Thursday, November 22, 2012

Cameroon Anti-Corruption War:"There Is No Reason Why Public Office Holders Shouldn't Declare Their Assets" -Dr.Namanga Ngongi,former UN Senior Official.

Dr. Namanga Ngongi recently ended  his five- year term as President of Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), an Africa-led and Africa-based independent organization tackling the world's most pressing need - to be food secure - by making sure smallholder farmers are productive and profitable.
 This renowned Cameroonian intellectual and native of Buea, who has extensive experience in agricultural development, peace and security issues, began his career in Cameroon, where he worked as an agricultural extension officer for the Ministry of Agriculture, helping farmers to improve yields and to diversify and market their crops.
  In 1980, Dr Ngongi was attached to Cameroon Embassy in Rome. He joined the World Food Programme in 1984, becoming its Deputy Executive Director in 1994, a position he held until his appointment as UN Undersecretary-General, Special Representative and Head of the UN Peacekeeping Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2001.
 Since his retirement from the UN in 2003, Dr Ngongi has undertaken several high-level missions, including a study on food reserve systems in Africa.
 Born in 1945 in Buea, Cameroon, Dr. Ngongi obtained his PhD in Agronomy from Cornell in 1976.
 Before joining AGRA, with headquarters in Kenya, Dr. Ngondi was Member of the National Anti-Corruption Commission (Cameroon).
 Dr. Ngongi sat down for an exclusive interview with Recorder Editor Christopher Ambe in Buea last November 19, on varied issues
Read on!

Dr.Amos Namanga Ngongi
You retired from the United Nations and came back home (Cameroon) to rest.Then, you were contracted again by Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, and you have retired again. Are you not tired?

I will have plenty of time in the future to get tired. For now I am not tired. It is pleasure to meet with you again, after returning to Cameroon.

How was your stay with AGRA? We learned you left them at a time they organization needed you most?

First of all I am very pleased that I had the opportunity to be the first President of AGRA. There was an Interim President when I joined. It was really a good way to come back to agriculture. Let me say that it was a position that was focused on advocacy, policy dialogue and getting countries to do what they need to do, than working directly in farms planting crops. It was a great privilege because it opened my eyes to different opportunities and new ways of doing things-especially trying to recognize agriculture as a private sector–driven business. Farmers are self-employed, they are individual operators; they are private sector and should be recognized as such. What is really needed is  how to organize  the rest of the private sector including the financial sector to support agriculture; the markets sector to support farmers in trade; processors to process agricultural product s to add value. Really, it was a re-introduction to agriculture, having done different things in between my agricultural training and getting into AGRA.

You are back  home with a wealth of experience. How are you going to use such experience to improve on things in Cameroon?

First, it is at the individual level. I have a farm where I am trying to implant at the community level some of the things I learned. Secondly, since I had the opportunity to interact with decision makers and those who develop agricultural policies in many African countries, I will try to interact with policy makers in Cameroon to make a difference. A week ago there was a meeting in Yaounde of the Coalition for African Rice Development (CARD) at which the Minister Delegate of Agriculture delivered an opening address and the Cameroon delegation presented a progress report on the rice sector. CARD is one of AGRA’s partnership programmmes that I co-started. As President of AGRA I co-chaired this coalition with the Senior Vice-president of JICA, Mr.  Oshima. Together with other partners, we built it to a level that it is now working in 23 African Countries including Cameroon to help them have strategies that will turn agriculture into a profitable venture. And rice is one of the critical crops in Africa’s quest for a green revolution. A lot of research has been done on rice so there is the capacity to double or triple rice yields per hectare and increase production significantly. CARD’s target is to contribute to the doubling of rice production in Africa from 14 to 28 million metric tons between 2008 and 2018. African countries are spending over $10 billion to import some 15 t0 20 million tons of rice a year. If African countries can double or triple rice production that will save a lot of money for investment and create employment opportunities for millions of Africans along the agriculture value chain: production, processing, markets and the financial sector.

Many people are of the opinion that agriculture is the way out of our economic predicament. As an agronomist, do you agree with this?

Well, it is not just from the agronomic point of view. Take it from the economic point of view. If you have 70 % of your population involved in agriculture and they are producing only some 25-30% of the Gross Domestic Product of the country, it shows that there is a lot of room for improvement of efficiency and income-generation within the agriculture sector. If you increase the value of agricultural production by only 10% in a year, that will translate a growth of 2.5-3.0% increase in the GDP of the country and improve the lives of 70% of the population.  That is not too difficult to do considering the low state of productivity in Africa’s Agriculture. Agriculture is thus a good sector for job creation. Firstly, it needs to be developed to fully occupy those who are producing today because most farmers are largely under-employed, working tiny pieces of land and producing approximately one metric ton of grain per hectare compared to three metric tons in other developing countries. Secondly, this sector can contribute immensely to the creation of new employment, especially for young people. We have to rethink agriculture to make it a lot more attractive to youths. The hand hoe and cutlass should be replaced by improved tools and equipment. Third, processing of our basic food crops has to be given priority. We should be having cassava flour, yam flour and cocoyam flour not just tubers. The next stage should be composite flours including legumes to enhance nutritional quality.  This will add value and create jobs. There is great scope to generate employment in the service industry- to service agriculture:  seeds; fertilizers; credit; storage; transport. Agriculture presents great opportunities for Africa’s and Cameroon’s economic development. And it costs much less to develop jobs in agriculture compared to jobs in industry.  So if we invest properly in agriculture, we create employment, add value, increase income s and have a much more buoyant economy

And, do you think the Cameroon Government is doing enough to boost agriculture?

Well, I do think the speeches and policies are in the right direction. Everywhere you go you hear that agriculture is the backbone and engine for growth of our economy. That is repeated over and over. You also see some programmes distributing agricultural inputs to community groups, mostly young people and women. I would have to look a little bit more into the programmes that are on the ground to see if they match the speeches. I also have to link with NGOs and CIGs that are involved in agriculture and contribute to their programmes and create the required impact. One of the critical areas for agriculture is having a reliable seed supply system. This is still very much lacking in the country. There are a lot of attempts to produce seeds but we don’t really have viable seed- producing companies in the country.
The second point is how to organize logistics to deliver fertilizers to farmers at prices that are really competitive world-wide. I am buying fertilizers at 800 to 1000 dollars per metric ton. That is twice the cost of a farmer in Asia. It is difficult to be competitive if you are having such high costs for inputs. Here the Government can have more supportive policies and programmes.
The third point is how to tackle the post-harvest storage problems. We lose 25 to 30 % of the grains produced in the country through spoilage. For, cassava it is more than 50%, for yam probably 40%. If famers could access improved storage facilities that are rain proof, reduce adverse temperatures  and insect-infestation, the country will be able to save quite a bit of its production. This is an area that needs to be tackled urgently.
I would say in the long term, we have to really address the issues of land-land rights and land use. If a farmer is not sure of being able to use the same piece of land next year, why would she invest in improving it this year?  Most farmers have shaky tenancy agreements to use land. They don’t own the land. And talking of land, women who are the large majority of our food crop farmers have even shakier rights to use land. If the largest group of our food producers doesn’t have stable arrangements for food production year after year, why would they make the investments required to boost productivity of the land?

Mr. Paul Biya on November 6, 2012 celebrated his 30 years as President of Cameroon. Cameroon is said to be a democracy. Would you say his stay in power for 30 years is good for our democracy? 

I won’t pass judgment on whether it is good or not for our democracy. You have to judge based on what has taken place from 1982 up to 2012. We have a republican constitution and a constitution regulates the political life of the country. If the length of stay in office is not curtailed by a constitution, then it cannot be said that something is wrong with somebody being in office for 20, 30 or 40 years. The length of a presidential mandate is enshrined in the constitution, and as far as I know there is no limitation. I would say, by my own judgement, the person Paul Biya, who has been able to hold our country from 1982 to 2012 with steady hands and whose current term in office expires in 2018, has been able to build levels of acceptance, confidence and trust in the fabric of society that has permitted him to go on from year to year and from election to election as the President of Cameroon. So, I won’t question the length of the period, but whether the stay is in line with the constitution of the country.

Many people are of the opinion that Mr. Biya has over done it; that he should step down for someone else. If you were in position to advise him now, what would you tell him?

In terms of seeking political office, that is a personal decision. He has six years in front of him to make that decision-whether he will continue or not. As a population we should use the democratic instruments in our possession to decide on who becomes President. The ultimate democratic instrument is an election. People should vote for candidates of their choice. In the last Presidential election there were 23 candidates. It is not the shortage of candidates that keeps President Biya in power! Those who want President Biya to leave office have not yet been able to produce a candidate who can compete effectively and defeat him at the polls.  They have advocated for more transparent elections. As you know there is a biometric registration process now underway. A very advanced electoral registration process that is not available in most developed countries. Cameroonians should register massively and use it to determine who should lead our nation at all levels rather than being stuck on the length of tenure of office of the President.
Corruption and embezzlement of public funds seem to be a way of life in Camerroon.What would you say is the problem, conscious that the government is battling with these vices without much success?

I would say corruption is embedded in every society. But there is a great need for checks and other control measures. Who does not want to have the best house in the World? Who does not want to have a good car?  Who does not want to live a luxurious life?
But we should have structures that say “You, Mr.Ambe, you can live in the best house in the world, but it should be built with  money, which you have earned justly and not with the money that you have taken from other people unjustly, money that would have improved their lives” . I would say such structures are not yet fully functional in our country. If they were, the ostentatious display of wealth would be curtailed. If salaries of public servants including staff of state owned companies were published and the population sees people living at levels that would require them to have saved every franc they would have worked for 50 to 100 years then there would be public pressure to take action. The Public should also be empowered to institute class action suits for public servants to explain the sources of their wealth. 
I think we should go to the next step-the constitution. There is an article in the constitution which requires people to declare their assets. There is no reason why it should not be implemented, in my view. If you are appointed to a high political or administrative office and you don’t want to declare your assets, you decline the appointment.  If you must take the office then please declare your assets. It is a personal decision to be made. You want it you declare, if don’t you decline. Nobody can be forced to take a high office that requires declaration of assets. I think that will reduce the wanton amassement of wealth illegally.e
I am not saying that people should not be wealthy. Every body should aspire to be wealthy, but it should be done in line with the law and norms of morality.

You were a member of the National Anti Corruption Commission (better known by its French acronym as CONAC) and you later resigned. Why did you leave the Commission?

The appointment came to me as a surprise. It was, of course, a great honor but I was in advanced negotiations to join AGRA. AGRA gave me an opportunity to serve at continental level to be able to bring a change to our continent’s food security situation. I believe that what we have done at AGRA in the past five years has really contributed to a wonderful change in African agriculture and economy, which will also contribute to Cameroon’s agriculture and economy if the innovative policies and strategies that were developed in AGRA are implemented. So having made a commitment to an institution (AGRA) it was improper for me not to honor it. I did participate in the initial phase of CONAC‘s work in the first six months and then left to take up the AGRA appointment. It was not because I felt that it was not a valuable thing to do. But at every point one has to make some choices. That was the choice I made at that time. I believe that CONAC is doing useful work in fighting corruption. What it is doing to reduce corruption is a valuable contribution to our economic and political growth. We can say that the whole administration is taking corruption seriously. It is far from being perfect but clearly Cameroon is no longer the champion of corruption in the world! Progress is being made and I hope the progress can be accelerated and sustained with all the structures that are being put in place now- including the recovery of stolen assets by special tribunals.

Now that you are back to the country, if you are invited to rejoin CONAC, won’t you accept?

{Laughs}  I don’t participate in speculation. Here now in Cameroon, there is plenty of work to do. There are many ways one can contribute to the country. I should say that about a month ago I did visit CONAC to see my former colleagues and some of the new members to encourage them in the work they are doing. I was impressed to find a mature institution busy at work. 

Sometime ago you had some political ambition-to become the mayor of Buea.What has become that ambition?

Political ambitions are part of humanity, they come and go and follow the political cycles of each country. We have not yet reached the stage in our political cycle when decisions are made on seeking office. I belong to the CPDM and there is a CPDM process for designating their candidates for various positions. We are far from that process now. You can ask me that question when we get to that point in months ahead.

There are thousands of university graduates in the job market. They cannot find or create jobs. What advice do you have for them?

    First of all, we should address the educational system. The education system itself is almost a copy of the traditional, classical European education. It is fine for Europe, where a lot of things have been done already.
   We are in a country that requires the production of skilled personnel-at low, intermediate and high levels. We should strive to have a more technology-driven education to produce the skilled operators and managers we need, at the certificate level, lower diploma level, higher diploma level and university level who are able to go out to the world economy to identify existing opportunities and establish themselves in businesses; create jobs for themselves and employ some of their classmates.
   Universities and higher institutions should be able to create innovations parks where young people can go in to develop and test their ideas. For 20 ideas, maybe only two will be successful. But those two can probably change the face of our economy.
We have to find other ways of challenging our young in education systems. I see that UIDB has Higher National Diploma programmes that aim to produce professionals. That is good. Our educational system should begin to introduce skills rather than just academic pursuit and theory. I can not down play academic qualifications. I have them myself. But we should be able to have more practical knowledge and management skills included in the process of acquiring academic qualifications for a developing country.
     For the students themselves they have to proactively find ways after graduation to use the knowledge they have acquired to earn an income. The general tendency is to apply for a government job but such jobs are few. Despite the recent recruitment of the 25000 many thousands are on the streets. The institution of the Youth Voluntary Service is good. Young people will gain useful skills from enterprises they will be serving. This programme can contribute to turning the tide on youth employment.
  Youths do not only need skills they also need to have access to capital. It is necessary to have institutions that can put up risk capital to encourage youths try out their skills. It is well known that about 85% of new businesses fail within the first few years. That is why risk capital is needed not just for youths but for other economic operators. The Government can assist by setting aside some risk capital that encourages young people, in particular,  to try their hands in business-knowing very well that many of the businesses will fail in one or two years. But the 15 % or so that succeed probably will propel the economy to new dimensions and create employment.
( First Published in The Recorder Newspaper,Cameroon,of November 22,2012)

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