4.30.2014

With Neighbors Like These...

Cameroon Closing In!!! (Source: UK Gov
Warning: This post may contain ample amounts of sass, sarcasm, and cynicism. Consider it a byproduct of my recent discouragement, displacement, and general boredom.

It’s pretty well-known that Cameroon’s got some messed up neighbors. Actually, I’m not sure if any of Cameroon’s neighbors can be considered positive influences, perhaps with the exception of Gabon and the Republic of Congo - Brazzaville. Particularly the past couple months, our neighbors have been quite problematic, and a few days ago the US Embassy (and thereby Peace Corps) raised the security status of the Grand North, yet again. More on that later. First let’s look at our screwed-up, corrupt, war-torn neighborhood, shall we?

In fourth place we’ve got Equatorial Guinea to the south, which has been run by Theodoro Obiang since 1979, who has since all but deposited all the country’s oil wealth into his own personal bank account. With that, it’s no wonder that he is often considered to be one of Africa’s richest dictators, with a personal wealth estimated to be at $600 million. It should come as no surprise that Equatorial Guinea is ranked as the 7th most corrupt country in the world.

And then there’s Chad, ranked as the 6th most corrupt nation in the world and also as the world’s 5th most failed state. Chad has had an ongoing problem with dictatorship (Deby has been the President since the 90s, and that’s not because the populace loves him), attempted coup d’états (due to the aforementioned dictatorship), rebellions, corruption, and general widespread severe poverty on top of a Sudanese refugee problem. Well, ain't that  a perfect storm?

Moving up in the ‘losers for neighbors’ list is the Central African Republic, now ranked as the 9th most failed state in the world (but I assure you, it'll move up in the list soon enough!). C.A.R. has been in the news a lot lately, what, with President Bozize being overthrown a year ago by the majority-Muslim rebel Seleka insurgency. And now with the recent development of the anti-Balaka mainly-Christian rebel group who are debatably committing acts of religious cleansing and forcing millions of Muslims to flee their homes and into eastern Cameroon. Even though Catherine Samba-Panza has been declared the non-partisan interim President of the C.A.R., the situation has anything but improved. Some 1,300 of the last remaining Muslims had fled Bangui, the capital, over the last weekend, leading many Christians to raid and destroy Muslim property. More recently, 22 chiefs and 3 MSF were killed in an attack in Northern C.A.R. this past weekend (not far from the border with Cameroon), which has prompted many Muslims to starting crying for secession and the creation of a new country, which would go by the name of ‘The Republic of Northern Central Africa’ (now isn't that a mouthful?).

C.A.R. refugees are flooding into Eastern Adamoua and the East region. There are refugee camps sprouting up around Bertoua, the capital of the East, and I spotted a large refugee camp on the bus through Garoua-Boulaï, the primary border-crossing from C.A.R. to Cameroon, which has reportedly been closed recently due to the influx of refugees and rebels that trail not far behind them. And while many C.A.R. refugees are flooding into refugee camps, even more are unofficially finding their ways into the households of small border villages, often where they have extended family living, which puts a strain not only on the family, but also on the village to support these refugees.

To the West of Cameroon, we have Cameroon’s most dysfunctional neighbor: Nigeria. Well, to be fair, Nigeria itself isn’t the main problem (although there are plenty of problems with the government itself), but the real problem is Boko Haram, whom I sure hope you’ve heard of by now. Boko Haram is anything but new. They’ve been active in Northern Nigeria for over a decade now, but it has been only recently that they’ve gained momentum and expanded their activities into Cameroon and Niger and likely linked themselves to AQIM, the group responsible for wreaking havoc in Northern Mali not long ago. A decade after their meager beginnings, 10,000 deaths later, and after countless attacks and bombings, the U.S. government has finally named Boko Haram (whose name literally translates to ‘Western education is sinful/forbidden') a terrorist organization - better late than never?

So, Boko Haram is very active in Northern Nigeria, that’s old news. A year ago a family was kidnapped in Northern Cameroon, signaling to the international community that perhaps they were inching their way into Cameroon. Not long after, a priest was abducted, and then a few weeks ago, two priests and a nun were abducted – so okay, now Boko Haram is not only in Cameroon and also actively recruiting. Fun.

Mothers Protesting their Daughters' Abduction
With this new intel, the Western Adamoua Peace Corps posts got shut down about a month ago, while the North tentatively stays open. And now, three days ago, the U.S. State Dept. released a statement warning all U.S. citizens of travel anywhere north of N’Gaoundere – tu dit? The Adamoua, too?! Now with this latest press release, all U.S. officials need to receive “advance clearance from the U.S. Embassy to travel” anywhere north of N'Gaoundere. Well that’s fun, especially since there are volunteers living up in these areas. 

The new Peace Corps Cameroon Country Director was here in N’Gaoundere this past week and gave no hint as to what this new State Dept. release will translate into for PCVs. He said that this travel warning was not necessarily in response to the priest and nun abduction, but more likely in response to new intel that the embassy collected that we are not privy to.  All we know for now is that all volunteers North of N’Gaoundere are on standfast, which means they are required to ask permission before leaving their village and must report all movement to admin. All those in other parts of the Adamoua and East are still on alert, which we have been on ever since some UNHCR staff were abducted in Bertoua a few months back.

Today the CD told some North volunteers that Boko Haram sold the remaining 220 girls into marriage that they had in their custody after abducting around 240 of them two weeks ago. This, coupled with the fact that a month ago a hidden cache of Kalashnikovs and rocket launchers were discovered in Goulfey, Extreme North and that last week a group of roadside bandits raided and robbed a bus headed to Garoua from N'Gaoundere, which resulted in the death of a B.I.R. agent (a member of  the Battalion d'Intervention Rapide, which was, ironically enough, created in 2001 to quell hostage-taking and looting by criminal gangs who operate in the Grand North and East), it's no surprise that the CD warned that one more Boko Haram-related event in Cameroon will force him to shut the North down.

So for most of us, things haven’t changed too much, but for those in the North, life only becomes even more annoying with these constant restrictions. Oh, and did I mention that no PCV from outside the North region can visit the North for the foreseeable future? We used to be able to ask permission to visit, but now it is not even an option, which means that I was the only non-North PCV from my stage to visit the lovely North. I'm glad I went when I did.

Anti-Balaka keep chasing Muslims into Garoua-Boulai
B.I.R. have been put on alert
It saddens me that Cameroon is slowly closing in on itself. From what I heard, the Extreme North was gorgeous, and to most PCVs, it felt incredibly safe. From what I saw first hand, the North was beautiful, in all respects. The scenery was breath-taking and the people were the most welcoming I’ve met in Cameroon. Every PCV I know in the North feels perfectly safe in their village. Heck, I felt safer in the North than I do in my own village! It’s a shame that Boko Haram and anti-Balaka rebels are taking the best parts of Cameroon away from us. Not to mention, it’s a stress on volunteers in these regions who never know from day to day whether they will be forced to move at a moment’s notice. At this point, I feel like half of Cameroon is under some security warning, where one more bad event will force it to close, the East included. It’s discouraging to us not knowing what each day will bring.

On my bus ride from N'Gaoundere to Bertoua today, I was confronted with the realities of Boko Haram and anti-Balaka C.A.R. rebels. We got stopped four times and had our bus checked by a handful of Gendarmes and border control with AK47s dangling from their shoulders. I watched as people got dragged out of cars beside our bus, likely because they were illegally entering Cameroon, and I listened as passengers conversed among themselves about Boko Haram's active presence in Cameroon.

So, here we are, half of Cameroon’s PCVs living in quasi-limbo, constantly on alert, and with our future at our posts in the hands of Boko Haram and anti-Balaka. We sit, we wait, we try to ignore the constant threat of being consolidated or moved, and we obsess over the activities of these groups, and talk over dinner about what it all means. C'est la vie?

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