Browsing news stories about Cameroon makes for galling reading these days.
A bitter civil war pitting the French-speaking majority against the Anglophone minority has been raging for six years, almost half the population live below the poverty line, and four million are in need of humanitarian help.
Is it any wonder tens of thousands of Cameroonians have left their homeland in the hope of finding peace and stability?
Over a casual beer under the shade of a loblolly tree, a handful of Cameroonian visitors seated outside a shop in Bolans are happy to chat. They’re among several hundred people to arrive in the country from West Africa over the festive season.
It’s their first trip to the Caribbean, they tell me, and they were pleased to have the opportunity to come for Christmas. They plan to stay another couple of weeks before heading back home.
The twin island nation’s residents pride themselves on extending a warm welcome to guests from overseas. Tourism is of course our mainstay. The sudden influx of people from Cameroon, Nigeria and Ghana, however, invoked a mixed reception.
Images of throngs of Africans apparently stranded without accommodation whipped social media into a frenzy and sent the rumour mill into overdrive. Matters weren’t helped by a video of several people – apparently West Africans – wearing ABLP paraphernalia three weeks before the general election.
While many expressed alarm claiming Africans are here as part of an elaborate plot to rig the election, others have been quick to allude to ostensible xenophobia. After all, why shouldn’t West Africans take a holiday to the Caribbean?
All signs indicate many of them are likely migrants passing through Antigua on a search for a better life.
Antigua appears to be a pit-stop rather than a final destination. Several say they’re headed to Suriname or Mexico, probably in the hope of reaching the US. They’ve been making inquiries about the best way to transfer money here from overseas and discussing plans for onward travel.
One thing that seems fairly certain is that Antigua and Barbuda’s upcoming election couldn’t be further from their minds.
Pausing mid-bite into a meal of chicken wings and bakes, Mark* is incredulous at the notion that he and his friends are here to vote.
“We can’t change things in our own country; why would we want to change someone else’s?” he says emphatically. “We’ve had the same president for 40 years,” he adds by way of explanation.
Paul Biya who has held the role since November 1982 is the second longest ruling president in Africa. At 89, he’s also the world’s oldest head of state.
Mark’s companion Sam* leans forward, fixing me with a gaze. “Please tell people we are not here to vote,” he says.
In this particular village the men appear to have quickly made friends. The plan for the afternoon is for a game of football with some local youngsters.
The store owner tells me she’s become something of a mother figure to them. They respond by calling her ‘mami’.
This isn’t the first group of recently arrived West Africans we have spoken to and their story is certainly corroborated by fellow Cameroonians here.
What makes their claims that they plan to head back home next week seem implausible is frequent contradictions between their scheduled return dates and the name of the airline taking them.
For first-time tourists, neither do they appear to have seen much of the island. Asking specific questions about their journey to Antigua or their onward plans results in askance looks and vague answers.
The accommodation fiasco erupted, Mark says, due to a delay in their arrival flight which meant their rooms had been rebooked by the time they tried to check in.
Other African people who arrived in Antigua on Christmas Eve via charter airline Hi Fly told us they had also booked hotels in advance only to turn up to find the venue had no record of them.
Several who arrived by bus to the recently reopened Jolly Beach Resort expressed dismay at the US$80 nightly rate – one which some might consider a steal given the time of year.
A few who spoke to us at the scene said they were anticipating paying less than half of that.
Around 18 Cameroonians in Bolans are staying in private homes. Sam admits the one he and his friends are residing in is humble but said he didn’t want anything “fancy”.
One rental that we visited was only half-constructed and lacked running water and electricity. The property’s owner said he was in the process of putting in utilities including water and bathroom facilities.
“They’re paying me rent,” he said. “Why wouldn’t I help them?”
The West African people here are getting help from the local community too.
A nearby household is grateful for a small living providing them with food.
One local resident assisting with the election campaign for the ABLP says it was he who gave some of the visitors promotional T-shirts and other party paraphernalia.
“What’s wrong with that? I am campaigning. I give them out to tourists too,” he said.
Travel from West Africa to Antigua is being largely promoted by an Abuja-based entity called FastFlyLinks Travel & Tours.
Investigations reveal FastFly is happy to transport people here from Nigeria – for a steep US$5,000 per person.
It’s a hefty fee for a vacation, considering the average Cameroonian earns around 460,000 Central African CAF francs a month, which equates to US$750.
What companies like FastFlyLinks appear to be capitalising on is travel hindrances experienced by certain passport-holders. Cameroon citizens, for example, require a visa to enter 182 destinations across the world.
The assistance of a company that can arrange all of the logistics – and inch travellers significantly closer to the United States – would certainly appeal to some.
Posing as an Antiguan-based friend of a potential traveller, Observer asked FastFly about the frequency of their flights to Antigua. The tour company said it has “chartered flights for almost every week”.
The US$5,000 fee, they confirmed, includes a return flight “plus some immigration changes and other logistics”.
Details of accommodation on the ground were sketchy, despite repeated questions. Having an associate on the ground in Antigua appears to help.
When asked how long the fictional traveller could stay on the island, FastFly responded, “Since you’re there it will be easier for her to stay longer”.
FastFly can also assist with travel to the US.
“Yes, we can help her through, at extra cost,” they responded. “She can go from Abuja to Antigua and Barbuda, or straight to Suriname, then continue from there. With one or two processing she will enter USA.”
The only items the traveller would need to present to FastFly are a passport and a passport photograph.
“Every other document will be taken care of here, like insurance, passport stamping, etc,” they said.
To get the ball rolling, the traveller would need to send a copy of their passport bio page. They would also need to pay the US$5,000 upfront, “preferably by cash”.
“When she come, she can pay in person or you transfer to our official account. She can also pay into our domiciliary account and I think it can also be through Western Union or SendWave [money transfer service),” FastFly added.
A domiciliary account is a type of bank account in which transactions are carried out in foreign currencies. Anyone can open and operate a domiciliary account which is opened and held locally.
Precisely which airline our fictional traveller would take to Antigua “depends on what date she wants to leave”. There are currently a number of charter airlines – some of which are headquartered in Lisbon, Portugal – servicing the route to VC Bird International Airport.
Antigua Airlines – which leases a plane from Lisbon-based EuroAtlantic Airways – was the first to launch a direct link between here and West Africa to much fanfare.
The airline’s Managing Director Opeyemi Olorunfemi previously told Observer the twin island nation was a “prime destination for entrepreneurs to start up and expand their businesses”.
He said the country’s “vibrant economy” was a draw for people looking to invest.
For its part, the government says incoming visitors from West Africa have satisfied all entry requirements. A statement from the Immigration Department released on December 27 said the passengers were granted visas on arrival in sync with the law.
“Many of these passengers are booked on onward flights to other destinations in the Caribbean, and full records have been maintained of their biometric details.
Should any of them attempt to remain in Antigua and Barbuda illegally, they will be easily picked up and deported,” the statement added.
Foreign Affairs Minister Chet Greene told us yesterday that government was keen to “open a trade lane” with West Africa.
“What you see here is just that,” he said. “I can’t speak for anyone who may be fleeing, but our intention is for Antigua and Barbuda to be a hub for the Caribbean.
If we hadn’t opened a trade lane, St Lucia or Barbados would have done it.”
And while Greene admits there have been “teething problems”, he says local residents are already feeling the benefits of the money the visitors are spending.
He said the accommodation issues had once again exposed Antigua to be “short of beds” for tourists. And he conceded that better “mainstreaming” was required between authorities on the ground here and agencies promoting the destination in West Africa.
The bulk of West Africans to have arrived over the festive period appear to be from Cameroon, with some from neighbouring Nigeria, along with Ghana.
Mark and two of his three companions are Anglophone Cameroonians, from the southwest of the country. The ‘Anglophone problem’, as it is typically referred to in Cameroon, is rooted in the nation’s colonial legacies from the Germans, British, and French.
Mark tells Observer Anglophones are marginalised and discriminated against in their homeland.
Glancing around him at the simple countryside surroundings, he smiles as he recalls what he imagined his first trip to Antigua might encompass.
“We were expecting skyscrapers,” he says. But he continues that he appreciates some of the country’s similarities to Africa, along with the local food. Peas and rice and okra are a particular favourite.
Screenshot of Observer’s WhatsApp conversation with FastFlyLinks which promotes trips from West Africa to Antigua, among other places
One thing is for sure. Whether here for a vacation, a business opportunity or simply passing through en route to somewhere else, Antigua is undoubtedly more peaceful than some parts of Cameroon presently.
After several decades of stability, Cameroon has found itself grappling with attacks by Boko Haram terrorists in the far north, in addition to secessionist insurgency in the Anglophone regions.
According to a World Bank report published in September, more than one million people have been displaced internally in the last five years.
The country of more than 27 million is also suffering from high inflation, increasing poverty and weak governance, the report said.
Last month, Alice Jacobs, UK Deputy Political Coordinator at the UN, warned the Security Council of multiple crises in Cameroon, coupled with a “dire humanitarian situation”, requiring “urgent attention”.
Official figures show around 5,600 Cameroonians were registered worldwide as making an application for asylum in 2021, according to the WorldData database.
However, the number of refugees travelling under the radar is likely to be far higher.
ReliefWeb reported thousands had fled their homeland in January 2022 alone.
Many flee to neighbouring African countries like Chad. Others aim for further away – Europe or the US – in the hope of a new life and greater opportunity.
*Speaking on condition of anonymity
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