Election Year Flurry of Public Works (announcements)

Sign announcing the Kribi airport "construction project". Photo by Christiane Badgley

Bridges, dams, hydroelectric plants, roads and railways! In Cameroon every day seems to bring another announcement of an ambitious, much-needed and long-overdue public works project. Before long the country will be buzzing with activity and from Kribi to Douala, Limbe, Yaounde and beyond, Cameroon will be on the fast track to development, heading for middle income status by 2035 (You can download the government working paper, Cameroon Vision 2035, or read about it at African Economic Outlook).

The Chinese, the French, the Americans and the World Bank are all announcing projects and  loan packages for infrastructure and industry — certainly many lucrative deals are on the horizon. There’s just one catch, though. This is Cameroon and it’s an election year.

All sorts of promises get made during an election year — that’s politics everywhere, I imagine.  But Cameroonians have watched their president make hollow promises for decades.  Drive along any road and you’ll see signs announcing public works projects. Sometimes the signs indicate the duration of the work, “36 months”, but don’t include a start- or end-date. Or you’ll see a start-date, but nothing else. Either way, it’s often a sign next to nothing or next to a pile of rubble that looks like it’s been there, untouched, for months. So, understandably any announcement today will likely be perceived as nothing more than “effet d’annonce” (hype).

The "paved" road from Kribi to the border (Equatorial Guinea). Photo by Christiane Badgley

Look at a road map of Cameroon, and you’ll see that the road from Douala south along the coast to Equatorial Guinea is paved.

This makes sense: it’s a significant commercial artery with truck traffic in both directions. And Campo, the last town in Cameroon before the border, is a military outpost.  But strangely, if you drive from Douala south, you’ll find that the road is only paved to Kribi. Once you leave Kribi, you’re on a narrow dirt road that can be impassable during the rainy season — especially if one of the wooden bridges washes out, a fairly common occurrence. If you must travel along this road during the rainy season, you may meet a forlorn-looking truck driver sitting on a roadside tree stump. His truck is stuck in the mud at the bottom of a hill and he’s waiting until the mud dries enough for him to carry on.

Rumor has it that the Douala-Kribi paved road has been paid for several times over but never finished.

Construction on the Kribi-Campo road. Photo by Christiane Badgley

Cameroon’s president, Paul Biya, has been in office since 1982 and although something called “multi-party democracy” has existed for twenty years, there is no viable opposition.  In 2007, the ruling party (RDPC) won 152 out of 180 seats in legislative elections and with a 2/3 majority was able to modify the constitution allowing Biya to run for president again in 2011. During Biya’s decades in office, Cameroon’s economy has stagnated and poverty levels have increased. There are many outside factors that impacted Cameroon’s economy — falling commodity prices, a Franc CFA devaluation, structural adjustment plans and other austerity measures — but Biya does not stand out as a leader who has pushed his country forward. Cameroon’s corruption and cronyism are notorious, the legal system is weak and the country is generally seen as a bad place to do business.

Cameroonians have little faith in their politicians or the political process. The government continues to talk of  its “grand ambitions”, seemingly assured — at least for now — that no one will be held accountable for pledges and promises. 

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