Press trial sparks Cameroon riots




Mark Huband in Abidjan

The Guardian, 22 January 1991

WIDESPREAD rioting and demonstrations, which led to at least two deaths in Cameroon last week, exposed deepening public resentment of repressive government measures at a time when the country’s leadership has promised democracy.

The rioting was ignited by the trial of two journalists who had refused to submit for censorship an article critical of the government. While allowing an independent media, non-government newspapers often appear with censored articles blacked-out on the page.

The two journalists, Celestin Monga and Pius Njawe, columnist and editor of the independent daily, Le Messager, were charged with insulting President Paul Biya in an article which had not been surrendered to the censor.

After a two-day trial, they were cleared of insulting the President but found guilty of insulting the national assembly and other institutions. They were fined £800 and given a six-month suspended jail sentence.

Cameroon possesses oil, large cities, and a relatively well-developed infrastructure, but its wealth has filtered into the hands of the rich, creating the current climate of protest, instability, and repression, particularly of the press.

Despite objections from foreign creditors, the country’s substantial oil revenues are excluded from the government’s income accounts, allowing massive corruption to go unchecked, as only those involved in oil sales know how much is being earned. In 1989, over £218 million flowed out of the country illegally.

The country’s north-south divisions created the instability which led to strong state police and secret services being established almost immediately after independence in 1961.

The democratising legislation is seen as characteristic of the old order rather than an attempt to move the country away from what has been one of the region’s most oppressive police states.

Last week’s trial bore out the claims of the sceptics. As police helicopters hovered over the court room in the economic capital, Douala, and troops charged crowds numbering up to 5,000 with tear gas and batons, the trial threatened not so much the democratic process as the incumbent government. At least two, and, possibly three, people were killed in similar demonstrations in the northern town of Garoua. The town is the birthplace of the former president, Ahmadou Ahidjo, who retired in 1982 but led a failed coup against the Biya government in 1984.

Last week’s demonstration and deaths, hundreds of miles from the trial in Douala, revealed the extent to which the country was active in its support for the accused journalists and the broader issues which have been forced on to the political agenda.



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