CAMEROON: Suspicious students question President's bonus

A proposal by President Paul Biya to award nearly three billion FCFA (US$6.4 million) as 'bonuses for excellence' to the best students of Cameroon's seven state universities has divided students and academics and provoked accusations of corruption against university managements, according to a series of reports published in Le Messager of Douala.

Meanwhile, says the newspaper, problems such as lack of space to accommodate growing numbers of students continue to afflict the institutions.

Biya announced the bonus scheme "to improve the quality of human capital and most effectively meet the challenges of the future" during his traditional new year's address. But, observed Le Messager, while "for the flatterers, mandarins and other accomplices of the party-state, this gesture... deserves to be greeted wholeheartedly", the paper said that three weeks later the announcement still seemed to be dividing the student community, with many considering the decision wrongly targeted given the difficulties faced in the state universities.

One pressing problem was overcrowding, as more and more students enrolled each year. According to standards recommended by Unesco, two places for every two or three students should be provided but this was far from the case in several of Cameroon's state universities said Le Messager.

It quoted a report from the French embassy that there were some 150,000 students for about 48,000 places and 2,200 lecturers in the seven universities. This was equivalent to a ratio of one teacher for 63 students compared with one for 36 students in 2003-04.

Officials at the University of Douala told Le Messager it was not far off the Unesco standards, with 45,000 students currently enrolled for 15,000 places. There were also ambitious plans under way to increase capacity to meet the standards.

But dissenting university sources told the paper the director's projects were swallowing huge sums of money. The sources implied these were an obvious attempt to distract attention from a "fiddling of funds".

Other "management errors" made at state universities, said Le Messager, included "false and fanciful expenditure". A staff member at Douala University pointed to new cars for the directors of central services who already had two cars.

"They shut themselves away in meetings once or twice a week to work out ways of extracting some money from the coffers," the staff member said.

Support staff who were supposed to be paid in cash reported non-receipt of wages because those responsible for paying them used the money for "speculation and to practise usury with it".

The university personnel concerned denied the accusations to Le Messager.

University staff were not alone in describing corrupt practices. A delivery man who supplied produce to the university restaurant said he had "several million" owed to him and all attempts to get paid had failed.

"I thought I was the only one but many other suppliers have also complained. To get paid quickly you have to belong to their network... Where does the money go that the students contribute? Where do the state subsidies go?" Le Messager reported him saying.

Staff told the paper the excellence bonuses proposed by the President would serve no purpose if the system of financial management was not cleaned up. They said the 3 billion FCFA would end up in the pockets of the university directors or their protégés.

Le Messager also reported mixed reactions among students to the President's scheme.

Two students at Douala University gave opposing views. André, in favour, said the proposal was a "mark of esteem for Cameroonian students, and especially for the most deserving... It's to encourage those who are dragging their feet by urging them to work harder".

But Henri dismissed the bonus as a bluff. "To change things, they should restore the grants as they were before, even if they have to be reduced from 50,000 to 5,000 FCFA, that would at least show the political will of the public authorities to change things," Henri said.

"Solutions have to be found to students' problems, or university fees must be abolished. What the Head of State has done proves yet again that there is lots of money in the coffers that serves no purpose," he told Le Messager.

Teaching staff were also divided. One anonymous senior employee said that 45% of the student population came from poor families. "If the President has just given 10,000 or 15,000 FCFA to each deserving student, that's a good thing. We must welcome this will of the First Cameroonian to make our universities places of excellence."

But another staff member had a different view: "The state has deceived the young people of this country. Three billion, that's nothing. The state could bestow 10 times more. We must at all costs restore grants. That's what the Cameroonian students want.

"These three billion are not a solution for students' problems. The amount is totally insignificant for resolving our universities' problems. We mustn't hide the fact that President Paul Biya is in practice campaigning for the next presidential election."

The association for the defence of the rights of Cameroon students, Addec, declared itself against the President's decision, reported Le Messager.

On 15 January a mass of students and some teachers crowded into a lecture hall at the University of Yaoundé, with placards proclaiming: "Yes to abolition of university fees!", "Yes to restoration of grants!", and "Let the three billion be properly distributed!". Addec members wore their characteristic yellow robes, reported the paper.

It quoted Addec Vice-president André Benang as saying: "The bonus is great but it is not certain that in the conditions in which we are living - fraud, corruption, falsification of reports - it would be easy to recognise who really are the best students in Cameroon's universities...

"In overcrowded lecture halls without any sound system students try to gather knowledge in second-rate conditions to gain diplomas to maintain the illusion of intellectual success."

Many students believed that rather than improving living conditions for students, the bonus would serve to reward 'friends of the system', said Le Messager. Some thought the government was looking for students to recruit for the forthcoming presidential elections.

Le Messager reported students saying they had more need of new buildings "because we are stuffed into our overcrowded lecture halls. And we desperately need laboratories and good teachers".