Putting Cameroon and Senegal in balanceBy BISONG ETAHOBEN in Dakar | Tuesday, April 17 2012 at 16:07
Before you arrive in Senegal for your first ever visit like I did last Saturday, I did not place it that high on my scale of African countries striding to Second World status.
The country has a comfortable place on democracy though – and soccer. But there is more.
From the air approaching the Leopold S. Senghor airport in Dakar, the scenery that gloriously marries the coastline to the well-planned streets and architecture conjure images of an African New York, or a Miami.
The beauty of Senegal surprises, and so does the enthusiasm and dynamism Senegalese display in their struggle to develop their country, with little or no natural resources.
Senegal has just changed its leadership as it has always done, being one of those rare African countries to continue to maintain peace while it fulfils one of the essentials of democracy: change through the ballot box.
The atmosphere in the country reminds me of 1982 when Cameroon for the first time after 22 years of independence got a new leader after Ahmadou Ahidjo handed over power to his hand-picked successor Paul Biya. Oh, what great hopes we had in Biya when he inaugurated his rule with the slogan “Rigour and Moralisation”!
The slogan has since been dumped.
But to hear the Senegalese talk, Abdoulaye Wade did no good. And this was a president who got 35 per cent of the vote in the recent run-off election. Yet it is hard to meet a single person who talks good about him.
From the taxi man at the airport to the hotel attendants you speak to, everyone thinks Wade ripped the nation off.
“He was elected president in 2000 and took over with almost US$600 million in state coffers left behind by Abdou Diouf. He left the country virtually bankrupt with not a dollar in the national treasury”, a hotel assistant shouted at me.
“But I can see development all over the place. The roads, the infrastructure, the new buildings pushing up from the ground, vibrant streets which are an indication of the resilience of the people and the economy”, I told the man.
“Yes”, he replied “but all the development you see has come at a stiff price to the Senegalese tax payer. What has been realised with what was budgeted could have provided us with more than ten times what we got for the money.”
He further claimed that most of the private buildings pushing up like mushrooms all over the place belong to the Wade clan and coterie. Maybe, but he gave no evidence for that.
How nice to see a people concerned with how their tax money is spent, I told myself. If only this man knew what we in Cameroon have been enduring for the 30 years since Paul Biya has been in power!
In Senegal, one can at least see what has been done with the tax payers’ money. In Cameroon, most of the budget allocations are difficult to trace afterwards.
For several years, money was allocated in the national budget for the maintenance of a road to my village that never existed. Government had earlier made provisions for the construction of the hypothetical road to my village and the contract was duly awarded. Papers were signed to show the project was done.
No wonder, until recently (owing to donor pressure), information on the national budget was a state secret.
While my people had to trek through footpaths carrying their luggage on their heads for about ten years after money had been allocated to construct a road for them, some people had apparently looted the cash.
It is thanks only to timber exploiters that my village today have what passes for a 'motorable' road. When I inquired how Senegal has been able to lift herself up, I was told it was all because of the efforts of her people.
Unlike with Cameroon with her oil and timber, Senegal has few natural resources.
Senegalese are globetrotters and wherever they are, they always think of how they can borrow from the experiences of their host countries and people in order to develop their country. Most of them in foreign lands live in shanty towns and save every dollar they make to send home for the development of their nation.
“They have achieved all what you see here from the sweat of their brow”, a local colleague told me. How I wish Cameroonians borrowed a leaf from their Senegalese counterparts!
A recent report by an international audit firm discovered that Cameroon loses over $500 million annually through theft of proceeds from petroleum.
Last year, the boss of the telecommunications regulatory agency granted a concession to mobile telephone companies to arbitrarily increase calling charges for what an outraged public believed was inducement.
In that rare case, When the deal imploded, the man was sacked by the government – a rare case indeed.
Being in Dakar also gave me the opportunity to visit the grave of Cameroon’s first president Ahmadou Ahidjo. I felt bad when I was told the space left at the back on the Ahidjo grave was reserved for the burial of his wife Germaine who has not been allowed to return to her motherland since her husband died.
She now carries a Senegalese passport and when her mother died, the Cameroon government refused her a visa to attend the burial. He daughter was allowed entry into Cameroon as a foreigner to bury her grandmother.
The Biya government has refused to repatriate the remains of the nation’s first president for a befitting burial. And come to think of it, he handed over power to Biya whom he personally hand-picked without an election. Nice way to pay the master for his generosity.
When Cameroon’s national football team, the Indomitable Lions, came to Senegal to play against the Teranga Lions last year, the then Minister of Sports and Physical Education Michel Zoa almost jumped out of his skin when the national team players decided they must visit the grave of their first president.
Against his protestations, the Lions drove straight to the grave from the airport, leaving Zoa hanging around far away from the scene.
I have always asked myself what the Biya regime fears from a dead man. Could one be that frightened of going near the remains of someone who did so much for you but whom you helped send to an early grave?
From what I have seen so far about Senegal, I have the impression the country is developing rapidly because of its hospitality towards foreigners and foreign investors. I was surprised when I was shown the housing estate of the late President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire. Though the money used in constructing the houses might have been stolen, the buildings add the extra shine to the Senegalese capital.
One very sorrowful story I gathered here in Dakar is that concerning the country’s first president Leopold Sedar Senghor. I was shown the only house he built in the country which has been bought by government and turned into a museum because Senghor had nobody on hand to inherit the property.
His only son died in a motor accident. His wife is French and has since returned to live in France. Senghor’s family in Senegal is virtually extinct so government had to buy the house from Mrs Senghor since it had remained unoccupied for years after the poet-president died.
I marvelled at the giant monument Wade was accused of having wasted so much money to build. Honestly, I think it was worth the stiff price. It now constitutes an imposing part of the beautiful capital. I intend to climb up to its foot though my nephew who lives and works in Dakar fears my old legs may not carry me to the top. But I intend to.
So many rumours abound about the mismanagement of the national wealth by the Wade regime. The newly-elected President Macky Sall still lives in his personal house not far away from the hotel I have been lodging in. Rumour has it that Wade and his entourage carried almost everything away from the presidential residence and that the new president would have to bring in his own furniture if he intends to move to the residence. He has chosen to wait.
“Maky Sall needs about $400 million to start running the country right now because Wade took away all the money that was in the Treasury. He is not in a hurry re-equipping the presidential residence so he stays in his personal house for now”, a hotel guide confides.
I don’t know whether that is the truth.
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