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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.

French officials inspect latex collected by laborers in Cameroon in 1941. What When How

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 whole perpetually 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 conquered Algeria, 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’s Main 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.

Empire by Another Name

What happened in Cameroon? The war that unfolded is difficult to understand without first grasping the territory’s jurisdictional status after World War I.

Like all German- or Ottoman-controlled colonies — for example, Syria, Lebanon, Togo and Ruanda-Urundi — “Kamerun,” conquered by the Germans in the early twentieth century, became an internationally mandated territory after 1918. The League of Nations entrusted four-fifths of the country to France to administer and the remaining part to the United Kingdom. British Cameroon and French Cameroon were not colonial territories, but rather territories under international supervision. In exchange for administrative control, the French and British promised to work for the “well-being” of those who were then still classified as “natives” (indigènes).

The situation continued after World War II. The newly formed United Nations (UN) kept British and French territories of Cameroon under “international trusteeship,” authorizing London and Paris to carry out administrative tasks for the purpose of preparing the territories for self-government. The British and French had to sign Trusteeship Agreements which legally bound them to adhere to the UN charter on trusteeship territories, which called on them to “promote the political, economic, social, and educational advancement of the inhabitants of the trust territories, and their progressive development towards self-government or independence.”

This hybrid jurisdictional status paradoxically inflamed the situation: on paper, the Cameroonians were promised political and civil rights while, in practice, the European administrators could find easy ways to ignore them. Clashing interpretations of the international texts thus exacerbated the social conflicts that characterize all colonial societies. In trying to empty the UN’s documents of substance in the trust territory of French Cameroon, French administering authorities violated the terms of international trusteeship, while Cameroonians, knowing their legal and political arguments to be sound, cited them as justifying their claim to political subjectivity and legal and human rights.

European authorities quickly realized that the trusteeship system weakened the imperial edifice. If the Cameroonians managed to assert the rights the United Nations legally upheld, the wind of decolonization, already blowing in Asia, would arrive in Africa, causing surrounding colonies to crumble by contagion and destroying what remained of empire. For the French, who controlled the major part of the country, it became urgent to halt the growing liberation movement.

Paris watched with concern as a powerful independence movement emerged. The Union of the Populations of Cameroon (UPC), founded in April 1948, centered the independence movement, which was gaining in popularity daily. Particularly well-structured and led by some remarkable militants, the UPC rapidly extended its influence and began to undermine the administering authorities, not only in the urban centers of Yaoundé, Douala, Dschang, and Édéa, but also in the countryside. Ever-larger crowds gathered to listen to speeches from UPC secretary general Ruben Um Nyobè, President Félix Moumié, and Vice Presidents Abel Kingue and Ernest Ouandié.

Even more worrying for the French, the UPC leaders managed to make themselves heard outside the country — in France, but also in New York, where Um Nyobè traveled on three occasions to make the case for Cameroonian independence before the United Nations. Each time he returned to Cameroon, those who openly defied the French regime eagerly welcomed him. His moderate and determined speeches to the Trusteeship Council and the General Assembly were duplicated and distributed throughout the country.

His message impacted every corner of the country — farmers dispossessed by colonial enterprises, unemployed youths from Douala’s or Yaoundé’s working-class neighborhoods, low-level government employees sickened by their French superiors’ conduct, veterans held in contempt even though they had fought for France in World War II, and women seeking to empower themselves both politically and economically. Tens of thousands of letters and petitions were sent to the United Nations to convey the UPC’s watchwords: social justice, an end to racial discrimination, total independence, and reunification — slogans that echoed the promise of the UN charter itself.

The French authorities not only wanted to keep Cameroon out of the hands of its people, but also out of international competition. The Soviets, suspected of trying to spread “world revolution,” were often accused of directing African independence movements from afar. After all, had not certain leading UPC figures been to Eastern Europe and even China at the invitation of the communists?

The fallacious red-baiting was not only intended to discredit the independence movement internally; it also aimed to convince American and British authorities of nationalism’s dangers. Parisian elites feared that Washington and London might look to benefit from the independence promised to the Cameroonian people. The British, who controlled the western part of Cameroon, were subject to intense suspicion by the French in the mid 1950s, as Paris struggled to decipher London’s colonial policy.

In Kenya in 1952, the British had bloodily repressed the Land and Freedom Army — which they pejoratively called “Mau Mau”— and seemed determined to maintain their grip on that country. Elsewhere, however, their strategy appeared to diverge. In the Gold Coast (now Ghana), London seemed prepared to negotiate independence with the nationalist movement lead by Kwame Nkrumah. Such weakness scandalized some French observers of colonial affairs. The British were going to give away their empire and abandon the unfinished work of colonialism! And all for the benefit of a handful of radicalized Africans who would inevitably deliver the continent to the communists.

The more aware French administrators, however, held a different view. Aware that traditional colonialism was done for, they saw Britain’s apparent laxness in the Gold Coast and elsewhere as a subtle way of controlling their colonies’ inevitable independence. According to this analysis, London was trying to reproduce in Africa what Washington and Moscow had realized in Latin America and Eastern Europe: converting these countries into vassal states by leaning on local elites as their collaborators and intermediaries.

In fact, this kind of colonial reform was also ongoing in France. A new piece of legislation, prepared as soon as 1954 and adopted two years later under the name of the “Defferre loi cadre,” or framework law, entrusted certain responsibilities to handpicked African elites who would keep the colonies within the French fold. By giving local autonomy and limited power to local leaders, this particularly perverse outsourcing of the state’s domestic administration undermined its full sovereignty.

Accompanied by development schemes supposed to ameliorate the fate of the population, this “neo-colonial mystification” — as Jean-Paul Sartre would call it — was gradually instilled in numerous places. In Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, and elsewhere, African politicians cynically accepted French authorities’ assistance in establishing themselves in positions of responsibility that were, in reality, closely supervised. In Cameroon, however, the operation proved more difficult to carry out: UPC leaders refused to betray the political aims and popular aspirations they had upheld for years. As they continued the work of political mobilization within and beyond Cameroon’s borders, Paris decided to employ strong-arm tactics.

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.

Independence as Colonization

The Cameroonian war also played out on the international stage — in particular at the United Nations. Immediately after Um Nyobè’s death, the French authorities announced the country’s imminent independence and offered to examine the best way forward. Presented as an act of generosity, independence in fact perfectly suited the French war plan.

From the Cameroonian perspective, the scheme had two obvious defects. For one, it called for independence prior to an election. For another, the Cameroonian leaders whom French authorities co-opted as allies had to sign a series of bilateral accords with Paris, some of them secret, that would legalize French control over the new state’s commercial, monetary, military, cultural, and diplomatic policies.

This was, then, an illusory independence — the Cameroonian people were deprived of sovereignty, and their leaders remained under France’s supervision. Nevertheless, the United Nations accepted the French plan in March 1959 thanks to the willing compliance of Washington and London — quite happy to keep this part of the French empire in the Western fold — and of Moscow — in a period of “peaceful coexistence” and not much concerned about Cameroonian communists.

This controlled independence had numerous advantages for the French. Apart from defusing the real Cameroonian independence movement’s message, it allowed the French authorities to put an end to the international trusteeship system and shed UN oversight. Also, independence would accelerate British Cameroon’s emancipation, and Paris assumed the two parts of the country would quickly reunite. The latter aim was only half achieved — the northern half of British Cameroon joined Nigeria. Surely the most important outcome of Cameroon’s independence was that it freed France to repress movements deemed subversive as it wished.

From the moment independence was proclaimed, France intensified its war effort. The Sanaga-Maritime had been, in large part, purged between 1957 and 1959, and the conflict escalated in Wouri, Mungo, and the Bamileke region, where the Kamerunian National Liberation Army (ALNK) had been established in 1959.

The French army repeated its villagization policy, set up militias, and disappeared prisoners. It added a vast campaign of aerial bombardment to its repertoire. The population endured intense psychological campaigns — torture was systematized, public executions proliferated, and the severed heads of alleged rebels were displayed at markets and public squares. In parallel, France intensified its hunt for exiled enemies. Félix Moumié, for instance, died in November 1960 after being poisoned in Geneva by an agent of the French secret services.

This policy of terror continued for a decade. Under the leadership of Ernest Ouandié — who returned to Cameroon after Moumié’s assassination — the ALNK displayed astonishing fighting spirit in spite of incredible material difficulties. The ferocious repression guided secretly by France started to bear fruit in 1962–63. The nationalist underground became more and more restricted, but did not disappear completely. It was only when Ouandié was arrested in 1970 and publicly executed in January 1971 that the nationalists accepted that armed struggle had definitively failed.

Over the course of the war, the government began routinely practicing the counterinsurgency methods innovated in the 1950s. Supervised by French advisers, Cameroonian president Ahmadou Ahidjo — installed in 1958 — transformed his regime into a dictatorship. Well aware that he owed his power to France, he suppressed all civil liberties and progressively established a one-party system. Under the pretext of fighting “subversion,” he surrounded the Cameroonian people with a wall of silence. With its omnipresent army, brutal political police, and administrative detention camps, the regime became one of the most repressive in Africa to the benefit of the local apparatchiks and French businesses, who shared in the profits from the country’s economic exploitation.

The French government was so satisfied by the result that it granted independence to its other African colonies along the same lines. Like Ahidjo, the leaders of these new, nearly all pro-France countries signed bilateral agreements drastically limiting their sovereignty and transformed their regimes into dictatorships. Those who refused were severely brought to task or eliminated, as in the case of the Togolese Sylvanus Olympio — assassinated in 1963 by French-trained putschists. Thus “Françafrique” was born — the French version of neocolonialism, which allowed Paris to maintain its former African colonies not in spite of independence but, in fact, thanks to it.

Broken Silence

How did the Cameroon war go so unnoticed that today hardly anybody knows it took place? This question becomes even more troubling given that the conflict left tens of thousands dead. According to the British embassy’s confidential report from the mid 1960s, the war caused from 60,000 to 76,000 civilian deaths between 1956 and 1964. At a 1962 conference, a journalist from Le Monde claimed 120,000 had been killed since 1959 in the Bamileke region alone. “Yet we are almost entirely ignorant of this even in France, the former metropole,” he added. For good reason: neither he nor any of his colleagues informed their readers about it.

There are many reasons for this silence. First, since Cameroon’s jurisdictional status as a UN-supervised territory didn’t allow France to repress the nationalist movement — particularly as its leaders merely claimed the political and civil rights the UN trusteeship system was designed to bestow — the French authorities were forced to wage a secret war couched as enforcing law, order, and security. “We must impose silence,” as the French High Commissioner succeeding Messmer put it.

This silence extended after independence. To admit that repression continued — let alone that it intensified — would have highlighted the artificiality of independence and the illegitimacy of the pro-France regime. As a result, very few journalists were allowed in combat zones. Taken up in French planes to observe the conflict from above, they described it as an incomprehensible “tribal war,” thereby justifying French aid — “at the request of the Cameroonian government” — to end this “anachronistic” conflict. If the journalist from Le Figaro — one of the few French people to fly over the Bamileke region in 1960 — is to be believed, French intervention in Cameroon was a kind of humanitarian charity.

France’s military strategy included the deliberate portrayal of the conflict as a tribal or civil war. Heavily committed in Algeria — which was also monopolizing public attention — the French army sent very few of its own troops to Cameroon. As much as possible, they trained and supervised troops either from surrounding French colonies (Côte d’Ivoire, Chad, Gabon) or from local paramilitary groups and self-defense militias within Cameroon. Recruiting the civilian population had numerous advantages. First, these auxiliary troops cost less than the French army. Secondly, civilian recruitment nourished the logic of counterinsurgency, by forcing populations to choose a side. There was no greater test of loyalty than making some Cameroonians participate in the elimination of others. Finally, by stirring up ethnic rivalries, French instigators could hide behind their African subordinates when carnage ensured, attributing it to “innate African savagery.”

Finally, the silence that has reigned since the mid 1960s must be situated in the war’s outcome. The French victory and Ahidjo’s installation as the postcolonial state’s first president not only muzzled all criticism of the regime, but also effaced the memory of the nationalists who fought to achieve real independence. History is, after all, written by the victors: The traces of their crimes are removed, and the witnesses who might cause them embarrassment are silenced. In Algeria, the FLN took power in 1962, but the defeated UPC could not honor its heroes. No scholarship could be undertaken that even evoked this period; to do so was considered a capital offense. Not until the 1980s could Cameroonians begin to research their country’s violent decolonization, and even then they had to do it abroad.

At the beginning of the 1990s — a period marked by mass democratic movements across Africa — the silence was finally broken. After partial democratization, a number of Cameroonians tried to exhume the past. But the blackout had been so complete and so long that the task proved difficult. Journalists and historians who worked on these subjects not only had to deal with a scarcity of archival sources and a profusion of hard-to-verify narratives, but also to overcome the skepticism of their international counterparts who, having never heard of this secret war, found the macabre stories hard to believe. A number of “Africanists” at French universities tended to prolong the silence around events that they had either underestimated or never researched.

This perhaps explains why, in 2009, François Fillon responded to questions about France’s role in the UPC leaders’ assassinations by describing the accusation as “pure invention.” In fact, this aspect of the war is the best documented. Granted, in a July 2015 visit to Cameroon, François Hollande mentioned these “tragic episodes” for the first time. But his vague sentence barely paid lip service to these “episodes”; indeed, he appeared to not know what he was talking about. There has been no follow-up to these muddled ramblings.

Hoping to avoid legal proceedings like those successfully undertaken by former Land and Freedom Army fighters and other Kikuyu survivors of the “Mau Mau” against the British authorities, French officialdom is for the moment trying to play for time, patiently waiting out the surviving victims and witnesses. But it knows that the silence covering up the atrocities committed by France, contra international law, during this violent conflict cannot last. Anti-French feeling has become so powerful in Africa, and historical thinking about present-day crises deriving from humanity’s colonial past so developed throughout the world, that France will sooner or later have to look its past in the face.