The unfinished business between Cameroon and France

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.

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.

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By Meredith Terretta