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Monday, August 31, 2009

Twin Train Crash: Cameroon’s ageing Railway

The twin train derailments that occurred on the 28 and 29 August, 2009 outside Yaoundé has raised concerns over the ageing railway network in Cameroon.
In less than 48 hours this weekend, four different trains derailed. Three cargo trains and a passenger train. The last train derailed in Obala some 30kms from Yaoundé Sunday August 30. Two days earlier a fuel-carrying train derailed at Obobogo. Two died and atleast 5 more were wounded. Explosions and fires that burned over 3hours threatened homes along the rail track, reminiscent of the 1998 Nsam fire disaster, when hundreds were killed.

The Cameroon Railway Corporation, CAMRAIL, is investigating the latest incidents, but it is evident the network is outdated. A train driver, who requested anonymity, explained that “the crash of last Saturday is certainly due to the poor state of our very old trains”.
“The locomotives are old, the rail tracks are also very old. Look at the wooden railroad ties they are cracking and rotting”.
The train driver said “since the French business magnate Group Bollore took over the railway, they have not bought any new equipment or maintained the rail track as promised”, he observed regretfully.

Speaking on national radio today, the Board Chairman of CAMRAIL, Hamadou Sali said “our trains are not old and our equipment is good”.
In a press briefing Sunday afternoon, communications minister, Issa Tchiroma, said “the railway remains a safe means of transport and Cameroon has one of the best railway networks in Africa”
Ndgetchou Odile, a lady who runs a business next to the Obobogo crossing point in Yaoundé, where the Friday train derailed said “the cargo train that crossed at 7a.m. broke the rail. I alerted the railway guard Eric. Moments later a few more trains crossed before this one derailed”.

Sabotage or Not
Mr. Tchiroma firmly excluded the idea of sabotage, observing that “from my experience as a former railway worker, I say this cannot be sabotage, because in both cases, the locomotive did not go down with the wagons, only the middle or back of the train derailed. If it was sabotage, the whole train should derail”.
It is worth noting that the board members of CAMRAIL were travelling first class, on the train that derailed Saturday, the deadliest.

Overloading and Overcrowding
Overcrowding is also a very common practice in train travel in Cameroon. Sometimes 4 persons are sold tickets for the same seat in a wagon.
“The passenger wagons designed to carry 80 persons per carriage, sitting, and about 34 standing usually carry over 250 persons each” the train driver says.
Mr Sali explains that too many persons in the northern part of the country rely on the railway to travel to the South. He said “if you have a passenger in front of you in the North, who has traveled part of the journey and cannot afford to wait for the next train, and all tickets have been sold out, what do you do?”
The minister of communications insists that “overcrowding cannot cause a train to derail”. He argued that “it is only if a cargo train is overloaded that derailment can occur, a passenger train cannot be too heavy to travel”.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Yaoundé: Two Trains derail in as many days- 11 dead, 275 injured

Yaounde:Two Trains derail in as many days- 11 dead, 275 injured
Two trains have derailed in less than 24 hours in Yaoundé, killing some 11 people and injuring at least 275 overall.

The first crash occurred Friday at about 10 a.m. involving a fuel-carrying train that derailed causing a 3hour long blaze at Obobogo, in Yaoundé. The fuel wagons transporting gasoil was guarded by 5 security men. One of them was charred in the blaze, and another died after getting to hospital, early Saturday. Some 3 persons in the area were taken to hospital for second degree burns and suffocation.
Thick plumes of black smoke wafted over the capital city for hours.

The second derailment took place shortly before 7a.m. on Saturday. It was a passenger train 192 travelling from Ngaoundere to Douala via Yaounde, with about 1.000 persons on board. The train derailed at around Etoudi, in the area known as Mballa 3, Abattoir. At least 9 deaths have been reported, and some 275 persons.

In the first derailment, eye-witness Ndgetchou Odile said “I saw the rail got broken at 7a.m. after the first cargo train crossed here, I called the attention of Eric the rail track guard.”
It is believed old rotting wooden railroad ties may have caused Friday’s derailment. It was initially feared scores of homes lining the railway would be charred, but the gasoil that flowed out of the tanks went into a nearby stream, averting another catastrophe, similar to the Nsam 1998 catastrophe. Fire-fighters fought the flames for hours.

Persons travelling on the second train, carrying the board chairman of the national railway company CAMRAIL, the Senior Divisional Officer of Yaounde, and other dignitaries, say the shock of the wheel came off and caused the train to derail.

Eye-witnesses say a train guard saved most of the first-class wagons by separating the rest of the train from the derailing part.

The minister of Communications Issa Tchiroma has waved off the likelihood of sabotage, explaining that the train’s locomotive did not derail in both cases, but the middle of the train. “In case of sabotage, even the locomotive will be derailed.” He observed.

The minister also cancelled the claims that overcrowding in the train may have been at the origin of the second train, however conceding that this could worsen the death toll.

The Cameroon Railway Corporation, Camrail, is run by the French business consortium Group Bollore, and has for long now had outdated rails and coaches.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Maize program coordinator refutes corruption charges

The national co-coordinator of the support program for maize in Cameroon has refuted claims that he swindled over 2billion CFAF ($ 4.3 million) destined to support local maize producers. Mr. SIKAPIN and 46 others, mainly civil servants, are under investigation by the national anti-corruption commission, CONAC, for swindling the money across fictitious Common Initiative Groups (CIG).
In an exclusive interview, Mr. SIKAPIN Paul said "At least 90 percent, I repeat, at least 90 percent of the funds are in the hands of the producers. The amount of money that was given up to now, in reality, is around 2.980.000 FCFA."
He conceded that "If it turns out that a CIG (Common Initiative Group) can't be found, the blame should fall on the basic selection process. But considering the way we work, the figures are... I am shocked. Not all human endeavors are perfect, I admit, but the figures advanced are unacceptable."
The support program for maize farmers came under fire after the association for the defense of collective rights (ACDIC) headed by Paul Njonga hinted that grafting was going on. A confidential report by CONAC affirmed this claim.
“The CONAC report has further confirmed the fact that 62% of funds that was destined to finance the maize program, which was destined for rural farmers never reached them.” Mr. Njonga explained.
“The funds were swindled by civil servants who succeeded to setup a network of fictitious Common Initiative Groups.” He added, saying that the CONAC report also released a list of 47 persons to be tried on the matter. “We at the ACDIC, we're not happy, because not only we have to judge the 47 people involved, but we should make them return the money. As this money had been taken out from its allocation for the production of maize, we need to make sure that the production of maize doesn't suffer.”

However, Mr. SIKAPIN has waved off all accusations saying they are made to hurt the reputation of his program. He said the maize program is one of the best-performing in Cameroon.
“Cameroon has an overall annual maize production of about 13%, even better than some European countries” he said.

Maize is one of Cameroon’s staple foods. The drop in maize production, it is feared may worsen the food crisis in the country.
Nformi Sunday a media worker says "The authorities in-charge, beginning even from the head of that ministerial department should first of all be sacked from his post, and investigated. Because considering the importance of maize, and considering the fact that, you know, people will toy around with funds that have to do with maize that touches on the lives of more than 90% of Cameroonians, I think it's a very serious issue."
Another Yaounde resident Gimnyuy Odette says “When there is not enough corn, you see, we as Cameroonians, most of us eat corn. And when it is not, when the price is high most of us are affected because the price is high. When the price is low, most of us are happy because it is something that we consume too much.”

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Cameroon: SKY ONE Radio Shutdown

The government of Cameroon has closed down a private radio station in Yaoundé, Sky One Radio.
Reports say about a dozen gendarmes stormed the office of the radio station, in Yaoundé’s central business district, yesterday, waving a decision from the Minister of Communication, requesting the radio be closed. The ministerial decision was dated august 14, 2009.

Communications minister, Mr. Issa Tchiroma, had suspended a talk show called ‘Le Tribunal’ (The Courtroom), on Sky One radio, last week, on claims that the program goes beyond the traditional function of a radio program, “that is to inform, educate, and entertain”.
The offices of the radio were also closed in Douala, the economic first-city of Cameroon.
Communications officials also accuse the controversial show, of trying to play the role of the judiciary, sometimes venting hate messages, and insults at individuals.

The Controversial Talk show

Le Tribunal, the radio’s most popular show, hosted by Duval Lebel Eballe, aka President, reportedly accused the embassy of the Republic of Congo in Yaoundé for abandoning one of her citizens in distress. The embassy allegedly filed a complaint.

It has been a talking point in Yaoundé over the past weeks that the host of the program could soon face repression from government, as the talk show increasingly touched sensitive issues, sometimes accusing highly placed officials of offenses.

Listeners say the host had in another program accused the vice Prime Minister, Minister of Justice, Keeper of the Seal, Mr. Ahmadou Ali, asking him to explain why he had seized the tractors of some Chinese contractors.

Le Tribunal that airs on week days as from 9a.m. local time spends about 2 hours ‘judging’ social conflicts, like in a courtroom. “The outspoken host, sometimes called accused persons on their cell phones, and put them on air without any prior notification” Yves Marc, a Yaoundé resident observed.

Media Freedom

It is not the first time a media organ is being closed down by the government of Cameroon. Equinox radio and equinox TV were amongst the latest organs to be shut down by government, for about 6 months in January 2009.
Magic FM in Yaoundé was also shut down in February 2008 over its coverage of the February food riots in Cameroon.

Monday, August 17, 2009

We were once Indomitable…

We were once Indomitable…

( my narrative of Cameroon v. Egypt) October 2005

Before leaving Yaoundé I shot a last long glance at the floodlights of the Ahmadou Ahidjo stadium, buried in the city’s skyline. Yesterday was an emotionally charged day. It was October 8, and we had arrived the stadium like conquistadors. The media bus reeked with optimism and enthuse. Even as journalists we could not help but feel confident about what seemed a certain victory.
The indomitable Lions of Cameroon were simply put ‘going to devour a troop of timid pharaohs’. The qualifying ticket for Germany 2006 was ours for the taking.
One hour before the game we tucked snugly in-between the steaming fans. Our job as sports commentators would be easy and jolly. As expected Cameroon attacked. Egypt waited. The fans screamed. Twenty minutes into the game we were one goal up, and unsuspectingly waiting for the flourish. I was trying to be unemotional and critical. It was my first major job as a radio sports host. It was a decisive game, the last qualifying game for the World cup 2006 and Cameroon until now had its own future in its hands.
A victory would do it. The game was being played on home ground- Mfandena.
Cameroon was looking to confirm its strong previous outing. An emphatic win on the Elephants of Cote d’Ivoire in Abidjan.
At half time I was already worrying about the post-match interviews of our world class striker Samuel Eto’o. Eto’o was imperial, brightening the game with his skill. “Le but, Le but!” the fans chanted.
Thirty minutes into the second half, the quick-paced Egyptians, caught Cameroon’s central defense flat-footed.
SILENCE! Goal or offside?
The Malian referee turned towards the midfield. The over 40.000 local fans knew that sign too well. The Pharaohs who had not looked any dangerous till then, had just leveled the score. With barely 10 minutes of playtime left, Cameroon started to see Germany 2006 flutter away. Nightmare. The fans had promised to be Spartans, to support their side to the last. But they were too stunned to move.
“Cote d’Ivoire is 3 goals up against Sudan?” someone muttered in the crowd.
Like drowning men, the lions pressed on, bringing too much pressure to bear on the Egyptians. Pius Ndiefi, Kalla Raymond and Salomon t all wasted scoring opportunities.
Five extra minutes, the fourth referee displayed.
Olembe attempted another desperate rush into the Egyptian penalty box. The whistle, then the gesture. ‘Penalty?’ ‘Yes! Penalty!’ the stadium screamed out as one man, but at an inhuman decibel. People fell into each other’s arms as if they had known themselves for years. ‘Relief’ was written on every face.
An experienced and confident Wome Nlend, left-winger of the squad moved up and picked up the ball. He just kept it. While the realization that Cameroon was again master of its destiny returned. In the emotion of the moment, Olembe moved out of the stadium. As he held his head in his arms, it was clear he was just incredulous, not injured. Almost crying. Wome placed the ball at the penalty spot, as Egyptians and Cameroonians watched on. He stepped back a few steps. The whistle went, and he took the shot. The ball struck the base of the right goalpost and flew out. None of the standing fans could seem to settle back into their seats. The last seconds of extra time ticked away. The Lions seemed very much tamed, not subdued by the opponent, but by its very own self.
The Malian referee took his whistle to his lips and sounded the final whistle. Hearts sunk. Reality began to set in. The players’ feet wobbled as some sank unto the green turf. Others remained kneeling, as if taking a celestial punishment from above. Cameroon 1-1 Egypt. After 15 years Cameroon was out of a FIFA World Cup rendezvous.