With its wide beaches laden with purpleblack volcanic sands, its magnificient botanic gardens, its historic seafront, its proximity to Mount Fako, the tallest mountain in West Africa ,and to Debundscha the second wettest place on the planet, etc., Limbe is a tourist’s paradise.
The Down Beach area, which now serves as the town’s banking district, was once the nucleus of the “historic” Victoria – that strip of land, some twelve miles long along the Atlantic coast and five miles into the interior – settled in 1858 by Alfred Saker and freed Jamaican slaves from Sierra Leone and the neighboring island of Fernando Po.
Today, Down Beach, with its century-old administrative buildings and churches reminds a traveler of a British outpost in the Caribbean – the kind of place that inspires romance novels and definitely not the setting for a James Bond thriller.
In spite of developments in the past quarter of a century which have largely stripped Limbe of its erstwhile colonial feel, this is still a quintessential colonial town where vestiges of British – and German – colonial rule abound. In many respects, it is a town that time left behind – or a town that is “stuck in a gentle lethargy” as one observer puts it – caught between the 19th and 21st centuries. Today it lags behind other port cities on the West African coast which it was on par back in the 1950s and 1960s.
Victoria is strategically located on the Gulf of Guinea along an important maritime route and shares a boundary with the oil-rich Bakassi peninsular which has been a hotspot for years. It is also barely a couple of hours drive from Douala, Cameroon’s economic capital and home to SONARA, Cameroon’s lone oil refinery.
Thanks to its location, Limbe has a natural maritime defense system which was put to use as far back as the 18th and 19th centuries by the British whose Men O’ War patrolled the area protecting maritime trade routes or tracking down rogue merchant ships involved in the Transatlantic slave trade – Man O’ War Bay, located on the outskirts of Limbe is named after these famous navy ships. In addition to its natural defenses, Limbe is today a town ringed by a series of military installations which make it (at least on paper) one of the most secure cities on the West African coast.
Straight out of a Crime thriller
Given the preceding background, what happened in the scenic Down Beach in the night of September 27-28 was totally at odds with Limbe’s reputation as a laid back (some say sleepy) town with excellent security. According to news reports, about 20-50 gunmen arrived in speedboats under cover of darkness and attacked four prominent banks. On paper, this brazen attack was a foolhardy one because this is precisely the kind of “grand banditisme” that the Government of Cameroon has been preparing for in the past decade with the creation of special task forces such as
- the GSO (Groupement Special d'Operation or Special Operations Task Force) for the police;
- the GPIGN (Groupement Polyvalent d'Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale or National Gendarmerie Multi-dimensional Intervention Task Force) for the Gendarmerie;
- The BIR (Bataillon d'Intervention Rapide or Rapid Intervention Battalion) for the Army
According to newspaper reports, at the time of the attack members from these task forces had fanned out across the Southwest province (including Limbe), deployed to quell demonstrations and other activities by the SCNC in the the run-up to October 1.
In addition, there were no less than six different military units/installations around Limbe whose reach extended as far as Douala to the West and Bakassi to the East:
- The Man O War Bay military base located some seven kilometers away from the crime scene;
- The Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR) temporarily based at the Man O War Bay military;
- The Special Battalion for the Protection of SONARA (CSPS), about one nautical mile from the crime scene;
- The Bakassi Operation Delta Command with headquarters in Bota, also located barely a few miles from the crime scene;
- The Isongo Naval Base
- Tiko Special Amphibious Battalion
- To this we could add the Douala naval base from where forces could easily be deployed by sea to Limbe in a couple of hours.
Thus, the speedboat attack on the Limbe seafront which, according to eyewitness accounts, lasted about three hours, should in theory have been easily crushed with the disproportionate firepower and skills of the Special Forces in the area, some of whom have been specifically trained to tackle criminal activity involving the use of “small arms and light weapons”.
However things turned out differently. According to one news report:
“Residents were awakened… by sustained heavy gunfire… followed by sporadic firing into the air …Using explosives, they blasted their way into four banks in central Limbe, seizing large sums of money. They barricaded roads leading into the town, repelled a group of Cameroonian soldiers and shot at the office of the local prefect.”
By the time the assailants boarded their speedboat and fled into the night – unscathed – they had killed one civilian and wounded five, and made away with about 240 million FCFA (about half a million dollars) from one of the four banks.
Initial reports suggested that the attacks may have been carried out by rebels from Bakassi or even from the Delta region in Nigeria, or by SCNC militants. Others surmised that this was an “internal job” carried out by members of the Cameroonian military, which would not only explain the surgical precision of the attacks but also the failure of military and security forces in the area to put up robust riposte. Other conspiracy theorists have linked the attack to US attempts to set up the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM), arguing that increased insecurity on the West African coast will force African regimes more receptive to the idea of setting up the AFRICOM headquarters and even bases in the region. Cameroon’s Minister of Defense, on his part, tried to downplay the incident, arguing that the attack was not the work of a sophisticated group, but of neighborhood thugs: "In our opinion, these were not big thieves who came from afar. They must have been people who know the place well; people who live among us."
Whichever version catches your fancy, one fact is irrefutable. Cameroonian military and security forces failed woefully. Even if this were the work of elements from within the military, it is unlikely, if not impossible, that they were able to involve all the military branches and special units in and around Limbe, including the local police and gendarmerie. So the incompetence argument still stands – Those shiny new navy speedboats never showed up; troops did not pour in from SONARA, Isongo, Man O’ War Bay or elsewhere;
Cameroonian Navy - No-Show (c) The Post
the Special Forces who had infiltrated the province in anticipation of the October 1 showdown were a no-show, along with the local police and gendarmerie; the Rapid Intervention Battalion, which became a household name after its bloody of the February 2008 riots, intervened at a snails pace and when it finally made it to the scenem it failed to neutralize the bandits. Of what use is a “rapid intervention battalion” which cannot be mobilized in less than 15-30 minutes? Worse, some BIR elements allegedly got lost on their way to Down Beach. According to Eden Newspaper, “At about 4:15 am, a special military intervention unit ran into Eden and others at Half Mile, Limbe and surprisingly inquired where the bandits were. On being told, they had sailed away. They expressed regret*...
Conspiracy or not, internal military plot or not, what happened in Limbe was a manifestation of a complete breakdown or the absence of communication and coordination between the different military and security branches in and around Limbe. The slow, clumsy and uncoordinated response demonstrated, if need be, the absence of a viable defense strategy for Limbe and other key port cities on the Cameroonian coast – a shortcoming which is criminal considering that these attacks did not just occur out of the blue:
- On December 5, 2007 a similar commando-style attack took place in Bata in neighboring Equatorial Guinea when “heavily armed gunmen attacked two banks simultaneously grabbing bags of cash and shooting passers-by before making off in speedboats into the Atlantic Ocean.”
- Four months later on April 1, 2008, bandits launched a similar brazen daylight attack on two banks in Cotonou, Benin, carted away huge sums of money then fled off in speedboats.
And according to the French language daily, Mutations, Cameroonian authorities were specifically warned months ago that banking institutions in Limbe and elsewhere on the Cameroonian cost were being targeted. This position is shared by The Post newspaper which clarifies that "Limbe security, some time in December 2007, received instructions from Yaounde alerting them of a planned attack... Fako and Limbe administrators, at the time, took measures and security around the banks was stepped up. But as time went on, the measures lapsed".
These reports tie in with the Minister of Defense's declaration that the government knew of the attack in advance. Inspite of this glaring security failure, the Minister of Defense nonetheless sought to shift the blame onto the banks, arguing that the they were expected, in fact required, to provide the first line of defense against such attacks with security forces simply coming in as a second line of defense. Thus, by failing to put in place a security system capable of repelling the comandos, the minister argued, the banks had failed in their duty! Please tell; how many banks in the world actually design their internal security in anticipation of an attack by 40-50 commandos armed with AK 47s, grenades and explosives, etc. who are able to hold off elite forces for 3 hours?
This was not a regular bank hold-up but a military attack. Thus, to argue that it was the place of banks to provide the “first line of defense” while security forces took their beauty sleep is a most illogical argument and a major copout – elsewhere, government officials have been fired for less!
The incompetence in Limbe continued well after the bandits had left. Seasoned investigators where shocked to note that the entire crime scene, from the banks to the streets, was never completely secured or cordoned off from the public. Barely hours after the attack, TV crews, government officials and other hangers-on were let into the banks for a series of “inspection tours”, trampling over, touching and compromising potential evidence, even though the preliminary investigations were not yet wrapped up. As a result, it is unlikely that any credible or useful evidence will ever be obtained from the crime scene, that is, if a thorough and professional investigation was ever in the cards…
So should heads roll? Yes, they should! It is under this same military command and political leadership that 21 Cameroonian soldiers were killed in Bakassi November 21, 2007 after another surprise speedboat attack; it was under this same leadership that Divisional Officer for Kombo Abedimo, still in Bakassi, was ambushed and murdered along with four soldiers; and it is under their watch that the Limbe attack occurred. Downplaying the Limbe incident or blaming the banks does not cut it.
Unfortunately, all these events are taking place in a system where officials are never held accountable for their actions or inactions…
In 1982 the Biya regime decided that the name Victoria was too foreign for a Cameroonian town. So it decided to rename the town "Limbe". However, the name Limbe is neither indigenous to the area, nor to Cameroon for that matter; it is merely a corruption of Lindbergh, the name of the German engineer who built the bridge across the river which separates the botanical gardens from "old" Victoria in the early 20th century. Skeptics argue that the goal of the Biya regime was never to "indigenize" the town's name, and that the name change was merely part of a policy to strip Victoria of its erswhile "British character". But that is a story for another day…
Old Victoria in the late 19th Century
Seaview picture of Limbe courtersy of the Mount Cameroon Ecotourism Office (MCEO).