By Dibussi Tande
On May 12, 1991, 22 political parties and 10 human rights associations, including the Yaounde University Students' Parliament, met in Bamenda to discuss the political situation in the country. In their final communiqué, they gave President Biya 14 days to reconsider his stand on the National Conference, and issued the Bamenda Plan of Action which announced a two-day nationwide Ghost Town campaign (also known as operation dead cities) on May 16 and 17.
On May 16, the Ghost Town campaign effectively began, the first to be jointly organized by the National Coordination of Opposition Parties and Associations (NCOPA), which would soon be known simply as "The Coordination." The Grand West (i.e., the Littoral, West, Northwest and Southwest provinces) and the major towns in the Grand North (the Adamoua, Far North and North provinces) effectively went "dead" while the three pro-Biya provinces of the East, South and Center remained "alive" with offices, markets, stores, and other businesses staying open.
The NCOPA had hoped that the Ghost Town would be a peaceful show of force, a civil disobedience campaign that would be free of any violence. However, the operation quickly degeneration into violence and extortion particularly in Douala, Guider, Bafoussam, Bamenda and Kumba. Douala remained the nerve-center of the campaign thanks to the mobilizatory capacity of Cap Liberté and other pro-opposition associations in the city such as the association of taxi drivers and the association of hawkers. For two days running, "power was in the streets" in Douala as marauding gangs barricaded streets with tires and wreckages of burnt out cars, and clashed with security forces trying to dismantle the barricades.
The two-day campaign also marked the first widespread use of “Zoua-Zoua” as a deadly tool of protest. Zoua-Zoua was the name given to illicit petrol smuggled into Cameroon from neighboring Nigeria, and which was twice and sometimes even three times cheaper than fuel from Cameroon’s national refinery, SONARA. At the beginning of the economic crisis in the late eighties, most car owners in the west and north of the country switched to Nigerian petrol, and by 1990, the cheap fuel had made its way into the hinterland. When used to fuel cars it was simply described as "fédéral" in reference to the Federal Republic of Nigeria where it originated. However, in the hands of "foot soldiers of democracy" it became known as "zoua-zoua," the sound supposedly made when it came in contact with a burning car, a burning building… or burning flesh.
[Note: Seignobos and Tourneux, however have a different – and inaccurate – explanation of the origins of the term. According to them, Zoua-zoua is from the Hausa word zùwàa-zuwàs, which means "to come from time to time" from the word "zóo" meaning to come, which evokes the image of supplies that trickle in or come in successive little quantities (2002: 287). Mbembe’s description is in line with mine. He states that although "the origin of the expression is unknown" it is believed that it is an “onomatopoeic expression imitating the noise of a blaze.”]
Zoua-zoua was the weapon of choice of the marginalized youth and other urban laissés-pour-compte who were at the forefront of the violent protests that had engulfed the country since the Monga-Njawe trial . These disenfranchised youths became known as the "zoua-zoua generation” whom the government castigated for trying to establish what dramatist Daniel Ndoh described as a zoua zouacratie, that is a political system built on violence and arson (Doho, 1999: 93). During the two-day ghost town campaign, these youths who lived on the fringes of the fringes of Cameroonian society took over Douala's slums or so-called quartiers populaires.
With the opposition leaders who launched the operation surprisingly nowhere near the "war front," and with the traditional security apparatus completely overwhelmed by, and unprepared for this new type of urban insurrection, Douala was engulfed in a maelstrom of violence, destruction and anarchy.
Eric Taku First Victim of the Villes Mortes
It is in one of these slums that 16-year old Eric Taku became the first victim of the “villes mortes” after he was shot at point blank range by a police commissioner at Douala's 7th police precinct. Coming barely 10 days after the military assault on the University of Yaounde during which the Government claimed that there had been “zero deaths”, Taku’s corpse was paraded through the streets of Douala in a push cart and taken to the Douala provincial radio station where it was shown to journalists, just in case the government came up with another “zero deaths” claim (Mvondo, 2004: 81). Thereafter, Taku’s corpse was brought back to the police station by a crowd which had swelled into the thousands and was determined to avenge his death. What followed was a deadly confrontation between the crowd and policemen who had barricaded themselves in the station and were being given cover by a police helicopter which was holding back the crowd with a constant barrage of tear gas. As the confrontation dragged on, two other youths were gunned down from within the police station; Kouam Tekam, a 20-year old high school student, and Ngueda Thomas, a 16-year old street vendor. Unable to dislodge the policemen from their stronghold or to "zoua-zoua" the building, the crowd turned its attention to the homes of policemen living in the neighborhood which were ransacked.
By the time the villes mortes ended on May 17, two other people had been killed, one in Douala and another in Kumba.
While Douala was being controlled by street gangs, a "Red Card" extortion ring spread across the entire Grand West to the dismay of opposition leaders. In an attempt to add “color” to the Ghost Town operation and raise funds in the process, Djeukam Tchameni of Cap Liberté had designed yellow and red cards with the inscription "Biya must go" and “Biya doit partir. Carton Rouge à Paul Biya. Le peuple camerounais. 50 Fcfa.” The idea was borrowed from the game of football where yellow cards are used to warn players who commit fouls and red cards to expel repeat offenders.
These cards were originally meant to be sold to willing buyers for a “symbolic” amount of 50 FCFA. However, during the two-day Ghost town campaign, many individuals, including some prominent members of the opposition, were intimidated by thugs to buy these cards for 5, 000 FCFA and even 10,000 FCFA or face the "Zoua-Zoua squad." CAP Liberté later refuted claims that it had ordered its members to extort money from people. Tchameni argued that most of the cards that surfaced all over the Grand West were fakes which did not even carry the 50F CFA price tag on the front. To the regime, however, this was a clear case of opposition-sponsored urban terrorism and ample proof that the opposition was made up of a bunch of violent opportunists.
The Return of Jean Fochive
As the Ghost town degenerated into urban warfare, President Biya on May 16, appointed Jean Fochive, the architect of Cameroon’s post-independent repressive security apparatus, as Secretary of State for National Security. With security forces clearly unable to effectively deal with the urban warfare carried out by small groups with no clear command structure, security and military strategists concluded that the best way to neutralize these groups was to set up parallel networks that could infiltrate or dismantle them without the use of regular policing methods. Creating such networks was Fochive’s strength. In fact, he was credited with having created a network of about 10,000 spies “disseminated like a spider’s web” across the country when he had been in charge of the secret police (Mvondo, 2004: 78).
Throughout President Ahidjo’s reign, Fochive was the chief of the Cameroonian secret services – a position which made him one the most feared and hated men in the country. Born around 1931, Fochive was admitted into the police academy in Yaounde in 1952 where he graduated as a police inspector. He later attended the Dakar Advanced Police Academy. After a training course at the French secret service (SDECE) in Paris, he was appointed the head of the Cameroonian branch of the SDECE upon his return. In 1960 he was appointed Commissioner for Douala and interim Divisional Officer for Wouri. When Ahidjo created the Cameroonian secret service, the Services des etudes et de la documentation (SEDOC) in 1961, Fochive was appointed its director. Cumulatively, he was also appointed Director of Presidential security, a position he held until 1971. In 1969, SEDOC was upgraded to a Directorate and renamed the Direction générale des etudes et de la documentation (DIRDOC) still under Fochive’s leadership. Fochive was still in charge when DIRDOC became the Centre national de documentation (CND) in 1975. As head of the secret service during Ahidjo’s reign, he was responsible for implementing the emergency laws that created a state of terror in Cameroon. He was also in charge of the dreaded political prisons of Tchollire, Mantoum and Yoko, and one of the brains behind the brutal tactics used to quell the armed insurrection by the UPC. In 1984, he was fired by President Biya after the failed coup attempt but recalled in 1989 as director of Centre National de la Documentation et de la Recherche (CENER) the new name for the secret service. (Mvondo, 2004: 76-80).
The return of the dreaded Jean Fochive signaled that the Biya regime was on an authoritarian drift, and that it was now inclined to use force to quell the protests.
At the time when this Beria of the tropics took control of the powerful Cameroonian police...his return brought back bad memories and seemed like a step backwards at a time when the country… was aspiring for the establishment of a free society based on the rule of law. (Mvondo, 2004: 80).
The Creation of the Military Operation Commands
Another presidential decree that same May 16 created a new military command structure for the Littoral and Southwest provinces known as the commandement opérationnel or the Military Operation Command (MOC) under the command of General Jean-Rene Youmba.
During the first day of the ghost town campaign, there had been an obvious and embarrassing lack of coordination and communication between civilian authorities, the various branches of the security apparatus (the gendarmerie and police in particular), and the military. The result was the largely ineffectual response to the widespread violence which the regime sought to raddress by creating a unified command structure at provincial and regional level. General Youmba therefore became the supreme commander of all forces (police, gendarmerie, army, navy, and air force) in the Littoral and the Southwest. Granted “autonomous powers,” the General effectively became the de facto military governor of both provinces.
On May 24, General Oumarou Djam Yaya was appointed Military Operational Commander for the Northwest and Western provinces, and General Pierre Nganso, for the Adamaoua, North and Far North provinces. With these appointments, the seven “rebellious provinces” of the country were effectively placed under military rule.
On May 24-25, the NCOPA met to asses the two-day Ghost town campaign. Samuel Eboua, president of the UNDP and the de facto head of the opposition, argued that for any future strike action to be effective and non-violent, more time had to be devoted to the education of masses. He also insisted that subsequent strikes should not last more than two days. Regarding the "red card" affair, he described it as "an intolerable racket that did not bring honor to Cameroon." The Coordination also decided to formally suspend the ghost town campaign, along with an earlier decision to unilaterally organize a Sovereign National Conference. Members also agreed to send the Secretary-Generals of all political parties to meet Prime Minister Hayatou and submit what the NCOPA considered minimal conditions to be met before party leaders could meet either the Prime Minister or the President.
Adapted from a forthcoming book on the beginning of Cameroon's democratization experiment in the early 1990s.