Every Monday, the university town of Buea, located on the eastern slope of Mount Cameroon, becomes a ghost town.
Many local shops and businesses in this English-speaking region of Cameroon close their doors for the day in protest at what they see as their oppression by the country’s French-speaking majority.
Fears that the government intended to impose the French language on the country’s 4.6m Anglophones – 20% of Cameroon’s population – provoked a strike by lawyers and teachers in 2016. ‘Operation Ghost Town’, which effectively shuts down the economy in this part of Cameroon one day a week, is a legacy of that protest. Many businesses close as a gesture of support, but some do so out of fear – if they defy the ban there is a good chance their premises will be burned down.
The violent response by the government of 82-year-old president Paul Biya has exacerbated a conflict in which 120 civilians and 43 members of the security forces have died, according to the International Crisis Group. At least 43,000 Cameroonians have fled across the border to Nigeria and the UN says the fighting has displaced another 160,000.
Last October, Anglophone separatist leader Ayuk Tabe declared that the northwest and southwest provinces of Cameroon – which were British colonies before being united with the rest of Cameroon, which was a French colony – would become the new independent republic of Ambazonia. Tabe and other leaders of the movement are now believed to be in custody in Nigeria.
The stabbings, kidnappings and battles between government forces and secessionists have persuaded many Nigerian traders, hitherto central to the region’s economy, to return home. They don’t feel safe – armed secessionists known as ‘Amba Boys’ often turn up demanding weapons or donations. Fabric traders Mr & Mrs Okezie are leaving. Getting supplies from Nigeria has become difficult and they don’t even know where many of their customers who bought stuff on credit are.
This is hardly the ideal environment for what seems certain to be a controversial presidential election this October. Biya, who has been in power since 1982, has just announced that he will stand again.
When Cameroon became independent in 1961, it was agreed that power in the government’s executive branch would be shared between the Anglophone minority, who lived mainly in the western regions on the border with Nigeria, and the Francophone majority. That agreement has largely been ignored although Biya did create a ministry for decentralisation in March. He has said that the current crisis can only be resolved by dialogue but, despite the urging of the French government, he has shown little sign of starting one.
The pity of all this is that, as economist Dr Fuein Vera Kum says: “Cameroon is heavily endowed with natural resources – crude oil, hydroelectric power, aluminium, timber, cobalt, nickel and gold are found in various parts – and the country is rich in agricultural produce such as bananas, coffee, cocoa and tea.” The country is one of the largest oil producers in sub-Saharan Africa, with a current output of around 71,000 barrels a day.
Although the IMF still expects Cameroon’s economy to grow by 4% this year, most of its people won’t feel the benefit. Corruption is rife, especially in education and healthcare. Wealth is distributed unequally – the World Bank estimates that 8.1m people live in poverty and that the average annual wage is $1,400. Most of the poor live in rural areas. The businesses the country needs to create wealth are hamstrung by inadequate transport links – 58% of the roads are said to be in poor condition – and an unreliable, ageing energy supply.
Despite such disadvantages, Cameroon has at least seven multi-millionaires. The most famous is Baba Ahmadou Danpullo, the former truck driver who now runs an eponymous conglomerate which owns the largest tea estate in West Africa, and is, Forbe Afrique estimates, worth $940m.
Biya is almost certainly a multi-millionaire too. He certainly lives like one. It is estimated he spends at least 15% of his time abroad. He stays so long – and so often – at Geneva’s five-star Intercontinental Hotel, critics have dubbed him the “absentee president”. Yet Achille Mbembe, a Cameroonian political scientist, says this routine helps Biya keep control: “His way of exercising power is not to decide. Nobody knows what the thinks or what he’ll do. Everything can change from one day to the next.”
The one thing that won’t change anytime soon is Biya’s job. Although some Francophones are eager for change, even Mbembe concedes that the president will be re-elected in October. The winds of change, it seems, will not blow through the Republic of Cameroon for a while yet.
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