Behind the Facade of the African Cup, Cameroon Suffers

The Cameroonian national team has reached the semifinals at the African Cup of Nations (CAN) that will be played tonight amongst the cheerful support of its fans. Even though there’s a good chance of winning for the “indomitable lions”, it’ll certainly be a bitter-sweet victory. There have been in fact many victims during this event hosted in Cameroon for the first time since 1972. On 23 January, 17 people were killed in the capital Yaounde following a fire that caused several explosions. Inside the Liv’s Nightclub in the Bastos neighborhood there has been a short-circuit that customers initially thought was a fireworks show. The explosions went off as the flames spread towards the kitchen where cooking gas was being stored. The government has not yet released details regarding the identities of the dead nor the injured.

Cameroonian President Paul Biya called for calm and assured that the authorities were doing everything in their power to provide safety for players and fans alike. But the next day 8 people died and at least 40 were injured following a stampede that had formed outside the Olembe Stadium, also in Yaoundé. Among the victims there are two children aged 8 and 14. In a stadium that can hold 40,000 fans, there were 57,000, many more than what the Cameroonian government had authorized due to security reasons and the coronavirus pandemic. Despite the necessary precautions, the mass of people who wanted to enter to watch the match between Cameroon and the Comoros Islands caused a chaos that the police forces were not able to counter. The injured, most of them in serious conditions, are hospitalized at Yaoundé’s Central Hospital. Paul Biya assured that patients will be treated for free. Both the Cameroonian government and the Confederation of African Football have launched separate inquiries to find out what happened. Finally, on January 13th, troops and armed individuals clashed in the streets of Buea, the capital of the Cameroonian Anglophone South-West region. A group of separatists apparently attacked the soldiers patrolling the area where the Malian team was training. “There were heavy exchanges of fire between troops and separatists”, confirmed to the press Agbor Balla, head of a local NGO called the Center for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa, “Panic grew as the separatists moved towards the town center.” The Government made no comment about the events but apparently at least one person had died among the soldiers.


Terrorist threat

These serious incidents are the symptoms of a broader malaise for a country characterized by a jihadist incursion in the north, an ongoing civil war in the south-west, and a precarious economy that has spread throughout the country from the central region. Fifty years after Cameroon last hosted the CAN, the so-called “microcosm of the African continent” faces enormous challenges. Biya will celebrate his 40th anniversary in power in November, even though he has the reputation of residing more in Switzerland than in his own country. Election after election, much of the population says they are waiting for nature to take care of its President without hoping that any other candidate, both in the opposition and in the majority, will have the ability to challenge the Head of State. Hopes are low for a real change in a system that has reigned over Cameroon for decades, which is why some citizens place their trust and optimism in the CAN, the largest sporting event on the continent.

“If the Cameroonian national team ‘indomitable lions’ wins – most of the fans believe –, the country will be more united”. It is therefore not just about sport but also about politics and an identity crisis.

According to the local humanitarian organizations there are “over 7,000 victims of the jihadist threat” that has hit the northern regions of Far North, North and Adamawa in the last 10 years. Fear still reigns in the north among the population, much of which consists of thousands of internally displaced persons or refugees from neighboring Nigeria, Niger and Chad. Despite some progress in the fight against Islamic terrorism by the joint military force of the countries involved, the tension remains high. Over the years the Nigerians group of Boko Haram has been recruiting Cameroonians who often felt forced to join the jihadists. In this part of the country there have been several kidnappings, suicide bombers, and attacks on civilians or bases of the security forces.

A year ago, 13 civilians, 8 of them children, died after an attack by suicide bomber. The responsible for this action was a young woman that had been brainwashed while living with the jihadist sect in the bush. Mahamat Chetima Abba, the traditional chief in the village of Mozogo, said the attackers arrived in the middle of the night. They were shouting “Allah Akbar” (God is great) and brandishing machetes. The government continues to manage with the help of the United Nations numerous camps for refugees who flee from villages attacked by Boko Haram or who manage to escape from the group itself. The Cameroonian army continues to launch security operations which in the past have however been characterized by massacres of innocent civilians. Some military personnel have also been tried for such crimes. Moreover, there are tensions over the claims of some residents who denounce better treatment of those living in refugee camps than the conditions of the local communities. The northern region remains one of the least developed parts of Cameroon with high levels of unemployment and a severe lack of infrastructure. Residents have long complained that they feel abandoned by the State.


The roots of division

After more than fifty years of inaction by the authorities to better confront the crisis in the Anglophone regions of South-West and North-West, the violence erupted towards the end of 2017. Groups of doctors, lawyers and teachers had begun marching through the streets demanding greater autonomy of the Anglophone population forced to respond to the Francophone system dictated by the authorities in Yaoundé. Anglophone judges wanted British-derived judicial systems, like the one in neighboring Nigeria; they weren’t interested in following the French legal norms. The same goes for the school system. Cameroon, a German colony until the end of the First World War, had been divided in two between Great Britain and France. With the conquest of independence, the promises to maintain a federal system of government had been betrayed until the unification of the two areas in the 1970s.

The Anglophone territory represents only a small fraction of the Francophone one: 47 thousand square kilometers for 2 million people compared with the 420 square kilometers and 24 million people in the francophone area. But with the economic difficulties of that period it was important for Yaoundé to preserve that part of the country with the most fertile land and the most promising waters. In fact, the greatest part of the natural riches comes from Anglophone Cameroon: oil and gas in the ocean, wood and minerals in the lush forests, and various agricultural products throughout the green countryside. Experts say that the problems between the two Cameroons are usually “characterized by conspicuous unequal distribution of economic resources, by political domination, and by cultural marginalization”.

For decades the English-speaking regions have been the scene of attempts at rebellion, but five years ago the tension increased dramatically. Since then, the violence has killed over 3,000 people and forced 700,000 to flee their homes. The separatists and government forces have been both accused of atrocities by human rights organizations. Under pressure from the international community, the Cameroonian authorities have repeatedly expressed the intention to open a dialogue with the rebels but without ever really getting involved. Maurice Kamto, a major leader figure of the Cameroon Renaissance Movement (MRC), a separatist and opposition political party, said that: “Even after the Paul Biya’s era, I’m not sure that change will come in Cameroon”.


Ordinary pain

In the Center Region, among Yaoundé’s green hills where about 3 million people live, lies the imposing Presidential Palace. Most of the Cameroonians struggle with the economical hardships of everyday life that are the direct consequences of decisions made from their president, whose wife, the first lady Chantal Biya, is known for wild shopping sprees in cities like London, Paris, New York and Geneva while 25 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line. According to the Transparency International corruption perceptions index, Cameroon suffers from “weak governance, hindering its development and ability to attract investors.” To add liquidity to the State’s coffers, Biya signed a bill last November to allow a new tax on mobile money transfers. “Can you imagine being charged a tax to withdraw your own cash out of your account?”, commented Rebecca Enonchong, an expert in the African tech sector. “The new mobile money tax will especially hit the poorest, unbanked segments of Cameroon society.” Only 35% of Cameroonian adults have bank accounts while the mobile phone industry, led especially by companies like MTN and Orange, has rapidly augmented in recent years. Common citizens have already expressed their anger against a tax that will gravely affect their everyday life by making it more challenging than it already is.

But the show must go on. The African Cup of Nations is an opportunity to make the common citizen forget for a few weeks the dark sides of a system that will turn 40 in a few months, but that most Cameroonians, probably, won’t have any desire to celebrate.


Cover Photo: Cameroon’s fans attend the Africa Cup of Nations (CAN) quarter final football match against Gambia – Douala, January 29, 2022 (Issouf Sanogoo / AFP).

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