The worldwide surge in food prices has affected several countries, including some of the poorest. In some parts of Africa, where food prices dominate household spending, the soaring prices have sparked unrest. In this report from Douala, Cameroon, Ntaryike Divine, Jr. says the government is taking a number of steps to reduce costs in general.
Among the steps is a 15 percent salary increase and a bigger housing allowance for civil service and military personnel.
The measures were mandated in March by President Paul Biya. He also suspended customs duties on essential foods like wheat, flour, fish and cooking oil. The steps are intended to boost purchasing power and counteract the skyrocketing cost of living.
Official figures put the inflation rate at two percent, but purchasing power for an estimated 18.3 million Cameroonians has dropped considerably over time. In February, hungry protesters took to the streets in the worst unrest the country has seen in 15 years.
The government put the death toll at 40 but human rights watchdogs said more than a hundred people died. Rioters also expressed opposition to the president’s plans to amend the constitution so he can run for office again in 2011, when he will be 85. Mr. Biya has been president for 25 years.
In the streets of Douala, where the protests erupted, reactions to the government measures have varied. While some laud the relief efforts, others say they are largely cosmetic. As part of reforms put in place in 1993, backed by the IMF, Cameroon slashed state workers wages by 70 percent. A year later, the CFA Franc was devalued by 50 percent, and consumer purchasing power slumped sharply.
Patricia Oben works with the state-run broadcaster, CRTV. She says the relief measures will not have much impact.
"It's too little, too late," says Oben. "They need to do a lot more in the next two to three months for it to be meaningful in any way. People lost 75 percent, they got back 15 percent; it doesn’t make any sense. If it’s to increase purchasing power, they should do something concrete. Right now, it looks like child’s play. They say food prices have gone down, but not that much. I’m paying more in food."
The government has reduced or dropped taxes on certain goods, like rice, fish and flour. But some traders have stuck to old prices, including those that had increased between 50 and 100 percent in a year. The traders say they still have old stocks to empty before they implement the new rates.
The government has reacted by deploying price control teams, including gendarmes, to enforce the new food prices.
In addition, customs duties have been reduced on certain imports, like cement. The Biya administration has also announced it will create 14,00 new government jobs. It says it will cut electricity fees and will conduct a review of fuel prices, telephone fees, and bank charges.
The government says the pay increase and waived tariffs will cost the state about 300 US dollars a month. But it says it hopes to offset that by reducing foreign travel by government officials and suspending the purchase of new vehicles.
It says soaring living costs are a global phenomenon resulting from the effects of climate change, the growing demand for biofuels and the rising cost of petroleum, energy and grain. Officials say the global rise in food prices could last a decade.
Economists say the picture is scary and implies that the country may be sitting on a bubbling volcano if long term measures are not applied. They say underinvestment in agriculture, bad weather and high transport costs may create another wave of unrest.
Simon Djolla Djolla is an agricultural official. The engineer and agro-economist says to survive Cameroon must concentrate on developing its potentially rich agricultural sector.
"What we should encourage now," says Djolla, "is production. It is normal that we can’t boost production if rural road networks are not rehabilitated, if we lack conservation infrastructure, if farm inputs are increasingly expensive and out of the reach of smallholder farmers. The political will exists, especially now that the government is shifting from investing in the social to the production sector and we have a dynamic population in Cameroon. We need to organize the rural world and put in place strong cooperatives."
Djolla Djolla says the current hikes in food costs provide a golden opportunity for Cameroonian farmers to increase their revenues and living standards.
He says banning food exports is not the solution and that policy makers should cut duties on farm equipment and inputs, construct roads into the most productive rural areas, re-structure markets and set up powerful farmers’ cooperatives.
"Today," says Djolla, "we supply food to Gabon, the CAR, Chad and Equatorial Guinea. We should encourage African solidarity and share, even if we stay hungry. I think we should continue to help our neighbors and ensure income for local farmers, but also take steps to increase domestic production. It is time to pump in money for our agricultural sector to emerge, for us to stop relying on raw materials exports and begin to transform what we produce."
He says there’s added hope. Last year, a group of Chinese entrepreneurs started a rice project in the south of Cameroon. Others are coming in. And economists say while the short-term measures are welcome in the effort to ward off another revolution of the hungry, only durable, long-term measures are sure to help guarantee peace and stability in Cameroon.