Cameroon's acute unemployment 'a ticking time bomb'

Cameroon's President Paul Biya is juggling electoral needs with a crunching unemployment problem. PHOTO | AFP  

Cameroon has a population of 19.8 million, according to the last census whose preliminary results were released last year. Of this number, about 13 million people are employable; 13 million Cameroonians with skills that would earn them employment.

But from figure, less than one million are actually employed now, leaving close to 12 million jobless Cameroonians. These figures were in April this year updated, based on a 2009 survey by Cameroon’s National Institute of Statistics (NIS).

Thus, it was with euphoria that millions of young Cameroonian university graduates received the announcement by President Paul Biya on February 10, 2011-- the eve of the National Youth Day-- that the government would absorb 25,000 school leavers into the public service this year. By the time the April 14 application deadline arrived, 350,000 school leavers had applied.

Ever since, a series of worrying declarations by government functionaries and members of an economic review delegation from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have been raising a lot of doubts in the minds of the applicants as to the validity of the mass recruitment exercise.

Taunted from the outset by pundits as a political gimmick intended to allay the frayed nerves of a heavily unemployed youth population this election year, Biya’s mass recruitment scheme seems to be living up to the name it was given on its announcement by the opposition– “the big employment fraud”.

Bloated civil service

With a rather bloated civil service of over 200,000, Cameroon’s public treasury coughs out about 40 billion CFA Francs ($80 million) monthly to pay public service workers. This is at a time when revenue has witnessed a debilitating drop to the extent that last year’s budget of 2,570 billion FCFA ($6 billion) was slashed by 50 billion ($109 million) before the end of the fiscal year due to diminishing income.

A graduate challenge

The 2011 budget witnessed a 0.04 per cent increase to 2,571 billion FCFA ($6 billion) and even the government’s most ardent supporters agree this figure would not be met. Even before President Biya’s announcement of the new recruitment, the Minister of Finance, Essimi Menye had been bemoaning the headache government encounters every month in raising the money to pay salaries.

And only last month, a visiting World Bank/IMF economic review delegation expressed doubts as to whether the government would be able to generate enough funds to meet up with the monthly salary bill of the new recruits into the public service. Since then, the government has been “pussyfootingly” retracting the initial announcement of employing the 25,000.

Only last week, the Minister of Public Service and Administrative Reforms Emmanuel Bonde announced that instead of the “mass recruitment” as announced by President Biya in February, government would “recruit gradually” until the 25,000 mark is attained.

Financial squeeze

Several suggestions have been making their rounds as to how government could solve the financial squeeze resulting from mounting monthly salary obligations. As at the end of April, about 30 per cent of the public service work force was due for retirement. Some have been due for retirement for the past ten years but continue to work due to under-the-table arrangements with Ministry of Public Service operatives.

When current prime minister Philemon Yang took over from former PM Inoni Ephraim in 2009, he gave all ministers six months to make sure all civil servants due for retirement in their ministerial departments are effectively retired. About two years later, very little action has been taken and the prime minister, in a lame-duck situation as an Anglophone, has no clout to ensure he is obeyed.

The main suggestion now is that the president signs an ordinance for the mandatory retirement of all those due for retirement in order to make way for the new recruits. That could be a good idea. However, doing so would create more problems than it would solve for both President Paul Biya and his ruling Cameroon Peoples Democratic Movement (CPDM) party this election year as well as for the public treasury.

In fact, pushing those due retirement out of the public service would increase, rather than reduce the volume of money paid out monthly by way of remuneration for services. How can this be? The truth is that in 1993, faced with a debilitating economic crisis, the Cameroonian government was forced to slash down civil services wages by about 70 per cent in some cases in order to reduce the monthly salary package.

Strangely

In doing so, government as usual did not take time to review the retirement law to meet up with the new requirement. It should be noted that Cameroonian retirees receive pensions calculated according to the number of years they served their country. The law provides that if one served and retired after the mandatory thirty years, his pension is calculated at 30 years multiplied by two which amounts to 60 per cent of her/his monthly salary before he/she went on retirement.

A cash crunch

Strangely enough, the calculations are done, based on the 1993 salary scales because the courts had ruled that the drastic wage reductions were not within the ambit of the law. Thus, someone today earning about 30 per cent of what he used to earn in 1993 finds himself/herself earning 60 per cent of what he/she used to earn before the 1993 salary cut-down. And this could be more than double his/her salary before retirement.

So, instead of massive retirements helping to cut down the monthly salary package, they on the contrary would create a deeper hole the public treasury would find difficult to fill. “If one takes into consideration all the political and financial implications of the ‘mass recruitment drive’, one would hardly find any advantages for Biya the politician especially this being an election year”, said a professor of government in the prestigious National School of Administration and Magistracy and who sought anonymity.

Fear decision

"The mass recruitment decision was taken in a panic borne out of the fear of the spread of the Jasmine revolution in Tunisia that has since been spreading to other North African countries and would surely head down South sooner than later," said another university lecturer.

Mr Nzo-Nguty, an educational psychologist chimed in: “The decision was taken with every intention not to implement it because its implementation would spell disaster for Biya in this election year”.

Imagining for once that the decision was taken in good faith and that government intends to implement it, how would they go about it? What would be the main preoccupations and priorities behind the minds of those charged with executing the decision?

Would priority be given to demographic, regional and political considerations or would it be given to merit? Whatever criteria those executing the decision would choose in deciding on who to recruit, one can only see a ticking time-bomb waiting to explode after all is said and done.

With ten regions and 250 tribes and a corresponding number of languages, every Cameroonian would be waiting anxiously to count and see how many of his/her kith and kin would be given places in the public service.

And this would be a campaign topic as those tribal/cultural groups which would find their interests not properly represented in the recruitment lists would not fail to punish Biya and his party at the polls.

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