By Tikum Mbah Azonga
This paper was published in the then London-based weekly international magazine WEST AFRICA, on the 2nd of November 1987, under the same title as above and with a stand first that states: "Tikum Mbah Azonga closes his recent notebook.” I wrote the piece after returning to London from a mission in Cameroon.
Death on the roads
Road transport is becoming more and more risky, due to motor accidents. On the major highways it is estimated that there is an average of at least one fatal accident on each of the nation’s roads each day. A couple of days before I left the country last month two taxi minibuses crashed into each other some 30 kilometers from Douala on the way to Nkongsamba. Eight of the passengers died. But what struck me about this spate of accidents in the country was that in spite of the apparent concern the government has shown (holding conferences and seminars on the subject as well as even inviting experts from abroad), no concrete steps seem to have been taken to arrest the situation.
Nowhere did I find traffic police checking speed, neither did I find anyone using their seat belt as security regulations demand. Yet government officials have repeatedly told of how very much a seat belt can reduce the likelihood of death in case of an accident. I did put mine on but was greeted by jeers of “I was! I was dong come!” an obvious reference to someone "who wants to show that he or she is a been-to". The wearing of crash helmets has not been made compulsory in Cameroon as is the case in some countries, neither have alcohol tests been introduced for highway drivers. Traffic rules are flouted openly, as drivers disregard red traffic lights, each struggling to take off first, shouting insults at each other.
However, security-wise road transport is safe. There were no reports of armed robbers attacking vehicles traveling at night. We traveled from Limbe to Bamenda and from Bamenda to Yaounde, all at night, without incident. It is worth pointing out that night bus journeys have become very popular in the country, notably on the Bamenda-Yaounde, Bamenda-Douala and Bamenda-South West routes. Buses take off at about 10.30 pm and reach their destinations at about 5.30 am. Passengers have found this option very time saving because someone can now spend the whole day working without interruption and at night take off for the other city so that by morning they arrive. Once there, they can spend the whole day doing their business and take off again at night for the return journey which is completed in the morning. In that sense, the passenger does not have to spend the whole traveling like he or she would have done if traveling in the day.
While in Cameroon, I noticed that public transport had been reorganized with there now being a marked degree of discipline in the running of affairs. It is now difficult for fare collectors to charge more than the stipulated amount. Taxis queue up as they enter the park and the National Transport Syndicate - commonly known as Syndicat, even in English – load the vehicles with the assistance of "park boys", while the driver relaxes, most probably with a bottle of beer! Ticket buyers queue up as they come in, in front of the counter on which their destination and the exact fare are conspicuously written. One is charged and one pays only the stipulated amount, with perhaps a little something extra if one has luggage. As soon as the vehicle is full and the driver is informed, he slips a tip into the hand of the "park boy" who assisted him and drives off. The next taxi moves forward into the place of the previous one and the process goes on.
The association of musical record producers (SOCILADRA) has made a major breakthrough. The cassette market has been so reorganized that it is now difficult to carry out acts of piracy. Cassettes that enter the market are carefully monitored. Furthermore, SOCILADRA has started producing its own cassettes within the country. They have set up a solid distribution network throughout the country, and as a rule, Cameroonian cassettes are sold for CFA1000 while foreign ones fetch CFA1500.
In Yaounde I was shocked by the generally unpleasant state of the city. Many street corners were littered with randomly disposed refuse and the rains made things worse by creating and acrid stench of decay. Many of the roads had lost their tar and the rains again, had turned them into slippery muddy tracks. It must have been such a situation to which one of the taxi drivers I hired in Douala (the situation in Douala is not as bad as that in Yaounde) referred to when he said he hoped President Paul Biya would visit Douala every week. When I asked him why, he said if the president were to visit Douala, the city would be given an overnight face-lift.
Law and order
I found that crime had risen in Cameroon, compared with the 1992 level, for example. But the forces of law and order are responding accordingly by stepping up reinforcements. Every now and then, some gang is broken up. In some cases, gangs of murderers have been caught. One of the most recent cases is that of Ambassa Mbazoa Jean-Marie, a "businessman" who allegedly robbed the state of Cameroon of about CFA 1bn by putting in false claims at the state treasury.
I noticed the Cameroonian police force now has a new uniform: a light-blue shirt-top with dark-blue trousers. When I asked a senior police officer why the government had decided to change the uniform at this particular time when measures are being taken to stem the economic crisis, he said that it was not anything new in the sense that the uniforms had been ordered and paid for several years previously; the implication being that now it was only a question of collecting what had already been paid for, otherwise the money would be forfeited. I asked a junior police officer how significant the change was. He said there was now a clear distinction for example, between a policeman on the one hand and a customs official penitentiary officers and game reserve wardens on the other hand.