The University of Iowa

Eko says Cameroon could be next hot spot

February 27th, 2011

By Benjy Sarlin, Talking Points Memo.

Lyombe Eko is a UI faculty member in International Programs and journalism.

Anti-government uprisings have spread from an initial revolution in Tunisia to countries across the region, including Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, and Yemen. Could the revolutionary fervor be migrating outside of the Arab world as well?

In Cameroon, activists used the recent Mideast turmoil to rally protestors this week against President Paul Biya, who was ruled the African nation with total authority for the last 28 years. Opposition groups charge that he has rigged elections to keep himself in power and human rights groups, including Amnesty International, accuse authorities of stifling political dissent with extreme violence.

“We want to take charge of our destiny like the people in Egypt and Tunisia did,” Kah Walla, an opposition candidate for president in Cameroon working to organize demonstrations, told CNN on Wednesday.

Whether any movement has the ability to gain traction is an open question. The Biya regime appears intent on shutting down any hint of demonstrations before they begin. On Wednesday, reports surfaced that security forces had assaulted protestors demanding fair elections in Cameroon’s largest city, Douala, including Walla, who had timed their demonstration to commemorate food riots in 2008 that left as many as 100 civilians dead . Unconfirmed footage on Youtube appears to show Walla being sprayed with a high-powered water hosewhile another video depicts protestors under attack in a separate demonstration on Monday.

Political observers say that Cameroon exhibits many similar traits to the countries that
have seen major protests recently and could be affected as a result. Lyombe Eko, a professor of journalism at the University of Iowa who has researched Cameroon, noted that like Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia, economic concerns, especially lack of jobs and rising prices on essential goods, have been key to the unrest.

“There’s high unemployment, lots of university graduates who have no jobs just roaming the streets doing nothing, there’s real hopelessness,” Eko said. “There’s a huge population in the country that I think is ready to take to the streets, that’s why the government is very scared.”

Joseph Takougang, an associate professor of African studies at the University of Cincinnati, told TPM that the latest protests “definitely have to be taken seriously.”

“There’s no doubt in my mind that the current situation in the Middle East that this has sort of spurred in recent days opposition members to speak out,” he said. “There’s always an appearance of stability when there’s no serious opposition… but you only need something like what happened in Egypt or Libya or Tunisia or Bahrain to see that atmosphere of contentedness and happiness on the surface doesn’t go deep.”

Cameroon’s demographic makeup is different than the other countries facing recent mass protests — it’s largest religious group is Christian, with Muslims making up about a fifth of the population. Its primary divisions are regional and cultural and not religious — most notable are tensions between its English-speaking and French-speaking communities.