YAOUNDE, CAMEROON —
Cameroon has arrested and jailed more than a dozen government administrators and project managers in a crackdown on corruption. But many think President Paul Biya, who has been in power for 34 years, is just silencing his opponents.
Among the 14 senior state officials arrested and detained within the past two weeks is Joseph Andre Eyebe Eyebe, the highest ranking government official in the western town of Bangante.
Cameroon's Justice Ministry says he and 13 others were charged by the country's special criminal tribunal for corruption cases and taken to prison in Yaounde, the capital.
A lawyer who consults for the Justice ministry, Etienne Dika, says the 14 men are accused of embezzling $9 million that was to be paid as compensation for people evicted from land used for the construction of a deep sea port in Kribi.
Dika says Cameroonians who have been advocating for transparency should assist the government in its fight against corruption instead of complaining of political witch hunting. He said charging the accused will help establish the truth.
At least two dozen former officials, including immediate past prime minister Ephraim Inoni, and heads of state corporations have been arrested in what the government says is a campaign against corruption.
President for life?
Among them is former senior government minister Marafa Hamidou Yaya, who insists they are victims of President Paul Biya's desire to stay in power for life.
In a letter to journalists, Yaya states that in 2008 he advised Biya not to change the constitution that limited his mandate, but that the president ignored his calls, changed the constitution, ran for president and was declared the winner.
Etienne Haman of Cameroon's non-governmental organization "Peoples' Rights" says it looks like the anti-corruption campaign targets Biya's opponents.
He says people think the detention of corrupt officials has political undertones because corruption has continued, despite the mass arrests and detention of suspects. He says many Cameroonians are indifferent about the arrests that were originally intended to discourage the theft of public funds.
The communications secretary for Cameroon's main opposition Social Democratic Front, Beatrice Animbom, says Biya should instead ask the suspects to pay back the money.
"First, there were ministers and persons of that rank who were embezzlers in this country. Now, it is the turn of DOs and SDs (local administrative leaders). Cameroonians are asking that these monies embezzled be returned to the treasury to help build roads and provide water and electricity. That is what Cameroonians want," Biya said.
The government has complained about lengthy judicial processes and difficulties tracing embezzled funds in foreign banks, but last year Cameroon said it had recovered $4 million in public funds.
The state estimates $152 million in public funds has been stolen.
Cameroon law states corruption suspects can be detained and their travel documents seized during investigations.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Etienne Dika as a Justice Ministry spokesperson. He is a lawyer who consults for the ministry.