A 2018 report by Cameroon’s National Anti-corruption Commission (CONAC) ranked Cameroon Customs as the most corrupt agency in the country between 2010 and 2015. CONAC found that customs officials were most corrupt in the Littoral, Far-North, South-West and Centre regions. South-West and Far-North form national boundaries with Nigeria and Chad. Porous borders such as these are among the most prone to criminal activities, and ineffective or corrupt customs services further fuel transnational organised crime (TOC).
In the Far-North region, criminal activities include the smuggling of stolen vehicles originating from Central African countries such as Gabon and the Republic of Congo. Stolen vehicles are destined for re-sale in West African markets such as Nigeria and Togo. The Far-North is also known for trafficking and smuggling activities linked to the militant Islamist Boko Haram insurgency. Notably, it is also a gateway for smuggling tramadol – an opioid pain medication that is used as a recreational drug. Tramadol is trafficked from West Africa to countries in Central Africa, particularly Gabon and the Republic of Congo.
The South-West region, which shares sea and land borders with Nigeria, has been identified as a conduit for the trafficking cannabis and small arms. A senior customs official, told ENACT that artisanal fishing is often used as a cover for other forms of TOC in the region. Fishing boats transport illicit arms and counterfeit goods, for example.
In the Littoral region, the CONAC report refers mainly to Douala Port, Central Africa’s largest port. According to the customs official we spoke to, the port terminal and the road borders represent a major aspect of Cameroon Customs’ activities. He added that the ‘Douala-Far-North road corridor also constitutes privileged access to the sea for Chad and the Central African Republic [CAR].’
The two landlocked countries have used Cameroon for imports and exports, but have threatened to move their shipping operations to Lomé in West Africa due to corruption at Douala Port. News reports that CAR had moved its operations to Pointe-Noire in the Republic of Congo in December 2018 were debunked as false.
Not all border criminality can be attributed to corrupt customs officials, and conversely, not all corruption involving customs officials occurs at land borders. ‘The CONAC report refers to various customs activities, including sea, road and air,’ the official said.
It is becoming increasingly evident that the integrity of customs officials along these borders has been compromised. So much so, that they have become conduits for various criminal activities. If Cameroon is to fight TOC, it needs to address corruption within its customs services.
According to the CONAC report, customs officials confessed to owning assets ranging from luxury vehicles, trucks and buses to high-value real estate and hundreds of millions of CFA francs in bank accounts. The salaries of these officials, particularly those with only a few years of service, could not account for their expensive lifestyles and wealth.
The CONAC report identified several strategies that customs officials use to divert funds meant for the state Treasury. These include exempting traders or travellers from declaring imported goods, and collecting bribes of lesser value than the sums due in import duties. Customs officials also under-report revenue paid by importers, declaring lesser amounts to the Treasury. Another strategy is the illicit appropriation of confiscated goods, which are then sold for personal gain.
For the Treasury, this represents vasts economic losses. ENACT consulted all national budgets for the years 2010 to 2015. Cameroon’s combined national budgets from 2010 to 2015 amounted to CFA francs 14 864 billion (around €23 billion). State losses to corruption over the same period was estimated at CFA francs 1 246 billion (€1.9 billion), including CFA francs 581 billion (€886 million) as a result of illegally awarded exemptions by customs officials in the four regions indicated above alone. In other words, over a five-year period, the state lost more than 8% of its budget to corruption in customs revenue collection centres alone.
Corruption within Cameroon Customs is not only responsible for major economic losses; it also perpetuates peace and security risks. This is particularly relevant in light of the two violent crises that the country currently faces: Boko Haram in Far-North; and secessionist claims and related conflict in the North-West and South-West regions.
In response to the CONAC report, the director of Cameroon Customs was reported as saying that his agency takes governance seriously. On its website, the agency describes the missions of its ethics and governance promotion committee, but there is no evidence of concrete action.
Cameroon’s overall framework for fighting corruption is complex and uncoordinated. It includes multiple committees, agencies and mechanisms that exist on paper but lack effective implementation in practice. The CONAC report lamented the absence of cooperation from governmental institutions like the Ministry of Justice, which it said often fails to prosecute corruption cases – even when investigations provide evidence of public officials’ guilt.
This has meant that many corrupt practices within the customs service go unpunished. TOC syndicates including traffickers, smugglers and terrorists exploit such entrenched impunity at border points. Many of these issues were raised at a meeting of the World Customs Organization held in Yaoundé in 2018.
Cameroon should address corruption in the customs service with a view to fighting` TOC more broadly. Such a strategy would need to be innovative, but could hold the key to unlocking the country’s economic potential and achieving peace and sustainable development goals.
Agnes Ebo’o, ENACT Regional Organised Crime Observatory coordinator – Central Africa, ISS