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Posted on Wednesday, 05 August 2015 11:21

Cameroon's hopes on hold

By Reinnier Kazé in Yaoundé

altThe majority of Cameroon's population is under 18, and many of them feel that the deck is stacked against them.

As the over-70s continue to monopolise politics and business the young are increasingly expressing their frustrations. The Africa Report listened to what they have to say.

Senior citizens have confiscated the political scene

In Cameroon, young people struggle to realise their dreams in a country that they say is racked with corruption and poor governance.

The economy does not create enough employment to provide work for all who earn diplomas, forcing many to take up informal jobs to get by.

Older people control almost all powerful posts in politics and business, further
strengthening the frustration felt by young people.

About 10 years ago, 30-year-old Annick dreamed of becoming a political analyst and one day the first female president of the country.

Today, she says that she has lost all such hope: "Cameroon destroys our dreams." It is a feeling shared by many of her peers.

Cameroon has an estimated population of 20 million, and people under the age of 18 make up more than half of that number.

More than 40% of the population also lives in poverty, and less than a third of people have access to water and electricity.

Young people face two major difficulties: access to education and access to employment.

Thierry Batoum, the president of the Association de Défense des Droits des Etudiants du Cameroun, the country's largest student group, says: "Young people are desperate, inactive, marginalised and excluded. They are also in the grip of poverty, unemployment and a lack of opportunities."

Selling candy

While most parents understand the necessity of sending their children to school at a young age, in many cases they are unable to pay for them to finish their studies.

Abrenam Kemaleu, 21, studied physics at the University of Yaoundé I until October 2014.

He had to stop because his ailing mother could no along afford the cost of his studies.

He still goes back to campus but now it is to sell candy, biscuits and chocolate.

"It's frustrating to see my former classmates in class in the lecture halls," he explains.

He now has just 15,000 CFA francs ($25) in working capital.

Besides getting by, he says that he hopes "to put a bit of money to the side to start classes again later on".

There are no real measures in place to help students like Abrenam.

Until the 1993 education reforms university was free and the government awarded scholarships to bright students so that they could study abroad at no cost.

The government has since abandoned many scholarships, and students must now pay fees at university.

Many parents cannot afford the 50,000 CFA francs a year in tuition fees, on top of what students need for housing, utilities, transport and study materials.

This year, Cameroon's eight state universities are teaching more than 300,000 students in an austere and troubling environment.

At the University of Yaoundé I, 1,000-2,000 students are crammed into a cramped and dirty lecture theatre. Libraries are under-resourced and laboratories are severely lacking supplies.

At times, university housing can suffer from monthlong water cuts.

Student leader Batoum explains the difficult conditions that students live in: "We often receive complaints about sexual assaults on women and even on men. Students are left to themselves.

"They do not have any special benefits and do not get discounts, like our elders did, on transport or buying academic materials. They do not get any help in terms of healthcare."

Cameroonian economist Thomas Babissakana says: "The teaching content does not match the demands of productive sectors of the economy. It is a system that does not target real development."

Those who do graduate often have difficulty finding jobs. Employers complain about the lack of qualified candidates and at the same time, there are many more job-seekers than openings.

Agriculture is a major employer, and telecom companies and breweries have created many jobs recently.

Small enterprises contribute a lot of employment, but Babissakana explains that banks are reluctant to lend to small companies, and the microfinance interest rates are often very high.

The government has been talking about setting up a bank focused on agriculture since 2011, but the institution is not yet operational.

There are no reliable or up-to-date statistics on employment.

In 2009, the Institut National de la Statistique (INS) estimated that there were 582,000 employees. Of that total, the state provided 196,000 and the private sector 386,000.

And yet the INS said that there were 10 million people working at the time, pointing to the significance of the informal sector and the self-employed.

Stagnant private sector

According to Babissakana, the government deliberately obfuscates employment figures in order to deflect criticism.

He argues that the unemployment rate is "more than 20%" and says that "you would expect companies in the private sector to create jobs, but the business environment is not very attractive."

He points the finger at government: "Corruption is the primary factor that slows the development of private companies."

He adds that difficult access to finance is another handicap.

Annick, who dreamed of a career in politics, studied economics in Cameroon but has been unable to get even an internship or a work experience placement in the past six years.

"I once applied for a professional work placement, but the person in charge of recruitment asked for sexual favours. I refused and I did not get the placement," she explains.

In the private sector, jobs can be precarious and badly paid.

Few employees receive social security benefits.

Idrissou Dang, 39, is covered by the Caisse Nationale de Prévoyance Sociale through his job with an international private security company, but his monthly salary of 50,000 CFA francs is hardly enough to make ends meet.

His second job as a gardener allows him to make an additional 35,000 CFA.

"I have five kids, with two of them in secondary school, and my wife and sister-in-law to care for. I cannot see how I can save in order to buy some land one day."

With a lack of jobs, many Cameroonians – with or without diplomas – work in the informal sector.

In most cases, they do not use the skills they gained in university and only manage to scrape a living.

Other young people have just one dream in mind: making a go of it abroad – either legally or as an undocumented migrant.

An official from the employment ministry who requested anonymity explains: "We understand the worries of the youth.

"There are a multitude of projects and government programmes to help young people find work, but these initiatives have a tendency to overlap and leave the impression that the government is doing nothing for them."

No room at the top

Cameroonians in their 30s have known only one national president: Paul Biya, 82, who has been in power since 1982.

In addition to the presidency, the senate, the national assembly, the civil service, parastatals, the army and the universities are run by people of an elder generation.

The same goes for opposition political parties too.

In 2013, student Denis Atangana tried to shake things up when a new party, the Mouvement pour la Renaissance du Cameroun, fielded him as its candidate in local elections in his home town of Monatélé.

The official results gave him 41% of the vote, which was a major show of support, but Atangana claims his victory was "stolen" and that local members of the ruling Rassemblement Démocratique du Peuple Camerounais (RDPC) bribed and intimidated the electorate to get the result they wanted.

"Senior citizens have confiscated the political scene," he says. "I dreamed of being mayor by 25 but the RDPC annihilated this dream."

Despite their frustrations, young people have thought long and hard about how Cameroon could change for the better.

Atangana says the government should reform the constitution to reduce the voting age from 20 to 18.

Economics graduate Annick says what the country needs is a total reorganisation of societal values and practices.

Security guard Dang calls for the government to control prices on basic food stuffs.

So much is riding on the time when a new generation of Cameroonians are finally given the opportunity to tackle basic problems like the scarcity of electricity and ensure that those who follow will do better than those who came before.



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