YAOUNDE - Cameroon says the economies of its troubled English-speaking western regions are collapsing as a result of the country’s four-year separatist conflict. Officials say the ongoing fighting has made tax revenues in the English-speaking Northwest region drop from $800,000 annually to just $1,000 last year. The lack of government funds has had devastating effects on the region.
Fotso Dominique, the most senior government economic official in the English-speaking Northwest region, says separatist fighters have succeeded in chasing customs and tax officials from almost all crossing points along the border with Nigeria.
Speaking on Cameroon state television, Dominique said there has been a 90% drop in imports of building materials, drugs, vehicles, electronics and basic commodities from Nigeria. This, he says, while civilians have been deprived of basic supplies and state coffers left with huge shortfalls.
"Before 2016, the customs duty collection was more than 200 million Francs [$ 363,000] in Donga Mantung and about 150 million [$ 273,000] from Menchum Division giving us a total of about 305 million [$552,000] per annum. As we talk, Donga Mantung last year collected less than 500,000 [$ 900] and nothing was collected from the Menchum area," he said.
Cameroon’s government this month reported that the country’s second largest employer — the Cameroon Development Corporation — had abandoned most of its banana, palm oil, and rubber plantations. It owes as much as a year’s worth of backpay to 6,000 of its 22,000 workers.
The Palm Oil Company PAMOL and other agro industrial companies say they are now heavily in debt.
Microfinance institutions that power the economies of Cameroon's English-speaking regions say they are unable to recover $50 million in loans.
Merchants have either escaped to safer areas in the French-speaking regions or can not repay loans because their businesses are closed due to the fighting.
The separatists have said on social media that their intention is to ruin Cameroon government state coffers. Fighters say they want to make the English-speaking regions ungovernable until they obtain their independence.
Residents and businesspeople say anyone who disobeys the fighters’ calls for a lockdown or is seen paying taxes is subject to retribution.
Businessman Protus Awnaga says he almost lost his life for disobeying instructions from fighters not to go on a business trip on the week a lockdown was imposed.
"That is the most awful moment I have ever had in my life. Face to face with gunmen like this. And they ordered us out of the car. We saw our things being burnt, but we were even thankful to God because they should have burnt us with the car. It is terrible. It is deplorable," he said.
Economist Tasoh Gerald says the consequences of the crisis weighs on the government but it is civilians who are caught in the fighting who suffer most. They include people whose businesses were either torched by separatists for disobeying their instructions to not pay taxes or those whose property was burnt by the military, which accused them of supporting the fighters.
"It has discouraged investments in this region. A fall in investments implies a rise in unemployment and a general fall in the standards of living. Also, most of the councils in these regions find it difficult to settle their debts and pay their workers," he said. "Another consequence is the near collapse of the tourism sector. Most of the recreational areas and tourist sites are abandoned. Most of those in the working age group have migrated to other regions leaving behind the old and the young in the villages. This high migration implies less farm labor and consequently a fall in agricultural productivity in these regions."
The suffering has not deterred neither the government nor the fighters. Both have maintained their positions for the past four years. The separatists are asking for the creation of a breakaway English-speaking state while the government maintains that Cameroon cannot be divided.
The United Nations says the conflict has killed more than three thousand people and displaced more than 500,000. Fifty thousand others are asylum seekers in neighboring Nigeria.