By HARRIET ISOM (former US ambassador to Cameroon - Originally published in the East Oregonian)
In May I went back for a week to my last posting in the Foreign Service - Cameroon in Central Africa. I served there as U.S. Ambassador from 1993 to 1996. I wanted to see how this country of such great potential had changed - or not - in the intervening 15 years.
I had forgotten how beautiful this country is. There are the white and black sand beaches, the volcanoes, the lakes and lush highlands, the tropical forests, the old grassland kingdoms bursting with history and art and the totally different north with its terrain similar to America's southwest and boasting a nice game park. Cameroon should be, but isn't yet, part of the tourist route in Africa.
This is a country about the size of California with still enviable potential. It has abundant energy resources, still unexploited mineral resources, bountiful timber and superb agricultural conditions for crops and plantations. It has ethnic groups who excel in trade and entrepreneurial ventures, although they are not in power. How nice it was to visit it again. I enjoyed such a warm welcome from old and new acquaintances. I traveled to several areas and talked to many people.
Here are my observations:
-In spite of its internal tensions, Cameroon remains comparatively stable in Africa.
-It had respectable annual growth in 2009 of 2.9 percent.
-It has retained remarkable religious tolerance among Catholics, Protestants, Muslims and traditional religions. Radical, violent Islam could invade through northern Cameroon or the mosques, but so far this has not happened.
- Its ruler, President Paul Biya, and his ethnic group, who have ruled since 1982, show no signs of relinquishing power and will seek to control succession. He has persuaded the legislature to abolish term limits in the constitution. He is, however, 77 years old; hence his still frequent trips to Europe are carefully parsed for health clues and succession maneuvering is underway.
- Cameroon's political opposition remains unable to agree on a single candidate to oppose Biya and his political party in elections and is regularly bought off with ministerial positions.
- The gap between rich and poor appears to be growing.
- Education has improved but job opportunities have not. A pool of "nothing to lose" people is growing who sparked riots in 2008 and could do so again.
- Corruption is pervasive at all levels.
- While the lines are blurring a little, the dichotomy between the former British colonial part of Cameroon and the larger, dominant, former French colonial Cameroon still exists, as does a north/ south separation.
New developments of note:
1) Completion of the Exxon-Mobil pipeline from landlocked, oil rich Chad through Cameroon to ship loading facilities. The U.S. imports 1 percent of its oil from this pipeline and 1 percent from Cameroon's off shore oil wells.
2) President Biya's creation of a special rapid intervention battalion (BIR) to protect oil rigs and new drilling in the Bakassi peninsula and to quell pirate hostage taking in the Gulf of Guinea and the country's criminal gangs. BIR has also been used in cities to quell riots.
3) A positive diminution of police and gendarme harassment on the roads for petty bribes.
4) A heightened and welcome use of micro-financing.
5) A greater Cameroonian appreciation of being bilingual. Both French and English are the official languages in Cameroon, but French has long had the snob appeal. Today, Cameroonians recognize the dominant role of English in the global economy and francophone Cameroonians are newly sending their children to private English language schools. Chinese is now the third most studied language.
6) The brand new allure of China. China is interested in Cameroon's minerals and has already funded several infrastructure projects to gain favor. Cameroonians told me they really liked the no-strings-attached aid of the Chinese. And they liked the cheaper prices of Chinese imported goods.
With the above changes, does Cameroon qualify as an important emerging economy in Africa?
I might have been more impressed with its incremental changes if I hadn't been traveling and seeing many other emerging economies in the world. I believe Cameroon has seriously neglected adequate investment in infrastructure. It should by now have a four lane highway between the major port of Douala and the capital of Yaounde and beyond into its agricultural highlands. Its major cities still have horrific street conditions. Cameroon suffers constant electricity blackouts in spite of its energy potential.
Its water distribution is totally antiquated. I was unable to use credit cards except in one or two hotels because of the primitive communications system. I saw cell phones but not in the abundance of other emerging nations. There are no modern shopping malls. The proliferation of high rise buildings in other countries that attest to middle class and business development are not yet seen in Cameroon's cities. There is still only one major international hotel in the capital of Yaounde; and in the large port of Douala, the so-called international standard hotel where I stayed closed its business center and main restaurant on weekends.
I tend to blame this lack of focus on economic engine building on a government which has been in power for 28 years, permitting its members to use profits and aid to their own advantage. And I blame too the influence of the French colonial system that created "African Frenchman" who too long have been more interested in investing and interacting in France and Europe than in their own country.
And that same system has allowed French business interests to block or otherwise delay other domestic and foreign investment in Cameroon. Added to this heritage is the government's failure to streamline investment procedures and the traditional lack of social prestige in being a local businessman as opposed to being a government official.
It's painful to have to conclude that while Cameroon has made improvements, it is not yet measuring up to its vast potential. Therefore the hope rests on succession and another day.