DOUALA, Cameroon, Nov 16 (Trustlaw) – Cameroon’s high profile anti-graft operation has turned into a political witch-hunt ahead of next year’s presidential election, civil society groups say.
Public support for the crackdown is dwindling amid suspicions it is being used as a way to remove certain influential people from power, activists say.
The government has denied the allegations and strongly defended Operation Epervier (Sparrowhawk) as a crucial weapon in the fight to stamp out graft in Cameroon, once considered the world’s most corrupt country.
The operation has seen the arrest of dozens of former government ministers, parliamentarians, senior civil servants and managers of state-run corporations.
But activists, lawyers and media reports say the operation is cherry-picking its targets and doing nothing to lower levels of corruption.
“We have put people in jail, but we have done absolutely nothing within the system to stop the next guy from doing the exact same thing,” said Kah Walla, head of Cameroon Obosso, a Douala-based civil society group.
Walla said the operation has failed to deter rampant corruption across the country because people believe it is directly linked to political infighting within the ruling party of President Paul Biya, who has been in power for 28 years.
“It has not escaped our minds that the people who were put in jail are primarily those who were suspected of setting themselves up as successors to Paul Biya,” said Walla, who plans to run for president.
LACK OF TRANSPARENCY
Cameroon was ranked 146 out of 178 nations in Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index in 2010, an improvement on 1998 and 1999 when it was ranked the most corrupt country in the world. Some officials believe recent government efforts to combat corruption, including Sparrowhawk, have contributed to this progress.
“Cameroonians complained about corruption and said nothing was being done about it; now people are being arrested, tried and sentenced and they say it is politically motivated. What do they want at the end of the day,” said a senior ministry of justice official who did not want to be named.
Some of the government’s bilateral partners also voiced support for the overall anti-corruption drive saying graft has been a serious impediment to the country’s efforts to attract investment and the impact of the campaign will come gradually.
“What I haven’t heard, is anyone who has convincingly said to me that the people targeted by Epervier are innocent of corruption,” said U.K. High Commissioner to Cameroon Bharat Joshi.
Joshi pointed out that it was up to the courts to decide on the cases and that investigating financial crimes required time and patience.
But Simon Nkwenti, a member of the Cameroon branch of international watchdog Transparency International, said the anti-graft operation was neither fair nor transparent.
“You cannot tell why this person is held while another who committed the same offences is walking free,” said Nkwenti, a trade unionist.
“It is a discriminatory Sparrowhawk which has a very heavy political connotation because those who are keeping the keys to our prison cells are those who should be inside the cells.”
The latest person to be jailed is the former director general of Cameroon’s Shipyard and Industrial Engineering Company, Zacheus Forjindam, who was sentenced in October to 12 years in prison on charges of embezzling nearly 900 million FCFA ($1,878,000).
However, the media has hinted that politics may have been a factor in the case with news reports suggesting Forjindam should have been acquitted on the basis of the evidence.
This included testimony by auditors from the country’s top auditing body who said they did not find he had misappropriated the funds he was accused of diverting. Forjindam is appealing against his conviction.
“It is not because you are accused that you are guilty and if we are going to get the wrong persons and lock them up based on calumny then we are sending the wrong message to people about this (anti-corruption) process,” Forjindam told Trustlaw from his cell at the New-Bell prison in Douala.