DOUALA, Cameroon -- The airport here has all the charm of an inner city
Greyhound station, but without any of the comfort or efficiency. I sit nursing a
succession of Cokes and fending off an endless parade of beggars and vendors,
studying the posters of long-time President Paul “The People’s Choice” Biya.
One rather dated placard shows a much younger, chubbier version of the man,
attired in safari suit and baseball cap, standing in the midst of a pineapple
plantation, gingerly examining a piece of fruit as if it were a live hand grenade.
This careful approach has allowed Mr. Biya to sit atop the Cameroonian political
pyramid as either prime minister or president since 1975, back when Gerald Ford
occupied the White House. Perennial opposition candidate John Fru Ndi has
been calling the shots for his side since 1990.
The consequences of such ossified leadership are everywhere in evidence.
Waiting in the flight line for our escape from Douala, we are subjected to one
venal and pointless bureaucratic process after another. A woman who has
purchased a frying pan in Dubai is being shaken down for a bribe for this illicit
import. Finally a passenger from Cote d’Ivoire has had enough. Spittle flying and
eyes bulging with fury, he lambastes the Cameroonian officials, describing their
country as “the most corrupt in the world” and vowing that he will never again set
foot here. They stare at him with studied sang-froid.
While my Ivorian friend may not return, many others will, drawn mainly by a
hunger for the country’s natural resources, including oil, gas, timber, bauxite, iron
ore, diamonds…the list goes on. In 2007 Exxon Mobile completed construction
of a massive pipeline to carry neighboring Chad’s petroleum through Cameroon.
At a cost of $4.5 billion, that helped make the US the country’s largest foreign
investor. Despite the presence of some 50 American investment initiatives, it’s
not clear that the Cameroonian embassy in Washington is aware of its country’s
desire to attract foreign visitors. It took a week of intensive negotiations for me to
finally procure a visa. Changing currency and receiving wire transfers are almost
On the long drive across sprawling Yaoundé, one gets a sense of how limited
the non-petroleum economy of this country is. With the exception of beer, soap,
cigarettes and a few other locally produced essentials, it’s trading and farming.
A million little stalls sell batteries, bananas, pens and palm wine. Wiry, sweat-
soaked men maneuver handcarts between the thick traffic. And young women
hawk their bodies on street corners, while their mothers and aunts peddle dough
balls and hypoglycemic soft drinks. As frightening as AIDS remains, Africans are
falling prey in ever growing numbers to diabetes, heart disease and other lifestyle
My cab driver is pulled over for some fictitious transgression by the ever-
ravenous traffic police, and I too am ordered to present my identification, a
demand I unsuccessfully resist. To this American there’s something profoundly
wrong, even after years of such experiences, about being forced to hand over
ones “papers” by uniformed men on a dark road at night.
Although Cameroon shares the French heritage of Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire,
its main cities, Douala and Yaoundé, lack the subtlety and elegance of Dakar
or Abidjan. They have more in common with Lagos -- fast, furious and focused
on making a buck, or rather a euro (dollars seem far less desirable here than
the rest of the world); in a word, active, though not particularly productive. There
are of course exceptions. My hotel lobby in Yaoundé, as in so many African
capitals, is full of busy, purposeful Chinese men. They travel in groups, carrying
rolled-up blueprints and laptops, and invariably are accompanied by an African
or Lebanese fixer. These men know why they are here; there’s nothing complex
about their relationship with Africa.
But Chinese businessmen have some competition other than the Americans. I
spot a supermarket bearing an Indian sounding name – Mahima – so I stop in
to buy a few items and have a chat with the proprietors. Indeed, they are from
the sub-continent and proudly tell me they have three markets in Douala, three
in Yaoundé, and plans for expansion. I joke that they’re taking over from the
Lebanese, which prompts much grinning and chuckling.
The evening news presented on government TV is so dour and dutiful that one
thinks of Soviet broadcasters, only with darker complexions and more colorful
clothes. Nearly every story reminds the viewer of the Herculean efforts the
government is making for the good of the people, although how this jibes with
Transparency International’s ranking of Cameroon as the 134th most corrupt
nation on earth, out of 182, is not debated. Instead the airwaves are filled with
music videos, soccer matches, revivalist preachers and even ballroom dancing.
Men in swallowtail coats twirl their be-gowned partners like first-class passengers
on a doomed ocean liner.
Despite the oppressive political atmosphere, there are yet many Cameroonians
who want desperately to be part of the solution. Visiting the run-down offices of
a women’s NGO in a grubby working class neighborhood, I am reminded that
Africa’s evolution happens in such places where ordinary people with a vision for
change fight against absurd odds to drag their country into some approximation
of the future.
With a population of 20 million, abundant natural resources, golden beaches and
misty mountains, and (critically in this part of the world) a marked absence of
conflict, it’s hard to imagine Cameroon sitting on the sidelines forever. Given half
a chance by its political leaders, it could well be the next African lion to roar.
Chris Hennemeyer has lived and traveled in Africa for 25 years.