Corruption in Cameroon, is the trend on all media fronts: print, tv, radio, and the internet. Hardly a day goes by in Cameroon without a story on fraud, embezzlement and other corruption types. Trends in Corruption in the country threatens social cohesion. Citizen conversations too are peppered with anecdotes about civil servants and private-sector workers demanding bribes. However, they talk about the injustice but have resigned to their fate in not taking action in response to the cases of corruption that they have witnessed.
I spent the past week in Cameroon in the passionate journey of ICT Hubs/Labs study around Africa. The project is housed by iHub Research with the aim of understanding the community of entrepreneurs, their innovations and the sustainability model in place. These findings will help in drawing better strategic collaborations among hubs based on their comparative metrics, encourage exchange of ideas across hubs and build innovative knowledge that can lead to transfer and scaling of ideas from one country to the other. The aforementioned subsequently lead to ICT growth in the different countries which ultimately contributes to the economy and development of the nations.
The study began in Kenya profiling the iHub followed by HiveColab, the Ugandan hub. From East Africa, the study has moved west, to Cameroon which has the hub, Activspaces. Activespaces matched all criteria in selecting the hubs to be profiled and this led to the collaboration formed between iHub Research and Activspaces. As with all other hubs, profiling would be carried out through interviews, videos and observations. As the project lead, iHub research sent me to conduct this study and collect findings.
I have never been to Cameroon before. I therefore did not know what to expect but I was excited to meet the community of entrepreneurs at Activspaces and their community manager (Al Banda) who I have been in contact with virtually. More than the excitement, I was ready and looking forward to learn, share, exchange ideas, and experience the country.
Excitement suppressants. . .
#1 The flight attendant
On reaching Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, a flight attendant quipped “Young lady, why are you going to Cameroon? Other than corruption, it has nothing to offer and corruption is what you will smell as soon as you land”. I smiled and politely responded: “I am yet to see and face it, I wonder if its worse than Kenya’s corruption”.
I was in Douala International Airport in 4 hours. FYI, Cameroon does not have an embassy in Kenya. The closest consulate is based in Addis Ababa. The applicant therefore has to either get their visa from consulate in Ethiopia or on arrival at the airport of Douala International Airport. The visa costs 100USD.
#2 The ‘welcoming bandwagon’
“Oh! My God!” was all I could utter as soon as I disembarked from the plane. The atmosphere was hot and full of hustlers chasing after me to change my money and/or buy a sim card. I then found my way to the visa room to get a transit into the country. My astonishment escalated on entering a very tiny 30sq foot room, full of ladies trading cosmetics and food who could not attend to me if their lives depended on it. They barely pointed me in the direction of the visa services office.
On taking my documents inside the visa room, I was informed that I had to wait outside for a few minutes for the documents to be reviewed. My waiting ending up being more than one hour while other people were being served and so I decided to go in myself and find out the reason for my being overlooked. I thought that perhaps the officer did not know how to pronounce my name or that he had simply forgotten me, right? I was wrong!
That was not the case; he dutifully informed me that I was missing a very important document from the District officer in Younde, Cameroon’s capital city. And I replied that I did not know about the document as the person who invited me neither mentioned nor drafted it. Immediately, I alerted Al Banda the Activspaces community manager and he was on his way to the airport to resolve the issue. When he arrived, he explained to the officer that he was not aware of this document. After hours of trying to convince the officer to agree with us and let me in, he instead gave us a cold shoulder and threatened to deport me back home. Al Banda tried to get help by communicating to close friends and relatives on how to solve the issue and most of them who wanted to assist had asked for a bribe for amounts close to 1000USD. The cost of the bribe was equivalent to the cost of my flight to Cameroon and back. (Flashback to JKIA conversation with the flight attendant. . . )
I let Al Banda know that I was not ready to pay any bribe as it amounted to jeopardizing my reputation and integrity. I was ready to go back home and move onto other Hubs. On seeing my resolution on not paying the bribe, the officer took us to the office of the commissioner who was to make the final decision on whether I should stay or go back to Kenya. He asked Al Banda to enter his office to have a discussion while I was told to wait outside. I am positive that the discussion revolved around a bribe because of the fact that since Al Banda and I had refused to pay the bribe, the commissioner said I have to go back to Kenya the next day.
Meanwhile, Al Banda continued to make phone calls in the hope of getting me assisted and he managed to get someone who had a ‘big’ position in the government, who was able to intervene and after 6 hours of waiting at the airport, I managed to get my Visa the hard but without a bribe. Upon receiving the visa I did not bother to look at it a second time as I was depressed about the turn of events.
#3 The airport’s aesthetics
The airport was not so friendly, with staff who did not understand the importance of customer care and hospitality in their business. The roof seemed very weak and rusty, looking like it would fall any minute. The furniture as well was sparse and old and thus many people were kept standing as they waited for their visas to be processed. However I was given a wooden chair to sit on as I waited for my visa to be successfully processed. Guests visiting the country are registered in big black book and this manual registration trend is replicated at most departments at the airport.
#4 The ‘4’ star hotel
The hotel I stayed in is touted as one of the best hotels in the countries and it has labeled itself as ‘the first four star hotel in the whole world’. Nothing could be further from the truth. . . With its poor management, poorly thought out design and ill-advised location that does nothing to attract tourists; 4 star, Not!
8 days of research:
I managed to achieve what brought me to Cameroon: 8 days of data collection, interacting with Activspaces community and getting success stories of their entrepreneurs. Contrary to the airport environment, the Activspaces community was quite welcoming and interacting with them brought my spirits back up. I successfully conducted the data collection with 15 startups that are members of the space, worked closely with them, conducted an IP workshop, and attended their events.
The lessons I learnt from them were grand enough to suppress the ugly experiences I had at the airport. I appreciated their sacrifice in giving me 30 minutes each to speak with them, understand their innovations, and have lunch or dinner to discuss further. I enjoyed my stay and I love the Activspaces community, and their journey to success is going to be reflected in the preceding reports to be published soon on iHub Research website. Additionally, I had the opportunity to have insightful chats with Bill Zimmerman co-founder of Activspaces and Ben White, Activspaces Advisor and co-founder of VC4Africa.
Face to face with corruption. . . AGAIN. . .
On the day I was leaving, I prayed for a smooth process to my exit however the process was anything but smooth. It seemed corruption was not quite done with me as it reared its ugly head through the policemen on the road on my way to the airport. They stopped the taxi and asked to see my documents. On keenly looking at my visa, one of the policemen told me it had expired with one day and said it was a crime to still be in the country. That’s when I remembered I had not counter checked if the officer at the airport had indicated the exact days I was to stay as was written in my invitation letter submitted to him. On looking at my visa, I realized that it was true that it had actually expired with one day. I knew if we continue staying there I would miss my flight and I figured the one-day expiry is understandable and the policeman just let me go, right?
Wrong! Yet again!
Your guess is as good as mine on what happened next. The policeman refused to understand and immediately I called Al Banda to explain what was going on. Within a few minutes he was there and together with the taxi driver they tried to resolve the matter. For the record, I had already missed my flight. I do not understand French and neither did he understand English and therefore communicating with the policeman was quite the uphill task that cost me precious time. Instead of letting us go to the immigration to renew my visa and book my flight since I had already missed it, they started negotiating for us to pay a bribe. They (the policeman and a policewoman) started off at 50,000F (equivalent of 100USD) and when they saw we were not ready to do pay, they negotiated to 25,000F (50USD). Still we refused to pay the bribe and they took us to the police station to resolve the issue from there.
After many hours (time I could have spent to get an exit visa and book a flight for the following day), we managed to get things resolved at the police station. To add insult to injury, the policemen at the station were so harsh with Al Banda as he tried to explain on my behalf and physically harassed him. They did not harass me in any way, probably because I was a lady and that it was hard to understand each other due to language barrier so I did minimal talking. After the confrontations, we headed to the airport to get myself an exit visa and book my flight for the following day. Before we left the station, a policeman who took my documents at the beginning, asked us to give him ‘something small’ as he had tried to ‘settle’ matters. I did not even afford him a second look and we left for the airport.
Corruption in Cameroon, a monster to their economy:
Corruption is still cancerous in Cameroon. It is like the placebo pill that solves every problem and prevent their escalation. Tax revenues and foreign aid end up in private pockets and as a result, public investment budgets are dropping, the cost of living and doing business is rising and development has slowed. It has been ranked 134 out of 183 countries globally with a score of 2.5/10 in corruption by Transparency international (corruption perception index report 2011). Widespread malpractice has resulted in Cameroon having a permanent slot in the world’s most corrupt countries and this has severely curtailed investment and growth. Many people are reluctant to complain and report the corruption cases on the reasoning that nothing will be done and no one will listen to them. What’s worse, the people to report to, will first ask you for a bribe (which can be either in active or passive form) before processing your report.
Lagging of ICT growth was an issue that was outstanding from all the members I interviewed. They all feel that their innovations might not have a presence in their own country as corruption has been put as an ingredient to success. Activspaces members and the community manager feel that they are not ready to directly involve the government in any way as a key stakeholder as the government will bring corrupt processes and dis align the objectives and vision of the space and the entrepreneurs’ businesses. The entrepreneurs are also afraid to protect their ideas due to these same reasons and prefer to just work with a mindset of global reach hoping that their dreams will come true.
Cameroon government needs to adhere to their law in following due course, carry out punitive actions to those found in corrupt deals and enforce the avenues for reporting corruption cases e.g. hotlines, anti-corruption watchdogs and the media, etc. Above all, they should implement policies and regulations that will help them to act on corruption.
With the rise of innovations coming out of coworking spaces like Activspaces, I have no doubt that the same entrepreneurs who are creative and innovative can look at these challenges and turn them into opportunities. Through developing solutions that can minimize corruption and enhance transparency of information e.g. visa procedures. The entrepreneurs should creating tools that can help in tracking and monitoring the complaints and reports by citizens. This is a huge untapped area, which they can start germinating innovative solutions that will transform the country with time. If the government does not do something about corruption then they should not expect to attract local and foreign investments.
I am looking forward to the study of the other Hubs and the new experiences that await me. The ICT Hubs study takes courage, being open minded and ready to face challenges. I am passionate about the project and I look at the challenges as stepping stone to researching these innovation spaces that will then lead to recommendations for improvement.