. Very basic.
Yet despite this lack of meaningful private or public activity, one thing Bayanga can boast of in droves is officials. Compared to the list of public services, the list is staggering: there is a Mayor’s Office, a Tax Office, a Member of Parliament’s Office, the Gendarmerie, the Police Station, an Immigration Office, a Customs and Excise Office, a Department of Forestry Office, a Department of Commerce Office. This is even without getting started on the NGO offices.
The number of people sat around in offices, either writing reports, or working out a way of making money out of other people is mind boggling. Very few people are actually doing anything productive. Just ticking a box by being there. I have this image in my head of them all finding a way to extract corrupt payments out of each other, thereby creating a kind of circular, corrupt economy of officialdom.
Some of these examples are amusing, some of them are tragic, all of them are completely true.
The solutions, which would stop these kind of problems arising in Africa, are far from simple. It is a complex web of solutions involving strong, transparent accountability, economic development and proper rule of law.
For a long time, I was “not allowed” to talk about the National Park in this way, because doing so would breach the contract that I had signed with the WWF. Why the WWF are trying to protect a corrupt CAR Government organisation is open for discussion.
However, what I think is important is that any potential tourists, or future donors, to the Dzanga-Sangha National Park, know exactly what is going to happen to their money. With the knowledge that it is all going to disappear into the pockets of corrupt officials, they can start to leverage the kind of positive pressure that we need to reform things in this part of Central Africa.