Crisis in Cameroon
Beginning in late February antigovernment riots paralyzed Yaoundé, Cameroon's capital, and Douala, a major port city. Popular anger exploded over high fuel and food prices and a move by President Paul Biya to extend his 25-year rule. The unrest — the worst in more than 15 years — has resulted in at least seventeen deaths since it began in Douala, on Africa's west coast.
Among Dickinson's abroad programs, the one in Yaoundé, Cameroon is the most unique. Unlike similar undergraduate programs in Africa, Dickinson requires that students enroll directly in an African university. Moreover, Cameroon, a materially poor nation, lacks many of the amenities that American students are accustomed to enjoying. Therefore, students who chose to study in Cameroon tend to be mature, self-motivated and up for a challenge. While the abroad experience in Cameroon can be exceptionally rewarding, there are dangers inherent in any abroad program to Africa.
Many of these dangers were made clear to the students before going abroad. Besides from being advised of the cultural differences that the students may encounter while abroad the Dickinsonians who went to Cameroon were required to undergo a series of immunizations and were advised about what to do in dangerous situations. In the Student Handbook, which each student received, there was a section that contained information about what to do in case of civil unrest. Unfortunately, for those Dickinsonians in Cameroon this advice would be extremely helpful.
The violence began with a taxi strike which set off the rioting and widespread looting in Douala, a center of the political opposition. Unrest spread to Yaoundé, and in response police officers in riot gear fired tear gas at protesters in both cities, sometimes using helicopters to drop gas canisters from the air. State radio appealed for calm, saying the government had agreed with union leaders to make small cuts in the price of gasoline and other fuel. But people expressed outrage at the small size of the reductions.
In Yaoundé, bands of stone-throwing youths blocked streets with barricades of burning tires and timber. Businesses and shops closed and parents rushed to schools to pick up their children. Some vehicles left in streets were smashed and burned.
Some protesters chanted slogans against Mr. Biya, whose announcement last month that he might seek changes in the Constitution to prolong his mandate has angered many opposition supporters. “Biya has gone too far, he must go,” shouted the demonstrators.
The United States State Department has issued a travel warning for Cameroon. According to the State Department's website, “travel warnings are issued to describe long-term, protracted conditions that make a country dangerous or unstable.” The Embassy in Cameroon advised American citizens to avoid travel inside the country. “Roadblocks have been erected without notice by both demonstrators and petty criminals on many of the major thoroughfares of Cameroon,” it said in a message posted on the embassy website. Furthermore, the State Department advises that all Americans who can safely get out of the country should do so.
The situation in Cameroon has put the status of the Dickinson college students in Cameroon in question. The violence and unrest has forced the Dickinson students to maintain a low profile and as of now the students are unsure if they will stay in the country. Dickinson normally has a prohibition on having abroad programs in countries in which there are travel advisories – a travel warning issued by the State Department to Israel forced the suspension of its Jerusalem program. As a result of the violence seven students from Nipissing University have left the country and it seems likely that Dickinson may follow suit.
This is because, by all accounts, it is likely that the situation in Cameroon will only worsen. As the elections near it seems that the strife caused by President Biya's attempt to maintain power will continue to intensify. The Dickinsonians in Cameroon are currently safe and have been generally little affected by the eruption of violence. Communication, while normally difficult, is aggravated by the situation and the need for students to remain safe. Spirits are genuinely high and students are reluctant to leave. Unfortunately for them, the situation may require the first available plane ticket home.