Cameroon crisis continues as inflation surges

March 4th, 2008 by bobebill

cameroon-riot-polic.jpg

The Financial Times
By Matthew Green in Douala, Cameroon

Published: March 4 2008

Only a few crumbs were left on the counter at the Boulangerie du Rail delicatessen in Douala after looters swept the shelves of cake, croissants and champagne.

But anger with Paul Biya, Cameroon’s president, is still boiling after the worst unrest in 16 years failed to thwart plans to change the constitution to prolong his quarter-century rule.

“People are hungry, they have nothing to eat,” said Felix Djoyo, the manager, who had locked himself behind a metal door while shanty dwellers ransacked his bottles of Bordeaux.

The crisis in Cameroon might have generated few headlines abroad, but the violence shows how soaring oil and food prices on global markets are threatening the patronage systems propping up some of Africa’s longest-serving leaders.

Protests linked to surging inflation have broken out in Guinea and Burkina Faso in recent months, where presidents have ruled for more than two decades. Niger, Ghana and Senegal have also seen demonstrations.

In Cameroon, a government increase in petrol prices last month triggered a taxi drivers’ strike that quickly developed into a week-long outpouring of rage at the prospect of Mr Biya extending his stay in office beyond elections in 2011. The convulsion revived memories of months of protests in the early 1990s when the opposition came close to toppling Mr Biya, before splintering.

While Cameroon is perhaps best known abroad for the exploits of its Indomitable Lions football team, last week’s unrest will resonate in Beijing, the Pentagon and the Texas headquarters of ExxonMobil.

Tucked between oil-producing Nigeria, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, the country of 18m has acquired a new strategic value in recent years as the global race for energy security has reached west Africa. Both China and the US are seeking closer ties.

ExxonMobil opened a pipeline through Cameroon in 2003 – as part of a project with Chevron and Petronas of Malaysia – that exports about 170,000 barrels a day of oil from southern Chad. Costing about $4bn (€3bn, £2bn), the scheme is among the biggest investments in sub-Saharan Africa.

As discord flared and expatriates trapped in a hotel in the coastal resort of Limbe wondered who might rescue them, the grey hull of the USS Fort McHenry floated offshore. The navy transport vessel visited Cameroon as part of a plan to train west African forces to boost security in the Gulf of Guinea. The region is expected to supply a quarter of US oil imports within a decade.

The question now is whether unrest will erupt again despite Mr Biya ordering one of the biggest military deployments for a generation. At least 20 people were reported to have been killed during the rioting, although on Monday Cameroon was calm.

Much of the anger comes from a younger generation who see few career options beyond driving motorcycle taxis, known as “Bendskins” after a dance approximating the hip-swaying motion of swerving round potholes.

“If you see people throwing stones, it means if they had guns, they would have been shooting,” said Frederick, an economics graduate who survives by driving a Bendskin.

The government has agreed to a small reduction in fuel prices to placate protesters, saying it cannot afford the kinds of subsidies needed to shield the economy from global market forces. But many residents blame Mr Biya for the hardship, saying years of venal rule have skewed the economy to favour a tiny elite.

Despite some recent arrests of senior officials on corruption charges, campaigners wonder whether Mr Biya’s 60-odd ministers are too compromised to undertake reforms needed to ward off the risk of future unrest.

“It’s unprecedented, people are actually being investigated,” said Akere Muna, founder of Transparency International in Cameroon. “But it’s like asking the fish to buy the hooks.”