Um Nyobe, the forgotten father of the independence of Cameroon

The story of this hero which is taboo is also the hidden story of the longest war for independence of a former French protectorate, the determination of a people to put an end barbarism.

Um Nyobe’s dead body 1958

September 13, 1958. Found in the forest near the locality of Boumnyebel, Um Nyobe receives a burst of bullets in the back, shot by a Chadian officer enlisted in the French army. His body is dragged to his village and exposed. His mother-in-law and another person in the village are slaughtered. The father of the Cameroonian independence lived. Far from weakening, his movement the UPC will continue the war for another 13 years.

In the beginning, were the pygmies, the first inhabitants of what is now called Cameroon. Tall Blacks, mostly from Egypt and Sudan, arrived later. That territory, part of the Kanem-Bornu Empire and home to the Bamun people’s great civilization, will be conquered by the Germans in the late 19th century, after being bled by the European slave trade.

Um Nyobe on his wedding day with his wife, he is 31 here

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 which awakened the young clerk to a political consciousness.

Along with the wind of independence demands which was blowing in Africa after World War II, Ruben Um Nyobe was initiated to unionism (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 a disgrace by France which had just suffered a crushing defeat by Hitler’s Germany and largely owes its salvation to African soldiers.

Um Nyobe with the colors of Cameroon Foto von: Unknown author

The union leader Um Nyobe 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 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.

5 Kamerunians key leaders of the independence activism. From left to right in the foreground: Osende Afana, Abel Kingué, Nyobe Um, Felix Moumie , Ernest Ouandié. Except Kingué, they were all killed

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.

Nationalist fighters

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 who led guerrilla warfare.

They sabotaged telephone lines, blew railways and bridges up, set public places on fire and eliminated 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 Um Nyobe was hiding and more and more isolated the Mpodol from his supplies. That is how he was found and killed in 1958.

Fighters under the leadership of Paul MomoFoto von: the 4th one on the top from the right

Severed heads of UPC nationalists. The French used to cut heads off by dozens before discharging them from trucks in the city center to terrorize populations. The heads were left to rot in the midst of people and were preys for animals

Rare image of Um Nyobe’s dead body

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.

Ahmadou Babatoura Ahidjo, 1st president of CameroonFoto von: 1960-1982

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, went to Switzerland to look for weapons in order to continue the fight. He was later on 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.Ernest Ouandié, stepping forward with an impressive serenity, shortly before his execution in January 1971. Kamerun died with him.Ahmadou Ahidjo in 1971 with on the left Yvon Bourges, the French minister of foreign affairs. On the right, the French President Georges Pompidou and forefront Jacques Foccart, the founding father of the nebulous “Françafrique”, an underground and extremely powerful network of politics, militaries and industrials that seeks to preserve by any means necessary the interests of France in Africa. The submission of the man who is president of Cameroon for 11 years, can be perfectly felt from this picture

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.

Statue of Um Nyobe in Eseka

But that decision was not followed by any concrete effect. The Mpodol is still absent from the official history. There are 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, 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.British Cameroon and French Cameroon. The northern part of British Cameroon was unified with Nigeria. The southern part was reunited with French Cameroon.

Colonization created the “Anglophones” who have a different education system from the “Francophones” up today. The tensions between the two were at their peak during the post-electoral conflict in 1992, but today the situation is peaceful. The profound unification that wished Mpodol therefore never took place. With ethnic manipulation, the UPC meanwhile, exploded into multiple streams, and has become the party of the Bassa people.

On a visit in Cameroon in 2009, the French Prime Minister Francois Fillon – in a revisionism exercise 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 “. [1]

The grave of Um Nyobe. The banality of the grave contrasts in an astonishing way the man’s greatness

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.

PS : This article was written before the protestation movements of the Anglophones demanding federalism or independence in 2016.

By Thomas Deltombe


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