Cameroon 'Ghost Towns' Rouse Public Resentment
IN the African struggle for democracy, the political tactic of creating "ghost towns" is proving to be a two-edged sword and only partially successful.While there are, of course, no ghosts, the political opposition in some countries organizes strikes to close shops and offices and halt transportation - attempting to turn cities into ghost towns. Opposition movements hope to force authoritarian regimes to adopt reforms by depriving them of revenue from taxes on business: No business, no taxes. In addition, the opposition in this central African state is urging supporters to refuse to pay electric and water bills, as well as taxes. Urban strikes have been called by pro-democracy advocates with varying degrees of participation during the past two years in a number of African countries, including Ivory Coast, Niger, Mali, Zaire, Benin, Togo, and Gabon. Cameroon's opposition is going further. Instead of brief urban strikes, they are trying to maintain a nationwide ghost-town campaign, begun in June, until the government agrees to more political reforms. But while these strikes may reduce government revenues, they also rouse public and government resentment. And police arrested several opposition leaders and reportedly killed several civilians in recent antigovernment demonstrations in Douala and several other cities in Cameroon. In Douala, where opposition leaders allow shops to open only on the weekends, one frustrated shopkeeper says: "It's killed us. How can you sell in two days what you normally sell in a week?" A manager at a bakery said: "If I open [during the week], they'll break my windows." Taxi drivers here complain of similar threats if they attempt to use their bright yellow taxies during the week. When asked who enforces the strike, Charles Tchoungang, an opposition leader, says: "The people; everyone is suffering. We have the choice between civil resistance and civil war. It's easy to obtain arms. We don't want war." Mr. Tchoungang contrasts the public's loss of income and food as a result of the ghost-town campaign with civilian deaths in pro-democracy demonstrations in Cameroon this year. "What's more important - the food or the killing?" he asks. He does not mention reports of police being killed by demonstrators. Opposition leaders in Cameroon want a national conference of all political opponents and the government to set up an interim government and organize democratic elections. The government allows opposition parties, but it insists such a conference would be unconstitutional and says it intends to hold legislative elections late this year. "We risk a civil war if we have a national conference," says Linus Onana, an official in Douala. "The opposition is very lively." In Benin, Congo, and Togo national conferences have stripped presidents of most of their powers, something Cameroon President Paul Biya does not want to happen. Mr. Onana says the ghost town reduced government revenues by 30 percent during July and August, the months when most yearly taxes are paid. If the strike continues, revenue from customs charged on imports may drop in future months as merchants cut back on orders, he says. But a Western diplomat points out that the government still has enough money to pay civil servants, who have not joined the strike. And Cameroon's oil revenues support Mr. Biya's military. Opposition leaders say the strike is effective in their strongholds, including Bamenda and Bafoussam, but admit it is not working in the capital, Yaounde, and is weakening in Douala. In Douala, "phantom" taxies, driven by cab drivers using private cars or by ordinary residents are easily available at normal prices. Businesses near police stations remain open all week, and soldiers with machine guns lounge on sidewalks outside banks, which continue to operate. Even bakeries sell bread weekdays, out the back door. "If they don't allow people to buy bread, there would be riots," says one baker.