In Cameroon: Sun, surf and burnt tyres

Matthew Green – The Financial Times

Copyright The Financial Times
(Eds. note. This brings back all kinds of memories from my west African freelance days.)
May 31 2008
West Africa isn’t widely known for its seaside resorts but Limbe, on Cameroon’s coast, would do any tourist brochure proud. Atlantic surf roars over beaches formed from volcanic rock, the fish is fresh, the beer cold. It is, in essence, an ideal place to be trapped.
In early March, I checked in at the Fini Hotel, overlooking the shoreline. A US Navy warship was silhouetted off the coast, its grey hull spectral in the haze. The Calypso Bar was deserted, even the karaoke man gone, but I found a more makeshift affair set up with lawn furniture outside the hotel. Two middle-aged businessmen named Larry and Theodore were sipping Guinness and discussing the country’s ongoing riots. “They’ve looted a brewery,” Larry said, with a trace of glee. “And handed out the crates.”
It transpires that crowds had burned tax offices to the ground, young men barricaded major roads, and a mob had surrounded a unit of 20 gendarmes, stripped them and stolen their guns. Almost the entire country was paralysed.
Cameroon, occupying the place where the trigger would be if you imagine Africa is shaped like pistol, rarely figures alongside Zimbabwe or Kenya when it comes to making headlines. Only the exploits of its Indomitable Lions football team tend to reach the papers. Having arrived by chance in the middle of what was, for Cameroon at least, the story of a decade, it seemed a shame to miss out. I asked Larry and Theodore if they might be able to use some local connections to get me to Douala, the port city where the unrest had started, about 40 minutes’ drive away. They sipped and looked doubtful. “You call me at six tomorrow morning,” Theodore said. “I will see what I can do.”
I called before dawn, but the road was still blocked. As I headed to the Calypso Bar for breakfast the receptionist told me the hotel owner, a Mr Dima, had left for Douala before sunrise. I felt a flush of annoyance. I rang his mobile and the voice that answered sounded like it would be comfortable giving orders, even to guests. “If you had seen what I had seen, you would not take that road,” Dima said. “It is impossible, absolutely impossible. You must stay where you are.” “Might I ask how you managed to make it?” I asked. “I am an authority,” he said, and hung up. The receptionist explained that Mr Dima was close to government, protected by soldiers.
I found my way to the shack where Larry and Theodore were drinking Guinness. The reports were getting worse: protesters were dragging people from cars on the road to Douala then torching their vehicles. Young men were even building barricades in Yaoundé, the capital. Larry had related the first day’s trouble as if the uprising was a sporting event. But foreboding had clouded his enthusiasm. “If I know Cameroon, this cannot last beyond Friday,” he said, perhaps a tad too cheerfully. “You wait and see what the president says.”
President Paul Biya had recently hinted that he wanted to change the constitution to prolong his quarter-century rule. Perhaps it was just that I had come at a bad time, but I was beginning to suspect he was not widely loved. Larry, Theodore and much of the anglophone minority reserved a particular antipathy for Biya, in part because he represented the francophone majority. But the protests had convulsed much of the country, crossing the linguistic divide.
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