BAMENDA, CAMEROON – Emmanuel Akum, a radio disc jockey in Bamenda, the capital of Cameroon’s Northwest region, says that armed men robbed his family’s store three years ago. A salesman at the store, he had been sleeping there when robbers broke in around 1 a.m.
“I suddenly discovered that armed men were in our shop, and I was ordered to lay on the floor,” he says. “They carried bags of beans, cooking oil, rice and other supplies, which they loaded into a truck that was packed outside. They also carted away 827,000 francs [$1,700].”
He says he contacted his neighbors after the robbers left.
“We reported [it] to the police in the morning,” he says, “and they started investigations.”
The police didn’t make any arrests, Akum says, so he and his family tried another method.
“We reported the incidence to a witch doctor so that, through his art, the thieves will be caught or will return our goods,” he says. “A few months later, two men confessed to the act, and we think it is due to the witch doctor's intervention.”
Police officials link an increase in robberies and thefts in Cameroon to high underemployment. People are easy targets because they carry or store large amounts of cash in their offices and homes instead of using bank services. Schools in Bamenda are introducing more secure methods for tuition payment after several prominent robberies last year. But rural areas still lack banks, leaving their money susceptible to theft or damage by the elements and insects. Banks offer growing cashless services, but people don’t trust them while rural areas lack infrastructure to operate them.
A high-ranking police official, who requested anonymity because he’s involved in investigations of recent larceny cases in Bamenda, says that thefts and robberies occur on a weekly basis now. He says the number of incidents has been increasing, which he linked to declining social conditions and high youth underemployment rates.
In Cameroon, 3.8 percent of the population is unemployed, according to the World Bank’s January 2012 Cameroon Economic Update. But 70 percent are underemployed, which includes people who are unemployed, work fewer than 40 hours a week or earn less than the minimum hourly wage.
The National Institute of Statistics’ 2010 survey of employment and the informal sector found that 13 percent of young people ages 15 to 35 were unemployed, according to an African Economic Outlook 2012 report. More than 70 percent of this same age group were underemployed – nearly 55 percent in urban areas and almost 80 percent in the countryside.
“When social conditions breakdown, crime goes up,” says Paul Nchoji Nkwi, a professor of African anthropology and the deputy vice chancellor for academic affairs at the Catholic University of Cameroon, Bamenda.
The Bamenda police official says that people are easy targets for larceny because they carry huge amounts of cash. They also store it in unsecured buildings, including their offices or homes, instead of banks.
“I remember this case of a businessman who was traveling with his driver to one of the villages for some business project,” he says. “This businessman had over 25 million francs [$51,000] in cash in his car. On their way, robbers waylaid them and made away with the money.”
The police official describes these attacks as “coupe de routes,” when robbers attack cars or buses traveling at night or on quiet roads.
“These coupe de routes are very common now because most businesspeople and travelers often carry physical cash on them,” he says.
The police official says that street vendors are also victims while selling bread or yogurt around the city. After distributing to hundreds of shops, vendors have hundreds of thousands of francs in their vans or waist bags at the end of the day. Most people know the vendors’ routes, making them easy targets for robbers.
Njangi groups, a local money lending system, are also easy targets, the police official says. Members pool large amounts of money – sometimes hundreds of thousands or millions of francs – to lend to each other on a rotating basis.
Members usually contribute the money in physical cash and display it on a table so that it’s visible to everyone. But this makes it easy for armed bandits to attack njangi groups, the police official says. Most meetings occur in unsecured premises, such as houses and bars.
“Any time you carry physical cash on you, you are an easy target for robbers,” the police official says. “These cases are reported every time, but I think companies, schools and individuals need to think of safer options of securing their finances and cash.”
Parents paying school fees are also prime targets for theft, the police official says.
Last year alone, there were three prominent reports of armed robbery at secondary schools in Bamenda while parents paid fees, he says. Among other cases, the incidents at the Presbyterian Secondary School Nkwen, Starlight College Nkwen and Sacred Heart College Mankon sparked the most public debate.
Dr. Charles Awasom, director of the Bamenda Regional Hospital and the president of the Parent Teacher Association of Sacred Heart College Mankon, says armed robbers stole 30 million francs ($60,300) from parents standing in line to pay their children’s fees to the school bursar at the start of the 2012-2013 academic year.
“Most parents wait for the school’s reopening date and they carry cash to the school and pay the fees for their kids,” he says.
Awasom discourages this practice.
“This not only wastes time but makes the crowd an easy target for armed robbers,” he says.
Parents may also pay fees during school vacation. But Awasom says that they still pay in cash, which is risky.
Police have made arrests regarding the Sacred Heart College Mankon case but have not yet caught all the suspects, the police official says. The investigation is still ongoing.
The school’s first PTA meeting on Feb. 9 after the robbery addressed the robbery. Nde Richard Lajong, a parent of a Sacred Heart College Mankon student, says the school decided to change the payment methods to increase security.
“At the PTA meeting, we the parents were informed that the bandits were arrested and some of the stolen money recovered,” he says. “The school administration announced that hence school fees will be paid into the school bank account to avoid the inconvenience of parents queuing up at the school premises to pay school fees.”
The police official says that some schools and institutions have arranged for parents to make the financial transactions at banks to increase security. Parents then submit the receipts for these transactions to the schools.
But he says that robbers can still take advantage of this system.
“Again, you have thousands of students at a bank with cash in hand waiting for hours and sometimes days to pay fees,” he says.
In rural schools, some parents pay school fees using other systems, Awasom says. For example, they may bring the equivalent of tuition in foodstuff.
Nkwi says people in villages bury their money in their yards, farms or ceilings to keep it safe. He references one woman in Boyo, in the Northwest region in Cameroon, who lost all her money this way.
“She recounted to me how she hid her money in a ridge in her farm and later forgot which particular ridge the money was hidden in,” Nkwi says. “She searched for long, and when she finally found the money, it had been eaten by ants.”
The police official says he is surprised that, despite frequent reports of theft and robbery during recent months, people still carry huge amounts of cash.
Nkwi says that going cashless is a foreign concept in Cameroon. Historically, physical trading powered the economy.
“The cash economy to which we have been subjected to for the past hundred or so years is still strange to some Cameroonians,” Nkwi says. “Our mentality still needs to change.”
He says that people used to barter in order to obtain the goods they needed. They then transitioned to using cowries and shells of land snails to trade. European colonization – first by Germany during the 19th century then by the British and French after World War I – introduced money in Cameroon.
“Commercial banks are now on the scene,” Nkwi says, “and our public is reticent to fully embrace the services they offer, especially the cashless ones.”
Nadine Tchinda, 25, a graduate from the Government Teacher Training College in Bamenda, says there was a buzz about credit cards a few years ago, and most people touted the advantages of cashless operations. She bought a credit card from a company that advertised and sold the cards, but it never worked.
“I don’t know what went wrong,” Tchinda says. “I still have the credit card, which I have never used, and I don’t just bother about all the cashless service options that banks advertise.”
Tchinda says she avoids using the ATM at her bank, as sometimes services aren’t available and large fees encumber transactions. Instead, she makes frequent trips to the bank.
“I plan my life well,” she says. “When I need money, I go withdraw and carry out my transactions. [I] don’t have to carry large sums of money on me.”
In rural areas, a large part of the population is unbanked because they distrust electronic services or their communities lack available structures, Nkwi says. Some remote villages don’t have banks or even electricity, which means workers who collect their pay in larger towns nave no choice but to keep cash.
“At the end of the month they travel to towns and collect their salaries from these banks,” Nkwi says. “When they travel back to their villages, where there are no banks or even electricity to run cashless bank services, they have to keep this cash at home, which makes them vulnerable to thieves.”
Nkwi says that the government, private banks and financial institutions must work with the public to ensure money security, not just from thieves, but also from ants, weevils and rain. They should also provide financial services in rural areas, including ATMs, checks and, in the future, credit cards.
“These services should also consider the needs of our rural populations,” he says.
Some business professionals have started to use money wire transfers, the police official says.
But Nkwi says a cashless economy won’t replace certain aspects of Cameroon culture.
“For example, no one pays dowry – bride price – with a check,” he says. “People want to touch and feel the cash. For basic cultural necessities, physical cash will still be needed.”