Cameroon Nip and Tuck: Fleshing Out African Corruption

Cameroonian boys pose in front of a burned bus on Feb. 24 in the Madagascar district of Douala. (Photo: Fanny Pigeaud / AFP-Getty Images)

The Cameroonian parliament has just concluded that its country's constitution needed a nip and a tuck to allow President Paul Biya to stay in power another seven years. When you witness political corruption turning people's lives upside down, do you complain or do you start a movement? Cameroonian Julius Awafong is working to build support in Africa for a radical reform called vote sizing. He hopes that giving larger votes to poor, working- and middle-class people like Njoh Tarke will ease the misery she and others are suffering as a result of corruption.

While President Bush's reputation may be better in Africa than just about anywhere else on earth, his programs to ease disease, poverty, and illiteracy there are hardly making a dent in the widespread corruption that perpetuates these problems. One of the reasons political corruption thrives is that it often seems intangible. But as Njoh Tarke can tell you, corruption is plenty fleshy and bloody.

Njoh Tarke (Photo courtesy of Patty Bates-Ballard)

Political corruption has turned 26-year-old Cameroonian postgraduate student Njoh Tarke's life upside down. Her younger brother, Tumasang, a typhoid patient, was quietly sentenced to 15 months in prison in March. The family says he was falsely convicted of participation in violent strikes called after President Biya announced his intention to run for an unconstitutional third term. The Tarke family is from the British colonized part of Cameroon where the opposition party is strong, as opposed to the French sector, from which Biya hails.

Tumasang Tarke (Photo courtesy of Patty Bates-Ballard)

Before his arrest, Tumasang provided for Njoh's upkeep and schooling with his taxicab job. Now she sometimes has to forego a meal to make sure he gets to eat the restricted typhoid diet that the prison does not offer. Family and friends chip in financially so that she can bring his meals to him in prison. But she wonders everyday whether he will be able to survive the ordeal.

Tumasang and a friend were on their way home from the grocery store on Feb. 28, the day after the violence subsided, when he and his family says he was beaten and arrested by soldiers in plain clothes. He was sentenced a week later in a nightmare of contradictory, furtive proceedings from which Njoh cannot seem to wake up. Dozens of Cameroonians lost their lives in the violence.

In all, 1,671 people were arrested and 729 had been found guilty as of March 4, according to a report given by Vice Prime Minister Amadou Ali. While many families from the British colonized sectors have alleged discrimination, Ali has given assurances that the process adhered to the law. There is no indication that any further attention has been given to the complaints. Many have found irony in the fact that Biya originally hinted he would continue his presidency past 2011 during an interview with France 24 while calling attention to the need to continue his anticorruption campaign.

Then on April 10, the Cameroon National Assembly approved the change to the constitution. And now Biya's reelection in 2011 for a follow-up five-year term is no less than a foregone conclusion, barring any health problems. The president, who will be 78 that year, has been president since 1982. Why? Not so much because of widespread popularity. Yes, Biya's Cameroon People's Democratic Movement controls 153 of the assembly's 180 seats. But the opposition Social Democratic Front has repeatedly complained of vote rigging in the C.P.D.M.'s and Biya's previous wins.

Julius Awafong (Photo courtesy of Patty Bates-Ballard)

This is just one window into how corruption devastates the lives of real human beings. Julius Awafong, president of the Fair Choice Party-Cameroon (currently being formed) travels his country asking how it is that a very few wealthy people live in luxury while the vast majority of Africans live on less than $1 a day, with little or no access to potable water, sanitation, health care, or standard housing. After listening to hundreds of Cameroonians desperate for change and watching several cities erupt into violence in late February, his conclusion is that the numerical majority of African voices is no match for the power of the wealthy few.

So Awafong promotes a system that would increase the power of ordinary Africans through increasing the size of their vote. Why is he drawn to the radical concept of vote sizing?

"Because the people are desperate," says Awafong. "Corruption is not easy to dismantle. If we want fundamental change, we're going to have to overhaul the system. Otherwise we can expect more strikes, violence, and misery."

Awafong had just returned from a videotaping trip to northern Cameroon when the recent social unrest broke out across the country. He was able to document some of the young people escaping official tear gas crowd dispersions, available on YouTube.

Awafong was scheduled to appear on a talk show on April 10 but the topic was canceled by Cameroon Radio and TV officials at the last minute because they said it was too provocative under the current political tensions. Awafong says that in anticipation of further dissent, the government has placed soldiers conspicuously throughout potential trouble areas.

Undeterred, Awafong says he will continue to pursue his effort to establish democratic balance and fairness by getting his message out any way he can.

For more information on Awafong and vote sizing, visit the Web site.