Cameroon: Review – La Guerre du Cameroun: L’Invention de la Françafrique 1948-1971 by Thomas Deltombe, Manuel Domergue and Jacob Tatsitsa. La Découverte: 2016. ISBN 978-2707-192141 (The Cameroon War: The Invention of Françafrique 1948-1971)
Review – La Guerre du Cameroun: L’Invention de la Françafrique 1948-1971 by Thomas Deltombe, Manuel Domergue and Jacob Tatsitsa. La Découverte: 2016. ISBN 978-2707-192141. (The Cameroon War: The Invention of Françafrique 1948-1971)
Let’s begin at the end. At the end of this volume, the authors engage in what in English is referred to as “acknowledgments”, in French “remerciements” (which translates more precisely as “thank you’s”). Among those acknowledged or thanks for encouraging the authors is one Francois Gèze, publisher of Editions La Découverte, a French publishing house of repute noted for its excellent publications on current events (among other subjects).
Six years ago, during my last visit to Paris, I met Gèze, who kindly took me to lunch and introduced me to a number of Algerian ex-pats several of whom I subsequently interviewed. They included two former intelligence officers who had written persuasively about the rot infecting the Algerian intelligence apparatus and an Algerian energy economist, Hocine Malti, author of Histoire secrète du pétrole algérien, a most fascinating and insightful book, also published by La Découverte. Several articles, among the better ones I’ve written, resulted.
It’s a shame that these and other works by La Découverte have not (to my knowledge) been translated into English (and in the case of the stuff on Algeria, into Arabic as well) as they are all quality studies that add substantially to the subjects they probe. I should not have been surprised then, that La Découverte would publish two excellent full length studies – case studies in French neo-colonialism in Africa – on Cameroon, that oddly triangular shaped west African nation abutting on the Atlantic Ocean and wedged between seven countries – Nigeria, Chad, Central African Republic, Congo Brazzaville, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.
In 2012 Kamerun! Une guerre cachee aux origines de Francafrique: 1948-1971 was published. More recently, in 2016, the same three authors penned La Guerre du Cameroun: L’Invention de la Françafrique 1948-1971 which goes into more depth on the same subject. In this volume, the authors, Thomas Deltombe, Manuel Domergue and Jacob Tatsitsa probe the manner in which the Cameroonian nation attempted to shape its own destiny, its vision for independence on the one hand. It details how that independence was crushed by France using a combination of severe repression and all out political warfare to reshape the Cameroonian national project into a hollow political vessel that it became and remains till this day. It is a chilling tale, well researched and accurate.
At the end of World War II, the French project in Cameroon, a former German colony in Africa which was ceded to both France and Great Britain as a part of the Versailles Treaty of 1919, was at the same time both simple but challenging: how to formally grant independence to former colonies, while quietly (it wasn’t really “a secret’) maintaining strict control of the economic and political levers in the former colonies. There is a name for this formal independence that hides a colonizer-colonized continuum; it is called neo-colonialism.
Although it is common knowledge in every household in Cameroon, the violence necessary to achieve this goal has long been hidden from public scrutiny. The ruthlessness, the utter viciousness by which the French pursued to its conclusion their goal defies the imagination: to crush what to all appearances might have been one of the most enlightened and democratic African national movements of its time, or any time – and to replace it with a hollow subservient shell.
Postwar France understood that its colonial empire would shrink as the demands for anti-colonial independence throughout the Third World grew louder and more pronounced. Without its empire – a source of cheap raw materials, energy and a dumping ground for inferior French manufacturing products – France risked a precipitous economic and political decline, its chances of re-emerging from the destruction of World War II essentially out of the question. France had failed in its effort to retain Indochina and Algeria where in two terrifying wars of genocidal dimension (on its part), it was defeated. France was determined not “lose” Cameroon as it had Indochina and Algeria and was willing to do whatever to maintain its influence, no, stranglehold, on its source of strategic economic assets. More than just the fate of Cameroon was at stake as France’s policies there became a model for its dealings in all of its former colonies.
3, France and Africa after World War II.
At the end of World War II France found itself in a precarious situation. It had just been badly mauled by the Germans in three successive wars (Franco-Prussian War 1870-71; World War I; World War II). If not for the fact that its allies had come to its rescue, it would never have recovered; fact be known its military contribution in all three cases was negligible. Economically it was quite weak as well having wasted a good deal of money and energy. It failed to modernize its industrial structure to such a degree that even after Nazi Germany was devastated by Allied bombings, the United States chose to reunify West Germany and to invest in its industrial resurrection rather than concentrating its investment opportunities on redeveloping France, its ally.
It is in that context that the fate of France’s extensive colonial holdings need to be understood. If, for its own geo-strategic considerations the United States urged France and Britain to dispose of their empires, the two former world powers resisted for as long as possible. Both resisted the post war anti-colonial movements militarily and politically, Britain in Kenya and Malaysia, France in Indochina, Algeria and, as will be discussed below, Cameroon. On top of being humiliated three times by Germany in seventy-five years, France was militarily defeated in Indochina, having lost the famous Battle of Dien Bien Phu to the Vietnamese communist-led forces of Ho Chi Minh. The loss and once again humiliation of the French military in Indochina only led France to pursue an even uglier, racist, Nazi-like effort to retain Algeria – which ultimately failed. However in Cameroon, a parallel campaign, vicious in every way but far from the probing eyes of the international media, succeeded.
Outside of a small circle of those close to the events who orchestrated the whole thing (De Gaulle, Foccart, etc) and of course the victims, the Cameroonian people themselves and their immediate neighbors, the extent of the horror France inflicted on Cameroon remained generally unknown or at best, poorly known or appreciated. It’s nationalist leaders assassinated, its movement and base of support crushed – annihilated would be a more accurate term – by the early 1970s, a silence fell over Cameroonian history. It took more than half a century before Cameroonian scholars began to systematically unearth and carefully document the country’s painful transition from colony to something less than an independent nation.
De Gaulle, ever the realist, understood that France was in no position to retain its empire militarily and that France would have to give a pass to a formal end to French colonialism in Africa. But a clean break from its colonial heritage would shrink French economic possibilities and political influence both in Europe and the rest of the world, a no-no for a country which despite chronic economic weakness, still clung to illusions of emerging as a world, hegemonic power. The struggle for Cameroonian independence unfolded at the same time as other nationalist movements throughout Africa (and elsewhere). How to gut the Cameroonian independence movement of its heart and soul while retaining the skeleton of independence? How to “in principle” seem to support de-colonization while in fact-finding ways to maintain tight control over the natural and human resources of the country, what the French leadership referred to as “L’État sous tutelle” – the trusteeship relationship?
The heart of the issue can be summed up in the following manner: at the end of World War 2, inspired by the Allied victory over Nazism and Japanese military imperialism, the Cameroonian people aspired to genuine independence – democratic control over its resources and political future – complete independence; France’s goal was to find ways to “offer” the Cameroonian people the illusion of independence while maintaining – and in many ways tightening its grip over the country’s economy and other institutions. French colonial control moved from the forefront of Cameroonian life to its shadows. But it was from these shadows using a combination of what might be accurately called cruel tricks that in many ways it was able both to tighten its control over the country and maintain that control until today. For its own geo-political reasons, the United States supported France in these efforts.
What are these mechanisms?
- To destroy the legitimate nationalist movement, the Union des Populations du Cameroun (Union of the Peoples of Cameroon – UPC), France engaged in what is referred to as counter-revolutionary warfare (or the Doctrine of Revolutionary Warfare – doctrine de la guerre révolutionaire – which is in essence the Doctrine of CounterRevolutionary Warfare, or as it is more commonly referred to – counter insurgency)
- The legitimate indigenous movement for national liberation is replaced by token leadership run by French advisers according to secret agreements allowing French military and political intervention whenever Paris deems it necessary. This token indigenous leadership is corrupted in a number of ways.
The entire system has been referred to as “Françafrique,” – the neo (new) colonial system that fuses at the hip French economic and political interests with those of a co-opted local leadership. La Guerre du Cameroun: L’Invention de la Françafrique 1948-1971 is nothing short of a detailed analysis of how the system of Françafrique was instituted at the behest of the Charles De Gaulle to save the essence of the French African empire while giving the appearances of acknowledging Cameroon full independence.
The French counter-insurgency strategy, developed in some detail in Algeria (see Battle of Algiers), perfected at a horrific price of human suffering in Cameroon would become common place in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s in places like Vietnam (separate the Vietnamese rebels from their base in the population), Argentina and Chile where the military, heavily advised by French counter-insurgency experts, targeted and savaged the whole populations of both countries in a war of terror, in Guatemala, where U.S (and Israeli) military advisors helped plan and execute a policy of extermination of rural Mayan native peoples whose victims numbered in the hundreds of thousands.
The essence of this strategy was to turn some of the political writings of Chinese Communist leader Mao Tse Tung upside down. Mao compared guerrilla revolutionaries to “fish swimming in the ocean” – the “ocean” being the popular base among the population, or that element of it sympathetic radical social change for whatever reason. The essential struggle between the old guard and the young radical movement concerns who can win “the hearts and minds” of the population. A number of writers suggest that this political work precedes and is actually more important than, or at least as important as the military contest which follows.
Problem with the strategy – which should be apparent from how it is defined – what is “the ocean”? It’s the general population. Counter-insurgency targets the general population, the base for the opposition movement. As such everyone becomes a target. What did counter-insurgency actually mean in Cameroon? It meant the dislocation of large swathes of the population. It mean annihilating whole villages that might be anywhere in the vicinity of or sympathetic to the nationalist movement? It meant kidnapping activists and dropping them live from helicopters into the Atlantic Ocean (as would later be done in the late 1970s in Argentina, where the number murdered in this fashion would be in the tens of thousands). It meant choosing (and then running) a handpick set of local flunkies – “alternative nationalists” who were put in power despite the fact of lacking all legitimacy among the general population. It meant “disappearing” – or trying to – not just people, but history itself – ;
There is an old poem by Robert Frost. I have tried unsuccessfully to retrieve it although I remember its essence well. It is about a stream that used to flow freely through a region but is forced underground by the building of a town. But the stream never dies and eventually finds it way back to the surface. So it is with the hidden history of Cameroon.