Um Nyobe, the forgotten father of the Independence of Cameroon. The story of this hero who is a taboo and is also the hidden story of the longest war for the independence of a former French colony, the determination of a people to end colonial barbarism.
September 13, 1958. Found in the forest near Boumnyebel, Um Nyobe receives a barrage of bullets in the rear, fired by a Chadian officer drafted into the French army. His body is dragged to his village and exposed. Her mother-in-law and another person in the village are massacred. Cameroon’s father of independence lived. Far from weakening, its UPC movement will continue the war for another 13 years
In the beginning, they were the pygmies, the first inhabitants of what is now called Cameroon. The tall blacks, mostly from Egypt and Sudan, came later. That territory, part of the Kanem-Bornu Empire and seat of the great civilization of the Bamun people, will be conquered by the Germans at the end of the nineteenth century, after having been bled from the European slave trade.
Um Nyobe was born in 1913 in Kamerun, which was under the brutal occupation of Germany at that time. After World War I, all German colonies in Africa were redistributed to the English and French victors. France occupied the eastern part of Cameroon and England the West part.
Raised by his father who was a traditional priest in Vitalism (animism), Um Nyobe was educated in Christian schools where he was baptized as Ruben. He obtained his Baccalaureate Degree in 1939 and was hired as a clerk in the court of the city of Edea. Brilliant autodidact and passionate of law studies, he realized with horror the unfair state of slavery in which the Cameroonian people were.
Forced labor on construction sites and plantations was killing men by thousands. Segregation through the Code of Indigenous Status was defining Blacks as subhuman and Whites as gods. Land and food confiscations by the colonists were common. Those are the main elements that awakened the young clerk to political consciousness.
Along with the wind of independence demands which was blowing in Africa after World War II, Ruben Um Nyobe was initiated to syndicalism by some French and became a member of the CGT union in 1947. He fought against the division of his country between francophone and anglophone areas.
Therefore, the German word “Kamerun” represented for him and his supporters, the time when the country was united, and the unity that should be recovered. This word was perceived as an insult by France which had just suffered a crushing defeat by Hitler’s Germany and largely owed its salvation to African soldiers.
The union leader went across the country on foot, by bike, to raise awareness about their unacceptable state of slavery and the need for independence. Wherever he went, walkouts and strikes spontaneously broke out on sites. He was raising crowds by thousands and giving hope. He denounced the Catholic Church which was supporting colonization.
He managed to unite men from all tribes around the project of independence and created a national foundation. The ethnic diversity and cohesion of the fathers of independence were so great that later on, the French said about them that they were “detribalized”.
Um Nyobe was named Mpodol, that is to say “spokesman” in his native language Bassa. “Immediate independence” became the slogan of Kamerunians.
In 1948 in Douala, his friends founded the Union des Populations du Cameroun (UPC), of which he became the general secretary and the principal figure. He also became vice president of the continental movement named Rassemblement Démocratique Africain (RDA) that was established by Felix Houphouet-Boigny, first president of Côte d’Ivoire.
The UPC stood out as the legitimate representative of the Cameroonian people and Um Nyobe went to the UN in 1952 to seek Kamerun’s independence and reunification.
France created some so-called nationalist parties to compete with the UPC, without success. Having failed to defeat the unstoppable UPC wave through democratic means, France banned the party in 1955 and therefore started its longest decolonization war in history.
The repression against UP-cists (members of UPC) was total; the barbarism of the French army was unprecedented. Columns of smoke were rising from Douala, the largest city of the country, which was cordoned off and set on fire.
Torture, executions and massacres were legion. A curfew was imposed. Riots broke out across the country, insurgency was spreading. Cameroonians were locked in concentration camps, killed; they died by tens of thousands. Corpses were littering the fields, eaten by dogs.
Giving up on the non-violence principle, the remarkably structured UPC retaliated with weapons. Um Nyobe and his supporters went underground, entered the bush followed by a third of the population of the South of the country who led guerrilla warfare.
They sabotaged telephone lines, blew railways and bridges up, set public places on fire and killed the settlers’ collaborators. Um Nyobe conquered the Maritime Sanaga Department and created a parallel government to that of the collaborators.
As a convinced and incorruptible nationalist, he refused every offers of partial independence that were made to him by the colonists. The latter decimated the bush where he was hiding and more and more isolated the Mpodol from his supplies. That is how he was found and killed in 1958.
France chose Ahmadou Ahidjo, a man who agreed to protect the “metropolis’s” interests; he officially became the first president of Cameroon on January 1, 1960. According to the French president Charles de Gaulle’s plan, it is under submitted currency, natural resources, defense, education and culture that Cameroon, like all former French colonies became independent.
The north of the English-speaking part joined Nigeria; the South was reunited with the Francophone side of Cameroon. Usurping the title of father of Cameroonian independence, Ahidjo through his harsh dictatorship, sowed terror in the country and suppressed the UPC with an incredible zeal.
Dr. Felix Moumie, the UPC’s president, in Switzerland to look for weapons in order to continue the fight, was killed by thallium poisoning by the French in 1960 and with the consent of De Gaulle. Buried in Conakry, his body mysteriously disappeared from the Guinean capital.
Osende Afana, major leader of the party, was beheaded in 1966, and his head was taken to Yaoundé, the capital city, for a presentation to Ahidjo. Ernest Ouandié, the last great leader of the UPC and its armed wing ANLK, was shot dead in 1971. His death marked the end of the war and the defeat of Kamerun’s real independence.
What is left of Um Nyobe?
At the death of Mpodol, the authorities prohibited to pronounce his name, to celebrate his memory. The life of Maquisards (Bush fighters) as they were derogatorily designated was ridiculed and caricatured. Um Nyobe was simply erased from history. When the wind of democratization was blowing in Africa in the early 90s, the UPC was permitted again; the fathers of independence were acknowledged as national heroes.
But that decision was not followed by any concrete effect. The Mpodol is still absent from the official history. There are only some pictures of him, an audio recording and his writings. The rest has been classified as top secret by France. No Memorial Day, no city, no public place, almost nothing bears his name. Only a statue of modest quality is a sign of tribute to him in his discreet hometown.
Today in Cameroon, young people do not know who he is. They do not even know that there was a 16 years’ war with tens of thousands of dead or more. This is unbelievable! This is as if Haitians did not know who was Toussaint Louverture and knew nothing of the revolution. The collective memory only knows vaguely that there was some Maquisards whose actions are qualified as crime.
Colonization created the “English speakers” who have a different education system than the “French speakers” to date. The tensions between the two were at their peak during the post-election conflict of 1992, but today the situation is peaceful
The profound unification that Mpodol wished never took place. With ethnic manipulation, the UPC has meanwhile exploded into multiple streams and has become the party of the Bassa people.
During a visit to Cameroon in 2009, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon – in an exercise in the revisionism of history of which he is a specialist – said: “I absolutely deny that the French forces were involved in any assassination in Cameroon. All this is pure invention “.
It is up to the Cameroonian young generation and the black world as a whole, to resurrect Um Nyobe’s memory and put it back to the pantheon of the fathers of independence with Nkrumah, Lumumba, Keita, Cabral, Nyerere And the others.