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Arrested in southern Cameroon

Andrew Mueller
22 November 2005

I’d thought the previous day had been pretty weird. I’d spent it driving along the jarring dirt roads of Cameroon’s northwest province in the company of Nfor Ngala Nfor, national vice-chairman of the Southern Cameroons National Conference (SCNC) – a peaceful and very popular, though illegal, organisation, whose quaint, quixotic goal is the establishment of a separate sovereign state in the two of Cameroon’s ten provinces which speak English rather than French.

In a village called Binka, the local village chieftain, or Fon – an extraordinary apparition with a voice like thunderclaps, embroidered robe and hat, and a necklace festooned with lions’ teeth – had presented me with a chicken in a wicker basket. I’d instructed someone a couple of villages down the track to give the poor bird its freedom; an act which, less than twenty-four hours afterwards, would confirm my long-held suspicion that the concept of karma is a crock. Three days later, a picture of the Fon, me and the chicken would be on page two of Cameroon’s biggest English-language newspaper, The Post. On page one would be a picture of me, under the headline “Australian journalist detained in Bamenda”.

I daresay that at the moment I was arrested, things looked pretty bad.

Also by Andrew Mueller in openDemocracy:

“Don’t stop the war” (March 2005)

“Taiwan in a Chinese overture” (May 2005)

“’Guerrillas without guns’: Albania’s activism festival” (June 2005)

“Recognise us! The Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation” (July 2005)

“Abkhazian futures” (August 2005)

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After meeting the Fon of Binka, among others, I had stayed overnight in the small, dusty town of Kumbo. In the morning, Nfor Nfor had taken me to the home of local SCNC chairman Stephen Kongnso – where, to my considerable surprise, a crowd of perhaps 400 people had gathered in the garden. Nfor Nfor had made a speech in favour of independence for the Southern Cameroons, and encouraged the audience to chorus the SCNC’s motto: “The force of argument, not the argument of force”. He’d then introduced me.

I said a few words thanking everyone for their hospitality, offered some vague wishes of peace and happiness to all present, and was then, with due ceremony, given a hat decorated with the blue-and-white flag of the putative Republic of the Southern Cameroons. I was wearing this when the gendarmes – Cameroon’s paramilitary police, broadly equivalent to Italy’s carabinieri – turned up.

My unwilling endurance of the hospitality of the gendarmes of the northwest province was mercifully brief and, in terms of being arbitrarily detained in west Africa, not unpleasant. I was held from Friday morning until Sunday afternoon, initially at the gendarme station in Kumbo, then at the regional gendarme headquarters in Bamenda. I was allowed to keep my mobile phone with me while in Kumbo, at least, which meant I was able to raise a gratifying and comforting chorus of embassies, government departments and media. SCNC members were permitted to bring me food, and in Kumbo the gendarme captain contributed a bottle of (non-vintage) Bordeaux. I was released in time to leave Cameroon on the flight I had originally booked.

The two men with whom I was arrested, Nfor Nfor and Stephen Kongnso, were not so fortunate. At the time of writing, eleven days after the three of us were driven away from the meeting in Kumbo, they are still in custody, incommunicado, in Bamenda. Their organisation’s headquarters on Cow Street in Bamenda was raided and ransacked by gendarmes almost the instant I left town (in a private car with the surreal company of a veteran SCNC activist, one of the SCNC’s lawyers, and a plainclothes gendarme escort). Despite the avowedly unarmed, peaceable creed of the SCNC, the government of Cameroon’s long-serving president, Paul Biya, clearly regards them as a serious threat.

History’s trapdoor

The establishment of the Republic of the Southern Cameroons would, as the SCNC see it, correct a historical error. The Anglo-Franco schism in Cameroon dates from the end of the first world war, when what was then the German colony Kamerun was divided by the League of Nations between two of Germany’s victorious adversaries, Britain (the Northern and Southern Cameroons) and France (Eastern Cameroon). These two mandates were converted, in 1946, to UN trusteeships. In 1960, the French-administered portion of Cameroon became independent. In 1961, the population of the British-run areas were asked to vote on whether they wanted to join Nigeria or Cameroon. The northern part of British Cameroon threw in its lot with Nigeria, the Southern Cameroons with Cameroon – on the understanding that Cameroon would be an equal federation of two states. This federal status was abolished in 1972 with the creation of the United Republic of Cameroon by autocratic president Ahmadou Ahidjo.

Ever since, the SCNC and its sympathisers believe, the people of the Anglophone provinces have been treated as second-class citizens, deprived of resources and opportunity, prevented from running their own affairs. Some of these claims are plausible. I certainly require no further convincing about the harassment of the SCNC. It was also notable that almost all the gendarmes I dealt with, and certainly all the senior officers, were from the Francophone regions of Cameroon. Other allegations propagated by some factions within the SCNC are more dubious, if not potentially downright dangerous. I was told, by serious people within the movement, that the government in Yaounde is deliberately encouraging the spread of HIV/Aids in southern Cameroon. This is the kind of rumour which, if fanned with sufficient enthusiasm, can start wars.

Also on Cameroon in openDemocracy:

Victor Youmbi, “Another Cameroon is possible!” (March 2003)

The SCNC is beset with internal rivalries in the grand tradition of revolutionary groups; the factions give every appearance of hating each other more than they do their ostensible common enemy. While most in the movement adhere, I believe sincerely, to the party line of non-violent resistance, there are those who mutter, worryingly, about Biafra, or even Rwanda (the SCNC’s youth wing, traditionally somewhat hot-headed, has launched its own pirate radio station). An armed conflict here would be a foolish, unnecessary tragedy.

What struck me most about Cameroon as a whole was its potential. It has bountiful resources, a regionally enviable if imperfect political stability, a great many smart people, and a natural beauty which could be enjoyed by millions if only Cameroon would drop its idiotic visa regulations. The SCNC has legitimate concerns – the movement would scarcely be so obviously popular if it didn’t. It would be ghastly if the situation was allowed to boil over for the want of reasonable people willing to talk.

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