Living Under a Lesser-Known Dictator

by Brandy Witthoft
Brandy works as an independent researcher and grant-writer. She lives with her husband, Hymie, in Jordan, NY. This article represents her personal views and has not been endorsed or commissioned by Catholic Relief Services or any other organization.

The first thing my husband and I noticed when flying into Yaoundé, the capital city of the Central African nation of Cameroon, was the mist, drizzle and incredible lushness of the vegetation. As one of the rainiest places on Earth, green things sprout from every conceivable surface and humans have to be constantly vigilant to maintain the homes and farms they have set in rainforest clearings. We often said that the forest would surely reclaim Yaoundé in a few short years if the people were ever to abandon it. We also often discussed the incongruity between the natural beauty of the country and the ugliness of the government that runs it.

We arrived in Cameroon to spend a year doing humanitarian work with Catholic Relief Services (CRS). My husband primarily went along for the adventure, but ended up doing significant fundraising and volunteer work for a local disabled rights organization. I was employed to help start CRS’ new HIV/AIDS program and to work on ongoing projects within their Peace and Justice portfolio. These were projects dedicated to teaching conflict resolution techniques, to promoting transparency and good governance and to fighting corruption. I worked, for example, on a prison project through which volunteer lawyers give free legal advice to poor families and assist prisoners who are being held without trial or conviction. Because of corruption in the Cameroonian justice system, those prisoners who are too poor to pay bribes or who have no political connections often languish in prison for years before their cases are tried. Because of extreme overcrowding, poor sanitation facilities, and a lack of adequate nutrition and medical care, many of them die before their guilt or innocence is ever established.

We were continually astonished, and sometimes overwhelmed, by what we encountered in Cameroon. From visiting New Bell prison in one of the country’s most densely populated urban slums to canoeing down the jungle-lined Nyang River, our experiences were varied and unique. Through it all, though, we remained conscious of our own government’s actions abroad and were somewhat relieved to be outside the US during the invasion of Iraq. Being in Africa prevented us from watching too much war-hyped media coverage and from encountering the social divisiveness that emerges out of hotly debated national policies. It also gave us the opportunity to discuss the war with our Cameroonian friends and colleagues and to view the issues from their perspective.

To my initial surprise, most of the Cameroonians I spoke to applauded Bush’s efforts to topple Saddam Hussein. Living under a dictator themselves, they felt a deep sympathy for the Iraqis and thought that military force was the only way to get rid of Hussein. “But what about the multilateral power of the United Nations,” I would ask. The answer would invariably come back something like “The UN has no real power. The sanctions have not prevented Saddam and his friends from getting richer, but the Iraqi people are suffering. The United States should do something to help them.”

Cameroonians understand this situation all too well. For 21 years President Paul Biya has run their country as if it were his personal property. His friends, relatives and tribe mates get the majority of political appointments and have undue access to the country’s lucrative oil reserves, tropical hardwood stands, and cocoa and palm oil plantations. Those who oppose him are silenced. Specific instances of this silencing and of widespread human rights abuses were publicized in the 2002 US State Department Human Rights Report for Cameroon. The report contains many damning accusations against the Cameroonian government, including the following two: “The Government infringed on citizens’ privacy and monitored and harassed some opposition activists,” and, “Security forces committed numerous unlawful killings and were responsible for disappearances.”

Transparency International, the leading international non-governmental organization dedicated to fighting corruption, has repeatedly classed Cameroon among the world’s most corrupt countries. In both 1998 and 1999, for example, Cameroon gained unwanted notoriety for being ranked as the most corrupt country out of those surveyed (with 85 and 99 countries surveyed, respectively). Although the negative international press generated from this dubious award led to limited political reform (such as the holding of legislative and municipal elections in June of 2002), democratic change has been sluggish. In 2003, Cameroon was still ranked 124th, with position number 133 being occupied by the most corrupt country in the world.

The corruption and cronyism are like thick mud that has to be waded through in order to accomplish anything in Cameroon. For example, although the law says that primary education is free to all children, many teachers demand direct payment in order to assign a child a front-row seat or to correct homework assignments. In the health care sector, it is common for nurses and doctors to sell a hospital’s stock of gauze, aspirin and other essential supplies. One of our Cameroonian friends told us a story of bringing medicine and bandages to the hospital when his cousin severely cut his hand. He gave the supplies to the doctor, who promptly left the room and was replaced by another doctor who then demanded payment for the very same supplies. When our friend protested, the doctor simply said, “I never saw you come in with bandages. If your cousin wants me to dress his wound, you will have to pay me for these supplies.”

Although witnessing these injustices was maddening, my husband and I were constantly aware that we lived in a closed and privileged society of diplomats, aid workers, missionaries and foreign businesspeople. Our United States passports protected us from police harassment, bribe paying and intimidation. Yet, we could not fail to notice how devastating the situation was for the Cameroonians struggling to make their way in that society. Their spirits were being crushed under the weight of a blatantly crooked and unfair system. In fact, I was awed by the resilience and hopefulness that they were still able to muster in the face of such odds.
Considering the daily obstacles that they confront, most Cameroonians would probably be grateful if the United States military swept in, got rid of their corrupt leadership and invested billions of dollars to set up democratic institutions and working systems in their country. Of course, this is not likely to happen, but hopes were raised when President Paul Biya visited the United States in March of 2003. Because of Cameroon’s current position as a temporary member on the United Nations Security Council, the country has received unprecedented media coverage as of late. Many Cameroonians have hoped that this attention might prompt their leadership to initiate positive change.

Although the details of the March 20th meeting between Bush and Biya have not been publicized, in Cameroon it was widely believed that Bush promised increased military assistance and development aid in exchange for Cameroon’s support for his Iraq policies. Apparently, this help was not tied to evidence of transparency or democratic reform in Cameroon, but will go directly into their system as it is. Cameroonians, and those of us who care about Cameroon, have been sorely disappointed by the way in which President Bush legitimized Biya and knowingly propped him up in order to further his political agenda in the Middle East. Aid given in this fashion will surely not lead to greater democracy or development in Cameroon, just as the defeat of Saddam Hussein will not necessarily result in greater freedom or less suffering for the Iraqis.