Cameroon-Nigeria: from Yaoundé to Lagos, wood and money

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Timber Trafficking

By Mathieu Olivier

Posted on Tuesday, 12 July 2022 14:01, updated on Friday, 15 July 2022 15:46

For nearly 15 years, a new forestry law in Cameroon has been in the making to curb the illicit trade in precious woods. While waiting for its promulgation, the trafficking continues, all the way to the Nigerian border. We dive into the heart of a mafia with deep roots.

This is part 3 of a 6-part series

The year is 2008. At Etoudi Palace, Paul Biya is already preparing for the presidential election that will give him a sixth term in three years. Not far from the presidency, at the ministry of forests and wildlife, Elvis Ngolle Ngolle is setting in motion a large-scale project, that of the management of Cameroon’s forestry domain. The law governing the sector dates from 1994. A different era. Donors, led by the EU, are demanding its revision. The words ‘control’ and ‘transparency’ are pronounced, repeated and hammered home. Therefore, the minister, on the instructions of the head of government Ephraim Inoni and President Biya, takes matters into his own hands, in collaboration with the holder of the finance portfolio, Essimi Menye.

A broad consultation of forestry stakeholders was launched. Business leaders, civil society associations, traditional chiefs and civil servants are working on an overhaul of the 1994 text. They have several objectives: to better manage the relationship between forest exploitation and conservation, to involve local populations more in the timber economy and to achieve better control of logging, particularly in small forest titles that too often escape the eyes of the public authorities. “The aim was to close the loopholes in the 1994 law, which allowed certain actors to fuel timber trafficking,” says one actor in the sector. The meetings are taking place at the forestry and wildlife headquarters, just a stone’s throw from the luxurious Hilton Hotel.

We can only observe that the non-publication of this law maintains opacity in the forestry sector

One year goes by, then another, then a third… Philippe Ngole Ngwesse replaces Ngolle at the ministry, and Alamine Ousmane Mey takes his place at Finance. Philemon Yang is now in the primacy while Biya has been re-elected. In 2012, a bill was finally drafted and, after being reviewed by committees of experts, was sent to the Etoudi palace to await approval from the head of state. However, time, inexorably, continues to run out. Commas added paragraphs changed, language improved… In 2018, Biya obtains the seventh mandate. In early 2019, Joseph Dion Ngute becomes his prime minister, and Jules Doret Ngondo is entrusted with forests and wildlife. Inoni is now in Kondengui prison, while Menye lives in exile in the US. The bill is gathering dust.

State complicity?

According to a document in our possession, the bill’s latest version dates from February 2021. It contains 196 articles and is 59 pages long. A space has been left vacant for the signature of the ‘president of the Republic’, but the space is still empty. The EU, which gives several million euros in aid each year for the management of Cameroon’s forest, is still pushing for reform. The words ‘control’ and ‘transparency’ are still being uttered, repeated and hammered home. The exploitation of small forests is still poorly regulated. “They are often exploited for too long and too widely. This exhausts the forest,” says a civil society actor. “The project was intended to combat mismanagement and trafficking, but there were no conclusive announcements from the presidency,” says another.

“We can only observe that the non-publication of this law maintains opacity in the forestry sector, which allows timber trafficking to flourish, particularly in Southeast Asia,” says former Beninese Environment Minister Raphaël Edou, who is in charge of Africa for the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), an American NGO specialising in the protection of fauna and flora. According to EIA estimates, at least 132,000 cubic metres of logs were exported from Cameroon to Vietnam in violation of the partial export ban on precious woods (doussie, mukulungu, sapelli, padouk, movingui…) between 2016 and July 2020. The trafficking, and the lack of revenue from part of the operations, are said to cost the country some 30bn CFA francs (about $50m) each year.

According to some estimates, the largest Vietnamese companies are harvesting more than 4,000 cubic metres per month to supply the Asian market. “They source small logging permits from Cameroonian, Lebanese or Chinese companies,” the EIA said in a November 2020 report. “The sawmills set up by Vietnamese companies also allow them to quickly launder illegal timber by processing it in a rough way, erasing the marks or hiding the lack of required marks,” says Samuel Nguiffo, head of the Cameroonian Centre for Development and Environment (CED). “Asian companies are financing the black market and local illegal logging networks with cash,” says Edou. “Logs are not matches, they cannot be hidden like that. If this continues, it means that the state is partly complicit.”

Smuggling, a pillar of the local economy

In the forest around the village of Bamanga, far north of Yaoundé and a few miles from Nigeria, some groups of foresters have chosen the axe over the chainsaw. It is a question of money and, above all, of discretion. Here, in the remote areas of the northern region, about 10 kilometres from Garoua, it is better not to be heard. Most of the villagers in the area value their forest, which protects them from desertification. The advance of the sand is worrying, and yet the axes continue to fall in rhythm on the rosewood, the exploitation of which is officially forbidden. This time again, the illegal loggers have made an agreement with a trader who came to see them in Bamanga, where smuggling with neighbouring Nigeria (cement, fuel, foodstuffs, etc.) has become a pillar of the local economy.

For these young men, the end of the month is not easy, so when the opportunity to earn cash came up, they accepted. In three or four days, the rosewood was cut and loaded onto motorbikes, tricycles or small vans, heading for the nearby border between Cameroon and Nigeria. The 2,000-kilometre-long border is obviously not guarded everywhere. Smugglers sometimes manage to bypass the controls and they often bribe the police. The Nigerian-based network provides the cash to facilitate the transfer. Sometimes local traditional leaders take their share of a few 100,000 CFA francs. The unofficial rate is around 40,000 francs per log.

These are mafia networks

Some get reported and convicted. Many don’t. “There are sometimes arrests and seizures of cargo, but this is rare, and even when they do occur, there are few convictions and sometimes the seized wood is sold at auction to companies and intermediaries who are actually linked to the trafficking,” says an expert. An investigation carried out in 2020 by the Museba Project, an organisation of whistleblowers specialising in environmental protection, detailed how a Nigerian businessman called ‘Abdul Karim’ had managed to have several of his illegal loggers arrested in Cameroon released. A little more than $2,000 in cash transferred via an intermediary to the police was enough. “These are mafia networks,” Edou says.

A vicious circle

“Nigeria has become a major consumer of Cameroonian rosewood as its own forests have been depleted,” says an expert on the illegal trade. The state of Taraba, which borders Cameroon, is even nicknamed the ‘Rosewood State’ by specialists and is considered by all to be one of the hubs of Cameroonian-Nigerian trafficking, just like its neighbours in Benue, and especially Adamawa (not to be confused with Cameroon’s Adamaoua). It is in the heart of the latter, in the small town of Maiha, where Abdul Karim is based.

“He is the middleman in a system that extends to the ports of Lagos or Onne in the Niger Delta,” says an investigator who has worked on the network. “The wood is cut in the Cameroonian forests of Adamaoua, the north or the north-west, then transported to Taraba and Adamawa with false legal certificates. This erases its fraudulent origin, which allows it to reach Nigerian ports, where Asian companies, in complicity with Chinese or Vietnamese consulates, export the goods to Asia,” our source says. “It is Nigerians – businessmen and politicians – who set up the network, but the sponsors are Asian,” says Edou.

“The traffickers take advantage of the instability in north-west Cameroon and the Niger Delta. The traffic corridor is well established, but the states are blind or powerless,” says the former Beninese environment minister. As with Boko Haram, for a time in Nigeria’s Borno State, there is a strong presumption that the Ambazonian groups are taking their share by allowing exploitation in the areas they claim,” says another expert. “It’s a vicious circle: rebellions weaken the state and encourage corruption and trafficking, which can feed the rebellions financially or materially.”

As long as there is a financial windfall, some people will try to capture it, and corruption will be fuelled

“In reality, it is a problem of supply and demand. As long as Asian countries do not respect their commitments to fight trafficking and prefer to feed their domestic market, this will persist and some, in Cameroon, Nigeria or elsewhere, will try to profit from it,” says Raphaël Edou. In 2017, the EIA accused the current Nigerian education minister, Amina Mohamed, of having authorised several thousand permits for the export of illegally logged timber to Asia when she was environment minister. The former UN under-secretary-general admitted to having signed certificates, but could not remember how many. The case will go no further. “As long as there is a financial windfall, some people will try to capture it, and corruption will be fuelled,” says a European diplomat in Yaoundé.

Lack of political will

“There is no real political will to fight trafficking,” says an investigator specialising in the Congo Basin. The response must be national and especially regional and international. Without this, we are only moving the traffic temporarily from one country to another, from Nigeria to Ghana for example. In Yaoundé, the timber business is one of the most opaque in the country, and people are happy to keep quiet about it. High-ranking officials rub shoulders with some of the most prominent names in the Republic, under the seal of shared secrecy. The former secretary of state for defence, Jean-Marie Aléokol, was known as the operator of hectares in eastern Cameroon, while General Benoît Asso’o Emane, who died in 2019, benefitted, via his son and a subcontractor of the French forestry giant Rougier, from a concession in the department of Dja-et-Lobo, where the current head of state is from.

Pierre Semengue, the first chief of staff of independent Cameroon, is also present in the southern forests, thanks to the company Bubinga. “Paul Biya and his predecessor Ahmadou Ahidjo often granted concessions to loyalists as a reward for their services,” says an expert. The Lebanese Khoury family, now one of the country’s biggest operators, especially in areas north of Yaoundé, obtained their first permits through the intervention of Ahidjo, who is close with the family. More recently, between the 1990s and 2000, Biya’s family also invested more or less discreetly in the sector. The president’s son, Franck Biya, was a shareholder alongside his cousin Bonaventure Mvondo Assam (who was a great friend of the Rougiers) and his friend Christian Mataga of the Assam Forestry Company (COFA).

The younger Biya and Mataga, who remained very close, then founded an entity called Ingénierie forestière (ING-F) and another, Société commerciale industrielle et forestière (SCIFO). In 2005, ING-F was suspected of illegal logging in the east by the NGO Global Witness, with Greenpeace suggesting that ‘a significant proportion [of its] timber entering the international market may have come from illegal operations’. Following a denunciation by local communities, SCIFO (which has Christian Mataga as the managing director) elicited a warning from the Forest and Rural Development Association (FODER) to the authorities in 2015 for ‘unauthorised exploitation’ in the east. None of these alerts has led to any convictions. Our expert says: “The relationship between the sector and the authorities is incestuous. This is undoubtedly one of the explanations for the immobility that encourages trafficking.”

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