Anti-government anger is simmering across the West African state of Cameroon. The removal of government subsidies on basic prices sparked a series of strikes and riots last month.
A transport union strike against fuel price rises was spearheaded by taxi drivers in Douala, the country’s main port and economic hub. Strikes and rioting spread to Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capital.
Meanwhile both the US and the Chinese governments are courting Cameroon’s rulers in order to gain influence in the oil rich Gulf of Guinea.
The immediate cause of fuel price hike is the rise in world oil prices. Cameroonian activist John Ngwana spoke to Socialist Worker about the subsequent events there.
“The transport strike was very successful – even the motorbike taxis stopped running,” he said.
“The government was pushed into announcing price reductions for many basic commodities, including flour, fuel, rice, fish and electricity.”
Though the reduction has not been systematically enforced, it is still a major concession. And the strike has provided a focus for other popular grievances.
Cameroon’s president Paul Biya has made it clear he wants to change the constitution so that he can extend his rule after 2011. He has already been president since 1982.
“They say the people want to keep the man in power – but this is not true,” says John. “It is the very same people who have been on the street marching against Biya, who the police shot with live bullets.
“The opposition has been fighting since the early 1990s, but now there is a deep feeling we can get something. This time we came out – and they had to concede.”
There is no one united opposition in Cameroon, but a whole range of people are getting angry.
John added, 'In the 1990s there was a huge attack on teachers leading to a cut of about 70 percent in thier salaries. More recently there was an attack on lecturers.
'Also an agricultural fund was set up to counter swings in the world price of basic crops – particularly coffee – but that money was embezzled. Peasants found themselves stuck with crops they couldn't sell on the world market but also without compensation.
'Another problem is the level of police harrassment, and this really affects transport workers. Driving between towns you are stopped again and again. The police don't care about your papers or cargo, they just want a bribe.'
The government has been becoming more arrogant over the issue of constitutional change. It has used the recent protests as a pretext for widespread repression.
The military are still out on the streets of most cities and protests are continuing. The government has also been closing down independent radio and TV stations.
“Hundreds of young people arrested during the recent events have now been sentenced,” said John. “Some have been given 15 year sentences for vandalism.”
People are scared of a resurgence of violence and comparisons have been made to the recent violence in Kenya. Unlike Kenya, there is no one opposition leader focusing dissent. But the success of the transport strike has shown the powerful alternative of collective action.
Outside the country there have been demonstrations by Cameroonians living abroad in support of the strikes and protests, notably in London and Washington.
John Ngwana is a Cameroonian activist now living in Britain. His name has been changed to protect his identity