Embezzlement of Public Funds: A Crime against Humanity in Cameroon
Author: Joseph Agbor Effim
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 09/17/2012
Cameroon is generally referred to as ‘Africa in Miniature’. It is endowed with a lot of potential that can transform the nation into a veritable haven for all Cameroonian; and make it stand tall at the international platform. But since independence and despite the potentials that this country possesses, it is still wobbling on the same spot which has ushered in poverty, unemployment and frustration becomes the order of the day.
It is not that the citizens of this nation are not hard working; they toil all year gathering these resources together for the good of all, but like the Pigs in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, a hand full of heartless miscreant individual Cameroonians swindle the funds into their private coffers. But when the poor citizens dare to raise eyebrows, they are openly asked “ou sont les preuves?”
Embezzlement is rife in Cameroon. Like the apartheid regime in the yesterday South Africa, the genocide in Rwanda, the case of Darfur, DR Congo, Sierra Leone, etc., embezzlement in Cameroon should be considered as a crime against humanity. The few culprits that have been charged should not just be used for window dressing but should face the International Criminal Court Tribunal because corruption and embezzlement of public funds are crimes of the highest magnitude.
Crimes Against Humanity
According to Article 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, “crimes against humanity”:
means any of the following acts when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack:
(d) Deportation or forcible transfer of population;
(e) Imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty in violation of fundamental rules of international law;
(g) Rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity;
(h) Persecution against any identifiable group or collectivity on political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, religious, gender as defined in paragraph 3, or other grounds that are universally recognized as impermissible under international law, in connection with any act referred to in this paragraph or any crime within the jurisdiction of the Court;
(i) Enforced disappearance of persons;
(j) The crime of apartheid;
(k) Other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health.
In 1860, the Republican Party in the United States of America condemned the slave trade and considered it as a “crime against humanity”. Thirty years later George Washington used the term to describe the treatment of the people of Congo Free Sate (the present Democratic Republic of Congo) by the King of Belgium (King Leopold II). In 1915, the allies of the World War One (WWI), in response to the Armenian massacre, termed the holocaust as “crime against humanity”. They further warned that the members of the Ottoman Government would be solely held responsible for the killings; and at the end of the war, the war crime commission proposed the creation of a special tribunal to try those who violated laws of humanity even though America rejected it.
After the Second World War, The London Charter of the International Military Tribunal (LCIMT) set up the Nuremberg Trials to try those who had perpetrated “crimes against humanity”,. At the Nuremberg trials, “crime against humanity” was regarded as:
Murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population, before or during the war, or persecutions on political, racial or religious grounds in execution of or in connection with any crime within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal, whether or not in violation of the domestic law of the country where perpetrated,.
In the same light, the Tokyo Trials also set up by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE) to try Japanese leaders for crimes committed during the WWII including crimes against humanity. This was in fact relating to the Nanking Massacre, even though it was later considered as a war crime.
The apartheid regime in South Africa was also considered a crime against humanity, even though findings were never made. Of recent the International Tribunal for Yugoslavia and Rwanda have also masterminded trials on crimes against humanity. This is when over 8000 Bosnian Muslims were exterminated and then in Rwanda where the Hutu minority massacred the Tutsi minority respectively.
In 1948, the United Nations Organisation (UNO) was given the primary role to prosecute those found guilty of perpetrating crimes against humanity. Due to that responsibility, it created the International Criminal Court (ICC) which then was organised by the Rome Statute. The UN has since then referred many cases on crimes against humanity to the ICC, for example the case of the Sudanese President Omar Al Bashir in 2005. Without a UN reference, the ICC lacks jurisdiction for the cases it acts on.
In April 28, 2006, the UN Security Council adopted its resolution 1674 which reaffirmed its responsibility to “protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity”.
Embezzlement of Public Funds
There is a growing worldwide concern over the embezzlement of public funds at the present time and its ramifications on livelihoods, especially of vulnerable people.
Embezzlement is defined as: “Embezzlement of public funds is a criminal offence which involves the fraudulent and secret misappropriation of money or assets by an agent to whom the property has been entrusted into”.
The wealth of the nation is contributed by the citizens of that nation, either directly or indirectly. As a result, these people work relentlessly for their present needs and that of the future generations. These resources are kept in the treasury, which serves as a ‘warehouse’ for everybody and are put to use when the need arises. This could be to improve on basic social facilities like schools, hospitals, roads, recreational infrastructure, etc., to harness the economic foundation of the nation, or to improve on the democratic institutions. These funds are the life wire of the people.
It has been most common that those who are kept to look after these resources and/or funds misdirect them into their own private and individual accounts – swearing the account at the expense of the poor Cameroonians. This corruption and the embezzlement of public funds syndrome have become endemic in Cameroon. Despite strides of the government in 1998 to launch a campaign like “corruption kills the nation, Public Services are free of charge and not sold”, it has surged unperturbed. In fact the government has tried to put up other agencies to fight against money laundry and embezzlement in the country. More to that there exists a legal mechanism in Cameroon meant to deal with cases of corruption and embezzlement of public funds, but which has been very inert in its duties.
The same people who are supposed to fight against corruption and embezzlement are the same people who are deeply involved in them. For example, in October 2006 the Financial Investigation Agency (FIA) made a list of 30 top government officials who were indulged in embezzlement practices. These are crimes worse than treason and they should not be taken lightly. Men like Gérald Emmanuel Ondo Ndong, alleged to have embezzled 29 billion alone, in addition to others whose amounts have not been mentioned, can be compared to economic crimes and abuse of the rights of poor Cameroonians. Arresting and imprisoning these people are not enough. This is just a sort of window dressing. They should be charged on crimes against humanity.
The Consequences of Embezzling Public Funds
The continuous siphoning of these funds will gradually lead Cameroon into another recession. These have led to protests demandingthat the money stolen be refunded and the culprits face the law; thinking that it will be an answer. Other strikes and protests related directly or indirectly to financial crises due to embezzlement have sprouted in Cameroon, but brutally crushed. These are signals that all is not well and the future is bleak.
Impact on National Security
The social peace in Cameroon is at stake due to the limited resources needed for their own wellbeing. The fight against embezzlement of public funds is central to the struggle of human rights. It has most often greased the wheels of injustice and national insecurity which characterise our world today. This is because the money meant for the services needed by the public is siphoned by a few individuals and the government cannot meet public demands. This has often led to strikes, violent protests and general uprising which have met with inhuman repression and loss of lives. The 2007 University of Buea strike and the February 2008 general uprising in Cameroon are glaring examples. Who knows what will happen next?
Impact on Social Security
In any society, there are laws and regulations to serve social objectives and to protect the public interest. But embezzlement has staked the social freedom that the people ought to have enjoyed. Money meant for social amenities like water, lights, education, health, etc. has been grudgingly siphoned and banked abroad. Money for pensioners has also been embezzled. As a result of these, many have died out of duress because a few individuals have deprived them of their right to the social basic needs.
Money sent as aid hardly reaches the target population despite their plight and need.The Lake Nyos Disaster, the Limbe floods, the Land Slide at Wabane, the Nsam Fire Disaster, etc are glaring examples. If money meant for pensioners, the health sector, schools, etc. are stolen by those responsible for managing the funds, it therefore means that the lives of poor Cameroonians are at risk. Therefore the culprits should not just be charged for embezzlement or abuse of human rights, but with crimes against humanity.
Impact on Food Security
According to Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, “there is no such thing as an apolitical food problem.” While floods and other naturally occurring events may trigger famine conditions, it is government action or inaction that determines its severity, and often even whether or not a famine will occur. Governments like Cameroon with strong tendencies towards kleptocracy can undermine food security even when harvests are good. Officials often steal state property. Similarly, food aid is often robbed at gunpoint by governments and criminals alike, and sold for a profit. Experts say corruption is causing huge economic losses to the state. Tax revenues and foreign aid end up in private pockets.
In 1996, the Declaration of the World Food Summit expressly mentioned corruption as one of the causes of food insecurity. As it does with other ESC rights, corruption diverts essential resources from social spending and thus, directly or indirectly, hinders realisation of the right to food.
The right to food, also referred as the right to be free from hunger, is a component of the more general right to an adequate standard of living (ICESCR, Article 11(2)). The right to adequate food asserts that all people should be in a position to feed themselves, but embezzlement of public funds has abused these rights. Cameroon does not need food aid because it has abundant resources to be self-sufficient but most of these resources have been siphoned. So the food crises that seem to grip Cameroon can be considered as Holodomor. Thus these embezzlers should be charged for crimes against humanity.
Embezzlement, corruption and criminality among elites have generated numerous frustrations in the general public and disillusionment is the order of the day. Coupled with constitutional and legal uncertainty; rivalries between the regime’s leading figures; government’s attempts to control the electoral process; rupture of the political contract between leaders and the population; widespread poverty and frustration; extensive corruption; and frustration of a large part of the army, a major crisis is possible. These chronic embezzlers have made Cameroonians languish in frustration for more than 30 years.
Legal Perspectives of Crimes against Inhumanity
The government of Cameroon has launched a new attack on embezzlement and corruption. It has and is currently arresting and detaining more than 100 former ministers, public administrators and state corporation managers – charging them with embezzling public funds and plundering national resources. The law provides criminal penalties for official embezzlement and corruption; however, the government did not implement the law effectively, and officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity.
The campaign to pursue corrupt and embezzled government officials continues, but in an increasingly low key manner. The government is shifting its strategies, from the spectacular arrests that characterized the initial years of the investigations (dubbed “Operation Epervier” or “Sparrowhawk” to asset recovery including through negotiations with corrupt officials, pressuring them to return funds or face public prosecution. 
Embezzlement has thrived in Cameroon due to the government’s inability to control its institutions. This is also because there is no civil society or non-governmental organizations to monitor the government. The absence of strong electoral laws has given the ruling party the opportunity to remain in power and protect embezzlers. Also present are the weak civil service, and slow pace of reform, weak rule of law, and a corrupt and dependent judiciary. Until these institutions are strengthened, the issue of Cameroon graduating from embezzlement remains a dream. The ICC considering embezzlement and corruption as a crime against humanity will make the culprits face the ramifications of their actions. This will set a paradigm for others to follow so to adjust and respect the institutions put in place.
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Bio: Joseph Agbor Effim, Esq. LLB (Buea); BL (Sierra Leone); Hon. Master and Registrar of the High Court Judiciary of the Gambia – Banjul. Currently, I am an Advanced LL.M. student at the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, 2012-2013 Batch.