My recent experience in crossing borders reflects how Boko Haram and Ebola steer many daily encounters and feed into feelings of insecurity in Central Africa.
December 20, 9.00 pm: The moment I went to Douala Airport to go home, back to the Netherlands, I felt nervous. We always prepare well to travel: having all our papers in order, but this time it worked out differently. My passport did have the visa but lacked the essential entry-stamp. Without coming in, one cannot get out. Although most of my friends and colleagues in Cameroon expressed their confidence that I would get out, I was not convinced. They seem to have opined that a white lady would have no problems: immigration would let me pass, if I eventually paid. It felt awkward to be illegal.
I was in Douala airport after a long travel, as I combined supervision work in Nigeria and Cameroon, to follow the PhD research of Inge Ligtvoet in Nigeria (having the relations between Nigeria and Cameroon as one of its angles) and to follow the writing process of PhD candidates from Cameroon, Chad and the Netherlands in a writing workshop in Cameroon. It seemed a good plan to combine the two tasks as the areas of research and workshop were at both sides of the border, hence travel costs would be reduced. But it all went differently.
I did pass. Maybe because the (immigration) policewoman behind the counter was in a Christmas mood. One of my friends, a lawyer, insisted on accompanying me to this point – despite opposition of various airport officials – and later I understood why. He explained the situation in legal terms to her and she stamped my passport. I found it peculiar that the lady did not ask any further specifics about my illegality, or about where I had entered the country. Neither did she ask for a gift, allowing us to simply show our gratitude. While sharing a drink before I would pass all other controls, my friend said that he had not been so very certain about me going. Also others admitted later they had deemed it a risky affair; the Cameroonian State is in a very high condition of alert. It is important to be certain about your citizens’ intentions and hence to ‘brand’ them well.
The alerts have arisen from the various crises that plague some parts of Africa. Cameroon is, so far, Ebola-free, a status they’d rather keep. As one of the Cameroonian migration officers at the border explained: although Nigeria has been declared Ebola-free, it is clear that it is a potential danger to Cameroon as its borders are extremely permeable. Answer: close the borders.
Another insecurity is Boko Haram. Boko Haram declared the Caliphate in the north-east of Nigeria and has practically included the northern part of Cameroon. The area is the scene of a real war that easily crosses borders. Every day people die, and many are the stories of attacks and deaths of military and Boko Haram soldiers also in Northern Cameroon. Nigeria, accused of having reacted far too late to stop the Boko Haram invasion, has increased the Cameroonian counter operations. The recent suggestion of a terrorism bill is only one element of the aggressive attitude of the Cameroonian government. And again the answer is: close the borders. However, the centuries old smuggle routes are very difficult to control.
Consequently, the border between Nigeria and Cameroon is quasi hermetically closed. Cameroonians from Nigeria are allowed in, but they cannot go back to Nigeria. The crossing points are down, trade has gone illegal or has dissipated; taximen are without work, as are the migration officers. Officially nobody crosses, though boats cross the river at Ekok illegally. The presidential declaration is forceful. From Ikom-Ekok I decided to go to Calabar, from where I would possibly be able to find a flight or a boat.
Calabar preparing for Christmas and Carnival was a super experience: the large Christmas market, people performing and acting as the other sex, hilarious scenes. Seemingly no insecurities here, life goes on and so will the celebration of carnival, entertaining the many diaspora Nigerians who are having holidays. Here I felt everything could be possible. However, there were no flights to Douala, only through Lagos, Accra, Abidjan and then Douala: no option, too costly. The alternative was presented by an immigration officer, who knew how to pass by boat. From Calabar by taxi to XX and from there a boat to XX beach, over the river through the creeks. The Nigerian and Cameroonian side had agreed on letting people pass. However, I had to come immediately. Accompanied by the immigration officer I felt secure. At the Nigerian side, they made a serious effort to make my passport look official with the right stamps. They said they would call the other side to announce my coming. I felt treated like a VIP at a rather obscure crossing place, where Cameroonians dominate the ‘cuisine’ and where, despite the impossibilities, border crossing is a lively affair.
Three hours later the boat was ready to leave. The boat that should contain six people left with twenty and all their luggage. It felt like the escapes to the Canary islands, off the coast of Morocco. I was accompanied by Cameroonian female traders, Cameroonian and Nigerian men who simply wanted to return and two Nigerian journalists who were assured by the Cameroonian Embassy that they could cross here. A two hour journey over a rough river and a literally flying boat followed. I could not be afraid as I master swimming, but most people in the boat did not. The security vests were not so secure. And as the BIR (Brigade Intervention Rapide, Cameroonian Police force) agent at the border in the river told me: ‘Madame, what you are doing is too dangerous’. Well, I was with twenty others.
At the Cameroonian side all my hope was crushed when the Cameroonian immigration officer clarified that despite the 5000 FCFA (about 8 Euros) I had to pay, they would not give me a stamp of entry, but they would return my passport. One of the boatpeople helped us to find a taxi to Kumba. The Nigerian journalists were experiencing what they had never hoped to experience: ‘Don’t like to be illegal!’ But that was it… We had crossed.
At the first stop of gendarme, we had to pay 2000 FCFA (3 Euros) per person. One of the policemen told me that I should never disclose where I had crossed, as this would be a disaster for them: a certainty to losing their job. I would not; and in the end, the woman at the airport did not ask! In Kumba, the colleagues from Buea were waiting for me. It was 10.00 pm and we had had a drive with a car that injected smoke, so we were terribly derailed. At midnight, we arrived in Buea.
What does this story reflect? Borders are points of contact, moments of travel and moments of control. They are moments of uncertainty and experiences of duress. They hold the contradiction of liberty and complete immobility; they manifest power and fluidity. Border experiences reflect hardship. I felt submitted like any other; being a stranger was not a positive emotion here, let alone the white color; Being white made things worse as the assumptions about the privileged whites that we apparently still share, were no longer at play.
These are the conditions of life in Central Africa plagued by Boko Haram, Ebola and inimical governments. This story is also data that feeds into our empirical presentations and analysis of the experience of crisis and conflict, i.e. duress; it is research!