Cameroon is in the process of updating its 50-year-old penal code, and making some curious amendments.
Tenants who are over two months late paying their rent can be sentenced to up to three years in jail, according to legislation passed by the lower house of parliament this week. The senate is expected to give the new law the green light this week during a special session.
In a country where unemployment is at 30% and almost half the population of 22 million people live below the national poverty line, the new law is likely to hit hard. About a third of Cameroonian households are tenants, and they spend the majority of their income on rent. The average monthly rent in urban areas is $200, at least half what the average household makes.
Cameroon is home to vague property and tenancy laws. These are made more complicated by the fact that only a small percentage of households register their land. Land rights are one of the most contentious issues in Cameroon, where another 1 million homes need to be built over the next five years to accommodate the growing population.
Local lawyers, journalists, and students are protesting the new code, arguing that tenancy disagreements should be dealt with in civil, not criminal court. The Cameroon Anglophone Newspaper Publishers’ Association, in a somewhat snarky riposte, asked whether the government should also be punished when it fails to pay civil servants on time:
“On this issue, Mr. President, we would like to take the example of the public service alone, where new recruits into the various services often go for well over 24 months without pay while waiting to be integrated or are paid a little under half of their salaries to cope in villages and big cities alike…What sanctions have been set aside to make them pay the workers so that they do not get thrown into jail by landlords?”