Whenever I feel crushed by the legendary hustle and bustle of the rat race that the life in Douala has become, I always retire to the peaceful surroundings of the Foyer de la Charite in Bonjongo, Buea, for a few days in quest of true peace of soul and mind. The inhabitants of this Catholic retreat house call it "an oasis of peace and prayer"; and they aren't wrong. That is where I was on the eve of February 11 when a journalist from Radio Veritas, the radio of the Catholic Archdiocese of Douala, called to remind me that President Paul Biya would be speaking to the youth of this country that evening. Could I listen to him and give Radio Veritas my reaction to his speech? When you're out in search of peace of soul and mind, President Biya's speeches are far from being one of the ingredients for peace you want to have with you. However, since the young journalist would not take No! for an answer, I said I would and here is what I told him.
Two things always strike me in these Presidential addresses to the youth. The first is the incessant and monotonous assurances to the youth that it is in their hands that lies the future of this nation. Some of these things are so obvious I always wonder why anyone ever bothers to say them at all. Isn't it in the nature of things that the youth should inherit the legacy of their forefathers? Under other climes, that is what happens, but that does not, however, seem to be the case in our dear triangle where the old hang onto power till death does them part.
Old politicians, give way, please!
Look at how many old people are still holding positions of power that should normally be in the hands of a much younger generation. Take the case of leadership in our political parties, for example. See how many already dawdling men and women are still clinging, like leeches, to front-line positions in them. In the CPDM, Party Chairman, President Biya himself is well over 70 years of age. In the SDF, Chairman Ni John Fru Ndi is busy asking President Biya to relinquish power to him, yet he too is perhaps older than Biya and shows no sign of handing over the baton of command of his party to a younger person. In the fragmented UPC, Frederick Kodock, a veritable political dinosaur, whose real age, if it were ever to be known, should land him in his 90s, is still desperately resisting eviction from the top post of his party. Why are all these old men, who talk of the young as spearheading the future of our country, so unwilling to hand party leadership to younger militants? The answer is blowing in the wind.
Old army generals, for Christ's sake, move over!
Let’s take another example, our armed forces. The other day in Bamenda, during the celebration of the 50th anniversary of our armed forces, I saw army generals, who had been generals before I was born. Today, I am a retired man but they’re still clinging to power. I know a soldier, who was a bodyguard to one of those army generals. He had not even been born when the said general was already a high-ranking officer in the Nigerian army. Today, that soldier has been retired from the army but the man he was guarding is still holding firm to his army generalship, with the fringe benefits that go with it. If high-ranking army officers refuse to retire, then what happens to the young and ambitious army officers who should also be allowed to rise to the rank of army generals? That is the question! And then you wonder that there are rumbles of grumbling in the armed forces!
Help the youth to create jobs for themselves, Mr. President.
Another area where the President’s words don’t quite match the reality in the field is self-employment. In one presidential speech after another, the youth are always urged, and rightly so, to strive to be self-employed by creating their own businesses. However, in practice, the story looks grimly different. Let me highlight the case of one young person who took the President on his word and went out trying to create a job for herself only to have her efforts crippled by an over-ambitious tax collector, a valiant successor of Saint Matthew's.
She was a cousin of mine who came to see me a year or so ago. She and her husband were barely making ends meet and she was thinking of starting a small business of her own. Could my wife and I help her set up something outside her door for that purpose?
We gladly came to her assistance and she set up a small shelf-like structure on which to expose her wares for sale, mainly an assortment of things people in her neighbourhood buy on a regular basis – soap, matches, oil, salt, etc. She was not in business for up to six months when someone came to her door from the local council area to collect taxes, the so-called “impot liberatoire”. How much was he asking for? He wanted 12.000 francs CFA paid immediately.
The poor girl argued that the capital for her business was not even up to that amount. The tax collector was adamant, even threatening to impound her goods to only release them after the payment of the said taxes plus a penalty for being rude to a council official. Unable to pay the “impot liberatoire”, the poor girl was forced to wind down her business barely six months into self-employment.
My advice to the President, if he were ever to ask me, which I know he would never do, would be for him to gracefully, if need be, forcefully retire all old, senile and dawdling men and women from our public service, especially from our armed forces. That would create a breathing space for the younger ones to show us of what mettle they are made. When you've finished retiring others, you then do the most honorable thing: graciously retire yourself. Secondly, Mr. President, encourage job creation by eliminating suffocating taxes that are making doing business in Cameroon such a painful experience for many, especially the youth.
While we wait, I wish the youth of our country well.