Cameroon: Silences on Autopsy of an Independence
I chose to be silent. Satre says “Silence itself is defined in relation to words, like a pause in music…This silence is a moment of language…keeping quiet does not mean being dumb, it is refusing to talk, and by so doing saying more…” My silence was my way of talking. I chose to not say a word not because I was dumb. I was just saying more.
Well this evening was different. It was one of the monthly AfricAvenir film shows at the Goethe Institute in Windhoek. I usually make the effort to attend these informative documentaries projected whenever I have the opportunity to be in town. Even though I had just arrived and was tired from the travelling and endless meetings, I had to attend. Tonight’s documentary was on Cameroon; Autopsy of an Independence which chronicles the struggles of patriots like Ruben Um Nyobe, Ernest Ouandie and Felix Moumie, the UPC leaders who had fought valiantly for the independence of Cameroon and were our very own “Maquisards.” Just like with Algeria, the French were very opposed to the independence of Cameroon and so had actively fought a war to prevent it. But unlike Algeria, they had remained active in Cameroon long after independence and had fought hard to get rid of the charismatic leader, Um Nyobe who they eventually killed in the maquis. They had then proceeded to poison his deputy, Felix Moumie in Geneva leaving Ouandie to continue the struggle. Ouandie had valiantly fought against both the French and their stooge founding president, Amadou Ahidjo. This had finally forced the French to use chemical weapons especially in the Bamileke country which had become the heart of the struggle. Over a quarter of a million people lost their lives. This was one of the genocides of the 20th century – largely unknown and unspoken. Ouandie had decided to hand himself over for the sake of his people who were being massacred and was executed in 1971 for conspiracy to topple the government.
The documentary also gives us a glimpse of how Amadou Ahidjo became the president of ‘independent’ Cameroon. Unlike most African countries whose founding leaders had fought and gone to jail in order to achieve independence, he had got his on a platter, which, come to think of it, was very much the same in most of French Africa, a reason why none of them are still independent to this day.
Also interviewed in the documentary was, Pierre Semengue who was already a commissioned army officer in the late fifties. Mr. Semengue spoke with pride of the role he had played and how he had worked hand in hand with the French to persecute and massacre his own compatriots. Today, almost sixty years later, he is still a general in the army.
At the end of the documentary, two things had stood out for me. Out of over fifty people who had come to watch the documentary, there were only three Cameroonians, one of them being a visitor. For me it was a reflection of our awareness and commitment as a people.
The second thing was during the Q&A session. A gentleman had introduced himself as a representative of the UPC in the SADC region and key speaker on the documentary and on Cameroon. Well, I did not know that UPC had any presence in the region, let alone a regional representative. In his responses, he made known that he was of Bassa origin and his companion was Bamileke. Our regional representative spoke about Cameroon and its struggles only in tribal terms. In answering questions, he pointed to the fact that only the Bassa and the Bamileke fought and sacrificed for independence. He spoke about the marginalization of these two groups in all spheres of government. And when asked what they were doing about this situation, he responded by talking about his achievements and travels around the world. He indeed spoke like a widely travelled gentleman in impeccable English with a very strong American accent.
Towards the end of the session, one gentleman had asked the question; “So in view of the situation in Cameroon at present, is there something we can do to help?” to which our representative responded; “The situation of the Bassa and the Bamileke continues to be precarious in my country. We are excluded from everything – opportunities, trade, politics, everything, but we continue to struggle…” and then he went on in his very polished English, to talk about his role as party representative in the region.
By the end of the session, I was fuming. My Spanish friends wanted to know why I did not say a thing. Well, much as I was tempted, I had chosen to be silent as I was left with one of two other choices – I could have said something in agreement with my compatriot or vocally disagreed and made it clear that the Cameroonian problem is more complex than two ethnic groups which indeed had made enormous sacrifices during the days of the Maquisards. But by taking the second option, I would have perpetuated exactly what the gentleman represented – myopic tribalism – thus confirming in the eyes of strangers just how tribalised and narrow-minded we are as a people. For that reason I chose silence.
What was I supposed to say? Give a speech like: “Well, you see I am neither Bamileke or Bassa, in fact I am from a town called Bamenda. We too have made sacrifices for the country…” I would have had to explain that the struggle for independence can be traced back to the 1800s to a Sawa King called Duala Manga-Bell and the Ewondo Prince Martin Paul Samba who were both hanged by the Germans in 1914 for daring to agitate. That as part of the UPC leadership was a Mankon called Ndeh Ntumazah who continued the struggle way into the 90s? That a bookseller from Bamenda called Fru Ndi had epitomized the struggle and the transition from one-party to multi-party politics in the 1990s.That just like the Bassa and the Bamileke, the people of Bamenda have over the past 20 years have paid the price for their militancy. That at some point, it was the Ewondo and the Douala who made sacrifices or that Felix Moumie was not just a UPC leader but hailed from Bamoun Country? For all my Pan-Africanist pride, was I going to debase myself by taking up a tribal fight?
I had chosen to be silent because I was embarrassed. I could have challenged him right there and exacerbate the perception that we are nothing but a bunch of tribalists, or remain silent like I had chosen to do. I am convinced that my silence had been the better of the choices I made that night. I am convinced even that this gentleman did not represent the UPC as he claimed for his ignorance and narrow-mindedness spoke volumes. My silence also said what needed to be said.
I had decided I was not going back to this story. I was going to try and forget as it was a moment of embarrassment for me. I was not going to talk about it, I was going to ignore it and pretend that it did not happen but it keeps coming up. I just returned to Windhoek and while having a drink with my friends, it came up again. They were making fun of me. Someone had asked me : Is it true that in Cameroon you are nothing but a bunch of tribe? But your friend said that only his tribe fought for independence and you people are still marginalizing them for liberating you? I tried to explain to them but once again, they ask; ‘why did you not say something that night?” Alright, I will tell you why. I had chosen silence not because I was stupid, not because I did not know what needed to be said, but simply because in my opinion, it was the better of the two options – By not saying a thing, I had made my statement. I was not going to expose and embarrass our regional representative in public and in the presence of outsiders. Les linges sales se lavent en famille…not in the streets.
By Millan Atam
The author firstname.lastname@example.org is the Managing Director of Gravitazz Consulting with Head office in Johannesburg.
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