By Andy Matthews (The Mount Airy News)
(Exclusive story on Cameroon protests in Washington, D.C. and interview with Cameroon Embassy)
Cameroonians Demonstrating in Washington DC on March 14, 2008
WASHINGTON, D.C.: A spokesperson for the Cameroon Embassy said on Friday that anti-government protesters are not looking for a peaceful resolution to their quarrels with President Biya’s administration, suggesting that they prefer instead to incite riots and civil unrest that have led to the country’s worst violence in the last 15 years.
Modeste Michel Essono, the First Secretary of Communication for the Embassy of Cameroon’s Communication Center, also said that some Cameroon protesters in the United States are deliberately misleading the media, providing news outlets with sensational stories of government brutality so that they can seek refugee status in the United States. The military was forced to act, Essono said, to restore order in the country, adding that there is no way to know if some of the deaths linked to the military’s crackdown weren’t “accidents” separate and apart from the demonstrations.
“The duty of the government is to protect the people; to make sure everything is done peacefully,” Essono said in an exclusive interview with The Mount Airy News from his D.C. office. “These people ? these protesters; they show you a lot of pictures. They just come here with pictures of dead people. How are they sure they did not die in accidents? How are they sure they are killed by the military . . .
“They just want to go out and start fires everywhere. Why do this? They just want to create some stories to convince people there is unrest in Cameroon . . . They are insulting their own country.”
Essono’s comments came as about 100 hundred protesters gathered Friday morning in front of the Cameroon Embassy to demonstrate against President Paul Biya just weeks after protests rocked the central African country, leading to the worst violence the country has seen since 1992. Human rights activists claim that more than 100 lives were lost and many more injured. The Cameroon government initially placed the death tool at 15 but has since raised it to 40.
Biya wants to amend the Cameroon constitution to allow him to go on ruling until 2018 when he will be 85. Currently, the constitution says that Biya cannot stand for another seven-year term in the 2011 elections.
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.
Standing in front of a crowd of demonstrators, Chief Alexander Tabre lifted up a bullhorn as he excoriated the Cameroon government for what he called the brutal repression of free speech and prominent opposition leaders who he says are routinely locked up by the military when they oppose Biya’s desire to extend his presidential rule.
“My friends, we do not know the exact numbers of children who have died,” Tabre shouted, turning his voice and attention to the large three-story Cameroon Embassy complex. “We don’t want the United States or the United Nations to come after people have died. We want to avoid that. We want a peaceful transition of power.”
If anyone is to leave, Tabre said, it should be Biya.
“The only person we want to exile is Biya,” Tabre shouted as the crowd exploded in applause and cheers of “Yes we can!”
As more protesters continued to gather in front of the Cameroon Embassy, the small grassy area was adorned with signs demanding that Biya step down. “No to Constitutional Change” said one sign. “No to Biya’s Life Presidential Bid After 26 Years,” said another. “Amnesty International: Cameroonians Need Your Help,” said a sign that showed a beaten, bloody body on a hospital stretcher. “President Bush Helps the Cameroonians,” said yet another placard.
Larry Eyong-Echaw laid out the protester’s requests.
“We want peaceful change through elections,” he said as the crowd chanted “Down With Biya.” “We don’t want bloodshed. We want a peaceful resolution . . Biya wants to put his son in power.”
It’s difficult to imagine how an opposition party will be able to wrest control from Biya since all opposition leaders are called unpatriotic if they criticize the president. In a rare television appearance on Feb. 28, three days after the riots began, Biya accused demonstrators of manipulating youths to destroy property and called them “demons.”
Organizers of Friday’s protests still believe that they can use the power of the media, the Internet and diplomacy to achieve their goals. They want to avoid civil wars that have plagued other African countries.
“The only way to get results is through international pressure,” said Admin T. Tazifor, who like many protesters, drove several hours all night to arrive at the early morning protest.
Two protesters, Talla Corantin and Eric Tagne, say they are political exiles in the United States. If they return to Cameroon, after organizing anti-government protests, they will be arrested by the military.
“We cannot do this in Cameroon,” Corantin said. “This is forbidden in Cameroon.”
Tagne agreed, noting that his wife and daughter remain in Cameroon while he tries to find them a home in America.
“If I go back, I’m dead,” Tagne said. “As a student I organized a strike and I was tortured.”
Larry Eyong-Echaw said that the United States and France are “colluding” with multi-national corporations to reap the benefits of Cameroon’s natural resources.
“If you take our oil, you must take our refugees,” Eyong-Echaw told a cheering crowd.
There was one tense moment in Friday’s demonstrations as members of the Civil Society Platform for Democracy in Cameroon, which organized the protest, delivered a letter to Cameroon Embassy officials. Washington, D.C., police moved toward the crowd, instructing demonstrators not to cross the street.
The letter to Cameroon Parliamentarians pleads with government officials to oppose a constitutional amendment that would allow Biya to extend his rule until 2018.
“We remain hopeful that the President of the Republic will listen to the message we sent to him,” the March 14 letter says in part. “Nonetheless, we are cognizant of the fact that you remain the voice of the people and we are calling on you to recognize the potential for civil unrest and political instability that may ensue if the intention to modify the constitution is put into effect.”
Story obtained courtesy of the Friends of Cameroon website