As National Security Tightens and Prophecy Rumors Spread, Bamenda Residents Fear Boko Haram Attack

Weeks after suicide bombings killed 30 people in northern Cameroon, the nation’s police officers and military-style gendarmes have increased security measures. Rumors that a popular Nigerian preacher had prophesied a terror attack in Bamenda, capital of the Northwest region, has stirred fear there. Staff at T.B. Joshua’s church deny that he made such a prophecy, and security officials say their orders come from the top level national security officials.

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As National Security Tightens and Prophecy Rumors Spread, Bamenda Residents Fear Boko Haram Attack

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BAMENDA, CAMEROON — The atmosphere in the Mondial Express bus station is tense. Passengers expect to be searched.

Luggage, handbags, all bags are unzipped and thoroughly inspected in the presence of the passengers.

The line moves slowly. The inspectors take their time with each bag.

The reason for the searches is understood: Recent suicide bombings in northern Cameroon have raised fears that Boko Haram, the Islamist terror group suspected in those blasts, will strike in Bamenda, the capital of Cameroon’s Northwest region.

Lilian Gemuh tries to soothe her baby as her handbag is searched. She is about to embark on a nine-hour journey to Kumba, in Cameroon’s Southwest region, to visit family.

“Feel free – take your time to look at everything,” she says to the men searching her belongings. “I am glad you people are taking your time to do this. It is for our own security.”

Fears of a Boko Haram attack skyrocketed in the past week as rumors spread that T.B. Joshua, a popular Nigerian preacher, had prophesied that the group had targeted the city. Bamenda residents say Joshua, who leads the Synagogue Church of All Nations in Lagos, Nigeria, claimed that Boko Haram would attack the busy Hospital Roundabout. Joshua’s following is massive: About 1.6 million people follow his Facebook page.

The armed group based in Nigeria is active primarily in that country’s northeastern region, but it has carried out attacks in Cameroon, Chad and Niger. The group has killed thousands in recent years. It caused worldwide outrage when it kidnapped more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls in 2014. Three suicide bombings, believed to have been carried out by Boko Haram, struck Maroua, the capital of Cameroon’s Far North region, in July, killing at least 30 people. Boko Haram has carried out other attacks on the Nigerian border over the past year.

In Cameroon, the searches and other tightened security measures are part of a nationwide effort to thwart a terror attack, officials say. They are not related to a prophecy.

Bag searches and body scans, conducted with metal detectors and hand-held wands, are becoming the norm in public places, residents say. Scrutiny of travelers is especially thorough; all luggage is searched before it is loaded onto a bus. Once a bus is on the road, police officers, military-style gendarmes and road safety officials conduct additional searches along the way.

Khan Rochero, the controller of Mondial Express in Bamenda, says his orders to search bags and tighten security came from the governor of the Northwest region, not a preacher.

“We have attended three emergency security meetings on this issue,” he says.

The order to begin searches at bus stations, churches and other high-traffic areas came on Aug. 3, he says. Since then, a series of meetings has been held at the divisional office. Local officials and bus station employees have been trained to search handbags and luggage without provoking outbursts from passengers.

“We were asked to search all bags before loading them into our buses,” he says. “We take our time to explain to passengers the reason why we are searching their bags.”

Transportation officials were given emergency security numbers they can call if they encounter a suspicious situation they cannot handle.

A senior police officer based in Yaoundé, who spoke off the record because he did not have clearance to give an interview, says the order to search bags and passengers is part of a larger national security campaign. Orders are coming from Martin Mbarga Nguélé, the delegate general for national security in Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capital, he says.

The officer says the orders were direct: “Tighten security to avoid Boko Haram attacks in our different areas of operation,” he says.

That led to a series of crisis meetings with all stakeholders so that all local law enforcement officials would be prepared to enforce the orders of the delegate general, he says.

Police in Bamenda confirm that they have made no Boko Haram-related arrests or seizures to date.

Still, many residents are worried that Joshua might have prophesied about an attack, and that the prophecy might come to pass.

Cecilia Njume, a mother of three, says she has been fearful ever since she heard the rumor about the prophecy.

“I have not gone to the market since,” she says. “Hospital Roundabout is very close to the food market, and so if it is bombed, the food market will be affected. I don’t want to take that risk.”

She says the prophet’s words mean something to her, and to many others.

Joshua claims to have accurately predicted the terror attack in Paris, an Indian train derailment, the postponement of Nigerian elections, the fate of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 and many other events. Videos on the church’s website appear to show Joshua predicting each event, usually followed by news coverage of events.

“Prophet T.B. Joshua’s prophesies have always come to pass,” Njume says. “If truly he prophesied that Bamenda will be bombed, who am I not to take precaution?”

But Njume didn’t hear the Bamenda prophecy directly from the prophet. She says she bases her belief on rumors she heard.

She has not only stopped going to the market, she has even stopped going to church.

“I am a Catholic, and I attend Mass at the Bamenda cathedral, which is the biggest Catholic church in town,” she says. “It can be a target ground for devilish activities by the Boko Haram devils. I will not take chances; my children are still very young.”

According to a representative of Joshua’s church, who declined to give her name, Joshua has not made any prophecies or preached any sermons in the past month. If the rumor of a prophecy about Bamenda arose last week, the representative says, she doubts the authenticity of the claims.

Bertha Arrah is a fervent follower of Joshua’s and the church’s television station, Emmanuel TV. She has heard the rumors of his prophecy, but she says the preacher hasn’t said made any prophetic statements about Cameroon.

“Prophet T.B. Joshua has not been seen in public for over a month now,” she confirms. “For the past weeks, all the preaching and healing has been done by his wise men.”

Arrah says she doesn’t believe such prophecy came from Joshua.

“People are merely spreading false rumors,” she says. “This is not the first time people are spreading rumors about prophecies that the man of God did not mention.”

Local officials say security measures will continue to tighten, regardless of what any preacher says, because Boko Haram’s activities in Cameroon show no signs of abating.

While some say the increased measures are necessary, others say they cause undue panic.

If the government is serious about safety, experienced police and security officers should conduct the searches, not luggage loaders at bus stations, says Rosaline Besong, a student at the University of Bamenda.

“Giving authority to bus loaders to search people’s handbag and traveling bags is just wrong,” she says. “What do they know about security measures? What do they know about explosives or bombs? What do they know about customer relations?”

Besong says she doubts the effectiveness of the searches.

“I wonder whether the searching thing is a security measure or a security threat,” she says. “A man was begging money from me at a bus station only for me to discover that he was the same guy who searched my bag earlier. Embarrassing!”

Besong says the man probably saw money in her handbag in the course of the search and so came back to beg for the money.

Rochero, who is not affiliated with the police department but has joined the security meetings, says the people of Bamenda need to stay calm.

“Your security is in our hands, and we will do our best to protect it,” he says.

Life goes on, Gemuh says as she prepares to travel the 250 kilometers (155 miles) between Bamenda and Kumba. Traveling with her infant in the wake of the bombings is not easy, she says.

“Na God go protect we,” she says in pidgin English. “I am already worried and I will be worried all through this journey. I will not have peace until I enter the house.”