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Cameroon dances to anti-graft beat

7 December 07 12:28 GMT

Some 79% of Cameroonians have paid a bribe in the past year - more than in any other country - according to Transparency International.

The BBC's Randy Joe Sa'ah reports from the port city of Douala on the latest attempt to fight corruption.

If you walk down Cameroon's city streets, the music you are likely to hear booming from shops, bars and taxis is known here as "revolutionary".

The lyrics are loaded with phrases like "corruption is killing us" and "where is our tax money?"

In a country where corruption and impunity have become a way of life, award-winning Makossa musicians like Longue Longue and Lapiro de Mbanga are on the offensive.

They are portraying themselves as warriors against corruption.

"You bribe in hospital to see a doctor. This country is sick," sings Lapiro, who is in his late 50s.

Lapiro calls all embezzlers of state funds to be sent to prison.

"Send them to Kondengui Prison. Everybody to Kondengui... ministers, directors send them to Kondengui," his lyrics go.

Change

Lapiro and Longue Longue have even waded into the contentious debate about possible moves to amend the constitution that could allow President Paul Biya, head of state for 25 years, to seek a new term of office in 2011.

"You promised change; we are waiting for the change
By the way, what do you want to change? The tax money you are swindling or the constitution?
Hawkers are suffering in Bamenda... so where is the change you promised?" go Longue Longue's dance lyrics.

The Makossa singer, who calls himself "The liberator of the Cameroonian people", warns in his 2007 song Le Serment.

"Just dare change the constitution again. You shall see."

Journalists can be jailed for up to a year for falling foul of Cameroon's strict libel laws, but it is felt fame gives musicians a degree of immunity to speak their minds.

Most people think the songs are daring, as traditionally musicians have focussed on love or do praise-singing for rich and influential people in return for money.

'Rich remain rich'

In Doula, most residents seem to easily know the words to these revolutionary songs.

"The lyrics mean that when people are being sworn into office, they take that oath to govern well but they soon forget," says one resident of the crowded Bonamoussadi district.

"So now they start concentrating on how to fill their pockets with huge sums of money - The rich remain rich while the poor remain poor."

Two women, standing nearby, concur.

"They try to make us know how our country today looks like. So that we should be aware of the government," one says.

But her friend queried whether the messages were targeting the right group.

"When they sing like that they are sensitising only the masses, the people who are low down there. But is it touching the people who are practising the corruption?" she asks.

So what does the government make of the challenging lyrics?

"They are playing what I will consider a formidable role in the moralisation of society," says Raymond Neba'ane Asongbang, a technical adviser in the ministry of culture.

"I'm sure that any normal human being would not like himself to be the subject of a song.

"Ridiculing means that they want you to change your behaviour."

Overwhelmed

A new Anti-Corruption Commission was created in March - headed by President Biya - which campaigns on radio and with posters to end graft and the police have begun publishing the names of officers guilty of gross corrupt practices.

A handful of former ministers and directors of state companies have been jailed for pilfering millions of dollars.

One of the most recent cases was Gerald Emmanuel Ondo Ndong, former manager of the state-run Councils Support Fund, who received a 50-year jail term.

However, the local press and some opposition parties have been critical of the reluctance of the government to recover stolen money.

"It is not enough to imprison embezzlers of state funds and allow them to continue enjoying the stolen money," says John Fru Ndi, chairman of the main opposition Social Democratic Front.

"What is more important is that the monies be retrieved and returned to the state treasury."

And the ongoing anti-corruption campaign is not yet yielding sufficient fruit.

Policemen still openly collect bribes from cab drivers who do not have valid documents or whose vehicles are not roadworthy, while bribery in the civil service remains the norm.

President Biya himself seems overwhelmed by the burden of corruption.

"Cameroonians write to me every day to say, look, this or that person has embezzled," he told France 24 TV recently.

Although he noted a word of caution.

"If I take them for their word, the prisons will not be large enough to accommodate everybody... I don't think we can bring corruption down to zero; we need to reduce it to insignificant levels that will not obstruct development."

But the musicians hope their danceable tunes will add the needed momentum to dealing with Cameroon's cancer of corruption.

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