13 March 2008

Cameroon: Protests Against Biya Planned For Washington

Protestors demanding democratic change in Cameroon will gather Friday in Washington, DC to demonstrate against President Paul Biya just weeks after protests rocked the central African country, leading to the worst violence the country has seen in 15 years.

The demonstration comes as government and opposition leaders engage in a cleanup process after the violence, which human rights activists say claimed more than 100 lives and left many more injured. The Cameroon government initially placed the death toll at 15 but has since raised it to 40.

Property damage from the protests, which began February 25, has been estimated at 10 billion CFA francs (23.4 million dollars). Between 1,500 and 1,700 people are thought to have been arrested so far. Many have been sentenced to prison terms in a process that has been decried by the independent press as unfair.

Taxi drivers parked their vehicles and many cities resembled "ghost towns" as protesters burned tires, tossed stones at vehicles and destroyed some gasoline stations. The protests were a response to a rise in fuel and living costs. The government has since cut fuel prices marginally and said it plans to raise civil service pay.

But protesters who plan to take part in Friday's demonstrations say the government's actions do not go far enough. A week earlier, another group of Cameroonians demonstrated in front of their country's embassy in Washington and at the White House.

A source in Cameroon, who declined to be identified for fear of retaliation from the government or their employer, said in an interview: "The government here is beginning to react to the demands by strikers… They have increased civil servant salaries by 15 percent, but [civil servants] constitute only one percent of the population. Most people think they are not addressing the real issues."

The government's steps, the source said, will not be enough to satisfy opposition forces. "They are not going to fool anybody with that," the source said. "But there is a lot of propaganda now that they are going to improve living conditions."

During the recent violence, seven Americans from the North Carolina-based charity, The Giving Hand Foundation, were trapped in Cameroon for three days outside Bamenda, the stronghold of the main opposition party, the Social Democratic Front (SDF).

Keith Phillips, a Winston-Salem dentist who started the foundation to provide free dental services to indigent patients at home and abroad, said the mission group made it home safely after traveling by bus from Bamenda to the airport in Douala, Cameroon's economic capital.

At the top of the protesters' agenda at Friday's march in Washington is President Biya's proposal to amend the constitution. Critics believe it is an attempt to remove term limits so Biya, who has been in office since 1982, can run for another term in 2011.

Biya made a rare television appearance on February 27, blaming the protests on "apprentice sorcerers in the shadows" and accusing his opponents of trying to remove him from office. On Tuesday, the interior minister, Marafa Hamidou Yaya, named SDF leader John Fru Ndi as the mastermind of the February protests.

Demonstrators say they will "plead with the government of Cameroon to consider no alternative to true peace and freedom" and to refrain from amending the country's constitution.

Amin Tazifor, one of the protest organizers, said in a press release: "Despite the fact that such plans have been condemned by opposition parties and the U.S ambassador to Cameroon, Janet E. Garvey, the government has downplayed… [the condemnation] and is…  [carrying] on with its plans."

During the unrest, the government closed some media outlets, including radio stations and newspapers opposing Biya.

Tazifor added in the statement: "It is very trite for the government to employ armed forces to shoot at unarmed citizens whenever there is a protest against malpractices in government undertakings… It is . . . sad to note that there is no other means for the people to express themselves as the parliament is almost a one-party congress."

Tazifor says that opposition leaders worry that unless the government undertakes drastic reform, Cameroon could experience violence and disruption similar to that in Kenya and Chad.

"Several African countries have been taking turns in showing to the world how good they are at causing and managing civil wars," Tazifor says. "If we don't try to stop the government of Cameroon, then Cameroon might be next…"

Billy Mukoi, head of For the Cameroonian Community, emphasized that Friday's gathering would be a peaceful protest. Flyers and posters are permitted as are loud speakers, however drums are not allowed.

"We need to be organized as we have enough time to make the world know of our problems," Mukoi said.

Andy Matthews, editor of the Mount Airy News, covered the North Carolinians who were briefly stranded in Cameroon when unrest broke out last month, and his paper ran photos of protestors clashing with police.

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