YAOUNDE (Reuters) - Cameroonian security forces have smashed up the street stalls, where thousands of people earn a living, to give the capital Yaounde a face-lift for a visit by Pope Benedict next week.
Pope Benedict makes his first trip to Africa as pontiff next week, visiting Cameroon before continuing to Angola to mark 500 years of Christian evangelism there.
“My 10 years of investments have been ruined. I don’t know now what to do to survive,” wailed Mariane Ngoupendji on Monday when she found her typing and printing shop reduced to rubble.
“Will the Pope’s visit replace what I’ve lost?” she said.
Ngoupendji, 43, collapsed weeping to the ground as youths pulled pieces of corrugated iron, girders and planks from the ruins, hoping to sell them or use them to build elsewhere.
Many people make their living through informal stalls or boutiques, selling everything from imported electrical goods to local produce in a country where millions of people live in poverty even though it boasts one of Africa’s biggest economies.
But authorities say the stalls, ranging from simple wooden shelves to secure lock-ups built with steel and concrete, are an eye-sore and began to tear them down last week. No compensation will be offered, the government said.
“On Monday the authorities of the Yaounde urban municipality continued pulling down illegally erected structures down in the town center with the support of security forces,” state radio reported on Monday.
“They vowed that the process will continue as part of efforts to embellish the city and give it a new face-lift.”
Yaounde council officials could not be reached for comment.
Security forces have deployed in large numbers to prevent trouble. Previous attempts to clear traders from African cities have triggered widespread violence, including in Senegal before last year’s Organizationof the Islamic Conference summit.
Police beat youths and stallholders at the weekend on Yaounde’s Avenue Kennedy, where many hawkers sell cell phones and other electrical items imported from Dubai, witnesses said.
“I saw gendarmes and police chasing after fellow Cameroonians, beating them up with such ferocity and smashing their goods,” said a Cameroon Telecommunications company worker, who watched from a third storey window as police cleared stalls near Avenue Kennedy on Saturday.
“Why not simply ask them to assemble their goods and move away instead of destroying everything. Must the Pope’s visit bring so much trouble for the people?” said the worker, who declined to be identified for fear of reprisals.
But a senior police officer said stallholders had refused to comply with several previous requests to move on.
“Now, with the Pope coming, the authorities are left with no other choice than to use force to get them out,” he told Reuters.
“African traditional hospitality demands that you keep your house clean when expecting a guest.”
Writing by Alistair Thomson; Editing by Angus MacSwan