A nagging risk of unrest clouds the bright future Cameroon’s veteran president, Paul Biya, promised his central African nation with the launch of an infrastructure spending spree this year.
Marking Cameroon’s 50th anniversary of independence, the usually low-profile Biya used a New Year’s Eve speech to declare 2010 the year in which the region’s largest economy, badly hit by the global slowdown, would see growth rates rise.
But sceptics question whether the projects or the growth will materialise, and say the issue is whether Biya, now in his 28th year in power, will face growing discontent for failing to tackle widespread poverty and a youth unemployment time-bomb.
“The gap between people’s worsening quality of life and the promises of the president is getting deeper,” said Babissakana, head of the Prescriptor economic think-tank in Yaounde.
“The risk of social protest and rising demands is very high,” he warned, echoing concerns about the possibility of unrest raised in a report by the World Bank last month.
The note of alarm contrasts with Biya’s upbeat Dec. 31 speech to the nation announcing the start of construction this year on the Lom Pangar hydro-electric dam, a deep sea water port and a raft of other power and mining projects.
“With all these plans, Cameroon has without doubt a bright future in front of it,” pledged Biya, 76, who is widely expected to stand for re-election in 2011.
On paper, Cameroon is well placed to benefit from firmer oil and commodities prices as the global economy recovers.
The country of 19 million is the largest economic force in the region with national output of $25.1 billion. It is a vital trading crossroads blessed with sea access and natural resources including oil, timber, cotton, coffee and cocoa.
Since an insurrection that accompanied independence from Britain and France, Cameroon has largely avoided strife that has dogged neighbours such as the Central African Republic and Chad.
But while it dreams of attaining emerging economy status by 2035, it has been left behind by double-digit economic growth rates enjoyed in recent years by China and the Asian tigers.
“With hardly three percent of annual growth rate and 2.7 percent of population growth, Cameroon’s gross domestic product per capita is growing at 0.3 percent a year,” said economist Christian Penda Ekoka.
“Growth is also associated with the ability of a country to create jobs. In a country where more than 70 percent of the population is less than 30 years old… failure to do it is a potential bomb,” he said of data showing that 78 percent of the youth are “underemployed”, or lacking sufficient work.
Ekoka and others argue that poor governance and official corruption are a drain on economic activity, something Biya has pledged to tackle with a zero-tolerance policy that has led to more than 100 cases against high-profile politicians since 2006.
But sceptics say the main impact of Biya’s anti-corruption drive has been to eliminate potential rivals, and they question why a 1996 constitutional article obliging holders of public office to declare their assets has still not been implemented.
“The procrastination of the administration over implementing Article 66 shows their will in the fight against corruption is less firm than it appears,” said Matthias Eric Owona Nguini, political science lecturer at Yaounde II University.
Prescriptor’s Babissakana said he doubted that 2010 would be the year of “grand projects” promised by Biya, pointing to a track record of missed deadlines despite a top-heavy government packed with no fewer than 66 ministers in 35 departments.
In its hard-hitting report, the World Bank said Cameroon had failed to take advantage of the windfall of having most of its debt cancelled in 2006 and was off-track to meet most of the U. Millennium Development Goals for reducing poverty.
The percentage of the population classified as living in poverty stood at 39.9 percent, barely changed from the 2001 level of 40.2 percent, while around one-third of children were described in the report as “chronically malnourished”.
So far, the only break in Cameroon’s stability has been urban riots in 2008 over high fuel and food prices and moves by Biya to extend his rule. Human rights groups said more than 100 people were killed as security forces put down the unrest. The government put the death toll at something over 40.
Since then, there have been few open signs of dissent in a country where press watchdogs cite tough media restrictions.
Analysts predict Biya will cruise home in the 2011 poll, emulating ruling party victories in Gabon and Congo Republic last year in elections where the main suspense was over how much violence would accompany protests by the losing side.
It is hard to say what might spark new unrest. One catalyst for the 2008 riots was defeat for the adored national soccer team in the African Nations Cup, where Cameroon’s “Indomitable Lions” are once again in contention this year.
Babissakana said it was clear few voters would be seeking their brighter future in the polling booth, rueing: “Confidence in the electoral system remains extremely weak.”
Pic: Cameroon President-Paul Biya