Paul Biya and the Art of Confessing Political Sins. By Boh Herbert

Widespread killings, hostage takings and acts of terror by Boko Haram militants in the Far North Region and violence wrought by armed bandits and/or rebels on the border with the Central African Republic (CAR) may pose a growing security threat to Cameroon. However, no one expects Boko Haram to overrun Cameroon. That is why Cameroon’s stalling economy may be its most difficult short- and long-term problem. President Paul Biya admitted as much in his end-of-year address to the nation last night.

Mr. Biya was not this blunt, but Cameroon is sinking into a spiral of soaring defense, security and war spending. It is ripping out its wallet to foot a capital goods spending spree about which President Biya, in the speech last night, said he can do nothing.

No special gift is needed to know that the growing lists of non-concessional loans Cameroon is signing will jeopardize its debt sustainability. Failure to industrialize and an appetite for importing even things we can produce are some of the “bad habits” Mr. Biya blames for widening Cameroon’s balance of payments deficit. Wasteful administrative spending; poor execution of investment budgets; and a deepening recession linked to stalling growth, a significant dip in oil prices, an over-reliance on a few commodity exports and a failure to launch certain promising projects have left Cameroon’s economy headed south.

This explains why Yaounde – almost in secret – adopted and is rolling out a three-year “Emergency (recovery or rescue) Plan” targeting, in Mr. Biya’s words, to “jumpstart our growth”. GDP growth has been robust of recent, but with no increases in per capita incomes. In short, Cameroon has such a tall economic problem that a bail-out program worth CFAF 1,000 billion has become an urgent necessity to help “achieve visible progress and measurable improvements”. Even Yaounde has had enough of its own “blablabla”. The Plan will help “meet the most urgent needs of our populations nationwide… in vital areas such as urban development, health, agriculture, roads, energy, low-cost housing and security”.

News coverage of Mr. Biya’s address that I have seen so far is dominated by the “Boko Haram overkill” angle. Aspects of the speech about the slump Cameroon faces have been buried. “It was our hope”, said Mr. Biya, to devote an election-free 2014 “primarily to reviving our economic growth”. Alas, he admits, “such was not exactly the case”. He blames rebels on the border with CAR and emboldened Boko Haram attacks in the Far North of Cameroon, where the sect was allegedly “buoyed by their grip on north-eastern Nigeria”. Yaounde owes no blame for the ransoms that whet the sect’s appetite for more hostage takings!

Mr. Biya is not shy to admit that his government lacks the resolve to reform a public sector that continues to suffocate the economy and stifle private sector growth. “Investment,” he says “has so far been largely initiated by the State”. Mr. Biya decries “the resistance to structural reforms which is stifling our growth revival efforts”. He acknowledges that some of the resisted reforms “concern our governance, particularly public finance”. In other words: “chop broke pottism” still runs amok and it has not helped that parliament, in 2013, “adopted major incentives to private investment”, agreeing that “the latter (private sector) still seems unable to take over from the State”. Cameroon can’t improve private sector development when it remains so poorly ranked (168th out of 189 economies) in the 2014 Doing Business report, down from 162nd place in 2013.

The president says he is “compelled” (poor man!) to make “these remarks” because of “the difficulty we are facing moving from a State-dominated economy to a more liberal system which is now the rule… We suffer the disadvantages of both systems”. It seems Mr. Biya is admitting the total failure of his socialism and/or communism-inspired “Pour le Liberalisme Communautaire”? It would be about time he did!

The speech does not share the findings of “the recent triennial appraisal report on the implementation of the Growth and Employment Strategy Paper”, except to explain that “we can and should do even better”. We could not agree more! Surely Cameroon can improve its weak governance; improve its ranking (144th out of 177 countries in the 2013 Transparency International corruption perception index. He adds that “there seems to be progress” – key word, “seems”! The president deplored the slowdown in project implementation, explaining that he has decried “underutilization of budgetary appropriations”. What are citizens to do if even the president decries – can’t crack the whip?

Whatever exactly is happening, one thing is clear: Yaounde is having an epiphany. “We do need an industrial policy”, the president told fellow citizens in the prime time address.

Hellooooo! Is Yaounde just finding this out in the 33rd year of Mr. Biya’s reign? Well – better late than never! Yes, Mr. President, “there can be no great country without industry” and – YES – that goal cannot be attained when you sign off your country’s right to industrialization to the French-led European Economic Partnership Agreements. And – YES – this would include industrialization of the agricultural sector. YES, it won’t happen if Mr. Biya readily finds an excuse for the foot dragging involved in the implementation of projects such as “our major iron and bauxite mining projects”. The excuse: “such projects are complex”, he says, stressing that “there is no plausible reason for our slowness in developing industries to process our agricultural commodities”. YES – you can say that again, Mr. President!

By not acting or acting too slowly, Cameroon is passing off benefits “in terms of value added and employment” and further hurting “our foreign trade which is (not only) showing a structural deficit” but “is characterized by a significant import surplus against exports which largely depend on the sale of three or four commodities whose prices are unstable”. Cameroonians should expect the structural damage to deepen. Mr. Biya explains why: “it is difficult for us to restrict our purchase of capital goods”. Simple!

In the lone sentence of the speech where he claims that “significant progress has been made” Mr. Biya announces a four-part austerity reform that Cameroon needs in order to ensure “budget sustainability” (now in jeopardy); reduce subsidies (higher fuel prices are coming); and review the tax base (please, read widening the tax base). Even Mr. Biya – who is not an “oppposant” in any shape or form – admits that Cameroon would “benefit by streamlining its procedures and… cutting down on its spending”. Give me one politician who confesses his policy failures once a year and I will give you – well, Mr. Biya.