The unfinished business between Cameroon and France

In January this year, Cameroonian President Paul Biya (in office since 1982), cut off the southwest and northwest regions of the country’s access to the internet to punish anglophone Cameroonians for protesting their linguistic, political and economic marginalization. The UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, David Kaye, called the move a violation of the right to freedom of expression. The executive committee of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences issued a statement about the situation in Cameroon and to support the UN Special Rapporteurs’ calls on the government to “investigate the deployment of violence against protestors and to exercise greater restraint in policing.”

For those familiar with Cameroonian decolonization, the internet suppression reminded of an earlier time: symptomatic of a violent method of administration forged during Cameroon’s transition to “independence,” by France and “moderate” local elites.

A new book that tells that story of decolonization and its legacy for present-day Cameroon is La Guerre du Cameroun: L’Invention de la Françafrique. It is written by French journalists Thomas Deltombe and Manuel Domergue, along with Jacob Tatsitsa, a doctoral student in history at the University of Ottawa. Achille Mbembe wrote the foreward. La Guerre du Cameroun reveals the façade of a sovereign Cameroonian state behind which France negotiated, with the Cameroonian leaders of its choice, its post-independence strategic and economic hold on the Cameroonian government against a backdrop of counterrevolutionary and psychological warfare. Between 60,000 and 120,000 civilians out of a population of just over three million were killed between the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s. At least 440,000 Cameroonians were resettled in “regroupment” villages, forever changing the rural landscape of affected zones.

The French administered French Cameroon for the United Nations. It implemented policies of isolation akin to those Biya has put in place for Anglophone Cameroon today. French administrators prevented members and sympathizers of the most popular pro-independence party, the Union of the Populations of Cameroon (UPC), from communicating with the rest of the world: Administrators intercepted mail and telegraph services, and established a cordon sanitaire around the UN Visiting Missions of 1955 and 1958 to keep them away from nationalist demonstrators. In violation of the UN trusteeship agreement requiring France to prepare the territory for self-government, the French administration banned the UPC and its affiliated women’s party, youth party and confederated trade unions. With all avenues to political action closed off, the UPC leadership resorted to violence, implanting maquis (guerrillas) severely lacking in arms and resources throughout the southern regions of the territories. While the world looked the other way, the French unleashed an asymmetrical counterinsurgency, uprooting the maquis and brutally punishing the civilian populations in their vicinity. Interrogation, detention without trial, torture, and extrajudicial killings became features of daily life under a Franco-Cameroonian hybrid state even before the UN Trusteeship was lifted with independence on the January 1, 1960.

The violence increased after independence. French “technical assistants” Paul Audat and Jacques Rousseau authored Cameroon’s constitution in the months that followed. Its key feature was Article 20 which allowed the national assembly to grant full presidential powers to new President Ahmadou Ahidjo — whom the French recruited to the ranks of the postal service in 1947 and enabled to become Prime Minister in February 1958. After independence and freed from UN inquiries, France remained in command of the Cameroonian national army and police until 1965 making the war more lethal. It was after independence that the French army operationalized its forced resettlement policies, recruited tens of thousands of civilians to auxiliary militia forces, unleashed a campaign of aerial bombardment, and systematized torture as a mode of interrogation.

Deltombe, Domergue and Tatsitsa have spent the past decade delving into the partially declassified archives of France and the scattered and disappearing archives of Cameroon, and collecting firsthand testimonies of the war. In 2011 they published a meticulously referenced and nearly eight hundred page account of the war: Kamerun: Une guerre cachée aux origines de la Françafrique, 1948-1971 (La Découverte, 2011). Conversations around the book among historians, statesmen, journalists, writers, activists and students of African history and French colonial history eventually provoked responses from French officials about the war they would prefer forgotten.

On an official visit to Cameroon in July 2015, French President François Hollande, referring to the “painful memory” of Franco-Cameroonian relations, remarked: “There have been tragic episodes,” and declared his wish that all the archives be “opened for the historians.” It was the first reference a French head of state has ever made to the history of Cameroon’s decolonization.

Hollande’s words expressed the ambiguities that characterize the Cameroonian and French governments’ reticence in acknowledging the past (even as it ignored the responsibility for the roles each have played in shaping the present). In excavating the foundation of extreme violence upon which Cameroonian sovereignty was mortgaged, La Guerre du Cameroun: L’Invention de la Françafrique suffers from no such ambiguity. The authors’ earlier book served to document. This one serves to bring the past — of France, of Cameroon — into the present and open it to public debate. Whether it will succeed in holding France accountable depends upon its public reception in France, in Cameroon, and beyond. With history unsettled, the present is on shaky ground, and a different future cannot be envisioned.

Much of Cameroon’s present trips over the political detritus of unsettled memories of the past, referred to by those who survived it as simply “the troubles.” President Paul Biya himself embodies the 1960s-era Franco-Cameroonian pact forged in those violent years. He completed his secondary school education in Paris in the late 1950s, and took university and postgraduate diplomas in political science and public law in prestigious institutions of higher learning Paris in the early 1960s. Not even thirty in 1962 when he entered the executive branch of Cameroon’s government as Chargé de Mission to the President, Biya’s age and longevity — as the third oldest and fourth longest reigning African head of state — are millstones of the past weighing down an otherwise youthful Cameroon.

Neither the French nor the Cameroonian state has ever facilitated historical inquiry — in fact the opposite is true. Yet curious moves are afoot. In an interview at the book’s launch in Yaoundé in late December 2016, Philippe Larrieu, First Counsellor to the French Ambassador of Cameroon, announced that the French embassy was planning, in collaboration with a Cameroonian cultural association, a memorial colloquium in 2017. Larrieu explained that the colloquium, based on the contributions of researchers, experts, historians and political scientists, would break the silence about “the dark period in the history of Cameroon and Franco-Cameroonian relations.”

In mid-February, I received an invitation to an International Colloquium “History and Memory in Cameroon: Legacies and Practices” from Kalliopi Ango Ela. Who is Mrs. Ango Ela? She is a French expatriate who has resided in Yaoundé since 1987 where she teaches at the French school Fustel de Coulanges. She served from 2009 to 2015 as elected Counsellor and then Senator to the Assembly of French expatriates. She is also the director of the Paul Ango Ela Foundation of Central African Geopolitics, named after her late husband, a Cameroonian intellectual.

The timing appeared odd. Is this the memorial colloquium to which the French embassy’s First Counsellor referred in December 2016? But there is no explicit link to French embassy in the call for papers, the program committee or the invitation. This made scholars wonder: Is France funding and directing this memorial colloquium from the shadows? Those who asked questions of Mrs. Ango Ela as I did, and those who withdrew from the “scientific committee” after learning of the sham, as did Michael Rowlands, Professor of Anthropology at University College London, have received no response. Her silence confirms all.

France certainly has a role to play in reconciling official history with unsettled memories of the past. But it appears that once again, and rather predictably, France would rather play puppeteer than transparently acknowledge its role in first shaping — and now underhandedly curating — its colonial past. Good faith gestures by the French organizers would have been to invite the authors of La Guerre du Cameroun to this conference, and to take steps to include survivors of the war, journalists, academics and others in Cameroon who have spent decades preserving memories of the country’s violent past.

Meredith Terretta

Meredith Terretta is a historian and author of Nation of Outlaws, State of Violence: Nationalism, Grassfields Tradition, and State Building in Cameroon.

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