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No big party for Cameroon's independence

December 31, 2019

Cameroonians are not in a mood to celebrate an independence many feel is flawed because of the perceived continued dominance of France in the country. They feel that mistakes of the past have led to the crises today.

A Cameroonian football fan holding a flag and painted in the colors of gis flag
Image: P. Pabandji/AFP/Getty Images

Cameroonian activist Andre Blaise Essama feels his country is still a far cry from decolonization. He has been repeatedly sentenced and jailed for damaging statues that, in his view, contradict all that independence stands for. In 2016 he spent six months in prison for destroying a monument to French colonial general Leclerc. Earlier he had been sentenced to three months for knocking over the statue of the Unknown Soldier, because it was represented by a white western man. The statue's head disappeared in April of this year. The suspicion fell immediately on Essama.

On the 60th anniversary of the independence of the French-speaking part of the Cameroons on January 1, 2020 the activist plans to pay another visit to Leclerc's statues. His own way of celebrating Independence Day is to strike at the image. "Once you have decolonized a people, they should no longer submit to France," Essama says in frustration. "France would never allow a Paul Biya monument to be dedicated in the country. Do they have a Cameroonian general honored that way? No."

France continues to rule

The statie of French general Leclerc in Duala
French General Leclerc's statue still has pride of place in DoualaImage: Getty Images/Three Lions/Hulton Archive

Essama is not the only Cameroonian who feels that 60 years on his country is still not decolonized. Both French and English-speaking Cameroonians see France more as an enemy than a friend. Historian Edward Nfor says that France deceived the world in 1960 by pretending that Cameroon was independent, although it continues to rule the country today. "The French rule by remote control. Cameroon's President Paul Biya goes to France to get instructions or ask what to do in his country."

Cameroonian economist Babissakana Thomas says that one of the main reasons for the growing anti-French sentiment is that more than half of Cameroon's financial reserves are kept in the French treasury. This is the result of an agreement signed in 1948, long before independence. "A country cannot have independence if its currency, which is an essential instrument for its economic policy, is controlled by a former colonial ruler. Cameroon should ask all French citizens working in its central bank to leave the country."

Anti-French feelings

Building contractor Etienne Essomba agrees. He knows that if he applies for a project against French competition he will lose out, because many government projects are awarded to French companies. "I don't understand why Cameroon should be treated this way," he says. "We are no banana republic. We are a state governed by the rule of law and people should respect that. We should all defend our country always."

Despite all the French influence in Cameroon, Cameroonians find it hard to travel to France. Only 30% of a total of 300,000 visa applications were accepted in 2019. According to the French ambassador to Cameroon, Christophe Guilhou, relations between the two countries are positive. "France has always been and will always be on Cameroon's side, because Cameroon is an important economic partner in Central Africa. France is a very important partner in the Cameroonian economy, with more than 300 companies creating thousands of jobs in Cameroon," he told DW.

Cameroonian President Paul Biya and French President Emmanuel Macron
President Paul Biya's (left) closeness with his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron is not welcomed by all Cameroonians.Image: AFP/L. Marin

A controversial independence

In 1919, after the First World War, France and Britain each got a piece of formerly German Cameroon. In March 1959, French Cameroon's legislative assembly held a heated debate on the country's independence. The National Union of the Peoples of Cameroon (UPC) under the leadership of Dr. Félix Roland Moumié argued that reunification should precede independence. But then Prime Minister Ahmadou Ahidjo saw independence as the country's primary goal.

This led Moumié to found the Cameroonian Liberation Army in May 1959. It consisted of UPC fighters who had already rebelled against the French government months earlier. "They believed that this independence was a false independence," recalls writer Enoh Meyonmesse, who, at the time, lived with his parents in Douala. "Douala was at war. It was not unlike what is happening right now in northwest and southwest Cameroon. The violence was terrible. As a child I was used to seeing cut off heads and bodies in the ravines in the morning. It became commonplace in Douala."

On New Year's Eve of 1959, shots rang out in the city. The next morning, President Ahidjo proclaimed independence, says cultural entrepreneur Luc Delors Yatchokeu, who lived with his parents in Mbanga, an hour's drive from Douala. "I remember that there was a big military parade outside our house." The country was beside itself with joy when the independence speech was broadcast live by Radio Douala, Cameroon's leading radio station. 

A part of Cameroon lost

Demonstrators in Cameroon against independence for Anglophone regions carry signs saying "I'm not an Anglophone" and "I'm not a Francophone"
The secession drive in Anglophone regions threatens to tear the country asunderImage: Reuters/J.Kouam

According to Nfor, France should never have had a say in Cameroon's independence: "In 1960 Cameroon was a protectorate of the United Nations, divided in two. How could France grant Cameroon independence? They should have obtained independence through a referendum organized by the United Nations, as happened in the Anglophone part of the country."

South Cameroonians, controlled by the British, were watching very closely what was happening on the French side. According to historians, there was great enthusiasm among political leaders in British Cameroon for the independence of French Cameroon. There were expectations that British Cameroon too would quickly become independent and that this would pave the way for unification.

British South Cameroon gained independence in a UN referendum on February 11, 1961. It was immediately attached to the former French Cameroon, while the British northern part was annexed to Nigeria. The Republic of Cameroon and South Cameroon became federal states. Nine months later, on October 1, 1961, they formed the Federal Republic of Cameroon. The federation of two states became the United Republic of Cameroon after a second referendum on May 20, 1972.

South Cameroon becomes part of the Republic

Cmaeroonian banknotes
More than half of Cameroon's financial reserves are kept in the French treasury.Image: Getty Images/AFP/I. Sanogo

"We were very happy to see our English-speaking brothers return. But we believed it had been Ahidjo who had allowed the other part of Cameroon to join Nigeria," said the writer and academic emeritus Patrice Kayo. "Ahidjo was an agent of French colonialism. And France did not want the English-speaking people. They urged Ahidjo to allow the country to be divided in two before the referendum. If there had been a referendum, all of Cameroon would have returned."

In 1984, the young President of the Republic, Paul Biya, decided by decree to rename the country the Republic of Cameroon. The Anglophone population of Cameroon felt excluded and systematically oppressed in a country they had not wanted to belong to from the start. "Paul Biya himself said that they had tried to make the Englishmen live like Frenchmen. Today, the Englishman is rebelling," said Nfor. This was at the root of the Anglophone crisis in which Cameroon, a country of 26 million inhabitants, finds itself submerged today.

The central government in Yaounde is trying to defuse the tension through measures like decentralization and the recognition of a special status for the English-speaking regions. But three years of war have done much damage. So far the civil war started by Anglophone secessionists has claimed 3000 lives. Thousands were displaced. Almost the entire economy of the English-speaking part of the country has been badly affected. Sixty years after independence, Cameroon has yet to shed the burden of the past.

Moki Kindzeka and Henri Fotso contributed to this article

DW - Silja Fröhlich
Silja Fröhlich is a German journalist and radio host.