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Policy Paper: The Politicization Of COVID-19 Management In Cameroon: Pathways To Depoliticization.

By Paul Timah

Like any other country in the world, Cameroon is equally grappling with the deadly coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Abatement measures have led to a profound impact on the economy thereby necessitating fiscal, monetary, and other policy responses from the government. Although the measures proffered by the government for the most part have been commendable, some of the measures have been outrightly or inherently politicized, much to the detriment of the population which is supposed to be protected by such measures. Although COVID-19 has been politicized elsewhere such as in Zimbabwe (where the government has embarked on a shocking campaign to persecute political opponents for allegedly violating lockdown measures, politicized the distribution of food aid so as to punish opposition supporters and government officials taking advantage of the pandemic to enrich themselves via dubious medical supply contracts) and the United States (US) which is obsessed and suspicious of China’s handling of the pandemic and has suspended funding to the World Health Organization (WHO) for allegedly poorly handling the pandemic, the case of Cameroon is all the more concerning for four reasons. First, Cameroon is among the worst hit countries in Africa, ranking fourth in Sub-Saharan Africa for reported cases (14,916) and eighth for deaths per 100,000 population (1.42) as opposed to Zimbabwe with just 787 reported cases and 0.06 death per 100,000 population. Secondly, Cameroon is resorting to external loans, aid, and the good will of Cameroonians to address the pandemic as opposed to the US which does not have to rely on loans or aid. Thirdly, by politicizing COVID-19, the government is further exacerbating the political chaos (secessionist movement and post-electoral crisis of 2018) in the country. Finally, the country has failed to hit the advice of the WHO Chief who has repeatedly called for the non-politicization of COVID-19 and unity in fighting the pandemic.

Although almost every aspect of the COVID-19 management has been politicized in the country, there are certain aspects (measures or actions) which stand out and deserve some attention. These are:

The Creation and Management of the COVID-19 Solidarity Fund: In April 2020, the government created the COVID-19 solidarity fund with an initial amount of XAF 1 billion (US$1.73 million) followed by an additional XAF 2 billion (US$ 3.45 million)  (“President Paul Biya’s special gift”) earmarked to provide COVID-19 supplies to all 360 subdivisions in Cameroon. However, the purchase of these products was all done in the country’s political capital from where they were distributed to the various subdivisions. Additionally, the “special gift” was overseen by the Interior Ministry via the Interior Minister and regional governors. Given the hierarchical structure involved in managing the “special gift”, many have questioned and wondered if the money was not intentionally meant to line the pockets of local public administrators and why the money was not directly put at the disposal of the subdivisions (municipal councils) so as to save on administrative and logistics costs and to provide the best value for money for the various councils whose COVID-19 needs might be slightly different. Just for logistics alone, a hundred heavy duty trucks had to transport the “special gift” from Yaoundé to the various municipalities. Additionally, the Interior Minister and his entourage have made over a dozen trips around the country to “supervise” the distribution of the “special gift”. If the trips also made by local public administrators are factored in, it seems likely that a greater chunk of the so called “presidential gift” did not get to the intended beneficiaries.

Non-prioritization of Expenditures: On May 25, 2020, a memo signed by the Finance Minster approving close to XAF 4.2 billion (US$ 7.25 million) for the purchase of service vehicles and other items for the 180 members of parliament (MPs) who were voted into office in February 2020 was making the round on social media with many Cameroonians shocked and scandalized why the government would set up a COVID-19 solidarity fund of just XAF 1 billion (US$ 1.73 million) but would go ahead to allocate four times that amount as car allowances to MPs. It should be noted that the ruling party (the Cameroon Peoples Democratic Movement – CPDM) has 130 of the 180 members of parliament (MPs) and that almost all hospitals in the country lack oxygen, respirators and personal protective equipment for medical workers. The budget allocation to MPs is thus largely perceived as compensation for the recently elected MPs for taking part in the elections which were boycotted by the main opposition party, CRM. In addition to the above move, the government took a surprising move to reduce its 2020 budget by 11% from XAF 4951.7 billion (US$ 8.54 billion) to XAF 4409 billion (US$ 7.61 billion) due to the negative impacts of COVID-19 on the economy. This is happening at a time when other countries are ramping up their budgets (deficit financing) to meet up with the challenges of COVID-19.

Contracting of Loans: Faced with the devastating impacts of COVID-19, the country has contracted loans from the African Development Bank (AfDB) to the tone of XAF 58 billion (US$ 100 million) (AfDB, 2020) as well as from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to the tone of XAF 131 billion ( US$226 million) (IMF, 2020). Although most countries are turning to loans or deficit financing in this era of COVID-19, the CPDM led government is missing out on potential financial benefits of working with the CRM party which has a sizeable and respectable militant base. In fact, the CRM has raised EUR 826,754 (US$ 934,000) from its militants and sympathisers through the “Survie-Cameroon-Survival Initiative” launched by the party head, Professor Maurice Kamto. It should be noted that the government had declared the “Survie-Cameroon-Survival Initiative” illegal and had long moved to block the Initiative’s local banking accounts in Cameroon thereby hampering local donations.Apart from this, the amount of loans contracted could have been significantly reduced had the country resorted to its Health Solidarity Fund (meant to tackle health emergencies) for which public primary care facilities have been paying 10% of their revenues into since 1993. However, the country’s silence or non-reliance on the Health Solidarity Fund is being widely perceived as cover-up for the alleged misuse and/or embezzlement of the funds.

Suppression of COVID-19 Initiatives of the CRM Party by the Government: The government has been systematic in suppressing any COVID-19 initiatives or efforts made by the CRM party. First, the government moved quickly to declare the “Survie-Cameroon-Survival Initiative” as illegal following its launch, although the CRM had stated that the Initiative was not an organization and clarified that prominent members of the civil society were involved in the Initiative. Following the declaration by the government, all local bank accounts created by the Initiative were ordered closed by the Interior Minister, a donation of 16,000 protective and surgical masks and 950 COVID-19 screening test kits from the Initiative were rejected by the Ministry of Public Health under the guise that they were illegal and on May 16, 2020, six volunteers of the Initiative were arrested in Yaoundé and a dozen others in different towns on charges of rebellion while distributing  free protective masks and sanitizing gels to those in need. This was rather a poor move by the government given that it had made the use of protective masks in public spaces mandatory and had provided just a very limited segment of the population (about 8.3%) with masks. Interestingly, Human Rights Watch notes that distributing free masks to those who need them is not rebellion and that the government appeared to be more concerned about defeating the opposition than protecting public health. It should also be noted that the Initiative had invited the government to be part of the of it and Kamto had taken steps to meet with the Interior Minister to no avail. It is quite strange that the government rejected medical supplies from the Initiative at a time when medical workers were in need of protective equipment and when donations had been received from other Cameroonians, prominent Nigerian businessman, Aliko Dangote and prominent Chinese businessman, Jack Ma.

President Paul Biya’s Failure to Address the Public: President Biya had remained silent and unseen in public for over a month after the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Cameroon. However, on April 16, 2020, he shared a photo of himself and the French Ambassador to Cameroon on his social media handles accompanied by a post which read “Fruitful discussion with Mr Christophe Guilhou, French Ambassador to Cameroon this afternoon at the Unity Palace. Focus laid on our fight against the coronavirus pandemic in Cameroon, France and the world”. This came a few months after Biya told reporters that he gave a “compte-rendu” of the major national dialogue to French President, Emmanuel Macron, comments made by President Macron to a Cameroonian activist that he had conditioned the participation of President Biya at the Paris Peace Talks in October 2019 on the release of the Kamto and his allies  and on the heels of Kamto calling on the parliament to declare a presidential void. All of these are indicative of the influence that France has over Cameroon. Although, Biya had addressed the country on May 19, 2020 and did talk about the efforts the country has made to fight the pandemic, it was his traditional “National Day” speech and not an unprecedented outing. During this era of an unprecedented global pandemic, the president is largely expected to play the lead role in the fight against the pandemic and not leave it up to the Prime Minister and the Public Health Minister. The personal involvement of the president would have sent a strong message of how committed the government is towards fighting the pandemic.

Given the politicized nature of COVID-19 in country, the following recommendations have been proposed, which if implemented, would depoliticized COVID-19 management in the country and ensure local cooperation thereby leading to the better protection of the population.

  1. The government should put a non-partisan committee comprising of government officials, representatives of key political parties, the business community and civil society in charge of the COVID-19 solidarity fund. A non-partisan committee would ensure that the money is put in good use, great value for the money is created and not end up in the pockets of unscrupulous government officials. Preferably, cash transfers should be made to municipalities rather than sourcing the needs of all municipalities and transporting them to the various municipalities. Additionally, the committee should oversee all campaign and fundraising drives. This measure represents the best and most effective tool of depoliticizing COVID-19. Cameroon can look up to the example of South Africa where President Cyril Ramaphosa was able to reach a bi-partisan COVID-19 agreement with the radical Economic Freedom Fighters leader, Julius Malema.
  2. Expenditures such as the budget allocation for service vehicles for MPs and other non-essential expenditures such as travelling allowances for government officials should be re-prioritized and directed towards essential services.
  3. The government should embrace a bi-partisan agreement with the CRM since the CRM appears to have gained the trust and confidence of a significant proportion of the population. Such a move would lead to a significant amount of money being raised, which together with reprioritization could lessen the dependence on loans from multilateral institutions in this COVID-19 era.
  4. The government should immediately release all CRM volunteers arrested and jailed for distributing protective masks and sanitizing gels. The government should equally accept the donations from the Initiative just as it has done for other persons and organizations. This move would ensure that critical medical supplies are at the disposal of medical workers who continue to put their lives on the line each day, and the provision of protective masks to Cameroonians who are unable to afford them.
  5. An account should be rendered of the Health Solidarity Fund. Money in the Fund should be directed to the COVID-19 Solidarity Fund to reduce debt dependence. If money in the fund has been embezzled or misused, a speedy investigation should be carried out.
  6. President Biya should assume leadership in the fight against COVID-19 by being proactive in addressing Cameroonians and providing regular COVID-19 updates. Passing a message to Cameroonians when he receives the French Ambassador only further fuels growing anti-French sentiments in Cameroon. The government must portray itself as a sovereign government with no interference as it has always claimed.

Acknowledgement: This article was originally submitted to the Balsillie School of International Affairs Waterloo, Canada as partial fulfillment for the requirements of the award of a Master in International Public Policy.

Conflict of Interest Statement: The author certifies that he has NO affiliations with or involvement in any organization or entity with any financial interest or non-financial interest regarding the issues discussed in this article.

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