“It’s more powerful than anybody thought”

A massive strike against rising prices for fuel, food and other basic necessities has paralysed much of Cameroon since Monday 25 February. Minor concessions offered by the government in an attempt to end the strike on Tuesday evening – such as cutting the price of petrol from 600 to 594CF (Cameroonian francs) – failed. Teargas has been fired at demonstrators in Douala and in Yaounde, the capital city, and at least six people have been reported killed.

This movement shows the enormous power that the working masses and the poor possess when they move into action. For too long the government of Paul Biya, who has ruled the country since 1982, has been able to ignore the poverty and struggles of the population which have grown steadily more desperate, as a corrupt elite enriched themselves. This has been made worse by the failure of the opposition parties to genuinely represent the interests of workers and the poor.

This strike movement is a real opportunity, not only to force the government to cut prices, but also to begin the founding of a new mass party of workers and the poor, based on struggle in Cameroon.

Naomi Byron spoke to Charles P in Douala:

“Since this morning, not a single car is moving and every kind of activity is stopped because people can’t go to work. The roads are barricaded by the population with bits of wood and all kinds of other materials except for a few where police and army vehicles are allowed to pass. The roads have been made into football grounds by the children.

“There is no activity; no shops are open. Only today there’s a bit of tolerance – people who sell food have been allowed to open up but yesterday they couldn’t open because even the shops selling food were blocked.

“At the beginning, it was the transport drivers’ trade union that organised the strike because of the increase in petrol prices, but now everybody is involved. Now that the population has taken it [the strike] over we are demanding an end to the rising cost of living. Prices must be lowered for petrol and also for basic necessities like soap, oil and flour.

“Petrol goes up every month. What really annoyed people is that on the day after our victory against Tunisia [in the Africa football Cup of Nations] when we were celebrating petrol prices were put up again. Some of us wanted Cameroon to be eliminated from the Cup of Nations, because when our national team is playing football everyone is content to follow that and so people don’t get involved with political struggles.

“At the moment, bread still costs 150, but the price has really gone up because the bakers have reduced the size of the loaf, while the government claims that the volume is still the same. The price of palm oil which we use for cooking has also increased recently from 500 to 750, even though we grow the palms that produce it here in Cameroon.

“Soap, until recently, still cost 250, already it’s 350. Many people in Cameroon live on less than a dollar a day. With these price hikes we can’t buy anything any more, even soap. This is why people are very motivated for this strike.

“Yesterday, there was surprisingly little brutality from the police. The police left demonstrators alone, they came along but only to accompany the demonstrations, they were still moderating their actions. Yesterday afternoon, in one zone of Douala, the crowd overpowered 21 police and kept them for several hours before letting them go. But today [Tuesday 26 February], they came out with armed vehicles and teargas to disperse the crowds. When they see a demonstration they try to disperse it.

“The police and army don’t need to use force, they need to use dialogue. But because the decisions don’t come from them they’re obliged to carry out orders from above. However, people have been told that if an officer is violent to you don’t resist, just find out who he is and where he lives and he will be dealt with – they’re all afraid of that.

“Just now, by New Bell prison, in Douala, there was a big crowd of people going towards the prison saying they were going to smash the prison and free the prisoners but they were intercepted and shots were fired into the air to stop them. They wanted to break in to the prison because there are many leading people from the government who are imprisoned because they have stolen money; the crowd said that it wasn’t worth the trouble of putting them in prison; they want them instead to give back the money that they’ve stolen from the country.

“The government must try to lower the prices. They say that they don’t have complete control over oil, that they can’t just lower the prices like that and we should give them time. But they’ve been given a list of the prices things should cost in order to satisfy the people. That’s the solution we’re waiting for. If nothing is done the strike will continue for as long as it takes.

“Up till tomorrow, if there are no favorable developments, the markets will remain closed, but, on Thursday, the markets will be allowed to open so that people can buy food; the rest of the day we will continue with the strike. It’s a real popular movement of a kind which has never succeeded in Cameroon. This is a big first!

“Today, people don’t have much confidence in the opposition leaders because they have their problems. They concentrate on campaigning against the government’s proposed changes to the constitution [which would allow President Biya to continue in power after his current term ends in 2011] but we, the people, say that the cost of living is too expensive. That’s why the opposition leaders don’t want to lead this movement, because they have their own interests that they are defending, while the masses are building the movement as we speak. It’s more powerful than anybody had thought.”

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