The plantation town of Mbanga in the Littoral region, 310 km from the capital Yaoundé, is known for its banana plantations. But that’s not why it was in the spotlight on June 10, 2020. A video with plantation worker Clement Ytembe Bonda had gone viral, and it was going to haunt him forever.
It all started when news spread about how government ministries had mismanaged COVID-19 funds to the tune of XCF 180 billion (USD 226 million). When the pandemic hit in 2020, the IMF gave Cameroon this money to help deal with the pandemic.
In June 2020, civil society organizations, opposition party members sounded an alert on the mismanagement of the COVID-19 fund. Jean Michel Nintcheu, opposition member of parliament from the Social Democratic Front (SDF) party, observed that there were no beds and toilets in one of the COVID-19 treatment centres in the Littoral region of Cameroon, even though XCF 100 million (about USD 165,000) was earmarked to hire mobile toilets. On orders from the presidency, the Audit Bench of the Supreme Court investigated the management of the funds later released a summary of investigation.
The summary indicated that the Ministry of Scientific Research had been importing hydroxychloroquine, and azithromycin, labeling them as their products instead of producing chloroquine. The XCF 15 million (about USD 25,000) meant for renovating the production unit was therefore allegedly not spent. The Ministry of Public Health was involved in overbilling and the mismanagement of funds.
In 2021, Cameroon was ranked 144/188 on the Transparency International corruption index. A report from the National Anti-corruption Commission highlights the most corrupt entities in Cameroon, the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of State Property and Land Tenure, and the police and gendarmerie. Former Health Minister Urbain Olanguena Awono is in jail for the mismanagement of HIV/AIDS funds. This is why rights groups and opposition sounded an alert over the alleged embezzlement.
Clement Ytembe Bonda could not digest the news of the mismanagement of COVID-19 funds. On that fateful morning he took his phone and asked his friends Wameni André Boris and Flavy Kamou Wouwe to film him as he poured out his anger. “We have to get up at 4:00 am for XCF 32,000, while another [the ministers] will wake up at 8:00 am, and go to an air-conditioned office to steal XCF 180,000 billion. See bananas everywhere but you cannot touch even one.” Bonda used explicit language to talk about the head of state and government ministers responsible for the alleged embezzlement.
Through the video, Bonda exposed the employment situation in Cameroon, where a university graduate, for the lack of employment, is forced to work in a plantation. He also revealed the living conditions of plantation workers in Cameroon who toil the whole day without food to produce bananas for the owners. The minimum wage in Cameroon in 2022 is XAF 36,270, (USD 60.05) but Bonda and his friends were paid XAF 32,000 (USD 52.94), which is less than the minimum wage.
The video went viral on social media and Bonda soon became a wanted man, because speaking this way about the president and ministers provokes a strong response in Cameroon. The police accused him of insulting president Biya. He was tracked down and arrested, with his friends Andre Boris Wameni and Flavy Kamou Wouwe, at the Plantation des Haut Penja, an affiliate of a French agro-industrial company.
Arrested on June 11, 2021, Bonda and his friends first appeared in court on June 14, 2021. On June 17, 2021, they were tried at the Njombe Court for outrage against the head of state and for spreading false information on social media under article 78 of the cybercrime law. It states that “Whoever uses electronic communications or an information system to design, to publish or propagate a piece of information without being able to attest its veracity or prove that the said piece of information was true shall be punished with imprisonment for from 06 (six) months to 02 (two) years or a fine of from 5,000,000 (five million) to 10,000,000 (ten million) CFA francs or both of such fine and imprisonment.”
Article 113 of the Criminal Procedure Code punishes with imprisonment from three months to three years anyone who issues or spreads false news when such news is likely to harm the public authorities or national cohesion.
A year later, Andre Boris Wameni and Flavy Kamou Wouwe were freed, but Bonda remained in jail.
There were divergent opinions as some have argued that the young man deserves to be jailed because it is impolite to insult President Biya using vulgar language. Some have linked the arrest with the state of freedom of expression in the country — Cameroonians are free as long as they don’t criticize president Biya on or offline.
This is not the only case of cracking down on free expression. In 2009, journalist Jean Bosco Talla was jailed for insulting President Biya, but he said he had only published passages from a book in his newspaper.
The case of a TV program presenter Serge Alain Ottou and his guest Engelbert Le Bon Datchoua, a member of the opposition Cameroon Renaissance Movement, CRM party on Equinoxe TV, a local online broadcast channel, is also still fresh in the minds of Cameroonians. The guest said President Biya “is the worst thing that happened to Cameroon,” and the Minister of Territorial Administration ordered an interrogation. The Ottou and Datchoua were questioned at the Littoral regional delegation of police. The Communication Council summoned the proprietor of Equinoxe TV and the presenter Ottou in November 2022 for questioning. The issue has not been mentioned again.
Freedom after expression
The 1996 Cameroon constitution guarantees freedom of expression. “The freedom of communication, of expression, of the press, of assembly, of association and of trade unionism as well as the right to strike shall be guaranteed under conditions fixed by the law.”
But it is an open secret that criticizing the head of state and his government online or offline calls for trouble. The police, armed forces, the ministries of territorial administration, and communication, and the courts are state apparatuses used to keep firm control on the people to prevent criticism and dissent. The state brandishes its traditional role of safeguarding public security and peace but tramples on freedom of expression.