Rebecca Regan-Sachs

Two Ways to Kill Potential: Liberia and Cameroon

Earlier this month, two western African countries held presidential elections. On the surface, they have little in common — one country recently emerged from a brutal civil war and has an abysmal economy; the other has been peaceful for decades and enjoys abundant revenue streams.

And yet both Liberia and Cameroon are classic stories of wasted potential.

Amid widespread allegations of electoral fraud, incumbent president Paul Biya was named winner of the Cameroon elections last Friday, and Liberian incumbent Ellen Johnson Sirleaf appears headed for victory in Liberia’s upcoming runoff elections.

But the two are poised to provide strikingly different kinds of leadership to their troubled countries.


The wasted potential in Liberia is fairly obvious, and it goes something like this: years of senseless civil war, an astounding 8% of the population killed, a third displaced, and a promising economy in free-fall.

In 2005, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf — contentiously involved in Liberian politics for years, and alumna of the World Bank, United Nations, and HSBC — won the country’s first post-war election and became Africa’s inaugural female head of state. Most recently in the news for sharing this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, Sirleaf, 72 is a darling of the international community and managed to get billions of dollars of the country’s debt written off. She also instituted free, compulsory primary education, revitalized several economic sectors, and instituted a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address injustices promulgated during the civil war.

As a result — and with heavy inflows of foreign aid — Liberia’s GDP is slowly beginning to resemble its pre-war self.

Certainly, Sirleaf is not perfect. Corruption claims have dogged her administration, and she had to dismiss her own brother from his Internal Affairs Ministry post due to embezzlement allegations in 2010. In addition, her early support for Charles Taylor, the man who would prove one of Liberia’s most brutal leaders, often haunts her (though she later became one of his most vocal critics, running against him unsuccessfully in the 1997 elections).

But having assumed leadership for one of Africa’s most problematic nations — with a UN Human Development Index below even that of Afghanistan — there’s no question that Sirleaf has taken the job seriously. In this year’s election, even her main opponent, Winston Tubman, acknowledged that there wasn’t much room for improvement in her policies: “Much of what she has done I would try to do.”


Following the lush coast of Liberia eastward, we arrive at a country roughly four times as large and five times as populous. This strikingly diverse land, the curve under the African crook, has enjoyed political stability for decades. What’s more, it enjoys significant natural resources, not least the oil and gas reserves that constitute roughly 30% of government revenues.

Naturally, then, Cameroon’s economy would dwarf Liberia’s. But look a little closer, and a very different picture of lost potential comes into focus.

With “one of the best-endowed primary commodity economies in sub-Saharan Africa,” Cameroon also received over $35 billion in foreign aid during Biya’s rule. And yet Cameroon’s GDP remains unimpressive, overly dependent on commodity prices, and currently lagging behind the average developing sub-Saharan country (per capita). In its “lower-middle income” country peer group, as defined by the World Bank, Cameroon’s per capita GDP is fully one-third lower than the average.

“Given its oil resources, [Cameroon] could be one of the richest countries in Sub-Saharan Africa,” stated a 2009 Oxford University study. Instead, it noted, “Cameroon has become an example of growth collapse.” The study makes the stunning assertion that 54% of total oil revenues in Cameroon between 1997 and 2006 are potentially unaccounted for in the federal budget. The culprit? “Poor governance.”

Since 1982, Cameroon has been ruled by a one-man presidential show, the secretive bureaucrat Paul Biya, 78. Routinely ranked among the most corrupt countries in the world, Cameroon has also achieved a “Not Free” rating from Freedom House’s political rights survey, grouping it with such continental all-stars as Somalia, Sudan, Zimbabwe and the DRC.

At least Ellen Johnson Sirleaf can blame a civil war for her country’s stagnation. Paul Biya has had 30 years to capitalize on Cameroon’s many economic and social advantages, with little to show for it. Just consider the following areas where Liberia — its population, infrastructure, and institutions recently devastated by a 14-year war — outstrips Cameroon. We’ll focus particularly on issues affecting the private sector, the engine of growth in a healthy economy.




% of Firms Identifying Corruption as a Major Constraint



% of Firms Identifying Tax Administration as Major Constraint



% of Firms Identifying Business Licensing and Permits as Major Constraint



% of Firms Identifying Access to Finance as a Major Constraint



% of Firms that Trade Identifying Customs & Trade Regulations as a Major Constraint



% of Firms Identifying Labor Regulations as a Major Constraint



Value of Collateral Needed for a Loan (% of the Loan Amount)



Number of Power Outages in a Typical Month



Average number of Incidents of Water Insufficiency in a Typical Month



Source: World Bank Enterprise Surveys, 2009

And, for good measure:




Life Expectancy



Infant Mortality (per 1,000 live births)



Source: World Bank Enterprise Surveys, 2009

But apparently Biya does not consider these statistics troubling enough to require much of his attention. Cameroon’s president can be found as often in Europe as in his official residence in Yaoundé, once blowing through $40,000 a day on 43 hotel rooms during a vacation in France. (As a little sidenote, 40 percent of Cameroon’s population lives below the poverty line).

This year, after doctoring election laws to favor his own victory (having altered the constitution in 2008 to abolish term limits), Biya ran a notably lackadaisical campaign. He must have taken to heart what many election observers have pointed out over the years – that the deeply flawed presidential elections in Cameroon are basically a foregone conclusion.

* * *

Too often in Africa, we focus on the wars, the epidemics, the genocidal dictators. But Cameroon has killed its potential the quiet way – through years of mismanagement, corruption and abuse. All the while, Western nations cut aid checks and conduct cheerful business with this most refreshing oasis of political stability.

Considering that both Sirleaf and Biya will likely continue in office the next few years, perhaps we should be more selective in our assistance. Whom would you rather receive your foreign aid tax dollars: the leaders trying to lift their countries out of trouble, or those who inflicted it in the first place?

Impact Assessment