Cameroon – France’s `Guatemala’ (first of a series)…
Ruben Um Nyobé, Félix Moumié, Ernest Ouandié, Albert Ndongmo…
Here in the USA these names ring virtually no bells. Not very many bells ring in France either, although given France’s role in squishing Cameroon’s legitimate anti-colonial movement – it took France 15 years – all of these should be household names. But in Africa, particularly the Cameroon where more than half a century after all of them were killed (minus Ndongmo), their memory as principled nationalists, as fallen leaders of their country’s independence movement from France, remains fresh, even vibrant, this despite efforts to slander their reputations and the movement for which they sacrificed their lives.
The gap between French rhetoric about supporting decolonization and its frenetic attempts to maintain economic and political control of its former colonies, especially in Africa could not be greater. There is a french word for this gap between the ideals of 1789 on the one hand and its efforts at all costs to dominate and control the economies of its former African colonies: `un gouffre‘ its called. In order to maintain this control while feigning support for African independence, the French systematically eliminated potential nationalist leaders, including the four Cameroon anti-colonial militants cited below and crushed independence movements – or tried to – with a ferocity and brutality of unspeakable proportions. The Algerian case is perhaps better known – in part because it is almost impossible to hide the torture and killing of nearly a million people in eight years. But there were other places, less known, where the French military stopped at nothing to destroy the challenges to their continued neo-colonial rule – Madagascar and Cameroon – examples hardly known outside Africa,. Several hundred thousand locals died in Madagascar struggling for independence; in the Cameroon, the figure might have reached close to 400,000 killed over a 15 years period before France and its local satraps finally snuffed out the light of democracy and African progress. These war crimes were hardly reported in the French press; the suppression of the independence movement in Cameroon was supported by all sectors of the French population, from right to left. It is only decades later that in drips and drabs, the outlines of the events have come to light.
The Cameroonian Nelson Mandela
Ruben Um Nyobé, founder and first leader of the Union des populations de Cameroun (UPC), was killed 55 years ago, on September 13, 1958 by French led counterinsurgency forces in the Cameroon hoping to neutralize the genuine nationalist movement Nyobé led. Although French and French Cameroon sources claimed he was killed in a skirmish with their forces, the events concerning his death have never been confirmed. Considered by many Cameroonians as nothing less than the George Washington of his country, Nyobé was one of a handful of African nationalists, considered of the caliber of Nelson Mandela. He is a part of a pantheon of African nationalists that includes Patrice Lumumba (Congo), Sylvanus Olympio (Togo), Barthélémy Boganda (Central African Republic), Thomas Sankara (Burkina Faso), all of whom, like Nyobé were killed, eliminated by French military, special forces or their local pawns. All understood that while France (or in the case of the Congo, Belgium) was willing to give African colonies titular independence, that Paris – most specifically Charles DeGaulle – would do everything in its power to retain political and economic control of these countries (and others) and their raw materials and strategic resources. A small volume of Nyobé’s writings “Ecrits Sous Maquis” appeared in 1989, published by Harmattan.
Félix Moumié, followed in Ruben Um Nyobé’s footsteps as leader of the UPC after the latter fell. Befriended by an agent of the French Secret Service (SDECE), Moumié, called “Cameroon’s Lumumba” was lured to Geneva and their poisoned to death by the French agent on November 3, 1960. The Swiss authorities knew Moumié’s assassin, but under pressure from Paris, never indicted him; it ended with a dismissal of charges. France feared the publicity of the case which would have shed light on what was at the time “France’s dirty war” in Africa. For the French government, Cameroon had a particular strategic importance. Paris was afraid that in case of defeat against Moumié’s UPC, a left wing movement of independence, France would not only lose Cameroon, but also other colonies in Western Africa and Central Africa. Paris was convinced that it was in Cameroon it was going to win or loose the Cold War in Africa. During 25 years, in an attempt to “save the country of communism”, French authorities committed horrible war crimes: little known outside Cameroon and virtually unreported in the French press, France was was responsible for extensive war crimes, crimes against humanity in Cameroon: more than 300 000 persons were deported, tortured and executed. 45 years after his death, in 2005, a film was made “Death In Geneva” about Moumié’s life and the Cameroon independence movement. Moumié’s wife Marthe has written a biography of her husband “Victim de Colonialisme Francais: Mon Mari, Felix Moumié”. It appeared in 2006, Editions DuboIris.
Ernest Ouandié, Ouandié, a teacher, was another leader of the UPC, who fought along side of Nyobé and Moumié. He assumed the leadership of the armed struggle after Moumié’s assassination in Geneva. He was able to keep the guerilla movement alive well after Cameroon’s 1960 `independence’ from France. He was finally captured (I am not so sure that the version given at the Wikipedia link given just above is accurate). He was brought to the Cameroon capitol of Yaounde, kept for four months, tortured by Interior Minister, Jean Fochive, “Ahidjo’s Beria” tried in secret and then executed publicly. He was 47 years old. With his passing the armed insurrection against the essentially French-installed (and run) puppet regime of Ahmadou Ahidjo came to an end. At the same time that Ouandié was captured, Ahidjo, a rather lifeless bureaucrat run by French economic and political interests – very much like Ben Ali of Tunisia, moved against Albert Ndongmo, Catholic bishop of Nkongsamba.
Bishop Albert Ndongmo, Three years after having publicly criticized the Ahidjo government for its extensive human rights abuses, slavishness to Paris, in 1970, Bishop Ndongmo found himself, like Ouandié, in Jean Fochive’s prisons awaiting trial in a kangaroo court that would find him guilty of high treason and sentence him to death. Perhaps fearing the impact of world public opinion, Ahidjo, who directed Ndongmo’s arrest and trial in great detail, reduced the sentence to life imprisonment. After serving four years, Ndongmo was pardoned on condition that he leave Cameroon, which he did, living out the few years left of his life in French Canada. Immortalized as a genuine nationalist hero by Cameroon novelist and commentator Mongo Beti in the latter’s classic study of French manipulation of Cameroon independence, Main Basse sur le Cameroun, Ndongmo emerges as an earlier Cameroon version of Martin Luther King Jr, or Bishop Desmond Tutu, nothing less. Beti’s chapter on Ndongmo, entitled “Mgr Albert Ndongmo ou la goutte d’humanité dnas un océan de bureaucratie” (Ndongmo – a drop of humanity in an ocean of bureaucracy) shows Nmongmo to be both man of great intellect and one of unusual moral fiber for a Catholic bishop. In close contact with the aspirations of all the Cameroon people, Ndongmo threatened the Ahidjo regime not only by his unsparing criticism of the latter’s unjust rule, but by having the where-with-all to actually establish a factory, “Mungo Plastique”, a possible model for Cameroon’s economic development that fabricated plastic items. Its very existence served as an alternative development model and one that threatened French rule to its very core, and Paris did what was necessary to kill that economic baby in its own bath water rather than permit it to get off of the ground. In an operation that smelled of a government plant, Ndongmo was accused of having used the factory to transfer arms shipments to the UPC rebels, arrested. Ahidjo was thus able to kill two birds with one stone – kill the factory project and discredit and eliminate a highly respected opponent with strong ties to the Cameroonian people.
With the elimination of these four brave souls, France was able to establish in Cameroon a classic example of neo-colonialism, similar to and just as inhumane as any U.S. supported dictatorship in Latin America. In future installments of this series, I hope to explore why Cameroon held such strategic importance to France, how its neo-colonial system, referred to as Francafrique worked. Many of the themes will be familiar to readers.