A stone’s throw from the Moungo, the river that in part marks the separation between the English and French-speaking regions of Cameroon, light armored vehicles and trucks full of soldiers have been on the lookout since the beginning of the African Championship of Nations (CHAN).
This tournament, which brings together 16 African national teams without their stars playing outside the continent, is a dress rehearsal before the African Cup of Nations (CAN), the flagship competition of African soccer scheduled for January 2022.
It is the first major international soccer tournament organized in the world since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. But beyond the health restrictions gauging 25% of the seats, 50% from the semi-finals, the great challenge for the organizers is that of security, in this country in a situation of war on part of its territory.
For the past four years, the English-speaking regions of the Southwest and Northwest have been plagued by a bloody conflict between armed groups demanding the independence of these English-speaking areas and the security forces. The violence has resulted in more than 3,000 deaths and more than 700,000 displaced persons. Civilians are caught in the crossfire and are victims of crimes and abuses by both sides, according to international NGOs and the UN.
Some armed groups have vowed to disrupt CHAN. So along the banks of the Moungo, which was also the symbol of the reunification in 1961 of Cameroon under French and British mandates at the end of the First World War, police and military forces were considerably reinforced.
A state of alert
As the qualification phase for the quarter-finals draws to a close, fears are growing in Limbe, the capital of the Southwest region, which will host one of the semi-finals, as well as in Buea, the training site for some of the teams.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, as the Zambia-Namibia match in Limbe approached, the towns on the road from the resort to Douala were almost deserted.
Armed separatists, dubbed Amba Boys passed ‘ghost town’ orders where they ban activity every Mondays.
Since the opening of CHAN, ghost towns are decreed every day and match eve in Limbe. Usually very lively, the small towns of Tiko and Mutengene, between Buea and Limbe, had closed down on Wednesday.
On the road as in Buea, light armor patrols criss-crossed the town with machine guns ready to fire.
In Molyko, the boulevard that cuts Buea in half, lies the burnt body of a car. Four other charred wrecks still lie on the road to Limbé.
Military convoys are sometimes targeted by IEDs, improvised explosives placed along the roadside.
In November, suspected separatists attacked a school in Limbé, setting fire to two classrooms and forcing teachers and students to undress.
Descending the mountain to Limbé, as in some ultra-secure areas of Buea, life appears more normal, however. Clusters of schoolchildren and high school students return home after a day of classes. Shops and bars fill up.
But in Limbé, when the matches are approaching, fear is very present.
On Tuesday, “everyone took cover after a bomb exploded,” which did not cause any injuries, not far from the stadium, says Harris, 19, still in shock. “Just to be on the safe side,” the soccer fan did not go to Zambia-Namibia as he had planned.
From a security standpoint, everything is going well,” said Southwestern Governor Bernard Okalia Bilai on Wednesday at halftime of Zambia-Namibia, which was attended by about 1,000 spectators. “We haven’t had any incidents that would have disrupted our program,” he said.