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Thursday, October 4, 2018

The Forgotten Cameroon War

French officials like to project a sunny view of their country’s colonial past. Tens of thousands dead in Cameroon would tell a different story.

France’s agonizing over its identity has recently taken a shocking turn. Almost daily, some editorialist, politician, or writer celebrates the country’s “colonial endeavor.”

In September, former president Nicolas Sarkozy resurrected one of the most hackneyed and racist clichés of the colonial period when he insisted that the “ancient Gauls” are the ancestors of all French people, whatever their origins. A few days earlier, former prime minister François Fillon described colonization as the simple “sharing of culture.” Ignoring the millions of corpses French colonialism left in its wake, he declared: “France is not guilty for having wanted to share its culture with the peoples of Africa, Asia, and North America.”

This trend, unfortunately, has a precedent. In 2005, parliament adopted a law requiring history teachers to discuss the “positive aspects” of colonization. Of course, this has always been done: many French colonial atrocities have been erased, and the driving forces of imperialism are rarely, if ever, critically examined. School curricula propagate a sugarcoated version of France’s bloody past.

But the problem extends beyond classrooms. French society as a wholeperpetually extols its colonial history. All over the country, innumerable streets and headstones pay homage to the worst colonialists, the scholars who justified a white supremacist racial hierarchy, and the imperial army’s violent feats. A number of monuments even celebrate the diehard supporters of “l’Algérie française.”

A significant majority of French people remain proud of their colonial past, unaware of the barbarous manner in which France conqueredAlgeria, Indochina, and Madagascar in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, ignorant of how it violently suppressed colonial resistance in Morocco, Benin, and Martinique, and having only a basic knowledge of the massacres that punctuated the last phase of the colonial era — from the carnage of the Thiaroye military camp in Senegal on December 1, 1944, to the mass killings in the streets of Paris on October 17, 1961.

France itself stubbornly refuses to remember, much less commemorate, victims of its crimes against humanity, namely slavery and colonization.

Among the omissions of French colonial historiography, the Cameroon war of the 1950s and 1960s is perhaps the most striking. Hardly anyone even realizes it took place. This secret war, which nonetheless claimed tens of thousands of victims, went almost unnoticed at the time, and its victors, the French and their local intermediaries, methodically erased every remaining trace in the following decades: the Gaullist regime installed a ferocious dictator in Yaoundé who hastened to wipe out all memory of the anticolonial struggle.

After independence was declared on January 1, 1960, an Orwellian silence descended on the state. In the decades that followed, the slightest evocation of the liberation movement that France had helped the postcolonial state to repress resulted in arrest, interrogation, imprisonment, or worse. Judges in military tribunals sentenced dissidents to years of imprisonment in the regime’s ominous internment camps.

Cameroon’s liberation movement leaders could only be honored clandestinely, out of sight of security forces as brutal as they were omnipresent. French and Cameroonian authorities worked in tandem to enforce this vast enterprise of repression and concealment, successfully silencing even the most daring of the exiled oppositionists. In 1972, the French government censored French Cameroonian writer Mongo Beti’sMain basse sur le Cameroun, the first work describing the atrocities of the independence war. The French government immediately banned it and destroyed all available copies.