Between a rock and a hard place

The Sahel: Africa’s Great Green Wall

The African Union’s ambitious plans to revitalise the Sahel region face daunting challenges, including financial fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic

Acacia trees planted in Senegal’s Louga region, as part of the Great Green Wall Photo: Seyllou Diallo / AFP

It is a project that doesn’t lack ambition. The African Union’s Great Green Wall Initiative (GGWI) aims to create a new living world wonder, an 8,000 km tree line across the 21 countries in the Sahel region of Africa. A project this size needs the funding to match and so far, more than $8 billion has been pledged. But conflicts, capacity, direction and ensuring capital remain huge challenges standing in the way of the GGWI. This has led the initiative to refocus away from merely planting trees to developing climate-resilient communities that will be protected from droughts, famine, conflict and migration, restoring degraded land to provide food, jobs and other products that people can use to make a living.

“Planting trees just to restore the land is not the right methodology and this is why we’re looking at income generation as a key aspect,” said Camilla Nordheim-Larsen, programme coordinator at the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). “The communities need to have a reason to take care of these trees, whether it’s to use or sell products coming from  the trees or an agro-forestry project, or being able to sell carbon credits, for example,” she says, explaining the GGWI’s new direction.

The project’s aims, however, are vast in terms of land restoration, carbon offsetting, beneficiaries, and the number of trees planted by the end of this decade, with progress on many targets stalled and hovering around the 15 to 18% mark. Completion within the decade is ambitious, but Nordheim-Larsen remains confident the initiative can achieve its  goals  on time, which under the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is 2030.

Nordheim-Larsen’s optimism is based on her belief that a significant increase in investment, from a variety of different sources, both public and private, could make a drastic difference to the funding gap and help to upscale projects. However, Elvis Tangem, coordinator for the GGWI at the African Union Commission, is less optimistic about that date, which he sees as a UN rather than African Union (AU) target.

“Most of the programmes of the UN are based on the SDGs [for 2030], but for the African Union we have Agenda 2063,” Tangem says. “As far as achieving it by 2030, it’s very, very unlikely. We did an extrapolation and we looked at the possibility of attaining that objective by 2030, but we had to be restoring almost 2.5 million hectares of land a year, which is not possible… with the financial and resources situation [as it is] we cannot say it can be achieved in the next 10 years. When you look at Agenda 2063 it’s more realistic, as we’re talking about restoring less than one million hectares of land a year.”

The GGWI is led by the AU, with the World Bank, UN, European Union and Global Environmental Facility (GEF) as its main funders. Another revenue stream UNCCD is trying to tap is private funders and it supports projects that make the GGWI self-funding by producing products that can be sold on international markets such as oil from the moringa tree, baobab and superfoods type of products, and shea butter. Tangem claims there are as many as 27 products and commodities that could be sold on international markets in the GGWI to benefit communities, in addition to eco-tourism.

Although exploitation of such commodities and eco-tourism, along with addressing climate change, are all issues that may seem to be more of a focus of the western or developed world rather than the countries of the Sahel, Nordheim-Larsen is keen to emphasise the initiative is not being donor-led but was started in the region; the project ultimately builds on the vision of late Burkina Faso President Tomas Sankara.

A 3D movie about the Great Green Wall at the Chad stand at the COP21 UN conference on climate change in Paris, 2015 Photo: Eric Feferberg / AFP

“It started with African leaders and was adopted by African leaders in 2007 [after the idea was conceived in 2005] with no push from donors. We’ve come much later to try and support the initiative,” she says. Now, though, the main concern facing the GGWI is funding and searching for different revenue streams, the most significant of which would be carbon offsetting. “The potential carbon sequestration that this project could generate would have global benefits,” adds Nordheim-Larsen.

“There’s been interest from many companies in terms of offsetting projects in the region. At the moment there’s not a lot, but there’s some with the potential to be upscaled, both agroforestry and in the renewable energy sector.” Those companies include carbon polluting giants such as BP and Shell, who are believed to be very interested in offsetting through the GGWI, which could offset up to 500 gigatonnes of carbon emitted into the atmosphere, says Tangem. But private financial interest is not limited to the globe’s big polluters.

“During UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ climate change summit in September [2019], we had serious engagement with companies like Timberland, who were ready to invest a good chunk of their corporate social responsibility funds in the Great Green Wall,” he adds. The recent coronavirus pandemic, though, has already begun to have an impact on this funding of the GGWI, as Tangem explains: “We successfully raised €1 million for the locust issue in the Horn of Africa, but because of Covid that money was diverted into supporting these countries to buy facemasks and sanitisers.”

This has not been a one-off issue as following last September’s UN Climate Summit in New York, the Great Green Wall has made engagements with both the public and private sector in the pursuit of additional funding that Tangem claims were successful. “We had many other pledges from private-sector partners, big and small, but many of them have withdrawn because they need to take care of their workers and help their investors during this Covid time when everything is shut down. But we are very confident that between 12 and 15 months down the line we will come back and have the support because these engagements are there,” he says.

Besides the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the GGWI has faced several other problems, as can be expected with a project of this size, the most serious of which is security. Extremists, traffickers and terrorist organisations are all operating in various countries of the Sahel where the GGWI has been working, forcing them to retreat. “Burkina Faso, for instance, was one of our best and most successful practices, but we had to abandon about 60% [of our work] because of the security issues. We abandoned most of the areas that were being intervened in Mali, such as Timbuktu.

These are key areas but we had to abandon [them] because of security issues. In Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad as well,” says Tangem. These are all issues that simply weren’t there, certainly on this scale, in 2005 when the programme started. In addition, Somalia forms a large part  of the initiative’s strategy, but the GGWI is unable to operate there because of extremist organisation Al-Shabaab. Not only are these groups having a disastrous impact on the ground on the GGWI’s ability to carry out its programmes, but they have also discouraged funders, says Tangem, although he also points out that countries that are more secure have demonstrated more long-lasting results.

Ethiopia, for instance, has managed to restore 15 million hectares of degraded land. One other challenge facing the GGWI is a need to upscale domestic investment and unlock further finances from the Least Developed Countries Fund (LDFC), as it cannot rely solely on development aid, something about which both Tangem and Nordheim-Larsen agree. But, as Tangem points out, he accepts there is a domestic shortfall in funding, while many of the fund’s beneficiary countries are dealing with more pressing short-term issues than land restoration. The security issues detailed are the most pressing of these, though as Covid-19 continues to eat into the budgets of GGWI’s biggest funders, such as the World Bank and EU, it may well, at least in the short-term, fall to second behind financing.

Workers water the Widu tree nursery in Senegal’s Louga region, 2011 Photo: Seyllou Diallo / AFP

 

Joe Walsh is a freelance journalist based in Johannesburg. He primarily writes about the environment, energy and the green economy, as well as politics and society for British publications including Environmental Finance, the New Statesman and The New European.

 

Threatened to extinction

Cameroon: culture clash

Urbanisation and acculturation in Cameroon are eroding traditional conservation practices that helped maintain the equilibrium of the ecosystem

Aerial view of the Mount Cameroon National Park in the south west region of Cameroon, 2019. The forest at the foot of the mountain plays host to African elephants traditionally conserved by the Bakweri people but are now under threat Photo: Muleng Timngum

Armand Boui has a problem. The 57-year-old native of Mongonam in the Kadey Division of Cameroon – part of the species-rich Congo Basin – is jobless. He wasn’t always unemployed, and he is not at peace with himself. Boui is an herbalist and intercessor between the community’s people and their ancestors. But about 10 years ago, he watched helplessly as wildlife poaching and a gold rush led to the desecration of a sacred forest – the source of his spiritual powers. “The forest was invaded by strangers, and even our own [people]. The traditional authorities of the village couldn’t help.

Subsequently, my potions and incarnations gradually became ineffective,” Boui said. People stopped patronising him and, suddenly, he was left without his social role – or a job. “The spirits were no longer finding favour in me. I guess they moved away due to the invasion. It is an unfortunate situation,” Boui told Africa in Fact. He sometimes wonders what his late father would think. His father, from whom he inherited the therapeutic and sacral role, had asked him to hand over the “special gift” to the next generation.

In Cameroon, many natural  sites and biodiversity hotspots play host to totems, especially in the form of animals, which are revered for their traditional sacredness. The totem animals, such as elephants, gorillas and chimpanzees, were formerly protected by traditional belief systems, but are now endangered species. In recent times a cocktail of factors, including acculturation and rapid urbanisation, has disrupted traditional conservation practices that helped maintain the equilibrium of the ecosystem.

Boui’s predicament is not unique. Studies carried out  in  different  parts  of Cameroon show that fast-eroding cultural norms and taboos are playing negatively against wildlife conservation. Fewer than 10 Bakweri (people of the Sawa ethnic group who speak the Mokpwe language) villages out of about 100 located near the Mount Cameroon National Park still have functional secret societies, according to a 2004 report by researcher Lyombe Eko. In general, the aim of traditional secret societies is to safeguard their communities from evil.

The secret societies he identified as still active in these villages were the Maale, whose totem is the African elephant, and the Nganya, with the warthog as their totem. Members of both groups claimed that their respective totem animals were present in the forest; they were protected and could not be killed for merely economic reasons. These traditional belief systems played an important role in wildlife conservation in the past, according to Chief Dr Ndome Samuel, traditional ruler of Kake II Bokoko in the South West region of Cameroon, in a pronouncement.

But European missionaries – including Baptists, Catholics and Presbyterians – dissuaded the locals from the practices, promising hell for adherents who didn’t repent. Many abandoned the culture. Religion and colonisation – related factors of acculturation – have had a devastating impact on traditional ecological governance systems, says Nnah Ndobe Samuel, a Yaounde-based socio- economist. He argues that irreversible damage to Cameroon’s rich and abundant ecosystems, related biodiversity, cultures and traditions could occur if their influence is not checked.

Skinned porcupines at a local game market in Bertoua, 2016. Photo: Amindeh Blaise Atabong

“Approaches by corporate conservation organisations such as the World Wide Fund for Nature, Wildlife Conservation Society, the Zoological Society of London, the African Wildlife Foundation, etc,  are too scientific and colonial. They do not take into consideration the specificities of local people,” Ndobe told Africa in Fact. He noted that most of their approach often results in a hunting market, to the advantage of hunters from the West.

Colonialism turned many things upside down, according to Ndobe. Its influence touched everything. French colonialists in Cameroon, for example, forced traditional rulers to wear uniforms, abandoning their rainforest design attire and amulets. Urbanisation has also taken its toll on traditional best practices related to conservation. Cameroon has an urbanisation rate of 56% per cent, according to United Nations (UN) data; making it one of the most urbanised countries on the continent by sub- Saharan standards.

In absolute terms, more than half of the country’s 25 million people now live in urban areas, with the UN forecasting 70% by 2050. This rising rate of urbanisation involves significant challenges for humans. But the future for animals is bleak. As pressure increases on land for construction, agriculture and other economics activities, their natural habitats are destroyed. Also, over the years, state legislation intended to protect and manage wildlife has often failed to recognise and provide for local communities.

These influences are difficult to counter, says Ndobe, who does much of his work in the Kupe Muanenguba area. As an example, he cites the efforts of the Baka pygmies in the east of Cameroon to resist acculturation through voluntary isolation. “The modern conservation system doesn’t consider them. [The] pygmies are chased out of their natural habitats when government creates reserves or grants logging concessions,” Ndobe says. About 20 years ago, the government started  granting  logging concessions to mostly Chinese and European companies.

Many of Cameroon’s 75,000 hunter-gatherer pygmies were forced to leave the forests and found themselves living sedentary lifestyles by roadsides. The Baka pygmies in particular have protested against their eviction from ancestral forests, where they traditionally harvested wild fruits and hunted game for subsistence. Their survival, and the destruction of their culture, are at stake. In 2017, Survival International, a group campaigning for the rights of indigenous people, accused the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) of violating international guidelines in Cameroon by backing the creation of three national parks on Baka land without their consent.

The group said that the WWF had funded eco-guards who allegedly tortured and killed Baka pygmies with impunity in anti-poaching operations. The WWF, which has its headquarters in Switzerland, has denied the accusations, but the Swiss government has said it will look into the issue. Experts highlight other factors that hamper the survival of traditional conservation systems. These include paradigm shifts in lifestyles and attitudes, poor transmission of cultural knowledge to younger generations, the decline of traditional institutions and the rise of individualism, among others.

Dead pythons on display at a local game market in Bertoua, 2016. The snakes are harvested from protected areas across the forest east region of Cameroon, part of the species-rich Congo Basin Photo: Amindeh Blaise Atabong

Yet experts and civil society activists agree that integrating cultural norms and taboo – which are rooted in traditional belief systems – into forestry and wildlife laws and conservation programmes could help to galvanise locals into conserving natural resources, thereby contributing to resourceful nation building. With regard to conservation, traditional belief systems ought to be incorporated into law enforcement mechanisms, they say.

“If this is done, it will encourage the spirit of stakeholders (local people), recognise and promote a sense of ownership and belonging,” says Dr Nkwatoh A Fuashi, Senior Environment and Natural   Management Adviser for the Environment and Community Development Association (ECoDAs) and a lecturer in the Department of Environmental Science, University of Buea, an advocate of incorporating traditional belief systems in conservation laws in Africa. “This has been neglected by the international conventions that are the genesis of our present national laws on the conservation of resources.”

This may be particularly true of the Congo Basin, where some traditional practices do survive. In Nigeria’s Gashaka-Gunti National Park, primates are “naturally protected”, Fuashi says, because members of the local community view them as part of the human species, so that killing them would be similar to killing a human. Practices such as this should be incorporated into conservation mechanisms, he argues.

Though efforts have previously been made to get local communities involved in conservation programmes, they have largely been informed by economic motives, frequently under outsider direction. Moreover, Asian demand for certain species, such as pangolins and rhinoceros, facilitated by widespread corruption, has fuelled poaching. Communities take steps to prevent such species extinctions when they attach cultural significance to them, according to Dr Marius Talla, an expert in governance and anti-corruption at consultancy firm Cabinet Mamy Raboana.

“If [wildlife extinction] happened, their customs, and therefore their lives, would be over. We saw it with the pygmies of east Cameroon,” Talla says. Talla believes there will be better conservation results if traditional conservation best practices are made law and there is effective reduction of corruption in the chain of suppression of wildlife offences. “All other measures will only be complementary,” he says.

In 2015, custodians of traditions from six African countries, including Cameroon, jointly petitioned the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to give legal recognition to  sacred natural sites and territories and their associated customary governance systems. In their joint statement, they asked the Commission to encourage member countries to observe the ideals of  its  charter  –  “giving   precedence  to indigenous African culture and customary governance systems over the colonial systems that dominated the continent for so long.”

In practice, however, these processes must be negotiated at regional and country levels, and  can  therefore  take a long time, says Ndobe. Hope, and continued advocacy of the approach, are essential.

 

Amindeh Blaise Atabong is a Cameroonian print and multimedia journalist. His interests include gender, human rights, climate change, environment, tech, conflict, peace-building and global development. In 2019, he was a finalist in the inaugural True Story Award, and also won a prestigious Kurt Schork Award in International Journalism (local category). He works for independent regional and international outlets, including for Quartz, Thompson Reuters Foundation News, Deutsche Presse-Agentur, Jeune Afrique, Epoch Times, African Arguments and Equal Times.

When COVID-19 sways cash-strapped Cameroon into debt relief

Prior to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Cameroon, an oil exporter with a bloated bureaucracy, was still reeling from the 2014-2016 oil price collapse – one of the most significant oil price slumps in modern times.

The country had also increased security spending countering Boko Haram incursions in the north since 2014, while battling to quell an armed secessionist struggle in its English-speaking regions since 2017. The economic shock and insecurity were already a burden, but were compounded by necessary increases in humanitarian spending. Then, the coronavirus struck.

The economic shock and insecurity were already a burden, but were compounded by necessary increases in humanitarian spending. Then, the coronavirus struck.

In five months, following the outbreak of the coronavirus in Cameroon on 6 March, 2020, the government has spent slightly over 21.9 billion francs CFA (circa $54.1 million) in its response to the pandemic, according to a report on reliefweb on 29 July, 2020.

The money was used to construct isolation units, finance communication campaigns, purchase PPEs, rapid diagnostic kits and drugs for the management of patients, provide resources for the free treatment and management of patients, amongst others. The government would continue to spend “along these budget lines” while the virus pandemic continued.

The government has spent slightly over 21.9 billion francs CFA (circa $54.1 million) in its response to the pandemic.

As mentioned, the government was incurring this unforeseen expenditure at a time state revenue was shrinking. Now, the closure of borders and the introduction of restrictions on movement and other measures to slow down the spread of the coronavirus has meant a reduction in customs and tax revenues – two important income streams. In a 7 May interview with the state-owned Cameroon Tribune newspaper, Director General of Taxation Modeste Mopa Fatoing said it was certain the health crisis would mean the loss of a projected 2,103 billion francs CFA (circa $3.8 billion) in taxes this year.

Taxes are a prime source of revenue for the government and were projected to cover half of the 2020 state budget. By May, Cameroon had lost 22 billion francs CFA ($39.7 million) in projected customs duty and 92 billion francs CFA ($166 million) in tax revenue due to tax relief granted by the state to economic operators.

In the midst of the ravaging coronavirus, the World Bank’s Development Committee and the G20 finance ministers rolled out a Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI) to help the governments of some of the world’s poor countries to free up financial resources they could use to respond to Covid-19. Cameroon was one of the countries that indicated it had a problem simultaneously managing its debt burden and the unprecedented health crisis. It applied for the debt relief, which has helped it mobilise 0.5% of GDP in DSSI savings.

Taxes are a prime source of revenue for the government and were projected to cover half of the 2020 state budget.

According to Misheck Mutize, a post-doctoral researcher at the Graduate School of Business, University of Cape Town, participating in the debt suspension comes at a cost. In a 28 july article in The Conversation, he argued that such countries could be viewed as defaulting, which might result in an investment rating downgrade. “A rating downgrade would erode the benefits accrued from the debt relief as countries would have to pay more interest on the same volume of debt,” Misheck posited.

Fiscal deficits caused by the need of governments to respond to the coronavirus have been a global phenomenon, according to Prof. Kelly Mua Kingsley, a Harvard-trained expert in financial engineering. He told Africa in Fact that the situation made it difficult for many countries, including Cameroon, to keep up with both internal and external debts.

“It was obvious for Cameroon to seek the debt relief in order to keep the economy going,” Kingsley said. Cameroon and other eligible countries have different options in negotiating their debt relief, varying from full cancellation of debt to rescheduling datelines for debt servicing, with or without additional interest paid, among others, according to Kingsley.

Participating in the debt suspension comes at a cost.

Despite the risk, Cameroon decided to take debt relief. And for the time being, it hasn’t suffered any ratings downgrade.

On 7 August, 2020, rating agency Moody’s confirmed Cameroon’s B2 (stable) rating, but expressed concerns that the country’s ongoing participation in the DSSI posed risks to private creditors. The rating agency said it would reflect any related changes in risk should the probability of losses to private sector creditors increase and become clearer.

“The stable outlook reflects Moody’s view that the pressures the sovereign faces in the wake of the coronavirus shock, and prospects for its credit metrics in general, are likely to remain consistent with the current rating level, given Cameroon’s comparatively more diversified economy relative to neighbours, the anticipated renewal of the IMF programme providing a backstop, and Cameroon’s membership of the Central African Economic and Monetary Union (CEMAC) attenuating external vulnerability risks,” Moody’s highlighted.

On 7 August, 2020, rating agency Moody’s confirmed Cameroon’s B2 (stable) rating.

While the government is said to be working on a comprehensive global response plan, a government official, who requested anonymity because he wasn’t mandated to talk to the press, said the government is also counting on response measures by the African Development Bank (AfDB), Central African Economic and Monetary Community (CEMAC), and other bodies.

The AfDB’s continent-wide approach is to provide monetary envelopes to fast-track budget support to ensure that countries are able to fund their response measures. It seeks to sustain growth, strengthen economic and financial governance, support policy and institutional reforms, mitigate the adverse impact of shocks, and contribute to the recovery, state building and arrears clearance in fragile states.

For its part, CEMAC’s Economic and Financial Reform Programme, which has been running since 2016, plans to “leverage industrialisation and economic diversification” for  post-Covid-19 recovery in the sub-region. This follows the desire of the six heads of state of the membership-based CEMAC to have a common destiny for the sub-region.

“There is light at the end of the tunnel,” the government official said.

“There is light at the end of the tunnel,” the government official said.

With the coronavirus showing signs of lingering in Cameroon, people are beginning to integrate the virus into their way of life. More than five months into the pandemic, things have largely gone back to business as usual.

But other than applying for debt relief, the government does seem to have learned lessons from the pandemic. Cameroon is a country prone to floods, while climate change, with rising temperatures, is seriously threatening public health, agriculture and livestock production. These threats are well-known, and could significantly alter Cameroon’s growth prospects.

The country also suffers institutional challenges, corruption and public financial management key weaknesses, according to Worldwide Governance Indicators. Moreover, its internal stability is remains affected by the ongoing sectarian struggle in the north and a separatist conflict in the south-west, with continuing violence. Press freedom is also under attack. Clearly, the government is also returning to “business as usual”.

 

We’d love to hear from you! Join The Wicked Conversation by leaving your comments below, or send your letter to the editor to richard@gga.org.

 

Amindeh Blaise Atabong is a Cameroonian freelance journalist. His interests include gender, human rights, climate change, environment, tech, conflict, peace-building and global development. In 2019, he was a finalist in the inaugural True Story Award, and also won a prestigious Kurt Schork Award in International Journalism.  His works have been published by independent regional and international outlets, including Quartz, Mail & Guardian, Reuters, Jeune Afrique, Epoch Times, African Arguments and Equal Times. 

Cameroon: Covid-19 worsens pre-existing vulnerabilities for some

Even before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, persons living with disabilities in Cameroon had a peculiar problem – they lacked adequate social support and service delivery. Then, the coronavirus emerged and compounded pre-existing vulnerabilities for them.

There are about three million people, out of 26.5 million, living with various forms of disabilities in Cameroon, according to the Club for Young Rehabilitated Blind People (Club des Jeunes Aveugles Rehabilités du Cameroun- CJARC). The most common forms of disabilities are orthopaedic problems, infectious diseases and neurological disabilities. A 2017 study found out that the principal causes of disability were trauma due to traffic accidents and inappropriate medical interventions. These could partly be attributed to poor government policies over the years, as well as family neglect.

There are about three million people, out of 26.5 million, living with various forms of disabilities in Cameroon.

Yet given the economic hardship orchestrated by the pandemic, and less-than-adequate government social support for the poor, life has become especially difficult for many persons living with disabilities. There appears to be little or no provision of appropriate information to keep them safe from the deadly virus.

After Cameroon recorded its first confirmed case of the coronavirus on 6 March 2020, the government issued a set of guidelines. It made the wearing of masks in public mandatory, limited the number of people in gatherings to 50, employed physical distancing, reduced the number of people in a bus or taxi per time, and ordered bars, restaurants and other leisure spots to stop operations by 6pm, among other measures. But these regulations aimed at influencing social interactions to limit the spread of the virus have yet to be properly communicated to persons living with disabilities.

There appears to be little or no provision of appropriate information to keep them safe from the deadly virus.

SisterSpeak237, a local civil society organisation which seeks to represent the voices of women and minority groups in Cameroon, has chronicled complaints of neglect experienced by persons with disabilities during this pandemic. Many people around the country are donating Covid-19 care packs, including buckets, soaps, and food items, according to Comfort Mussa, founder and executive director of SisterSpeak237. But in many cases, people donate what they think is needed, and it often seems that what is most important to them is to be seen donating, she says.

Moreover, the resources appropriate to helping people with disabilities are often very limited, says Mussa. The handwashing points established in public places and even in some of government hospitals are not accessible to most people on wheelchairs or to those using crutches. And disabled people often also need exemption from some pandemic-related restrictions, such as the requirement of physical distancing, since they need caregivers.

The handwashing points established in public places and even in some of government hospitals are not accessible to most people on wheelchairs or to those using crutches.

The government, through the various ministerial departments and agencies does send out communications and announcements about intervention and prevention measures.

On 30 April, Prime Minister Joseph Dion Ngute announced some measures to address the impact of the coronavirus on households. These included: an increase in family allowance from XAF 2,800 to XAF 4,500; a raise of 20% for pensions that did not benefit from a 2016 reform; continued payment of family allowances from May to July to staff of companies which are unable to pay social security contributions or which have placed their staff on technical leave due to the crisis;  spreading citizens’ payments of social security contributions for the second quarter over three instalments; and canceling late fees for payment of social security contributions.

The government has asked citizens to observe physical distancing, mandatorily wear face masks in public and frequently wash or sanitise their hands, amongst other measures to contain the spread of the virus. But these preventive measures have largely been ignored, as there is a lack of public trust in the state. It is also often difficult for people to respect these restrictive measures when their priority is simply survival.

Preventive measures have largely been ignored, as there is a lack of public trust in the state.

But these communications do not reach everybody, Mussa told Africa in Fact. Most of the materials are in print format, excluding blind people who can only read braille. “There are also major announcements on TV, but often with no sign language. This excludes people with hearing and speech challenges,” Mussa said. Sign language interpretation is provided on national TV, but it is only in French, which sidelines English-language speakers. The country is officially bilingual.

“People like us [hearing- or speech-impaired] are confused about what is happening. Preventive measures are not communicated to us [using adapted tools],” Njei Nelly Anne told NewsWatch newspaper based in the capital Yaounde, through a sign language interpreter.

The government’s interventions aimed at supporting the economy are limited to the 10% of the population which has employment in the formal sector. The 90% in the informal sector has been left without any relief. Unlike Rwanda and Tunisia, which have offered relief packages to their most vulnerable, Cameroon has yet to do so. However, the government has said it will work out a comprehensive global response plan with additional measures to alleviate the socio-economic impact on affected firms and households. But since April, the said plan is still being awaited.

Most of the materials are in print format, excluding blind people who can only read braille. “There are also major announcements on TV, but often with no sign language. This excludes people with hearing and speech challenges,” Mussa said.

Meanwhile, the three million Cameroonians with disabilities are left without information, or measures to alleviate their plight. The UN points out that persons with disabilities generally have more healthcare needs than others and are therefore more vulnerable to the impacts of low quality or inaccessible healthcare services than others. The world body says this applies to both their “standard needs” and “needs linked to impairments”, which presumably means that they suffer disadvantage both with regard to their ordinary needs, such as access to food, housing and education, and with regard to their special needs, such as special access facilities and appropriate means of communication.

As it is, Cameroon’s response to the social conditions of the general populace has been wanting in significance and impact.

The 90% in the informal sector has been left without any relief.

Since the response was made, the spread of the virus has been consistently on the rise. By 28 July 2020, Cameroon had 17,110 confirmed coronavirus cases, with close to 400 deaths. This accounts for about 2% of cases in Africa, according to a report published on 27 July 2020 by EXX Africa. This trend is likely due to the easing of restrictions, which have given people a false sense of security.

Yet the country’s approach to dealing with the fairly large sector of the population who have special needs has been even worse. The UN has called on governments to ensure the rights of disabled people through a range of measures, including strengthening healthcare policy, providing appropriate access to healthcare facilities for the disabled, improving funding and training healthcare staff. But so far, the government has yet to extend any special social assistance to this special group of people.

 

We’d love to hear from you! Join The Wicked Conversation by leaving your comments below, or send your letter to the editor to richard@gga.org.

 

Amindeh Blaise Atabong is a Cameroonian freelance journalist. His interests include gender, human rights, climate change, environment, tech, conflict, peace-building and global development. In 2019, he was a finalist in the inaugural True Story Award, and also won a prestigious Kurt Schork Award in International Journalism.  His works have been published by independent regional and international outlets, including Quartz, Mail & Guardian, Reuters, Jeune Afrique, Epoch Times, African Arguments and Equal Times. 

COVID-19: Cameroon adopts 3T strategy but emergency fund remains cloudy

Cameroon is one of the most badly hit countries by the coronavirus in Sub-Saharan Africa. By 11 July, the country had recorded 15,173 cases, emerging with about half of the total number of cases in the central African sub-region.

In a bid to flatten the curve of contagion following the country’s first recorded case on 6 March, the government of Cameroon put in place a strategy dubbed 3T: Track, Test, Treat. It set three strategic priorities: stop, or at least control community transmission; check morbidity and mortality, in particular for health personnel; and reduce the impact of the virus on the country’s health system.

Cameroon is one of the most badly hit countries by the coronavirus in Sub-Saharan Africa.

On 24 June, the Ministry of Public Health announced that some 10,100 out of 12,592 confirmed cases of the coronavirus had recovered. It also said it had carried out about 80,000 tests, surpassing a 50,000 target.

On 2 July, the Minister of Public Health, Dr Manaouda Malachie announced that specialised treatment centres following a standard plan would be constructed in all ten regions of the country. The aim, he said, was to strengthen Cameroon’s health system even beyond the pandemic. The centres will be added to a complement of already functional treatment centres for Covid-19, such as those set up at the Yaounde Military Stadium and ORCA Yaounde.

Like other African countries known to be notoriously poorly equipped, Cameroon’s health system was not prepared to handle a pandemic of the magnitude of the coronavirus. A Reuters survey found out that there is an average of less than one intensive care bed and one ventilator per 100,000 people in Africa, unlike 20 to 31 intensive care beds per 100,000 people in the United States. In Cameroon, the Reuters survey shows that there were just 40 ventilators in the country by 7 May, while, according to estimates by the London Imperial College, 2,422 might be needed at the peak of the pandemic which was projected to be reached around mid-June.

Dr Manaouda Malachie announced that specialised treatment centres following a standard plan would be constructed in all ten regions of the country.

To make coronavirus testing and treatment accessible to all Cameroonians, the government has made it free. However, some unscrupulous health personnel and structures have been reportedly charging vulnerable patients. This prompted the Minister of Public Health to put in place a commission, comprising officials of the Ministry of Public Health and the General Delegation for National Security, to investigate corruption in relation to the campaign against the virus.

The country is also in short supply of health personnel such as doctors, critical care nurses, anaesthesiologists and biotechnicians. For instance, Cameroon has less than one physician per 10,000 population. Recently, President Paul Biya signed a decree increasing the retirement age of civil servants of the public health corps to 60 years for categories ‘A’ and ‘B’ (senior), and 55 years for categories ‘C’ and ‘D’ (junior). The aim is to retain their skills, given the shortages of younger staff (themselves due to poor policy and implementation in the long term). Experienced staff are apparently happy to return to work. Serving longer will mean having more time to earn a public service salary before retirement.

To make coronavirus testing and treatment accessible to all Cameroonians, the government has made it free.

In a separate decree, and for the same reason, the Prime Minister Chief Dr Joseph Dion Ngute also increased by five years the retirement age of state medical and paramedical personnel governed by the Labour Code.

In addition, organisations such as the World Health Organisation and the Jack Ma Foundation have been reaching out to Cameroon with material assistance. The country’s health system received 183 oxygen concentrators, which Minister Manaouda said had been dispatched to various health facilities for the care of coronavirus patients and others suffering from respiratory illnesses. However, he did not make public the country’s current capacity to treat the virus.

To help see it through such periods of distress, Cameroon has the long-established Health Solidarity Fund, an emergency fund intended to “provide surge support during health emergencies”. Under a 1993 law, public primary healthcare establishments are compelled to deposit 10% of their monthly revenue into the Health Solidarity Fund (HSF). Hospitals are supposedly exempt, but medical staff say that they too pay into the fund, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Prime Minister Chief Dr Joseph Dion Ngute also increased by five years the retirement age of state medical and paramedical personnel.

But the global human rights watchdog says that too little information is available on the fund’s revenues, disbursement and management.

A medical doctor in the public service, who preferred anonymity, told Africa in Fact that most health facilities have for a long time been making payments into a fund that “is a big sham.” Outside commentators share his view. “Cameroon is the Central African country with the highest number of confirmed Covid-19 cases, yet the government appears not to have disbursed funds from a reserve that healthcare facilities have been paying into exactly for emergencies like this one,” wrote Lewis Mudge, Central Africa Director at HRW, in a 12 June article.

The sudden onset of the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed Cameroon’s glaring lack of resources adequate to respond such a crisis. On 31 March 2020, it launched a Coronavirus Response Special National Solidarity Fund to raise funds from public donation to treat and contain the virus. The minister of public health said about XAF 3.5 billion (about $6 million) had been raised by 14 May, 2020, according to a Business in Cameroon report.

The sudden onset of the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed Cameroon’s glaring lack of resources adequate to respond such a crisis.

Yet medical staff in the country say they have no information about disbursements from the HSF, the already existing fund, according to HRW. Healthcare workers report shortages in thermometers, disinfectants, medicines, ventilators, oxygen and protective gear for doctors and nurses. The human rights organisation says that WHO had declared Covid-19 a pandemic and that this should have been reason to “trigger disbursements”.

The question is why such a new fund is necessary, given that one already exists, and was established more than 25 years ago. This is probably a matter of corruption. Another question is why a new body has been set up to investigate corruption. The answer might be found in the fact that President Paul Biya’s administration has long been accused of using anti-corruption bodies to crack down on political opponents  and this new commission appears to be little different.

 

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Amindeh Blaise Atabong is a Cameroonian freelance journalist. His interests include gender, human rights, climate change, environment, tech, conflict, peace-building and global development. In 2019, he was a finalist in the inaugural True Story Award, and also won a prestigious Kurt Schork Award in International Journalism.  His works have been published by independent regional and international outlets, including Quartz, Mail & Guardian, Reuters, Jeune Afrique, Epoch Times, African Arguments and Equal Times.