Christiane Badgley, for the Pulitzer Center
I've been in Cameroon for a week now, and there's lots to talk about. I have to begin, though, with my efforts to get anyone connected with the pipeline project to speak to me. As I've been spending many hours in waiting rooms, I felt this photo summed up a good part of my week.
"Langue de bois" is a French expression: literally, a wooden tongue. Cliches. Hackneyed phrases. Spin. Waffle. What politicians and business leaders do when they want to talk without saying anything, avoid answering difficult questions, steer our attention away from unpleasant subjects, etc.
"As you can imagine, ExxonMobil receives many worthwhile requests from news organizations for interviews. Unfortunately, it is impossible to respond affirmatively to all these requests. Due to timing and other business constraints, representatives of Esso Chad will not be available to participate in the opportunity you present. However, for information, I've enclosed a case study of the project, as well as a 2008 news release that notes the benefits of the project."
That was ExxonMobil's answer to my initial request for an interview in Cameroon. I sent in a second request. Also refused. So shortly after my arrival in Douala, I went to the headquarters of the Cameroonian Oil Transportation Company, COTCO, to try to set up an interview. COTCO is a partnership between the Cameroonian government and ExxonMobil. The P.R. man at COTCO received me in his office, but explained that any interview request would have to be approved by ExxonMobil in Irving, Texas.
Of course he did tell me how important my work was and wished me the best of luck. "Bienvenue au Cameroun."
Now I'm in Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon. Yesterday I spent a few hours with a former government minister who told me it wouldn't make sense for him to be interviewed as he is a member of the opposition. "You see, anything I may say that's critical of the pipeline, well, people will assume that I'm critical simply because I'm in the opposition."
Later, I sat for an hour outside the SNH (the state oil company). A very nice man eventually came to see me. He said that unfortunately the minister in question could not receive me. I was wearing pants, and Cameroon still has a rule that women must wear dresses or skirts to enter government buildings. I had forgotten about this law; the last time I encountered it was in the late 90s. Anyway, it was perfect; my request could be refused without being refused. However, the man told me that I could certainly come and film a training seminar on oil spill response strategies next week.
He also wished me good luck with my project and agreed that it is important to communicate the official side of the story...
Today I learned that COTCO representatives will be unavailable during my stay in Cameroon. I certainly haven't encountered any other journalists here trying to speak to COTCO officials, but apparently no one has 30 minutes to spare. Here's what I don't understand: If none of the project partners will speak, I'm left with only the critics. It seems to me that this story is much more complex than all sides would like to admit. So why won't ExxonMobil talk about the project from their perspective? Why not describe the benefits they believe the project has brought to the people of Chad and Cameroon? Why not respond to the critics?