Sun, surf and burnt tyres

June 2nd, 2008 by bobebill

By Matthew Green
Financial Times
Published: 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.

Young men who survived by driving “bendskin” motorbike taxis formed the vanguard. I was told the word “bendskin” came from a dance that mirrored the hula hoop-style gyrations required to negotiate a scooter round Douala’s cratered streets. Many of the drivers were graduates, but riding a bendskin was the only job on offer. Their anger was understandable.

Prices for everything from soap and cement to rice and flour were soaring, meaning almost everyone was getting poorer. Mr Biya’s plan to cross out the two-term limit in the constitution only added to the outrage. People seemed particularly aggrieved that the government had announced the latest rise in fuel prices during the euphoria that always accompanied an international victory by the Indomitable Lions. They had just beaten Tunisia 3-2 to win a place in the semi-finals of the African Cup of Nations in Ghana. The country had not seen anything like the current unrest since the early 1990s, when protests almost drove Mr Biya from power.

After three days of riots, I heard the president would speak. I took up position in front of the television in the Calypso Bar, waiting for 7pm, the appointed hour. The karaoke man stopped playing his keyboard and routed Biya’s voice through the speakers. Immaculate in suit, tie and moustache, the president was unrepentant, blaming the protests on “apprentice sorcerers”. He said the way was open for negotiations but he did not mention his plans to edit the constitution, or the crippling inflation, saying instead he would use “all legal means” to restore order. He struck the tone of a headmaster addressing a classroom of naughty children.

I spent one more night in the Calypso, listening to the karaoke man play “Hotel California” by The Eagles. Nobody was singing, but the line from the song kept playing in my head: “You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.” I resolved to go the next morning.

At breakfast I got chatting to a French banana consultant, his mission to help revive a plantation outside Limbe for the moment interrupted. He had been in Cameroon the last time the country had exploded. When I said I planned to risk the road he was appalled; I would be robbed, stripped, and worse, he warned. Even the Russian ambassador, stuck at a nearby hotel, was staying put, he explained. We would have to wait for rescue by the army.

As a foreign correspondent, I have discovered that, even in the more unstable parts of the world, there are always drivers desperate enough to risk any journey for the right price. The hotel receptionist had found a young man named Papy who was willing to roll the dice. I could not help but feel a surge of bravado as I got into the car.

We passed the remains of the roadblocks in Limbe, scorched patches littered with burnt tyres. The road to Douala headed east, past ranks of squat palm trees, then a Del Monte banana plantation. There were no cars or people. We hit the first town, a tiny settlement of bustling roadside stalls. More black smudges marked the spots where the barricades had stood, but the inhabitants ignored us. A lone motorcyclist passed in the other direction, raising his hand in greeting, as we motored through a patch of empty scrub. I asked Papy what had happened to the protesters. “They have gone into the bush,” he said. “They will come back out in the afternoon.”

More emptiness, and Papy’s co-driver muttered: “This is the most dangerous part.” We clattered over an iron bridge across the River Mungo, passing a military truck parked by the road with “Special Amphibious Battalion” painted on the side, then ran into Douala’s tin-roofed outskirts. Petrol pumps lay on their sides where looters had ransacked a Total garage. More people lined the roads now, but we were the only car.

One man pointed at us, but we kept on driving. The crowd was thicker up ahead, forming a wall blocking the canyon of shuttered shops. Railway tracks crossed the road beyond, but we would not get that far. Papy saw something and swung into a side street and parked. “They’re coming,” he said. Both men got out of the car and vanished. I was left sitting in hot silence, waiting for the mob to rush around the corner and drag me from the vehicle and wondering whether to make a run for it and wishing I had listened to the banana man.

A minute later, Papy and his friend reappeared, grabbed my bags and hustled me across to a gate. It opened a crack and we entered the courtyard of the Hotel du Rail. I dug up a couple of $50 bills and gave them to Papy and his friend. They must have done some fast talking to the protesters. I should have paid more. My room overlooked Douala’s Bonaberi neighbourhood, more black smudges on the road showing where the rioting had been fiercest. “We heard shooting all night long,” said the man who led me to my room. A bullet had ripped a hole through the roof of the Boulangerie du Rail next door. The manager showed me inside the shop. The crowd had burst in on day one of the protests, grabbing croissants, bottles of bordeaux and champagne. A flip-flop lay abandoned in the broken glass, crumbs were scattered on the counter. “The anger is up to here,” the manager said, raising his hand level with his forehead. Then we heard a gunshot and hurried back into the hotel.

I watched from the balcony as trucks of soldiers rolled into town. They ordered sullen-eyed men to clear away the rocks and burnt tyres. The crowds had ransacked French businesses, a measure of the resentment at France for its long support of Biya, whose presidency formed a thick strand in the “Francafrique” network of power and money binding much of west and central Africa to Paris. Some people wondered whether Biya had been in Cameroon at all when he made his speech, or had recorded it from a favourite haunt in France or Switzerland. It was probably just a story but the speculation chimed with Biya’s image as an absentee landlord.

Traffic flowed again the next day, trucks bringing vegetables to market, beaten-up old taxis weaving between crammed buses. Douala looked almost normal, apart from the soldiers watching from street corners. I drove up to Yaoundé and spent an evening eating grilled fish and drinking Heineken with some local reporters. There was much laughter at Biya, “the master sorcerer”, and talk of secret societies , although we spoke a little more soberly after one of the reporters said a man at another table was listening.

Some weeks after I left Cameroon, President Biya ordered his government to cut import duties to reduce prices. Parliament, dominated by his ruling Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement, passed the constitutional amendment lifting the two-term limit. Biya was now free to run again in 2011.

Cameroon was not alone in its pain. Senegal, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Niger and others witnessed protests over prices. Global economic forces propelling the cost of wheat, rice and petrol upwards were pushing Africa’s poor closer to breaking point. As Frederick, an economics graduate who drives a bendskin, put it: “If you see people throwing stones, it means if they had guns, they would have been shooting.”

Matthew Green is the FT’s west Africa correspondent, based in Lagos