In the Beginning
Dr Felix Asogwa of LEAD-Africa invited me to join a group of students from the universities of Ibadan, Lagos, Benin and Nigeria (Enugu Campus) on a road trip to Cameroon. LEAD (Leadership Entrepreneurship and Academic Development) – Africa, is a social enterprise dedicated to Nigerian youths. Basically the journey was to see the Pope; an excursion to Cameroon and for the professionals amongst us, a chance to mentor the students. Nice idea, so it seemed, only that I needed the consent of my boss. Luckily enough, my oga fell for it because it was a splendid opportunity to get a different perspective to the pontiff’s first trip to Africa for an international client of ours. That was the origin of my sweet-sour trip to Cameroon.
My adventure was exciting until we got to Ikom, Cross River State, the border between Nigeria and Cameroon. We spent over an hour trying to sort out things with the Nigerian Custom, Immigration and co. They sounded negative and prophesised that we will see pepper in the Cameroonian part of the boundary. We waved it aside as the usual Nigeria scepticism. What happened to African fraternity and hospitality? Besides with the handover of Bakassi, we have gained peace with our neighbours. So we thought or were we cozened with the United States for Africa project being pursued by Gadaffi?
24 Hours in Ekok
We waved farewell to our compatriots and drove into a gruesome standstill in Ekok, southern Cameroon. This stalemate had nothing to do with traffic jam; rather it was a 24 hour vigil before we were allowed to continue our journey to Yaoundé.
We got to Ekot at about 11.00am on Tuesday, March 17 and the first shock was that we were made to pay at the first immigration spot. This was despite reassurances from the Cameroonian Consulate in Lagos that as long as we have passports we are free to enter and leave their country. The immigration fellows directed us to the Customs office where we had to park our van. The lady we met was busy watching Aki and Paw-Paw, a Nollywood movie. Our inquiry seemed like an unnecessary distraction and her response said it all. When we persisted, she lazily moved her head from the desktop – turned into a TV – to inform us that we have to pay import duty on the bus. With a wave of her hand she dismissed us, asking us to turn around and read the notice in the balcony before her office. After which, she went back to Aki and Paw-Paw.
As her boss was not in town, we had to wait for his deputy for about an hour. He came in, apologised and started the calculation of the import duty. Lo and behold, the number two Custom Chief slammed an equivalent of three million naira duty on us. Initially we thought it was a big joke. For crying out loud, we informed him that the duty will buy another van with a handsome balance to maintain the two vehicles for a year. This dragged on till 4.00pm when he reduced our bill to one million naira (three million cefa). Not having the money, we decided to wait for his oga, to return.
The Custom Chief arrived by 7.30pm and we were invited to see him in his quarters. The chief was busy attacking a bowl of jollof rice, motley garnished with meat. We started our lamentations pleading with him to consider on this group of students who only wished to see the pope and his country. The chief merely reiterated what his subordinate had said, the only difference being that we’ll be let off the hook if somebody stands as surety for us. The warrantor must be a Cameroonian Priest since he was recently swindled by a Nigerian pastor. We seem to have morphed into prisoners who need a guarantor!
Luckily we were able to get the priest of the local parish to stand as surety for us the next morning. The reverend gentleman, by doing that placed his reputation on the line that we will return to Ekok with the van. Apparently, we later learnt that some Nigerians use that route to smuggle stolen cars into the Central Africa region. Thus, the high import duty was a deterrent.
That was not the end of our woes, as we had to clear out our passports with another set of immigration personnel. One of them Inspector M, was quite jovial with the propensity for milking cash. We finally bade goodbye to Ekok at 11.00am of Wednesday, March 18.
One Nation, two Destinies
For the first time I witnessed a strange phobia against my motherland. A distaste that was more confusing since I was still within the continent. However, future incidents during the journey confirmed my suspicion that stereotypes had been created during the Nigerian-Cameroonian dispute over Bakassi. It was self evident that the typical Cameroonian perceives Nigerians as the aggressors, a fall out of the propaganda fed to them by the state.
Asides this, there is the evident threat of Nigerian domination. For instance, the stretch from Ekok to Eyumojok is the worst road I have ever seen. It is impossible to capture the treacherous gullies that litter what is supposed to be an international border trunk road. The Ore-Benin axis in its bad state is a grade one express road when compared with most roads in western Cameroon. This is a direct opposite with the roads linking Cameroon with other East African nations or the roads in Yaoundé or Douala.
Also the internal politics of alienation of the Anglophone part of the country may also be responsible for this Nigerian phobia. I gathered during my stay there that the Ekok road was left purposely in that condition to prevent Nigerians from entering their country. Besides, the top personnel at the boarder are usually Francophone Cameroonians. It is common knowledge around there that the rainy season naturally signifies an end to road trip thru and fro the Ekok border.
A Subdued People
I got the impression of a police state, a country that in theory is democratic but in practice is under the tight grip of a dictator. Mr Paul Biya has ruled the country for 27 years and like all tyrants has stifled all opposition.
I was almost denied entry because I dared identify myself as a journalist. Luckily my dual professional bias saved the day; I changed my stance and told the immigration official that I am a book editor. Also an innocent chat with a gendarme almost turned violent when I asked him about the political situation of his country. His countenance underwent a massive change; the once jovial gendarme suddenly became stiff. He gave me a penetrating stare and walked away.
I witnessed the greatest number of road blocks in my life. Nothing compared with what we have at home. And in each of these blocks, the gendarmes were far from being friendly. Also the people were so passive, electing rather to drain their frustration in drinking beer. Imagine subjecting people to wait for more than seven hours before entering an empty Ahmadou Ahidjo Stadium in Yaoundé (for the Papal Mass on March 19), only for a greater majority who have queued up, to be denied entrance. Those who made it inside were prevented from using their umbrellas from shielding the intense sunlight. And wonders of all wonders, they acquiescenced without flexing a muscle.
Officer Ahmadu was an exception to the rule. Trouble started for a member of our group who decided to take pictures during the papal event in the Basilica of Mary Queen of the Apostles. A police officer grabbed his camera and did not yield to the pleas of anyone. Providentially, we approached Officer Ahmadu, who was incensed by the story and confronted the bad guy. He tough lashed his colleague and told us that no one has a right to stop us from taking pictures. Officer Ahmadu went ahead to make a space for us in the crowd so that we can display our Nigerian banners, an almost impossible task before his intervention.
Food is not ready
Eating is an elaborate business in Cameroon. Carrying our Naija mentality of food is ready; we soon introduced to order your food, drink and wait. In typical French fashion, the Cameroonians take their time to eat. Normally you make your order and it takes at least 20-25 minutes before the meal is served. In the mean time you drink or get drunk. The drink of choice is usually beer, as the difference between its price and that of soft drink is just 5 cefa. There is also variety like Castle, Musik, Satzenbrau and Guinness (grand un petit).
Cameroonians are great people. Despite the initial hostility at the border, most people we met were glad that we visited their country. Numerous occurrences during the trip point to this fact. For instance, a law student in the University of Cameroon was heroic to show us to our destination. That is something that am sure most Nigerians will not do. An okada rider, alerted us to the presence of hoodlums when we were desperately looking for a restaurant to revive our famished body. He took it upon himself at no costs, to lead us to a safe area of Bamenda where we had a late dinner or the gendarme who hug us like long lost relatives in the streets of Yaoundé. There was this lady that took it upon herself to explain to the resistive crowd that they should let us be. According to her, we are all Africans and as such we can hang our banner wherever it pleases us. I also saw traffic order at close range, signalling a driver to stop so that we can cross the road. Try that in Lagos and you’ll end up in an orthopaedic hospital, if you’re lucky. In addition, their power supply is constant. We witnessed a ten minutes break which left our hosts confused as the concept of generators or candles are foreign.
Eto is King of Cameroon
Samuel Eto Fils is the King of Cameroon. It is amazing how strong a brand the striker for Spanish team Barcelona is. Little wonder his more popular that Mr Biya, who turned the papal visit into a PR stunt. The streets of Yaoundé were dotted with “perfect communion” billboards showing the Pope and Mr Biya. The stunt suffered a set back, with the Benedict’s remark during his trip about “corruption and abuses of power”.
I’ll say I did not regret my visit to Cameroon. Despite the skirmish at the boarder, the average Cameroonian has a large heart and I was a recipient of their hospitality. I saw a “mini-Africa”, got my stories, interacted with young Nigerian students and drove in the night without watching my back! On entering the Ikom axis of our border, the students intoned the Nigerian National Anthem and I could not help feeling proud to be a Nigerian.