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29-Years old And Fighting Corrupt Forest Exploitation 

His tender age belies his ability and capability to manage a sensitive Transparency-International anti-corruption project.

His charge is to manage a European funded project that aims at reducing emissions from forest degradation in Cameroon and beyond. And Lucain Nyassi Tchakounte has to do this against the daunting odds of corruption and other red tape.

His interview is at once a lesson in prudent management, anti-corruption drive and the patent right of a people to harvest sustainable gains from their God-given environment.
Read on:

What’s your precise mission, your charge?

Transparency International is a civil society organisation fighting against corruption and for the promotion of good governance, in partnership with the Government, media, and the private sector.
On the environmental aspect, we work with Reducing Emission from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, REDD+ on the reduction of emission from deforestation and reforestation and we are really interested in the Governance aspect because the REDD+ will in the coming years provide additional funds for countries involved in the process. Cameroon has been involved since 2005, and now, REDD+ is implementing some pilot projects to see how the country can benefit from these mechanisms that I must say were developed by the North.
Cameroon has not really improved on the Corruption Perception Index. We found it useful to address the issue of governance so we can prevent corruption from having a negative impact on the process.
The project ‘REDD+ Governance and Finance Integrity for Africa’ was launched 2014 and so far, we have had several training workshops, published research works from the knowledge of the population on the REDD+ issue, and it is on the basis of the research that we found out that the population was still lacking on the knowledge of this process. This is why we decided to organise the sensitisation campaign to explain in very simple words what REDD+ is all about for them to understand, and to help them see what the risks are, especially at the level of land.
If REDD+ becomes something very important, land would be like gold, and there is risk that the population might just be sent out, or have their lands taken away by some individuals for economic purposes. They should know all these and more, and get prepared and go for the information. They have the Ministry of Nature Protection and Wildlife, other civil society organisations like ‘People Health Wise’, to get the appropriate information. We also want to put ahead our Advocacy and Legal Advice Centre, where we present assistance to victims and witnesses of corruption. These victims and witnesses can come to us and the assistance is free. We provide legal assistance, whatsoever the problem. If we find the problem very pertinent, we can go as far as judicial assistance because we have a project on legal assistance in partnership with the Ministry of External Affairs of France.

How do you integrate or are you in any way in conflict with Green Peace?

No, there’s no conflict.

Because the sensitisation campaigns you’re carrying out… ‘Green Peace’ is doing something of a similar nature even though theirs is more of activism.

We are not in conflict. We have different approaches to the issue. ‘Green Peace’ looks more into the pedagogic aspect but ours is the governance. If you say that ‘ok’, this is something you want to get into, you should also put in place the appropriate strategies for all the stakeholders to benefit from this process because they have been identified and someone cannot benefit if he does not at the beginning have the right information. This explains why we come in with transparency. We provide the people with the right information so that at the time we are talking about revenue or some other thing of the REDD+, they should be able to hold you accountable for all the engagements you are into, in the name of the Cameroon Government.

Apparently you’re going to run into certain limitations, especially with the not too informed grassroots people that you are dealing with. How have you designed your strategies; your pedagogy, so to speak, such that everybody understands you and willingly comes on board?

The communication strategy for this sensitisation campaign actually takes into account these challenges. That is why we try to make very comprehensive posters. We put ourselves in the place of the common man because we know that in various localities the levels of understanding are not the same. But the posters present the day-to-day living of the people; they would recognise themselves through these posters. But beyond this, we are also planning to have programmes on community radio stations. These programmes would have someone who can easily translate what we would be saying into local languages, so that the population can get the right information.
We have already selected some villages with who we are going to have some public meetings and get to talk to them one-on-one. We will produce image boxes that present the situation of climate change; its effects on the activities of man. We present what can happen if nothing is done, and why they need to protect the environment, even if not for their sake, at least for the future generations.

We are talking here about Cameroon, a chronic case when it comes to corruption. How transparent is Transparency Cameroon? How transparent are the people who get into this project? How do you intend to work so that there is verifiable transparency in what you are doing? How transparent are the people behind this project for your people to see that this thing gets to the brass tacks?

Talking about how transparent is Transparency; I will say it starts from the recruitment process. Before you work at Transparency International, you have to pass through what we call an integrity test. You have to be of good standing. We know people face temptations and all that, but the issue is, you have to behave in such a way that it does not put the organisation’s interest at risk. This is what we keep telling our employees, and that is why at Transparency, the hierarchy always makes sure that even though we come on the field, they have direct contact with the coordinators, to follow up if they have done the job and in the right way too. This means that we cannot come and just do what we like, thinking that the hierarchy is in the office and will not know what we do. No. there is follow up at the level of Yaounde.
On how to ensure that the work gets transparent, we started at the beginning of the project, identifying strategic partnerships and we went towards the National Coordination body of the REDD+ and presented the project. We told them the project is out to reinforce the work they are doing so that Cameroonians can benefit from this process. We also work with international partners like World Wide Fund for Nature, WWF, International Union for the Conservation of Nature, IUCN, and GIZ. We share ideas and information so that at our level, the advocacy is strong and shared by all the stakeholders.

About strategic partnership, we’re happy you talked about WWF because they are having so many difficulties. They are encumbered by massive corruption at Cameroonian establishments. For instance, those who are supposed to be stopping poaching are ironically effectively promoting it. Top army and environment officials; even the courts too are corrupt in certain cases. Have you factored in all of these constraints, especially when strategising with bodies like WWF to achieve a wholesome package, a win-win for everyone else?

Transparency International has long been advocating for the enforcement of an anti-corruption law. We also advocate for the implementation of ‘Article 66’ of the Constitution, which has to do with the declaration of assets, because we at Transparency International believe that this can help in the fight against corruption. But then, the time of the Government is not the time of the civil society.

You must be facing some frustrations. What are they?

Not yet; because for now, I can say all partners open their doors to Transparency.

They might be opening the door just for you to bring in the budget so that they start stealing. Don’t you think?

No, they cannot have the budget. It is funded by the European Union, EU, for three years and is 350, 000 Euro. We work so that they can use the results. We cannot fund Government activities, but we can bring in support from civil society organisations. Grants are possible. We did it with Platform civil society organization, which is a member of the REDD+ sharing committee.

The typically corrupt Cameroonian Government official wouldn’t buy what you are saying here. Once they see a project like this, they keep asking ‘what is in it for me?’

I understand what you are saying. I want to say also that because of the name, Transparency, it makes us to think twice. It is not easy because sometimes you go somewhere and say ‘please I have this project’ and they say we should give you an envelope. But if you do, we have a different way to approach it. We will say NO! We are doing this for the good of the country so; if you think that you can come along with us, you are welcome, but if you cannot come along with us, we still try and see how possible we can go into it with different people and ignore you.
This is the reason I said we have advocacy and legal advice centres that help us to solve such issues. We have these people who go to Government Offices and are being asked to pay for signatures. They just call us and say, ‘I went to sign this document and they asked me to pay’. We just remind them that it is not stipulated in the law.

At least you are conceding here that you have some frustrations….

We have received calls from people mostly in the education sector, and we have used the strategic partnership to solve the issue. You know the difficulty in fighting corruption is to gather proof. In such cases, we usually just tell the victim that, if the payment you are being asked to make is stipulated in the law, let the person make and sign a receipt for you, and then you pay the money. When you do this, we have the proof and at least can take the receipt and now file a case.
We can only do our work if they have the boldness to denounce acts of corruption. Once you denounce, we come in with the proof to help solve your matter.

You are 29, and age is not a limiting factor?

No, we usually say the power of ideas wins over the power of age.

Would you mind telling us some of Transparency International achievements so far in Cameroon?

We started in Cameroon in 2000 and have been working in different areas. We have, since 2004 been engaged in Election Observation, and some of our recommendations were taken into consideration after 2011 by ELECAM. We are also working in the extractive industry; we are a member of AIT, where try to protect the interest of the civil society. We also work in the education sector, by sensitizing on free education at the level of Government primary schools, because a decree was signed, stipulating that children should not pay PTA fees to get into classes, but we still realized that in some schools, children are being sent because they have not paid the PTA fee. So we launched advocacy for free education in public primary schools, asking the Government to take up its engagement by asking the schools not to send away children from school. We are also working with the Anti-Corruption Commission; in a project we call ‘Concours Sans Corruption’. We were observers of the entrance examination into the National School of Public works, from the beginning to the time the results were released. We made sure that it was free fair and transparent.
In the environmental aspect, we have this ongoing REDD+ Governance and Finance Integrity Project.

Your bio-data Sir?

My name is Lucain Nyassi Tchakounte. I am 29 years old. I have occupied several positions at Transparency. I am the Forest Governance Purchase Manager, Head of Research and Development Unit of the focal point for the Commission for Central Africa Forest. I work on issues of transparency and the fight against corruption in the Congo Basin. I have been in Transparency International since 2012.

What’s the secret of your progress?

Hard work, integrity, humility and love for the work you do. Borrowing from what an elder once told me, ‘as far as you are young, you have to work, because when you grow old, you won’t have the energy to work again’.

Interviewed By Nester Asonganyi & *Collins Makoge Epie (UB Journalism Student on Internship)

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