Welcome to Africanews

Please select your experience

Watch Live

News

news

Cameroonians recount France's 'dirty war' against independence movement

Cameroon

<p><strong>On January 1, Cameroon will marks its 60th anniversary of independence, the first of 17 African countries that became free from their colonial masters in 1960.</strong></p> <p>The fight for independence in the Central African nation was brutal and bloody a French colonial troops sought to repress nationalist voices and fighters.</p> <p>While the struggle for independence has largely been untold in the country’s school history books, many who witnessed the violence say teh ‘dirty war’ changed their lives dramatically.</p> <h2 style="font-size:16px;">The push for independence</h2> <p>In 1960, aged 21, Njassep joined the Cameroon National Liberation Army (<span class="caps">ALNK</span>). </p> <p><span class="caps">ALNK</span> was the armed wing of the Union of the Peoples of Cameroon (<span class="caps">UPC</span>), a nationalist movement established in 1948 that faced repression first by the French and later by Cameroonian soldiers.</p> <p>French authorities labelled the <span class="caps">UPC</span> “communist” and cracked down from 1955, driving the movement underground, though its charismatic founder Ruben Um Nyobe preached non-violence.</p> <p>After two years of fighting, Njassep was appointed secretary to Ernest Ouandie, a leading figure in the movement. He was sentenced to death but escaped the firing squad, unlike Ouandie, who was executed in 1971.</p> <p>“We had almost nothing to wage a war with,” Njassep said.</p> <p>“We carried out ambushes” with machetes, sticks and homemade guns. “If we had had enough weapons, we would have beaten them.”</p> <h2 style="font-size:16px;">France oppresses independence seekers</h2> <p>On the night of December 30, 1956, French troops arrived in the town and slaughtered dozens of people, perhaps as many as a hundred, she said.</p> <p>“We were sitting under a tree when we suddenly heard the crackle of gunfire,” she said. “It was everyone for themselves.”</p> <p>Taking to her heels, the seven-year-old found herself jumping over bodies. “They were everywhere.”</p> <p>The troops were looking for <span class="caps">UPC</span> independence fighters.</p> <p>In September 1958, Um Nyobe, nicknamed Mpodol (for “he who brings the word” in the Bassa language), was killed by French troops.</p> <p>“His body was dragged around and displayed so that everybody (saw the corpse) of a man who was considered immortal,” said Louis Marie Mang, <span class="caps">UPC</span> activist in Eseka, where Um Nyobe is buried in a Protestant graveyard.</p> <p>“To prevent traditional rites from being held, he was put in a block of cement and buried (without) a coffin.”</p> <p>At the time, the <span class="caps">ALNK</span> had established its headquarters in the village of Bandenkop, on the land of the main western tribal group, the Bamileke. Fighting was fierce between the nationalists and the French army.</p> <p>In the rugged valley from which <span class="caps">ALNK</span> commanders led operations, there is no sign of human life today and the only sound is that of a bubbling stream.</p> <p>“This whole zone was regularly bombed” by the French air force, said Michel Eclador Pekoua, a former <span class="caps">UPC</span> official.</p> <p>Pekoua and other nationalists say French planes dropped napalm. France has neither confirmed nor denied the use of the notorious incendiary weapon.</p> <h2 style="font-size:16px;">Cameroon’s government fights nationalists</h2> <p>The conflict continued long beyond independence, for repression of the nationalists continued under Cameroon’s first president, Ahmadou Ahidjo, who also banned public references to the <span class="caps">UPC</span> and to Um Nyobe.</p> <p>The violence “passed unnoticed, wiped from memories,” according to Thomas Deltombe, Manuel Domergue and Jacob Tatsitsa, authors of “La guerre du Cameroun” (“Cameroon’s War”), published in 2016.</p> <p>They estimate that between 1955 and 1964, tens of thousands of people, including civilians as well as <span class="caps">UPC</span> members, were killed.</p> <p><span class="caps">UPC</span> nationalists believe that the independence granted on January 1, 1960 was not what they fought for.</p> <p>They view the country’s two post-independence presidents, Ahidjo and Paul Biya, who has been in office since 1982, as working hand-in-hand with France.</p> <p>“We wanted to be free like the other countries. We no longer wanted white people to subjugate us,” said 80-year-old Mathieu Njassep, in his tiny family apartment in Petit Paris, a poor district of Douala, the economic capital.</p> <h2 style="font-size:16px;">Tribute to independence fighters</h2> <p>In Ekite, a wreath of flowers lies on the soil of a scrubland field at the end of a dirt track. “The Nation will remember your sacrifice,” says a memorial notice.</p> <p>“This is one of the mass graves where the nationalists were buried,” said Jean-Louis Kell, a <span class="caps">UPC</span> militant.</p> <p>A second ditch was apparent a dozen metres (yards) away, and “a third was discovered not long ago,” said Benoit Bassemel. He was seven during the French massacre and has tears in his eyes when he tells how his father was murdered.</p> <h2 style="font-size:16px;">Cameroon, France acknowledge independence struggle, atrocities</h2> <p>For many years the conflict mostly remained taboo in Cameroon. It was in the 1990s, when the authorities came under mounting pressure for democratic change, that people began to raise the historic past.</p> <p>Biya, in a speech in 2010, paid tribute to “people who dreamed of (independence), fought to obtain it and sacrificed their lives for it… Our people should be eternally grateful to them.”</p> <p>After years of French silence, then president Francois Hollande in 2015 became his country’s first head of state to speak of “a repression” of Cameroonian nationalists leading to “tragic episodes”.</p> <p>For many survivors, this is not enough.</p> <p>“France must accept its responsibility,” Nono said.</p> <p>“It must undertake to compensate victims of the dirty war, which has been carefully concealed by both the French side and the Cameroonian side.”</p> <p>On a road 30 kilometres (19 miles) to the north, in Bafoussam, a roundabout is known as the “crossroads of the guerrillas,” for it was where the decapitated heads of nationalists were placed on show, said Theophile Nono, head of a historical association, Memoire 60.</p> <p>The regime’s methods “ranged from the arrest and arbitrary imprisonment of any Cameroonian suspected of ‘rebellion’ to systematic torture, with extrajudicial summary executions,” Nono said.</p> <p><strong><em><span class="caps">AFP</span></em></strong></p>

It must undertake to compensate victims of the dirty war, which has been carefully concealed by both the French side and the Cameroonian side.

View more