Cameroon President Paul Biya’s remarks as he opened the Africa 21 Yaoundé International Conference in his country’s capital city were a necessary reminder of the global context in which Africa has been developing for the past 50 years.
“At one point, globalization raised hopes for our economic takeoff. However, the old demons resurfaced: deterioration in the terms of trade, unfair competition through subsidies, decline in official development assistance, etc.,” President Biya said on May 18. “The economic and financial crisis has done the rest: drop in the prices of our commodities, collapse of our exports, deferral of foreign investments, with all their implications.”
That fallout could not have been different. A decade into the 21st century, the rules governing Africa’s relations with the industrialized world still have not really changed, the president said. “We remained the suppliers of oil, raw materials and commodities over whose prices we had no control. Furthermore, the costs of our imports continued to rise, just like those of transport, credit, etc. Under such circumstances, how were we to ensure our development? How were we to build our infrastructure, roads, dams, power plants? How were we to exploit our mineral deposits and implement our major agricultural and agro-industrial projects? In short, how were we to modernize our countries and get them out of the economic ghetto to which they were confined?”
The theme of the two-day conference in Yaoundé was “Africa, an Opportunity for the World: Realities and Challenges.” Organized at the president’s initiative, the conference commemorated 50 years of independence celebrated this year by 17 African nations, including Cameroon.
It brought together heads of state, senior government officials, policymakers, private- sector leaders and representatives of multilateral organizations and nonprofits from around the world to wrestle with five nettlesome issues: how to make the most of the Africa’s assets; financing the continent’s development; the link between good governance and economic progress; regional and continentwide responses to security concerns; and the continent’s role in international decision making. Their final statement reflects the we’re-our-own-responsibility-but-we’ll-work-with-friends-who-respect-us mind-set typical of today’s African renaissance.
In a departure from the open-market goals of a wobbling World Trade Organiza-tion, it declared that “Africa should no longer import food to eat; it should, if necessary, temporarily protect its agriculture” and develop food crops as part of the ongoing renaissance. From the recent global financial crisis, Africa should draw essential lessons to fight against speculative excesses, combat the existence of derivatives that subvert real transactions, particularly in the food sector and make provision for compensation for damages, it said.
It acknowledged that:
Public / private partnerships and trade between emerging countries are likely to improve growth and employment;
Policies for progress can only be conceived in a climate of peace and security. To that end, capacities for peacekeeping and combating transnational crime should be strengthened through the mobilization of [Africa’s] own intervention resources, without excluding further quest for essential international cooperation;
Factors contributing to insecurity, such as uncontrolled urbanization, the expansion of health risks and the loss of cultural values, require transparent and rigorous public governance;
The most serious threats to African societies today are global in nature, be they global warming, financial abuse, or terrorism, therefore those solutions can only be global.
Throughout the week — against a backdrop of cultural extravaganza, VIP dinners and receptions, and a showcase civic and military parade that crowned the golden jubilee independence celebrations — private conversations with Cameroon government ministers revealed the extent to which the country appears to have embraced the renaissance mind-set. Here, for example, is Louis Paul Motaze, minister of economy, planning and regional development, recalling the circumstances that led to the country’s 2009 blueprint for development, dubbed Vision 2035: “Planning was stopped in Cameroon in 1986 because of the debt crisis, when we entered into an agreement with the International Monetary Fund. We were forced to plan only for year to year, with evaluation and assessment by the IMF. We had no vision. So we saw it was a good thing to start a long-term plan from now to 2035.”
Again breaking with external prescriptions, Cameroon made the “productive sectors” — including energy, agriculture, roads and ports — a priority for poverty reduction. Under the World Bank’s initiative for highly indebted poor countries, creditors would cancel their debt with the stipulation that the money saved must be put into social areas such as education and health care in order to reduce poverty, Motaze explained. Cameroon did everything as instructed yet saw no economic growth. “The social sectors are important, but they don’t create industry, wealth or production. You have to create wealth first,” Motaze said.
New economic relationships, sometimes vexing to long-standing and world-dominant partners, are another mark of the renaissance mind-set. Attendees at the Yaoundé conference were pointedly informed that the conference venue, the Yaoundé Conference Center, and the venue for the spectacular cultural evening, the Sports Complex, were built by the Chinese. These new partnerships may not always have perfect outcomes.
One hears complaints, for example, about shoddy Chinese products flooding the market and about how their importation is putting local entrepreneurs out of business. People also grumble about the wholesale importation of Chinese labor for construction projects when local unemployment is so high.
During his presentation at the Yaoundé conference, Feng Shaolei, an international business specialist at East China Normal University, rose to Beijing’s defense. “The Chinese government does not know and cannot watch over every company that comes to Africa. These are private companies. Some of them are scoundrels,” he said, adding that African leaders have to be vigilant about who they allow into their countries to do business.
China is not the only game in town for Cameroon. “Three days ago, I received the new ambassador from Mexico, who invited me to visit Mexico to establish partnerships with the government to help Cameroon boost its tourism,” Tourism Minister Baba Hamadou said. “A month ago, I received some people from Argentina, because Argentina is developing a new tourism strategy. I am now planning to attend one or two tourism fairs in Canada and the United States in 2011.”
Laurent Serge Etoundi Ngoa, minister of small and medium-size enterprises, social economy and handicrafts, found answers in North Africa to nagging questions. “To find a model of development for our small and medium-size enterprises, we looked at Asia, Europe and America. But we found a solution in Tunisia, where 92 percent of the enterprises are SMEs and they are highly competitive,” the minister said. “In Cameroon, 83 percent of businesses are SMEs and we needed to know why ours are not as efficient as in Tunisia. We used a Canadian institute to do the diagnostics. Three months ago, we adopted a SME law to make businesses more efficient and competitive.”
Renaissance thinking also calls for dusting the cobwebs off visions of regional and continentwide transportation networks. “The Trans-Africa Highway has not happened because of a lack of vision. Creditors wanted bilateral, small projects instead. Each country then had to find bilateral partners to build their own connections with whatever creditors they could find,” said Transportation Minister Bello Bouba Maigari. “There was also a trans-Africa air plan that has not been realized.”
Cameroon, which borders the remaining countries in the Economic Community of Central African States (Chad, Central African Republic, Congo-Brazzaville, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon), and which, through its Port of Douala is the region’s entry and exit point for international trade, found consortium financing to rehabilitate routes linking it to countries in each direction. It formalized an agreement with Nigeria on May 21 to build a road between the two countries, with groundbreaking scheduled for the following month. Maigari said Cameroon is also continuing construction on a trans-Cameroon railway that would link into the Senegal-to-Sudan railway envisioned by the African Union.
Said former transport minister Issa Tchiroma Bakary, currently minister of communication and the government’s chief spokesman: “Cameroon has many challenges but we are committed to development. The most important asset we have is peace.”