BAMENDA, North West–Security forces have opened fire at a crowd here, hitting several people, after clashing with unidentified protesters who tried to disrupt an anti-federalism rally led by government ministers and officials of the ruling Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (CPDM) party.
Violence swept across the city with protesters burning down a police station and barricading major streets. We are investigating reports that two policemen might have been killed, and reports that a mob set a woman in CPDM uniform on fire.
“Bamenda looks like Aleppo,” said a city dweller who did not want to be identified, referring to the Syrian city that has become the embodiment of the civil war there. “People are terrified.”
Armed police and gendarmes fired gunshots at unarmed but violent youths opposite the Grand Stand on Commercial Avenue, along the street leading to Old Town, at around midday. More than three hours later, reporters standing at Ayaba Hotel saw fumes rising above what seemed to be SONACC Street, as eruptions of gunfire continued to shake the city.
At least three protesters might have been killed, say eyewitnesses. Images circulating on social media showed at least three men soaked in blood, allegedly from gunshots. One showed a man in a white t-shirt being paraded on a wooden stretcher. Another photo, taken by bystanders with cellphones, showed two men lying on the ground. A third captured another young man being transported by the limbs. All were too graphic to publish.
“A woman in CPDM uniform was set alight and suffered third-degree burns,” said a journalist travelling with the government delegation. “Protesters have burned the Third District Police Station.”
Prime Minister Philemon Yang and the Secretary General of the CPDM Jean Nkuete were holed at Ayaba Hotel as running battles between armed forces and demonstrating youths spread from Commercial Avenue to Hospital Round About and beyond. Gendarmes managed to free scores of CPDM supporters and Special Duties Minister Paul Atanga Nji, who had been trapped at the Congress Hall.
The protesters were not immediately identified. Eyewitnesses said some rode motorbikes and moved swiftly from neighborhood to neighborhood. They clashed with police at Hospital Round About and at several other main street corners. Some barricaded major street junctions with old car tires, dustbins, roadside stalls and anything they could find. Others tried to pull down tents and break chairs set on Commercial Avenue for the government/CPDM rally. Others burned tires in the streets and urged city dwellers to shun the event.
The CPDM/government rally failed to start at 1pm as planned. PM Yang, SG Nkuete about a dozen ministers and lawmakers were still at Ayaba Hotel past 4pm. It didn’t appear things would cool off enough for the rally to go as planned.
Yang had come to Bamenda to call for calm after weeks to protests that often turned violent, and to counter a call to return to the federal system of government that existed between 1961 and 1972. He took the same message to Buea on Tuesday and spoke at a poorly-attended but peaceful rally at Bongo Square. Talks between the PM’s Office, lawyers’ representatives and teachers’ unions have so far failed.
In spite of the violence, a few supporters of the ruling CPDM party still made it to the Grand Stand on Commercial Avenue. But the city’s streets remained largely deserted with no cars or motorbikes throughout the day. Footage captured on cellphones showed armed forces driving through Commercial Avenue while firing gunshots at nearby buildings.
A call for a two-state federalism has enjoyed strong support throughout English-speaking Cameroon. Striking lawyers and teachers, who have led the campaign, say the system of government was the only means of stopping Anglophone marginalization and protecting the post-colonial heritage of the South West and North West, which they say successive Francophone-led administrations have systematically eroded.
But secessionist sentiments that had long existed among English-speaking Cameroonians have also reawakened. In Buea and Bamenda, some demonstrators have called for “total independence”. Pictures circulated on social media Thursday showed what looked like the flag of the proposed independent Southern Cameroons or Ambasonia flying around Hospital Round About.
Teachers, lawyers and other civil society groups pressing for federalism say they have not endorsed separation and violence but warned authorities’ refusal of the problem was pushing the Anglophone public to extremes.
“We have written to the government asking for a system of government that will avoid the clash of cultures and that system of government is federalism,” said Wilfred Tassang, the secretary general of the Cameroon Teachers’ Trade Union (CATTU). “We stand behind the community that is calling for federalism and have asked the government to move fast before the situation radicalizes to a state where the communities will be asking for secession.”
Formerly British and French administered Cameroons came together in 1961 to form a single country. Between 1961 and 1972, they existed as semi-autonomous states united through a federal arrangement that allowed each to run separates governments and legislatures. A highly controversial referendum dismantled the federation in 1972 to create a united republic, which also transformed into the current unitary state of ten regions.
Anglophones say the evolution of the country away from federalism violated the terms of unification. They have also complained against Anglophone marginalization and a steady dismantling of the bicultural, bilingual and bi-juristic configuration of the country.
Earlier this year, Lawyers began a series of strikes to protest the posting of Francophone judges to courts in the South West and North West region. They also called for the creation of a common law bar to protect the legal system practiced in the North West and South West. Teachers’ unions have also protested the recruitment of French-speaking teachers in Anglophone schools and attempts to “destroy” the Anglophone sub-system of education. They have maintained indefinite strikes that have crippled schools and disrupted courts in the North West and South West regions.
Last week, business owners and taxi drivers joined the strikes.
Today’s protests in Bemenda are the most violent so far. There were not signs things would return to normalcy and the city seamed headed for a state of emergency.