“Corruption is as damaging to the society as AIDS is to the human body,” panelist says.

The government anti-corruption arm, known by its French acronym CONAC, has been very active over the past weeks. From one seminar to another, Minister Paul Tessa and his team have been explaining the organization’s role to both public and private business people, who are not always convinced that a government-created structure, like CONAC can effectively stem corruption, which is generally seen, rightly or wrongly, as more endemic in government circles than elsewhere.

For a country like Cameroon that has, on two successive occasions, lifted the unenviable trophy of the “most corrupt country on the planet,” the fight against corruption looks, at first sight, like a battle lost way ahead of time. That is why the task entrusted to former government minister Paul Tessa seems an arduous one. As CONAC head, he has the awesome task of convincing the world that the Biya Administration is serious in its task of curbing the all-pervasive acts of corruption in our country.

Skepticism could be read in the eyes of many business men and women who came to hear Minister Paul Tessa explain the role of his organization in the fight against the omnipresent corruption. This was during the recent American Chamber of Commerce [AMCHAM]-organized evening on corruption in the private sector in Cameroon at Akwa Palace, Douala.

The other panelists beside Minister Tessa at the high table were Mr. Jean Booh of the Alucam Group, Mr. Edmond Edouard Betika of the extractive industries (mining sector) in Cameroon, and Mrs. Rose Ikelle, sociologist and lecturer from the University of Douala. Mr. Mathieu Mandeng, CEO of Standard Chartered Bank Cameroon, moderated the evening.

Kick-starting the evening, AMCHAM Chairman Asif Zaidi, CITIBANK CEO, decried the widespread cankerworm that is corruption in the Cameroonian private sector. He regretted that corruption pollutes the business sector, encourages reckless and unethical competition and slows down and even totally stifles economic growth. He lauded government initiative to create CONAC and promised Minister Paul Tessa that AMCHAM would always collaborate with his organization in the arduous task to curb corruption in the private sector.

Minister Paul Tessa began with the genesis of CONAC, a relatively new government creation, to combat corruption throughout the country. CONAC, he said, identifies instances of corruption and proposes action and possible solutions. He promised that in the not-too-distant future, CONAC would not only be making proposals to government but would also actively enforce sanctions for acts of corruption, although he would not say how this would be done concretely. He then applauded the support CONAC has so far received from friendly nations and organizations – the governments of the USA, Great Britain, France, Italy and Germany as wells as United Nations bodies. He highlighted for praise the recent visit to CONAC head office by the United States Ambassador, Her Excellency Janet Garvey, and the wife of the former South African President Garça Machel Mandela. He also saluted media organs like CRTV, Cameroon Tribune and the private media for helping to disseminate CONAC initiatives to the public.

The sociologist from the University of Douala, Mrs. Rose Ikelle, identified two types of corruption: “small-scale” and “large-scale” corruption. “Small-scale” corruption is where a poor citizen is forced to give a few thousand francs to a nurse or a doctor at the hospital to be attended to. Failure to which, no one attends to them and they might end up dying. This is corruption for survival. The “large-scale” corruption mainly takes place where huge amounts of money are involved. This is where brown envelopes change hands under the table as contractors, wilfully or not, strive to win contracts or outwit a potential rival for a contract. Mrs. Ikelle then challenged the private sector to weed out the bad seeds from its midst in order to stifle or greatly reduce corruption that is so rampant in that sector of our economy. As a long term possible solution, she called for a return to basic values beginning at the primary school level. A new Cameroonian must be born from the ashes of the present corruption, one imbued with a spirit of respect for the common good. This idea of starting the fight against corruption from the nursery and primary school levels was later strongly echoed in the ensuing question-and-answer session, particularly by Barrister Nico Halle and Mr. Michael Tomdio.

The ALUCAM Group representative, Mr. Jean Booh, was even more graphic in his description of the effects of corruption on the corporate body, comparing it to the devastating effects of HIV AIDS to the human body. Just as the HIV virus eats into the marrow of the human body, so does corruption eat into the very fabric of our society. He wondered if Cameroonians have not become people who live with corruption as the unfortunate victims of HIV live with the AIDS virus.

For his part, Mr. Edmond Edouard Betika of the extractive industries (mining sector), raised the issue of poor salaries as a major contributing factor to corruption. Ever since government slashed the salaries of civil servants some years ago by nearly 70%, he lamented, corruption has risen dramatically throughout the country, particularly in the civil service. He therefore urged the government and the private sector to start the fight against corruption by fighting against certain pervasive injustices that include poor salary payment to workers of the public and private sectors in Cameroon. When salaries shall have been raised, he said, it would then be time to revamp basic moral values that underlie any given society, such values being inculcated into the society from the primary school level.

Concluding the heavily-attended evening, the moderator, Mathieu Mandeng, expressed delight that even though corruption seems to be so widespread in Cameroon, it was still possible to find Cameroonians in both public and private sectors of the economy who refuse to corrupt or to be corrupted. He saw this as a sign that there is hope in Cameroon, twice classified as the most corrupt in the world. The dark clouds of corruption presently hanging over our country, like a swarm of locusts, still have a silver lining to them, he said. He then thanked the Honourable Minister Paul Tessa for honouring the AMCHAM invitation and promised that AMCHAM would do all in its power to help the Cameroonian government in its fight against corruption in the private sector.

(August 28, 2008)

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