By Dibussi Tande
While surfing through the Cameroonian blogosphere recently, I came across a blog post which gave a detailed breakdown of Cameroon’s 2010 budget. The first entry on the list was the budgetary allocation for the Presidency of the Republic which stands at 57,342 Billion Francs CFA – in fact over 63 Billion Francs CFA if you include the 6.677 Billion Francs CFA allocated to "Services attached to the Presidency of the Republic" – an annual budget greater than those of the Ministries of Higher Education (44 billion FCFA), Scientific Research and Innovation (13 billion FCFA), Energy and Power (44 Billion FCFA), just to name a few.
"As budget constraints have hardened, leaders have preferred to spend their money to keep their elite coalition together rather than invest in mundane activities like building schools or undertaking vaccine campaigns..." Van de Walle
As I pondered over the Presidency’s budget, my mind went back to the controversy that erupted last year after the French media revealed that during a three-week trip to La Baule in France, President Biya and his entourage had allegedly spent $40,000 (£24,500) every single day at the five-star L'Hermitage Barriere hotel, bringing the total presidential bill to roughly half a million pounds.
The controversy instantly etched itself onto the well-known political/partisan fault lines in Cameroon with the president’s supporters crying foul and regime opponents virtually demanding that the president be burnt on the stakes for the crime of squandermania.
Expectedly, the Biya regime’s response to the revelations of the French press (relayed by the international media) and the ensuing outrage was swift, angry and defiant. In a strongly worded communiqué, Cameroon’s Minister of Communications and the Government Spokesperson, Issa Bakary Tchiroma, lashed out at manipulators working behind the scenes to tarnish the image of the President and insisted that:
“Like any other worker, President Paul Biya has a right to his vacations. This is not a privilege but a right, which he can exercise wherever he wishes to do so, with the means put at his disposal by the sovereign people, by the electors, to cloth himself, for his accommodation, for his feeding, for his healthcare, to provide his needs.”
Beyond the predictable political histrionics, however, the massive vacation spending raised broader issues about budgetary transparency and responsibility, along with presidential accountability to those “sovereign people” whom the government spokesperson so eloquently and deferentially referred to in his fiery statement. Questions were also raised as to whether the Presidency of the Republic was subjected to the same budgetary oversight and constraints as other ministerial departments, or whether the president simply had unlimited funds at his disposal which he used at his discretion; and how come the Presidential budget never seemed to feature on those sternly-worded reports on fiscal discipline and financial transparency from the Breton Woods institutions? Did the various structural adjustment programs that have existed for about a quarter of a century come with a quid quo pro with regards to presidential spending?
In the past quarter of a century, most African states have been under one form of internationally-imposed austerity program or the other (SAP, HIPC Initiative, etc.) which allowed Breton Woods institutions to virtually dictate economic policies to these African countries. The donor community also waded into the political arena as the principle of conditionality was used to require that African states follow prescribed political paths, notably with regards to democratization and good governance, in order to be eligible for financial assistance.
The policies of the donor institutions resulted in significant cutbacks on social services and development projects. However, while the general population suffered under the weight of these austerity programs which virtually dismantled existing social safety nets that protected the most vulnerable in society, the state’s top elites remained virtually untouched by the crisis as they expanded the patrimonial state and rent-seeking practices. Thus, even at the height of the financial crisis of the l980 and 1990s, African regimes and elites were able to create opaque financial silos from where funds were extracted at their discretion to shore up their lavish lifestyles, promote rent-seeking practices, and consolidate political power while development goals were abandoned and basic social services left to rot.
The ruling elite did this by creating no-go zones that fell under the heading of Sovereignty expenditures” (“that is, spending on defense, international diplomacy, government offices and forms of conspicuous consumption by state elites”). As Nicholas Van de Walle pointed out in his study of African economies in the 1980 and 1990s:
Many African states appeared to be withdrawing from development activities...focusing on sovereignty expenditures and allowing donors to increasingly take the lead in producing the public goods that are usually viewed as central to the state's development functions...
Sovereignty expenditures were supposedly meant to give the state enough resources to maintain its “national sovereignty” in the face of the interventionism of the international community, but they quickly became a catch-all used to expand and consolidate the neo-patrimonial state. As Francis Fukayama has pointed out in State-Building: Governance and World Order in the 21st Century:
...donor-imposed stabilization and structural adjustment programs during the 1980s and 1990s has unintended and counterproductive effect. The international community called for cutbacks in state scope through implementation of orthodox adjustment and liberalization programs, but given their ultimate political dominance, neopatrimonial regimes used external conditionality as an excuse for cutting back on the modern state sectors while protecting and often expanding the scope of the neopatrimonial state. Thus, investment in basic infrastructure like roads and public health declined dramatically over a twenty-year period, as well as investments in primary education and agriculture. At the same time, spending on so-called sovereignty expenditures like military forces, diplomatic services, and jobs connected to the office of the presidency increased dramatically. (pp. 16-17)
The Case of Cameroon
Cameroon is a classic example of a state that has used sovereignty expenditures not so much to maintain its independence on issues of import or to promote development, but primarily to pamper the country’s elite, solidify and expand clientelist networks and consolidate power – for example, protecting the salaries of the military from the effects of devaluation to ensure the continued support of the rank and file, increasing the number of generals from 7 to 15 to reward those officers who had been instrumental in the emasculation of the budding opposition movement in the early 1990s, or increasing the number of government ministries from 34 in 1984 to 52 in 2000 to reward political allies and co-opt new and potential allies, and in the process creating the largest government cabinet in Africa, larger even that Nigeria’s, etc. For example, in 2005, the OECD pointed out in its African Economic Outlook that in Cameroon,
Capital expenditure (only 20 per cent of total spending) is never entirely disbursed, showing major absorption problems that could hamper implementation of future investment plans. So-called “sovereignty” expenditure is unquestionably excessive (35 per cent of total spending, including 25 per cent on defence), especially compared to outlays on education (29 per cent), health (5 per cent) and infrastructure (10 per cent).
Regarding the Presidency in particular, there has been a steady increase in its budget in the past decade with no clear justification for this increase. For example, in 2006, the budget of the presidency was approximately 35 billion (35,474,000000) FCFA, with five billion FCFA set aside for investments. In the 2007 budget, the Presidency’s budget increased by 4 billion to approximately 39 billion (39,654,000000) FCFA, with yet another five billion going towards “investments”. Because the budget of the Presidency is a sovereignty expenditure, not even the MPs (the purported representatives of the “sovereign people”) who adopted this budget can explain what exactly the Presidency was investing in… By 2010, the budget of the Presidency and attached services had increased to 63 billion FCFA, nearly doubling what it was just three years ago.
The lack of oversight (Parliamentary or otherwise) over sovereignty expenditures leads to fantastic situations such as the imbroglio over the purchase of a presidential aircraft in 2003. The Presidency purchased the aircraft for a whopping 70 billion FCFA using very arcane financing methods devoid of any accountability or transparency. The result? Practically all the high ranking officials involved in the purchase of the ill-fated “flying coffin” aptly named The Albatross are now languishing in the Kondengui maximum prison for real or imagined crimes. Without doubt, if the Parliament had been involved in authorizing and overseeing such a significant investment by the Executive branch, it is very likely that we would have had a more sane and transparent outcome. Accountability is not just about the ignorant “man in the street” poking his nose into complex matters of state; it is also a universally-tested mechanism for protecting those who manage the resources of state...
As a result of this lack of transparency over the purchase of the Albatross, it is virtually impossible to know with certainty who is being persecuted for actual crimes, and who is simply the victim of score-settling and political positioning among the ruling class...
Should Sovereignty Expenditures be controlled?
Shortly after the La Baule scandal erupted, Jean Michel Nintcheu, a Member of Parliament representing the Social Democratic front tabled a stillborn members’ bill which called for the establishment of “mechanisms that would guarantee the traceability of presidential expenditure. According to the MP, it made no sense to absolve the presidency of the republic from the same budgetary requirements which it had incidentally put in place. “The budget of the Presidency must be subjected to the rules of good governance in order that the requirements of transparency are applicable to all facets of public finance.”
Nintcheu was however, quick to point out that the present constitution does not allow for parliamentary control of the actions of the President, the prevailing constitutional view in Cameroon being that Article 14 (2) of the said constitution which states that “Parliament shall legislate and control Government action” excludes the Presidency of the Republic, which is distinct from the “Government” (i.e., the Prime Minister and his cabinet) – a rather spurious distinction which the executive branch has used to successfully create an Imperial Presidency not answerable to anyone but itself. But that is another discussion for another day...
Sovereignty, Responsibility and Accountability
At face value, the need for sovereignty expenditures is a legitimate one; being a heavily-indebted poor country does not preclude the need to maintain the symbols of state or to endow high ranking state officials with the accoutrements of authority, leadership and power – e.g., ensuring that a Head of State travels in comfort and security, and providing him or her with resources to represent the state on the international scene. However, sovereign expenditures should not imply a complete lack of accountability or responsibility on the part of those state officials who manage or control them. At a minimum, these officials should be accountable to the “sovereign people” who actually provide these sovereign expenditures through their contributions to the state.
Furthermore, sovereignty expenditures should not only be about preserving the trappings of power of the elite but also, if not primarily, about setting aside "untouchable" money to create social services and promote development, e.g., constructing farm-to-market roads, well-equipped schools, hospitals, etc. It is mind-boggling, for example, that in the same year that the Presidency was allotted 5 billion FCFA for “investment”, the national budget made room only for a miserly 132 km of tarred roads in the entire country!
For sovereignty expenditures to be legitimate, their use must be guided by three basic principles – Sovereignty, Responsibility and Accountability. The insistence on having a free hand (sovereignty) in using these funds must be accompanied by their responsible use and constitutionally-mandated explanations to the people on how they are being used (accountability). An unlikely scenario in the current get-rich-at-all-cost context…