I spent my first night in Cameroon sleeping back against the wall on a wooden table at the Ekok border post. Due to a government-imposed curfew, I and eight other Nigerian journalists who travelled to report the 2018 World Cup qualifier between the Indomitable Lions and the Super Eagles were left at the mercy of the elements as we counted the long clock hours until dawn broke and we were finally allowed into the country of Roger Milla.
We crossed the Mfum River from the Nigerian side of the border after seven in the evening with hopes of making it into Cameroon after a long trip from Uyo. But we would be locked out by a tough female officer who insisted that she had orders from ‘the commissioner’ not to open the gates. So we were joined by many other Cameroonians as well as the Nigeria Football Supporters Club who arrived in a convoy around 4 a.m.
The reception we received from border police was far from cordial and as we made our way into the country, we were stopped by immigration police every 10 kilometres who asked to see our documents. We were able to avoid paying bribes at the several stops due to our press affiliations.
We made our way to Bamenda, the major city of the North-West Region in hopes of finding transportation to the capital, Yaounde. This was where our frustration heightened. By the time we arrived in Bamenda at a few minutes past 10 a.m, all the luxury buses going to Yaounde were filled up and about to take off. It was a surprise to find out that no small vehicles travelled the route to the capital except the big buses.
The driver of the Toyota Sienna that brought us from Ekok advised us to go via Bafoussam, a city closer to Yaounde. There we were certain of finding regular fares throughout the day. The trip to Bafoussam that was supposed to last two hours extended into three and a half hours due to the terrible roads connecting both cities. But once we found a bus in Bafoussam, the rest of the trip to Yaounde was smooth on a rather good road network and ended after 36 hours.
And then we repeated the journey on Tuesday after the 1-1 draw on Monday night.
Cameroon, a country of scenic rustic communities that is often described as Africa in miniature, will host the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, all things being equal. The five-time African champions last hosted the tournament in 1972 and one of the last benefits gained from Issa Hayatou was to hand both the men and women’s continental championships to his country. The Women Cup of Nations was held successfully earlier this year.
However, there have been insinuations that the Confederation of African Football under Mr Ahmad is exploring other options after Cameroon seem to have fallen behind in delivering facilities for a tournament that is still two years away even as they are now forced to prepare for a 24-team tournament despite winning a bid for a 16-team event. Cruel.
Monday’s game at the Ahmadou Ahidjo Stadium was a beautiful contrast to the previous game in Uyo where Nigeria ran riot, winning 4-0 in a performance not regularly seen between two of Africa’s greatest sides. However, in terms of organisation, the Cameroonians were miles ahead of their neighbours.
Entry into the stadium for fans was seamless as all the gates were kept open, unlike the experience in Uyo where fans queued for almost two kilometres and some were tear-gassed as they struggled to enter through the lone entry point as the kick-off neared.
In terms of media arrangements, the Yaounde stadium is built to standard requirements with adequate space for media as well as WIFI access. In Uyo, there is no clearly marked out media area and the internet is jammed once the politicians enter the stadium. While the Nigerians had politicians lined up to shake the hands of players before the game, it was all about the game in Yaounde. The professional nature of the event in Yaounde did not give a whiff that the Cameroonian football federation (Fecafoot) was mired in political problems.
Based on what I saw of the organisation of the game in Yaounde, I would not hesitate to support Cameroon to keep their hosting rights for the 2019 Afcon. They are a well-organised country that should create a smooth programme devoid of drama. Stadium officials were courteous and helpful throughout. They went around asking if visiting journalists needed any help with the internet among many others and insisted that photographers wear bibs in order to work from pitch side. They even ensured that journalists had options to cover either the post-match press conference or the mixed zone which unfortunately did not have a proper barrier to separate players from the media.
However, where I have issues with Cameroon hosting the 2019 Afcon is the problem of transportation that travelling fans would encounter when they visit the country. My experience was not palatable. The lack of options in terms of vehicles and times will leave several travelling fans stranded and in danger of missing matches. The country needs to expand its fleet of vehicles and also ensure that travelling through Bamenda is made easier by reconstructing the damaged road network.
I also hope that the curfews imposed on the border areas would have been lifted before the Afcon to ensure that fans do not have problems entering the country. Security of lives and property is uppermost when hosting a major tournament, but the ease of access to visitors is also very important. No one wants to get out of the car or bus every 20 kilometres to present identification documents to a gendarme, it is a poor advertisement for your country.