By Tata Mbunwe
Life is normalising in Southwest’s regional capital, Buea, after mass protests engulfed the city on Thursday following the killing of a six-year-old pupil.
The people, whom we spoke to, said Thursday’s events and the pictures they saw are yet to be forgotten.
Although transport and businesses reopened timidly on Friday, sadness, horror and shock could still be read in people’s faces and felt in their voices, as the incident remained the talk of the day.
How it started
Carolaise Tchungia, a Class One pupil of P&A Catholic Primary School Buea, was shot dead Thursday morning on her way to school, sparking public demonstrations that paralysed the city for a whole day.
Gendarmerie officer Achile Mvogo, who committed the act, was also lynched by a crowd and beaten to death a few minutes later.
The six-year-old was shot inside a vehicle in which her mother was taking her to school.
A Government release says the officer had intended to fire warning shots to stop their Toyota car which was evading control but the bullets rather caught the pupil.
But many believed the vehicle was shot at, not because it evaded control, but because they did not bribe (settle) the officers with 500 FCFA, a practice which is common among police and car drivers in Buea.
“There is an unfortunate tendency by, I think, a few bad elements in the forces of harassment of the population in Buea … I’m sure this kind of harassment is what generated the frustration that made many come out yesterday,” said Buea Member of Parliament, Hon. Malomba Essembe, on Friday.
The incident, which happened around 7:50am on Thursday near the Buea Omnisport Stadium, triggered immediate reactions from passers-by and people who heard the news.
As the gendarmes who were at the control post stood confused and not knowing what next to do, the crowd seized the said officer who committed the act.
Men and women pick up stones and sticks and within a few minutes, the officer Achile Mvogo was lying in the gutter dead. Other officers stood nearby watching helplessly as he was being beaten to death.
Irate mob defies security, marches to Governor’s office
Thousands of Buea denizens paraded the streets on Thursday with the child’s corpse, her head ripped by bullets, the crowd fuming with anger and disgust for an act which they termed unacceptable.
Despite heavy military presence in town that morning, people defied the scare and marched with the corpse to the South West Governor’s Office.
Taxi drivers joined the protests, halting movement of vehicles around the city. Roadblocks were mounted in Molyko, Buea’s business and academic hub; and by 9am, throughout the city, businesses and markets were also closed.
At the Buea independence square, women sat on the road crying and shaming military officers who passed by.
“We are tired! You shoot children; you shoot mothers, you shoot just anybody,” one of them lamented.
As protesters carried the six-year-old’s mortal remains, they booed and shamed the military, the police, and all uniform officers who passed by in trucks.
The police, gendarmes and BIRs all watched how the furious mob bypassed their trucks, one of which carried the dead body of Achille Mvogo who was killed for killing the child.
As they marched through the streets, they chanted, “take 500 FCFA and give back our child.” Unconfirmed reports say the late Carolaise Tchungia was shot over her mother’s refusal to “settle” the gendarmes, who were on roadside controls, with 500 FCFA.
“This is something that is very aching, because the police have exaggerated harassment against civilians. I have seen this and it is too much and it is time these people pack out of this town,” said a protesting driver who refused to be named.
Filled with shock and frustration, the population had refused to hand the pupil’s battered body over to family members or to authorities, according to Hon Malomba Essembe, who moved alongside protesters to the governor’s office.
“Yesterday you saw the thousands of people that matched across Buea and it was well controlled by themselves. Even the few elements of security and defense forces who were there really had little or nothing to do because the population did not in any way spill over,” Malomba said.
Governor Bernard Okalia Bilai had already been told of the chaos that engulfed the peaceful city, which is now one of the safest towns for thousands of IDPs driven by conflict from other parts of the two English-speaking regions of Cameroon.
Governor says accomplices will pay
South West governor Bernard Okalia Bilai was visibly terrified, not just by seeing the battered body of a young child, but also by the angry crowd that had invaded his premises – it was the biggest demonstration Buea has witnessed for years.
The governor came out of his office in tears, describing it as “a shock”.
“I am fighting that children should go to school. How is it that a child, on her way to school, is killed? So it is a shock. Be rest assured that I, governor – you know me; you know that I’m not a cunning man. Those who did it, no matter their grade, they will pay; they will pay,” he told protesters.
“Let us be at peace no matter how painful the situation is. It is an atrocity but let us not give room to people who will like to add to this atrocity,” he added.
After addressing the crowd the governor later had a private meeting with family members of little Carolaise, during which he delivered a condolence message from President Paul Biya.
The Governor assured them his administration will do everything possible to ensure such an incident does not recur. He said an investigation has been opened to determine those who share blame in Thursday’s incident.
The population has, nevertheless, been pondering on the governor’s promises and many are hoping they do not end at the level of promises. They expect the results of the investigations to be publicized and those guilty of any complicity be convicted.
Defence Ministry adds salt to injury
Cameroon’s Ministry of Defence, MINDEF, issued a release on Thursday evening in which communication officer, Col. Cyrille Atonfack, tried to excuse gendarme Mvogo who committed the atrocity.
In his narrative, he diverted attention from the alleged corruption attempt by the gendarme officer who committed the act, and rather blamed the car driver for trying to evade control.
Some eyewitnesses of the incident say the MINDEF communiqué was inaccurate, “disrespectful” and did not reflect what happened.
“That is how it happened in Kumba, Government turned that Amba fighters are responsible. Now the case of the little girl has turned to blame the driver escaping the checkpoint,” said Peter Ojong.
Part of the MINDEF release reads: “After the usual identification procedures, an inexplicable verbal brawl ensued between the two gendarmes and the driver, who was firmly opposed to the search of his vehicle to the point of initiating a new escape manoevre.”
“In an inappropriate reaction, unsuited to the circumstances and clearly disproportionate to the irrelevant behavior of the driver, one of the gendarmes will, in defiance of the sacrosanct principle of precaution, fire warning shots in order to immobilize the vehicle.”
Terming the communiqué as “disrespectful,” Yanick, a Facebook user said it “is really sad”.
Also commenting on the release, Shaphan Chia said, “If an officer cannot immobilise a car appropriately, then his (and that of many others) professionalism is up for questioning. This is how many keep losing their lives in the hands of such incompetence.”
Across Buea, the release was not well received and many other people who spoke to MMI say it was inappropriate.
Victim finally laid to rest
The distressful and chaotic Thursday ended with the burial of the six-year-old victim at the St Anthony Catholic Church cemetery at Buea Town.
Thousands of people attended the ceremony. Mourners trooped into the burial ground. There was wailing, sadness and desperation.
Buea’s Divisional Officer Abba Abdourahman was there; MP Hon Malomba; Catholic University President, Prof Julius Ngoh, also attended the burial alongside several authorities and clergy.
“Graciously the Bishop immediately instructed that the priest in charge should be called and that space should be prepared for the child to be buried,” says Hon. Malomba Essembe, who did burial arrangements alongside Buea Divisional Officer, Abba Abdurahman.
“The education secretary of the diocese, Father Michael, and two other fathers were there to perform rites for burial. The Director of the hospital (Buea regional hospital) Dr Mokake was there to examine the body. Fortunately, he had come with a body bag of her size in which the body was put and then buried and the population then dispersed,” Malomba added.
At about 8pm that Thursday evening, the governor met with the bereaved family to whom he presented President Biya’s condolence message.
“Meanwhile we stayed back at the Church compound; the family was there. We spoke with them and when the governor was informed that we were there with the family, he left his office with his retinue and they joined us there – it’s a small hall at the St Anthony Catholic Church in Buea Town,” Hon. Malomba recounted.
Anglophone crisis is the root cause
Thursday’s incident brought back memories of an incident that happened on October 24 last year in Kumba, where seven school children were shot and killed by gunmen who invaded the St Francis Bilingual Academy.
Authorities had tried some suspects who were later sentenced to death by a Buea military court this September 7.
Many are saying the Cameroon government should resolve the armed conflict in the English-speaking regions by calling for a dialogue with separatists.
Over 4,000 people have died in the conflict since 2016 and hundreds of thousands are still displaced. “Peace is first and foremost for us and destruction doesn’t serve our interest,” says Hon. Malomba.
The crisis has triggered heavy military deployment to the two regions and in towns like Buea, these soldiers have been widely accused of harassing citizens and drivers for money, refusal of which they will arrest and tag one an Amba.
“Our task as legislators is always to hold government to account and we will follow-up these government officials to make sure that the military, police, they stick to their work and the methods which are conventional. Such harassment has to end. It is the only way we can give meaning to the senseless killing of our little sister, Carolaise,” Hon Malomba told journalists.