On October 21, 2016, a train derailed in Cameroon killing at least 79 and injuring over 500 people.
Heavy rain had washed out the road between Douala and Yaounde. Extra cars had been added to the train, but it was still over crowded. In the immediate aftermath, there was no coordinated response. There had been inadequate planning and resources ready to respond to emergencies.
The eyes of the country looked toward President Paul Biya, who had been out of the country for many weeks (without an accounting of where he was or why). When he finally returned two days after the accident, he did not travel to the area. He simply appointed a commission composed mostly of government officials to investigate the matter. The commission promptly exonerated the responsible government officials.
Outside of Africa, the world’s press only mentioned the numbers of dead in passing, paying little to no attention to the catastrophe.
The World Federation of Trade Unions, however, immediately issued a short article and pointed to the issue of privatization.
This tragedy cannot be fully understood without knowing at least a brief history of how imperialism has exploited Cameroon, leaving it with only a few miles of railroad, which is devoted only to the purposes of imperialism. Railroads only connected administrative areas and those of natural resources to the ports.
The role of Germany and France
United State Special Forces have been in Cameroon for some time. On October 14, 2015, President Obama announced that he had ordered 300 troops to Cameroon. The U.S. has also set up a drone base in Garoua, Cameroon. On November 3, 2015, the U.S. Ambassador to Cameroon visited the drone site and the next day told reporters that the local population had given the troops a “hilarious and warm welcome.”
Four months later on April 18, 2016, the U.S. Ambassador to the UN was traveling through Mokong, Cameroon. Mokong is only 120 miles from Garoua. Her convoy was speeding through when it hit and killed a six year-old boy. They didn’t bother to even stop. Five hours later, on their way back, officials ordered the father of the boy to stop digging a grave so the Ambassador could briefly stop by. Later the U.S. government paid the family $1700, provided a few bags of food and soap, dug a well and called the matter settled.
The U.S. military domination of the area is expanding. From February 16, 2015 to March 9, 2015, the U.S. hosted “Exercise Flintlock.” That U.S. military Special Operations exercise trained troops from Chad, Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon and Tunisia under U.S. leadership.
On July 20, the U.S. Commander of U.S. Special Operations met with the Biya in order to publicly praise each other and facilitate further U.S. military domination.
To ensure that everyone got the right message, the U.S. African Command hosted a meeting for journalists from Cameroon and Niger. They brought them to the U.S. base in Germany from November 28, 2016 to December 1. The purpose of this meeting was obviously to get the local media to use the U.S. military talking points in reference to the U.S. bases and military actions in their countries. At the same time, the journalists were exposed to the awesome military power of the U.S., providing a graphic warning about what could happen when if they were to get too far off those talking points.
The role of Exxon
This infrastructure for repression is the context for the Exxon’s operations in Chad and Cameroon. Since 2000 over a half billion barrels of oil have been taken by the multinational corporation.
Exxon oil wells in Cameroon and rights of way for Exxon to get its oil from Chad to a port demonstrate who owns natural resources in the region. World Bank financing and oversight are parts of the web of finance capital control.
Rail infrastructure is an important part of Exxon’s operations. A 2012 Exxon report, for example, noted, “The new developments in Cameroon are primarily the result of two factors: Major infrastructure initiatives by the government, including national railways.” In other words, major investments in infrastructure are designed for Exxon. A 2012 Cameroon rail master plan, noted the importance of linking a new deep-sea port with proposed iron ore, nickel, cobalt, manganese, gold, diamond and bauxite mines.
Cameroon’s natural wealth stands in stark contrast to the poverty of its people. The workers make it possible for the extraction of the wealth are not benefiting even as Exxon’s profits are increasing.
Since 2000, foreign investors in agriculture have bought or leased over 138.3 million acres of land in Africa (almost the size of Kenya).
In 2009, a California based company Herakles Farms got the Cameroon government to agree to give it control of land 10 times the size of Manhattan.
A March 2013 internal company document called “Value Drivers” was later obtained and exposed by Greenpeace. It showed that the company decided on creating a palm oil plantation in Cameroon as opposed to Malaysia because it could pay workers only $5.20 per day and because economic conditions would keep unemployment high and wages low. They also bragged about the cheap land and 10 year tax exeption. With this guiding principle of exploitation, the company began to illegally clear and sell the timber.
Their treatment of people has been so bad that they have been sentenced to pay $4.6 million for racial discrimination. Scores of employees have organized to make the company pay the allowances they are due.
Herakles Farms has defended itself against employees’ claims by saying that it had them sign agreements to arbitrate any dispute. Under the terms of the “contract” that they had them sign, only the “New York Arbitration Board” could resolve complaints.
While this may seem unrelated from the issue of railroads, the fact is that transportation infrastructure is crucial for exporting the palm oil.
Who owns the railroad and why?
The railroad was owned and managed by the government prior to 1999. In the mid-1990s the IMF and the World Bank demanded a massive program of privatization. Key telecom, sugar and palm oil operations were turned over to private owners. Water was a target too.
In 2001 U.S.-based AES bought the Cameroon electric utility company and promptly increased the cost by 10 percent. At the same time service became even more unreliable. By 2003 mass marches demanded that “AES Go Home!” But AES remained, backed up by the IMF and World Bank. In 2012 AES stopped providing electricity to the Bakoko community and refused to talk to representatives of the people until people blocked their offices. In 2014 AES sold its operations in Cameroon to Actis, a finance capital company based in Britain. In September 2014 AES-SONEL was renamed ENEO, finally breaking all symbolic ties to the former SONEL public entity.
Rail was privatized in April 1999 when companies based in France took it over. Several names were associated with it but the one that has stayed and taken greater control is Bolloré. According to the World Bank, the new owners expected a quick 16 percent return on their investment. By 2003 revenue was up 20 percent.
When these private interests took over, hundreds of workers lost their jobs. Before privatization there were 3400 workers. A year later there were only 2800. The government–and not the company–paid the costs of the layoff. Hundreds more were laid off by 2002.
Decisions on whether to do maintenance were based on doing as little as possible. The decline in service was so bad that the community protested by blocking train tracks.
In 2008, during the global financial crisis, the concession for private companies to run the operation was extended from 20 years to 30 and the government had to take on more responsibility for infrastructure.
Bolloré is an investment and holding company that owns the railroad operation in Cameroon. But who owns Bolloré? Finance Capital. Some of the institutions with significant stock investment include FMI International, Fiduciary Management Company of Milwaukee, JNL/Boston Partners, BlackRock, and IVA International.
What caused the train to derail?
On April 2, 2012, workers went on strike against Sitrafer, a company that does rail maintenance for CAMRAIL. Sitrafer was managed by a Central Committee member of the ruling party CPD. The workers had not been paid any wages for three to five months and had no social insurance coverage. On May 6, 2013, the same workers went on strike again demanding six months of unpaid salary.
To the extent that maintenance of the tracks was a contributing factor in the accident, the message from these two strikes was: a failure to respect the rail maintenance workers is the same thing as failing to respect the lives of the people of Cameroon. Respect can be delineated as full funding, full staffing, full and decent pay and benefits,
On September 29, 2016, a NJ Transit commuter train crashed at Hoboken Terminal in Hoboken, New Jersey. One person died and 114 were injured. The event highlighted the fact that cutbacks in the number of workers can be deadly. In the aftermath, new regulations now require engineers to be accompanied by at least one other crew member as they come into a station.
In terms of speed, the New Jersey accident could have been prevented by automated speed control systems on the tracks. Under a federal law passed in 2008 the system would have been required by December 31, 2015. However, the railroad industry demanded and got a three-year extension.
Bolloré stated that the accident in Cameroon was caused by speed. They blame the driver, just as corporations always blame the worker.
But the reality is that the very profitable Bolloré corporation could have installed the necessary equipment to prevent this accident. They could have shown some respect for the lives of the people of Cameroon. Bolloré, privatization, and capitalism are the root causes of the deaths of 79 people and the injuries sustained by over 500 others.
2008 and the postal strike
Bolloré forced through changes that gave it more lucrative control of the railroad and for a longer period in 2008.
That year was a year of struggle. On February 25, taxi and bus drivers went on strike against high gas prices. Within a day that forced the government to lower prices. That action triggered a rebellion by unemployed youth fed up with poverty. It lasted four days and was only stopped with bullets and beatings. Over 100 were killed and over 1600 were arrested. A month later, 800 were still in prison. Yet even in the midst of repression, the people had won concessions from the government. Public employees got an immediate 15 percent raise effective April 1. Taxes were suspended on the basics of cooking oil, fish and rice, as well as cement.
On October 27, however postal employees (CAMPOST) went on strike because they had not been paid for 35 months and many of the employees didn’t have a regular status. They were still in struggle on November 6 when they called for the Minister overseeing the postal service to resign.
Rebellion erupted again at the end of November. On December 3, it spread to the capital and the main port and both were brought to a halt. The massive rebellion demanded an end to food and fuel price increases. The government finally announced that they had arrived at an agreement with the union to make cut the price of gas and fuel. But it was an insufficient action and laid the basis for more discontent with the government and the system.
The struggle to end colonialism
After centuries of rule by European colonial empires- Portugal, Netherlands, and Germany, Cameroon was divided after WWI between the imperialist powers France and Britain. Officially the area was to be administered instead of ruled as a colony but there was no difference. Racism, forced labor and exploitation were the rule of the day. From 1928- 1931 the Kongo-Wara rebellion was just one expression of the people’s will to resist.
As WWII was ending, unions were finally legalized in 1944. The best leaders who wanted to fight the system, who wanted independence also organized the strongest union (USCC). The imperialist oriented Catholic Church then organized other unions to counter them, but with little support.
As inflation ate up wages, the USCC called for strikes in September 1945. On September 24, 1945, a wildcat strike spread through the Doula railway workshops. This strike was met with severe police repression, and over 20 workers were killed.
In 1948 those who wanted to press their demands for economic justice and liberation by way of a general strike formed the UPC (Union des Populations du Cameroun). This was quickly branded as a communist front. Despite continued repression, by 1955, it was the largest party with 100,000 members. Leaders of the movement in the 1950s included Ruben Um Nyobè, Osendé Afana, Ernest Ouandié, and Felix Moumie. Women asserted their role in organizing right from the mid-1940s and the UPC had a women’s unit, UDEFEC.
Organizing continued inside and outside Cameroon. In the early 1950s, leaders were able to get to the UN to call for independence. They were supported by tens of thousands of letters exposing racism and injustice. In the mid-1950s France was thrown out of Vietnam and faced rebellion in Algeria. Some of the most vicious French colonial political and military leaders were transferred from Vietnam to Cameroon.
In March and April 1955 women organized cadre classes to develop skills for liberation. On April 22, 1955, the UPC and allied organizations issued a Joint Proclamation declaring the Trusteeship terminated and demanding elections by end 1955. (This was just before the South African liberation movement issued the Freedom Charter in June 1955).
Within weeks, this declaration was given practical power as tens of thousands of workers went on strikes and a general rebellion occurred from May 22 to May 30, 1955 in Douala, Yaounde and other cities.
On July 13, 1955, the UPC was banned by the French. In June 1957, Britain banned the UPC and deported 13 leaders of the UPC and its women’s organization the UDEFEC. A campaign of terror began, forcing the UPC underground and requiring the formation of military units and an armed struggle for liberation.
Pacification programs bean in 1956. Villages were forced to leave their land to be regrouped in holding areas where they could be watched and repressed more closely. Thousands escaped into the bush to join the UPC. But tens of thousands of others saw their homes burned and their loved ones tortured and killed. Estimates of the number killed go as high as 120,000 (by Le Monde in 1962) but it could be many more.
Formal independence in 1960 was a managed affair to give France complete control of the key features of political and economic life.
There would have been no independence were it not for the heroic struggle of the Cameroon people to resist imperialism. But the fight continued, as did the repression. France continued to bomb villages. The pacification and terror campaign continued in order to stop any movement for real independence. During the struggle, leaders had to flee and organize from a distance, finding refuge and support from Sudan, Egypt (under Nasser), Ghana (under Nkrumah) and Guinea.
The World Federation of Trade Unions was supportive as it could be in all phases of the struggle in the 1950s and 1960s, funneling support through its affiliates in Nigeria. Some support also came from the socialist countries while the United States supported France and colonialism. Liberation leaders confronted U.S. officials regarding the supply of U.S. arms and political support for the French but they were rebuffed. The intense military struggle lasted until 1971 when leaders were finally captured and killed.
The history of massacres and terrorism against the people of Cameroon has been largely hidden, particularly in France and the United States.
In 1954 Mongo Beti published his first book, Cruel City and later The Poor Christ of Bomba. These novels exposed capitalism and French colonialism in Cameroon. The context of repression forced him to use a pseudonym. In 1972 in the wake of the execution of Ernest Ouandie, he published the book, Cruel Hand on Cameroon, Autopsy of a Decolonization, which directly challenged the imperialist narrative about independence and the role of France. It was immediately censored and banned in France, explaining in part the lack of awareness of the struggle in Cameroon.
But cracks in the wall are occurring. Just this year, participants and survivors of France’s campaign of terror are speaking out on video. The word is getting out.
In the meantime, the struggle continues.