Retirement and its malcontent in Yaoundé – by Patrick Awondo
By Shireen Walton, on 15 November 2018
Author: Patrick Awondo
The question of retirement in Yaoundé requires first and foremost an understanding of the precariousness of employment and its widespread informalisation across the country, making the idea of retirement per se almost impossible. One of the questions asked by informants is often “what does retirement mean in a country where work is scarce”? Approaching the question of retirement in Cameroon, 3 types of reactions are generally involved.
The first and the most frequent is that “Retirement is not a punishment!” Nearly all of my interlocutors have expressed sentiments such as this at the mention of retirement ; an idea reflecting wider public discourse concerning the retirement of civil servants who have a hard time accepting it, as well as a view from a section of society which views negatively the fact that retirement-age officials are dropping out of duties that should be the responsibility of other younger people.
A second reaction expressed my my informants is to highlight how retirement is necessary, despite the challenges it poses in the context. In discussion, informants raised context as an important factor determining retirement experiences, in a country where only 15% of workers have a payslip. Retirement is therefore a fact that concerns a limited number of people from an official point of view. There is also a notably pessimistic discourse about retirement, especially for those who live and are currently experiencing it. The present moment in Cameroon thus appears to be a complex moment in which the experience of the end of work is combined with a decrease in material resources and precariousness. A final category of discourse highlights the alternative facts that allow us to have a less pessimistic look at retirement. These 3 attitudes and points of view on the retirement can be an entry to initiate a reflection on the way in which this moment of life is expressed in Cameroonian society. Overall, informants in Yaoundé emphasise the ambivalence of retirement.
“Retirement is not a punishment! “
To understand the significance of this popular expression in Yaoundé we must consider the context of work patterns in the country. The labor market in Cameroon is characterised by a high unemployment rate, as well as underemployment. Unemployment is highest among 15-24 year olds (10.3%) and 15-34 years old (8.9%) than among the general population (5.7%). In addition to this, is youth unemployment, which varies with the level of education and is especially higher among higher education graduates (27.1%). Youth unemployment rate is higher in urban areas (15.5%) than in rural areas (4.3%), and is 8.5% for males and 23.5% for females.
In the Cameroonian context, the state remains the largest employer in the formal sector because informal employment is more widely represented, and covers more than 70% of working people. In such a context, the number of de facto retirees is limited insofar as the number of civil servants is itself relatively low, since the State can not absorb all graduates and job-seekers.
Another much more specific issue has been raised in the discussions on retirement in Cameroon in recent years. In 2009, the Association of Public Service Retirees (AREFOP) publically denounced the problems faced by people at the end of their careers along the following lines :
- the improvement of pensions of retirees in the face of increased purchasing power: “Where have our contributions to the land credit passed for decades? “How many of us have retired without benefiting from a single honor when they served the nation with loyalty?” Ask the retired officials.
- Preservation of health insurance
- The possibility of accessing bank credit etc. « Why do banks don’t ant to give credit to pensioners at least as far as school advances are concerned? »
These points subsequently led to a media-based controversy over retirement issues. A particular grievance was the long waiting lines in which people came to collect their certificates in the offices of the National Social Insurance Fund (CNPS), the body responsible for social security and pensions. These controversies led to reforms and an administrative reorganization, which reduced expectations and conditions for pensioners’ pensions.
The impossible retreat
A second series of arguments often mentioned is related to the specific situation of the labor market. Some statistics can help illuminate this issue. In the year 2017, according to the data of the CNPS, 7,415 files of Pensions Old Age Disability Deaths were filed during the year and 97,48% were liquidated of which 85,47% in less than 15 days and 8.36% in more than 45 days. The pending files represent 2.04% of the total files filed. The number of PVID beneficiaries is up slightly by 1.6% (from 109,304 in 2016 to 111,006 in 2017). If we consider that Cameroon has more than 23 million inhabitants, of which half active, then 111 006 residents represents a derisory figure. The generic question of retirement as having entailed access to work, and therefore to a pay slip, and later to a retirement pension therefore appears inadequate as a framework for understanding the experience of later life in Cameroon.
The happy few
There is however an alternative viewpoing about retirement – one which emphasizes its need after long years of “good and loyal” services, and acknowledges the possibility of it being a time for flourishing. This discourse is the result of two categories of informants : people who have worked in a manner that is appropriate for the context, that is, with a regular salary and benefits, and another category of people employed in the formal private sector, who have made a very good living and who have invested in retirement – particularly seen in the field of real estate. Informants mention building several houses for instance, whose monthly rent will be an end-of-career investment. These people are a small group but are a growing happy few retirees in Cameroon who participate in the middle and upper middle-class life style in Cameroon, which is currently expanding, but constitute an overall minority.