Cameroonians are furious with their ‘absent’ president after a national tragedy

A derailed train with coaches on their sides in Eseka, Cameroon.
A derailed train with coaches on their sides in Eseka, Cameroon.
Image: AP Photo/Joel Kouam
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Yaoundé, Cameroon

As the country observed a national day of mourning on Monday, many Cameroonians in the capital city Yaoundé expressed fury with how long-term president Paul Biya has handled the aftermath of the worst train crash in the central African country’s history.The official number of deaths has now risen to 79 as rescue efforts continue, though unconfirmed sources claim the death toll is much higher.

The crash happened in Eseka, 75 miles west of Yaoundé, en route to Douala, Cameroon’s other main city. Biya had been out of the country for weeks, believed to be in Europe, without any official explanation for his absence or his whereabouts. He finally returned on Sunday evening, some 48 hours after the accident, which also left at least 600 people injured.

But Biya is still to visit either the location of the accident or to visit injured victims in hospital, despite the out-pouring of shock and grief across Cameroon. As of Tuesday evening local time, the president had not left his official residence at the Unity Palace since his return. He did, however, create a commission of inquiry into the Eseka accident and expects results in 30 days.

Atangana Gasper, a civil servant, said it was totally wrong for Biya to have first expressed his condolences from an unknown location in Europe. “The head of state appeared unperturbed by the tragedy,” said Gasper. “He only returned to the country two days after the ghastly accident. It is unacceptable, horrendous and even provocative,” he told Quartz Africa.

The Cameroonian government was sensitive enough to the criticism that it tweeted photos of Biya and the first lady on their way back to the country.

Like Atangana, two other top government officials who requested anonymity to protect their jobs, lambasted the president for his “lukewarm reaction.” Biya declared Monday a national day of mourning the presidential decree didn’t stipulate the day as a national public holiday. “Does it look like I am mourning?” one of the officials questioned rhetorically while signing a pile of official documents.

Special prayer sessions are being organized in Eseka and other parts of the country.

Cameroonians at home and abroad had been calling on their president to return home for several weeks, but Biya, who has been in power since 1982 was believed to be in hotel in Geneva most recently. “It’s a shameful thing the president will only return home when the country is on fire,” one person said on a popular Cameroonian Facebook group.

The Camrail train, which is managed by French industrial giant Bolloré, is widely believed to have been overpacked because of the collapse of the major road linking Cameroon’s two largest cities.

Opposition party leaders of Social Democratic Front and Cameroon Renaissance Movement criticized the government for poor maintenance of one of Cameroon’s most important routes and also for a slow reaction by emergency services.

Ayah Paul Abine, advocate general of the Supreme Court of Cameroon, indicted the Biya government for playing games with the exact figures of those affected.