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Friday, October 5, 2018

From Indochina to Cameroon

Two high commissioners were appointed to implement this policy.

The first, Roland Pré, arrived in Yaoundé in December 1954. Fascinated by the United States and an obsessive anticommunist, his key role in the war is now forgotten. After bloodily repressing mass protests in May 1955, he used those riots to outlaw the UPC — accused of instigation — removing it from the political scene. Banned by the French government on July 13, 1955, Um Nyobè’s party had to continue its struggle underground.

The second high commissioner, Pierre Messmer, replaced Pré in 1956. He is better known today because, under French president Charles de Gaulle, he became the minister of the armed forces from 1960 to 1969, and then served as prime minister of France from 1972 to 1974. In late trusteeship-era French Cameroon, Messmer’s mission was to keep the UPC underground and groom a local ruling class that could continue to favor French interests after independence. As he explicitly wrote in his memoirs, the idea was to give “independence to those who called for it the least, having eliminated politically and militarily those who had called for it most intransigently.”

Besides a visceral anticommunism, the two top French administrators in Cameroon had a shared interest in counterinsurgency. In part inspired by the psychological warfare developed in the United States and by British techniques used in various colonial arenas, a line of French officers during the 1946–1954 Indochina war elaborated the French counterrevolutionary war doctrine. Claiming that the Vietminh were using “totalitarian methods” to involve Vietnamese civilians in the struggle, these officers tried to convince the French army to adopt similar techniques. Considering every civilian a potential combatant and believing that the line between peace and war had disappeared, this doctrine aimed to install civilian-military structures capable of leading the masses physically and psychologically.

France’s stinging defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 seemed to confirm these officers’ analyses, and they convinced their superiors and the government to put their theories into practice. The counterrevolutionary doctrine was exported simultaneously to two territories under French rule — Algeria, shaken by the National Liberation Front (FLN) movement, and Cameroon, where French officialdom described the UPC as a sort of African Vietminh. Smarting from Indochina, these officers arrived in Cameroon in 1955 with the firm intention of scouring out “communist subversion.”

But in reality, what happened in Cameroon was closer to preventive vengeance. The accusations made against the UPC were quite absurd; all observers, including those in the French administration, knew the party was committed to legal means. Law — international law, as well as the concept of a universal Fourth Republic French law — was its weapon of choice. But French propaganda took its toll. Forced underground, with some driven to the British Cameroons, a number of UPC figures realized that they had no choice but to change methods.

December 1956 marked a major turning point. Pierre Messmer organized elections in which the outlawed UPC could not participate. This way, the high commissioner could validate the elimination of the main Cameroonian party and appoint “democratically elected” candidates better disposed to France. To prevent this, the nationalists organized resistance fighters through the National Organization Committee (CNO), headquartered in the Sanaga-Maritime, Um Nyobè’s home region and where he was clandestinely living.

The French reaction became so violent that tens of thousands of families left their villages to take refuge in the surrounding forests and put themselves under the protection of the CNO maquis. Other armed organizations joined the fight, attempting, with varying degrees of success, to coordinate with the UPC.

The suppression of the UPC and its militia turned into open war. The military authorities deployed various large-scale military measures — like the Pacification Zone (ZOPAC) set up in Sanaga-Maritime at the end of 1957 — against the nationalists. Like the British in Malaya and Kenya and like the Americans later in Vietnam, the French began a process of so-called villagization. Security forces under French command mercilessly hunted down all those who refused to join military regroupment camps. The French army and its affiliated militias burned illegal villages and summarily executed outlaws extrajudicially. Those who joined the regroupment camps, willingly or not, had to experience the army’s total surveillance apparatus, endure endless screening sessions, and take part in countless psychological rehabilitation schemes.

We will probably never know the exact number of people massacred during these “cleansing operations.” We do know that the UPC’s charismatic Um Nyobè — a priority target — was one of the victims. A comrade was tortured until she revealed Um Nyobè’s location, and a military patrol quickly assassinated the nationalist leader.

The war spread beyond the Sanaga-Maritime region. The “troubles,” as the French authorities called them, affected all of southern French Cameroon, in particular the area from the port city of Douala to the coffee-growing Mungo and Bamileke regions. Because these regions bordered British southern Cameroon — where numerous UPC leaders had taken refuge — the French rebuked their British counterparts, accusing them of allowing their territory to be used by the nationalist combatants as a strategic withdrawal zone.

In 1957, under pressure from France — which did not hesitate to illegally enter its territory to carry out assassinations and who threatened to stir up trouble in its other colonies — the British expelled the main UPC leaders. Under the French secret services’ watchful eye, UPC president Félix Moumié and a dozen others began a long revolutionary journey, settling successively in Sudan, Egypt, Ghana, Guinea, Morocco, and later, in Algeria, Congo-Brazzaville and Angola — in any African country that would grant them asylum.