Cameroon’s Covidgate: Paul Biya’s Untouchable Ministers Plunder Billions, Transform Covid-19 Mitigation Efforts into Cash Cow

Twenty-three government ministries received a total of 128.2 billion CFA F or 71% of the 180 billion CFA F Special National Solidarity Fund for the Fight against Covid-19. A significant chunk of the money came from the International Monetary Fund. Other donors included the European Union, the World Bank, the French Development Agency, the World Partnership for Education as well as the Cameroon government.

Then suspicions of embezzlement set in. Human Rights Watch started asking for accountability, and local actors, such as opposition Member of Parliament, Jean Michelle Nintcheu of the Social Democratic Front (SDF) waded in, calling for an investigation.

In the face of mounting pressure, President Paul Biya instructed the Justice Ministry to investigate.

The results of that investigation have been mind-boggling.

The 32-page report by the Audit Bench of the Supreme Court that got to the public domain on May 20 reveals disturbing facts about the way the Covid-19 funds were managed.

The suspected perpetrators used all forms of subterfuge to siphon the money.

Malachie Manaouda, Minister of Public Health who masterminded the embezzlement ring (C) Business in Cameroon

Just a couple of examples will suffice to illustrate the scale of the corruption. Personal Protective Equipment for instance was supposed to be purchased for about 2.9 billion CFA F. Instead, 23 billion CFA F was finally spent on what the auditors said was a gross case of over-billing.

The report frowned at the lack of transparency in the award of contracts, with some attributed to companies with no track record of performance, others awarded to ghost companies.

Then there is the case of contracts that were attributed but not registered: these amounted to 75 million CFA F. The same thing goes for the 75 million CFA F set aside to enforce preventive measures. By December 20, 2020, more than 300 million CFA F had already been attributed to enhance preventive measures, surpassing the initial budget by 225 million CFA F.

Accent Media Group won that contract.

Yao Pharm Company ended up winning the contract for the purchase of eight medicalized ambulances, even though the said company was not one of the companies considered for the contract.

Even renovation works on some low-cost houses that had to be upgraded to welcome Covid-19 patients became subject to suspected corruption. Instead of 11 centers, only seven were upgraded, for 134 million CFA F.

The audit Bench of the Supreme Court has described the contracts so awarded as “fictitious.”

“The conditions under which the special contracts were awarded remain unknown to the Audit Bench of the Supreme Court, which reflects a certain opacity in the award of contracts, and which affected most of the contracts,” the report states.

Madeleine Tchuente, Minister of Scientific Research and Innovation who repackaged drugs from India (C) Panorama papers

And then there is the question of locally fabricating Chloroquine and azithromycin. Budgeted at 6.1 billion CFA F, the Ministry of Scientific Research and Innovation rather imported the drugs from India and repackaged them in Cameroon to give the impression they were fabricated locally.

The audit Bench accuses the ministries of Public Health and that of Scientific Research and Innovation of 30 management errors and recommends ten legal proceedings that could end up as criminal investigations.

 

Reactions

In the face of these disturbing facts, the Bishop of Buea in English-speaking Southern Cameroons has lashed out at such insensitivity.

“I really felt bad that within a period like this when most people, most governments are trying to look for ways and means of combating Covid-19, a virus that is killing and taking away the lives of many people, that people will still have the audacity to embezzle funds of this nature, that is meant for the common good, that is meant to save the lives of people,” said Mgr. Michael Bibi.

Mgr. Michael Bibi, Bishop of Buea, Capital of Southern Cameroons

Over 1,200 people have died and more than 77,000 infected in Cameroon, according to the CDC. Mgr. Bibi says it is utterly wicked for people to steal money meant for health care delivery in the face of such statistics.

“To say the least, this is inhuman. It is not correct, and I think that the Cameroonian government should do proper investigation and the people who are responsible should be brought to justice. We cannot allow things like this to go ahead because it is not proper. Humanly speaking, it is bad,” he said.

His Grace, Michael Bibi says corruption thrives when there is little follow up to bring the culprits to justice.

He called for a conversion of hearts as the only way by which the gangrene can be flushed out of the country.

“Corruption is something that is common, and I think that we all have to fight against corruption; we all have to educate ourselves that whatever position we have in the Church, in the government, and if we have funds that are given to us for the common good, we should use it for the common good,” he told Timescape Magazine.

“We should not think about our individual benefits or what is going to benefit our family members and friends, we should think about the common good. For me, I think that is key, and my prayer and wish is that we should be converted from this attitude of corruption, because if we are not converted, the country will never develop, things will never move properly,” the Man of God concludes.

Mustapha Ngouana, legal adviser to the opposition Social Democratic Front wonders if Cameroon has been cursed.

“One can’t understand that money that is supposed to save lives; money for the dead so to speak, should be embezzled by people who have received everything from the country,” he said.

“All the principles that guide public contracts were violated: principles of equality of actors, of transparency, all principles were violated. And it’s hard to understand how contracts could be attributed to companies without any experience at all, and for exorbitant sums. There is a company created in 2017 that got a contract of 20 billion CFA F. It’s like a bicycle mechanic winning a contract to repair an aircraft. And it’s even more frustrating because some of the companies that won the contracts had links with those who awarded the contracts,” Mustapha laments.

Prof. Messanga Nyamnding, a staunch supporter of President Biya didn’t have kind words for the suspected thieves.

“This problem is more serious than anyone could imagine. In its about 50 years of independence, Cameroon has never known a period when practically all ministers stand accused,” he said.

Mustapha went even further to question the aptitude of President Biya, in power now for nearly forty years, to continue at the helm of the state.

“It calls to question the capacity of the Head of State to choose his collaborators. We can’t continue to exonerate the Head of State and blame his collaborators, because if you appoint one government, then two, five, ten, and even as many as thirty governments and each time we see the same problems, then that problem shouldn’t be coming from elsewhere: it is in the hands of the Head of State who chooses these people in the first place.”

To further bolster that argument, Mustapha questions why it must be the President’s Secretary General, Ferdinand Ngoh Ngoh to manage such huge projects.

“This guy managed sports infrastructure in preparation for the African Nations Cup, it was over a thousand billion CFA F, and he failed woefully. Why did Mr. Biya have to trust him again with Covid-19 funds?” he wonders.

“The problem really is with the President,” he concludes.

Covid-19 Prevention efforts in Cameroon (C) MSF

Some of the ministers, notably Madeline Tchuente of Scientific Research and Innovation and Manaouda Malachie of Public Health have already been questioned by lawyers of the Special Criminal Court. But some, notably Paul Atanga Nji of Territorial Administration, have refused to collaborate even with investigators of the Audit Bench.