The East African | The capital of the South West region of Cameroon is gradually losing the ghost town feel it has taken on every Monday for almost four years now, an indication of a decline in the intensity of violence in the region, in stark contrast with the tension that continues to grip the neighbouring North West region.
On this Monday, traditionally the “ghost town” day that secessionist militias have imposed since the end of 2016, taxis and pedestrians have taken back possession of Buea’s streets. For the third week in a row since the easing of protective measures against COVID-19, business is picking up at the foot of Mount Cameroon. Slowly, of course, but still a far cry from the deserted streets witnessed every Monday over the past three years.
“It’s not crowded yet, but little by little things are getting back to the way they were,” says Eleanore, a student who decided to come to the University of Buea campus on Monday, where classes have resumed.
“This morning, people took their time to leave their homes because there’s always a certain amount of fear. But as the day progressed, more and more people left their homes and filled up the streets,” she says.
On Molyko Avenue, the city’s main shopping street, most stores were open all day long. However, just a stone’s throw away from the avenue, market vendors had not set up their stalls, cautiously preferring to remain closed.
Ordered at the outset of the crisis by Anglophone separatists, the ghost town days have been carefully obeyed, literally cutting off the entire social and economic life of the North West and South West regions from the rest of the country. During these periods, no activities or travel were permitted and residents were ordered to stay at home by armed groups who threatened to retaliate against any persons venturing to disobey the rules.
Buea’s residents are no longer the only ones defying the separatist-enacted bans, which goes to show that the intensity of violence is on the decline in the South West region. In the coastal city of Limbe, shops and restaurants were open on Monday. On the other hand, in Kumba, 70 kilometres north of Buea, the atmosphere was still very calm. Just a few neighbourhood shops dared to flout the ghost town day restrictions.
“The operations have become counter-productive,” admits Agbor Balla, a lawyer who is one of the Anglophone leaders who approved this method of action when the crisis first broke out.
Now, the activist is instead campaigning to bring an end to these kinds of initiatives.
“The people suffer the most from the ghost town days. It’s clear that they are tired of it and that’s why they no longer comply with the rules,” he says. “Those who still yield to the shutdown orders only do so out of fear of retaliation – not at all out of support.”
Bamenda, the last ghost town standing
In Bamenda, in the neighbouring North West region, ghost town regulations are still dutifully followed. From Commercial Avenue, the city’s main thoroughfare, to working class neighbourhoods, not a soul is to be found in the streets. The only notable exception is the secured enclave of Up Station, a neighbourhood where administrative department premises are concentrated, under the protection of the base of the fifth military region.
Bamenda’s deserted streets echo the still heavy tension gripping the region. Unlike the relative calm observed in the South West, the North West is a hotbed of recurring violence. However, although the secessionist militias remain very active there, the movement seems to have been greatly weakened by regular operations conducted by Cameroon’s army in recent weeks. According to a military source, “total peace is just around the corner for the region.”
In Yaoundé, the government is already thinking about what comes next. Appointed three months ago as National Coordinator of the Presidential Plan for the Reconstruction and Development of the North West and South West Regions, Minister Paul Tasong is embarking on an awareness campaign to inform the authorities and populations of these regions about the action that will be taken. He has chosen Bamenda for his first visit and it will take place this coming Monday.