Cameroonian visitors: ‘Please tell people we’re not here to vote’

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Screenshot of Observer’s WhatsApp conversation with FastFlyLinks which promotes trips from West Africa to Antigua, among other places

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

SOURCE: Observer

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12 COMMENTS

  1. Tell that to the WICKED, DESPERATE, LYING, INCOMPETENT UPP and Turks Lee who like to spread nonsense on Facebook and via “REAL NEWS”

  2. Nothing ErroneouS About DAT.
    WE Become SELF LOADED
    Bloated with Consumer Info.
    De CORACLE de Charlatans
    Assemble Cause Climathematic Change
    So farfetched in these Times
    Many Falling Behind.
    Gothic Style Medevial Colonial..
    Liberty 🗽 23 Jubilee

  3. Jumbee_Picknee says…

    As, I listen to the soundtrack, of The Singing bones of Mami_Wata and Papa_Elegba, I can hear Bob Marley saying, “everywhere is war! Wars! Wars! Wars! Rumors of wars!

    I, can also read the words, of Saint Emperor Haile Selassie I, saying to the League of Nations, “until the philosophy which holds one race(HUE of man, indoctrination’s, norms, habits) #superior and another #inferior….everywhere will be war.”

    I must say, that I enjoyed reading the article. Questions abounds of course but, one thing is certain, the movement of HUEmans from one region to another, for whatever reason, by whatever ‘means and methods,’ will always have consequences, be they good, bad or indifferent.

    I can’t understand, why even the Africans who’re leaving Africa for whatever reason(vacation, business ventures, wars) and suddenly showing up in a small place like Antigua(a town or village in Africa), and questions would not be asked, regarding anything, from voting to setting businesses to looking for wives to eating caviar and making diamond, gold, oil deals etc.

    While many of us, are not questioning your presence with malice, we still have to look at reasons for your presence, and it’s obviously that it’s not just as tourist or what many define as a tourist(s).
    So here goes a few questions…

    1…while there are several wars raging in Africa, Africa still has several of the fastest growing Nations in the world economically, so, aren’t these other Nations attractive enough to relocate to for business ventures versus a place like the Caribbean? I know people have choices.

    2…these Africans are fully aware of the turmoils politicians, and their political agendas cost their Nations. They are aware, of the turmoils which RELIGION & RELIGIOUS differences to Cultures have caused them, so, why does anyone think questions must not be asked?

    Many of Us(Antiguans/Barbudans) have traveled, lived, worked, built families Internationally, but if anyone can point me to anyplace on this earth, where hundreds, tens of hundreds, thousands of People can just waltz into another territory, and no questions(regardless of whether they are, silly, dumb, indifferent, intelligent or pertinent) asked, by those occupying the invaded, repopulated, gentrified space or owned space.

    Antiguans in particular, should have being asking many more questions about our Immigration policies, it’s clandestine nature and not just under Labour, and demanding better answers from the authorities #WHO’RE always pulling a fast one on the People.

    Paying attention is not xenophobia.
    Paying attention is not paranoia.
    Paying attention is not racism.
    Paying attention is not tribalism.,
    Paying attention is protecting ones interests.

    Antiguans, Barbudans and Redondans
    #Pay #Attention!

    Ras Smood aka Jumbee_Picknee
    De ‘ole Dutty Peg Foot Bastard

    Vere C. Edwards

  4. We need to focus on the answers to the questions asked which caused the speaker to become vague and evasive. These involve when are you going back, how are you going back, why are you actually in Antigua?
    Is it a coincidence that this whole drama is occurring 2 months before our national elections?
    It would appear that the wonderful airline, Antigua Airways, that our government boasted was to be a permanent project, has suddenly become a pick-any airline charter flight to bring Africans to Antigua. Does anyone remember PM Browne chastising Harold Lovell about being too negative about Antigua Airways? Where is Antigua Airways now?
    Why is it that PM Browne has been so silent about the African saga, and how is it that no media person is pushing a microphone in his face (but trying not to violate his space for fear of getting tump) to ask him these questions? So he just gets a free pass Again? What could go so?
    Is no one else concerned that this blatant admission that we are facilitating persons using our country as a jumping off point could come back to bite us really, really bad. Do we think Joe Biden’s ABC boys not watching us?
    Have we considered that with Marvellous Mike and his printing press, and the “iffy cargo” that arrived in the bowels of these flights, we could be having a trade off where we get Africans to the US, Canada, Mexico in exchange for them putting the products of this cargo to use and so pay off their fare?
    We know that CIP money was used to facilitate the passage of Africans to Antigua. Was this done out of the “goodness of our hearts” for these people, or is there a quid pro quo? Is their vote using the contents of the cargo the trade off?
    How can anyone in their right mind consider what is happening with the African as tourism? Gaston Browne really thinks we are so foolish?
    And pulling a stunt like this on the eve of elections, is he the biggest gambler there is, or will he be the biggest loser?

  5. Oh please ! I have absolutely nothing against these African brothers but, they’re not entrepreneurs. They are migrants. They’ll need a visa to enter Mexico. Whomever is feeding them the BS that they can easily reach the US via Antigua are just exploiting these desperate people. I’m willing to bet that if ABLP wins this election, that asylum will be granted to the ones who remains in Antigua. These people are victims as much as Antiguans by whatever shady deals the Antiguan govt has made. Though we can be sympathetic to their plight at home, Antiguas economy cannot accommodate any influx of migrants. The Antiguan Government is struggling financially (according to them) and the effects have trickled down to the poor in our society. We will not trust anything the immigration officials have said, it’s nothing more than a spin on truth of what’s really happening. All the accomodations BS was a ploy to have them scattered throughout the island. I’ll bet immigration can’t say where they all are now – nor do they care because, it is/was part of the plan.

    For those that will actually venture onwards, I wish them much luck and happy hunting.

  6. This African charter flight is being sold to Africans as a means by which they can travel to Antigua, then in to South and Central America and finally on to the USA. These Africans intend to try and illegally enter the USA. Once the USA realizes that Antigua is allowing this to happen and facilitating it, what do you think will happen?

    • Highly likely that these hopeful immigrants have not been informed that the Republican Congress that has been seated as of today has already made it clear that they will be closing up the southern border forthwith.

  7. I don’t understand. We have little to no resources to take care of ourselves. How can we condone such outlandish explanation. I am lost for words. Gaston Browne…. Charity begins at home. You’re not fooling anybody.

  8. Antigua and NOT Barbuda leaders intend to use Antigua as a HUB. To have the possibility of, Human Trafficking/Smuggling or a Refugee Situation on their hands. Many of the visitors obviously, Can’t Afford Accommodations to meet their pocket.
    We as Antiguan/ Resident are being asked/encouraged to, “Open Our Homes” to feel the monetary benefits of the visitors.
    The future Risk or Benefit is yours, fellow Antiguan/Resident.
    TO NOT PM BROWNE:-
    The same way you ordered your Party Candidates (MP’s and wife) to take vaccine first to convince the nation to take it. You should do the same, in this situation. Then the UPP candidates and resident elites(who you forced/convinced). And you can bring it over ABS. By the time it reaches the Common Man the problem will be solved, they will all have accommodations. THAT’S IF YOU PLAN TO BRING MORE.
    You/Marie psychology degree NEED to go sit down. Use it to figure out how to shrink your BOSS FOREHEAD and NOT fool Antigua people. Since you already know how to use your Boss Forehead to teleport and take vaccine. Teleport the Africans, where they want to go. Use your Head.

  9. You cannot even book a flight on their website you have to phone one of 4 phone numbers. How are they taking details of these passengers ? How will they know if they have prior deportations or criminal backgrounds ?

    Antigua government have opened a route for ISIS and Boko Haram to infiltrate the Western world by literally flying under the radar.

  10. Gaston, you need to end this now or mark my words, Antigua will suffer! A lot of Antiguans are alarmed at this! What the heck is going on in this country?!! Is anyone vetting these people?! Do they have to submit police records to make sure they are on the up and up? We are a small country and we cannot handle this large influx of persons coming in who are obviously looking for help. My God, help Antigua please!!! America and other regional governments are watching. If this continues, we will face serious repercussions! Mark my words!!

  11. This is really a problem. Firstly, it should be illegal for them to campaign for one particular party. It does seem like elections will be rigged. Our leaders are taking advantage of them and it begs the question of, what is in it for Antigua, AKA Gaston and his cronies.

    Resources for Antiguans are already scarce. Why are there Africans in the country with nowehere to stay??? Something is incredibly suspicious about all of this…

Comments are closed.