Cameroon and Boko Haram: government calls on the people to fund mobilisation – By Jean-Patient Tsala
For some months now the fight against Boko Haram in Cameroon has given rise to an unprecedented mobilisation of the population in support of the armed forces. Marches in support of the Cameroon Armed Forces (FAC), such as that of 28th February in Yaoundé, have more recently given way to financial contributions from citizens. This gesture of solidarity may be good for national cohesion, but it also points to the economic fragility of the country and the historic marginalisation of the Far-North due to poor governance.
Moreover, the support showed to the FAC has become the battleground for the elite of the Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (CPDM), the ruling party, who have been increasing security initiatives in response to public support. There is now a real risk of seeing this move towards solidarity fade away as the political hijacking of the military mobilisation causes the population to question the actual relevance of the initiative.
The cost of the war against Boko Haram is unknown to the general public, but on several occasions Cameroonian authorities have complained about the unsustainability of the ongoing operation. The primary reason for is that up to 90% of Cameroon’s defence budget is focused on recurrent expenditure, whilst only a small amount is devoted to field operations and investment.
Furthermore, the main response unit on the battlefield, the Rapid Intervention Battalion, is funded through secretive funds from the National Hydrocarbon Company, which is itself currently witnessing a drop in revenues due to the global fall in oil prices. This dual financial pressure has led the government to request economic support from the population to fight Boko Haram.
Following this call in late 2014, businessmen, MPs and senators, political leaders and other citizens have committed themselves to raise funds; donating foodstuffs and forking out millions of CFA francs to the cause. The Minister of Trade gave instructions for boxes to be placed in supermarkets in Yaoundé and Douala to collect voluntary contributions.
Opposition parties are also part of this war effort, as was the case with Ni John Fru Ndi, Chairman of the Social Democratic Front (SDF), who in March 2015 visited wounded soldiers at the Yaoundé Military Hospital and donated foodstuffs to them. However, the lack of transparency in the management of these funds has given rise to a debate on likely embezzlement.
In April, The Messager newspaper revealed that some members of parliament did not recognise themselves in the contributions attributed to the senate. In an attempt to calm the situation, Paul Biya instructed the opening of a special account at the public treasury titled “˜People’s contribution, fight against Boko Haram’ and set up an ad-hoc inter-ministerial committee in charge of the management of the collected funds. He himself made a personal donation.
Though this measure has returned some legitimacy to the operation, it has nevertheless increased its politicisation, as the various strongholds of the ruling party compete to see who will contribute the largest sum of money in a bid to attract the favour of the prince. Last month this competition resulted in a plethora of motions of support from the regional and divisional elite of the CPDM and other widespread fundraising initiatives organised by the party throughout the national territory.
Despite measures taken by President Paul Biya to reassure the population about the transparency of the management of funds, frustration and dissatisfaction remain; especially among soldiers. Troops from the battlefield have expressed their anger in the face of this situation because according to them, they are not feeling the impact of this solidarity move. Their discontent was, however, soon hushed up by top-ranking military officers. In this respect, one of the leaders of the opposition, Maurice Kamto of the Movement for the Renaissance of Cameroun (MRC), denounced the political hijacking of the solidarity movement and demanded that the inter-ministerial committee render accounts to the population on a monthly basis. The government reacted through the national daily newspaper, the Cameroon Tribune, saying that the funds collected as of 7 May amounted to USD 2.5 million.
How do we explain the fact that the authorities have not disclosed the budget deficit, but continue to call on the Cameroonian people to make large sacrifices? The Ministry of Defence budget, which increased to more than CFAF 212 billion in 2015, did not provoke any call for financial support from the population. In 2013, the heavy-handed allocation of funds for the Rapid Intervention Battalion confirmed the financial health of an army that has not previously faced an asymmetric war.
Today, calls for contributions seem to be the tip of the iceberg. Cameroon’s already empty shopping basket is called upon to take the strain again in a context where unemployment and poverty confirm a chronic political breakdown.
The war against Boko Haram is currently weighing heavily on the political agenda. The detrimental effects of succession battles will be felt by an electorate from which the government has already requested a superhuman effort. Will the expression of sympathy towards soldiers be the same for politicians in 2018? Nothing is certain, but we are perhaps beginning to see the first signs of a turbulent change in power that could see the army act as referee.
Jean-Patient Tsala is Editor in Chief of Magic FM radio (Yaoundé).