There are two stories that illustrate the idiosyncrasies of the Cameroon economy.
One concerns a British businessman who came to sell military uniforms. Unable to converse with the Franco-phone staff officers in their own language, he was offensively supercilious. When asked to produce samples, he discovered he had forgotten to bring any. Despite his ignorance and incompetence, the man was given a substantial order.
The other is about a new airport at Bamenda, capital of North-West Province. Completed several months ago, it was a vital staging post for military aircraft flying relief supplies to the victims of last month’s volcanic disaster. But there is no civilian traffic because it has not been officially opened, and no one seems to know when it will be.
Despite the slump in oil prices, Cameroon retains a robust and diverse economy open to quality Western goods and services. But a slow-moving bureaucracy and vestiges of corruption can lead to excessive delays in reaping the rewards.
In the view of Mr Douglas Gray, second secretary at the British Embassy in Yaounde, Cameroon is ‘a commercial accident waiting for business to happen’.
Its budget is the only one in West Africa to increase this year, and is now the biggest of the region’s Francophone states. Income per head is among the highest, and the debt-service ratio one of the lowest, in tropical Africa.
An investment code implemented in 1984 has encouraged new enterprises with technical assistance and eight-year tax concessions.
There is a large and growing elite of young technocrats ready to develop business opportunities. (The unpaved streets of Bamenda are lined with bookshops, each an Aladdin’s Cave of educational and classical African literature.)
Well-diversified agriculture provides a firm base for the economy, ensuring virtual self-sufficiency in food. ‘Plant a walking stick here and it will grow,’ one wit observed.
Yet the economy is slowing, and it is not entirely due to the loss of earnings from offshore oil and a sharp drop in cocoa prices.
One factor, deriving from the peculiar bilingual character of Cameroon, is uncertainty about the sixth Five-Year Plan, which should have been launched last month. It is still to be published, because the English version of the French original has not been completed. Another is that urgency and tight contract schedules are unfamiliar concepts.
President Paul Biya is making determined efforts to eradicate administrative delays, and the corrupt practices for which associates of his predecessor, Mr Ahmadou Ahidjo, were notorious.
When growing irritation about non-payment of bills was brought to his attention earlier this year, Mr Biya promptly released oil funds to clear the backlog.
He is unlikely to stamp out entirely the ubiquitous dash, the discreet payments that grease the wheels of commerce, but high-level corruption is comparatively rare.
‘As soon as you start importing materials for a project, you come across your Mr 10 Per Cents and Mr 12 Per Cents,’ a Swiss engineer confided. ‘But that also happens in Europe, and it’s nothing like as bad here as in some other African states I could mention. ‘
France is by far the biggest trading partner, with 47 per cent of the market, and French advisers in virtually every government department are likely to ensure that it stays that way.
The United States and several West European countries are making inroads, but Britain is lagging well behind with a 3 per cent share, worth some pounds 52 million last year.
According to Mr Gray, the British have only themselves to blame: ‘Others are winning contracts by getting to know their clients and making long-term commitments, while most of our people insist on fast returns on assets. There are boundless opportunities for UK businessmen, providing they invest the required time, effort and patience. ‘
It would be unwise to emulate the behavior of the uniform salesman. The days when influential traders of the Bamileke tribe divined future prospects from giant spiders are long gone.