The 1950s and 60s marked the demise of many, if not all, of the empires of the early 20th century. World War II had weakened the economies of most of the great powers and suddenly the role of the “empire” in the modern world was being challenged. In this time states had to make crucial decisions as to whether to relinquish their hold on colonies or to fight to maintain control. While the British relatively peacefully let their empire go, the French fought, often with violent oppression, to keep control of their populaces abroad. This decision set the precedent for the coming conflicts and indeed is still very relevant today.
Germany first colonized Cameroon in 1884 in an attempt to exploit and export its agricultural potential. It was then invaded by the British in World War I, where the colony was dived into two by population, with the British receiving control of the northern, British Cameroons, and the French controlling the southern, French Cameroons.
In 1948, the Union of the Peoples of Cameroon (UPC) was formed as a nationalist movement to oppose French rule. By 1955, nearly 800 of its members had been arrested for protesting against French rule, and group was banned by the government. This forced them into the forests where they developed guerrilla tactics to undermine French control for the next ten years. On January 1, 1960, under a UN mandate, Cameroon officially achieved its independence. However, the French still controlled the government and army for nearly five years, undermining its “independence” and fuelling a nationalist movement.
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This essay explores the dynamics of revolution and rebellion in French Cameroon in the context of post-colonial French ambitions to remain tightly coupled with their colonies. Specifically, it seeks to explain and account for why Cameroonians rebelled against the government after gaining independence on January 1, 1960. I will argue that the UPC leveraged narratives of the past to invoke nationalist sentiment in Cameroon with ideas to gain autonomy from France in Cameroon.
The essay will continue in four sections. First, it will begin with an overview of the methodologies used by the author. It will then engage with the literature of post-colonial conflict in Africa, to establish a context with which to frame the analysis of French Cameroon. After, it will move on to an analysis of Bamileke identity in the Grassfields. Finally, there will be a brief historiographical analysis of the Bamileke War, to more accurately assess the validity of this study. Ultimately, this essay seeks to apply a modern understanding of ethnic nationalism to the case of Cameroon, to better understand the relationship between colonialization and conflict.
The decades following the end of WWII distinguish themselves as the core period of imperial demise. Anti-colonial and nationalist movements intensified significantly in European colonies in Asia and Africa, paralleling growing international efforts to reform colonial policy. All of these factors contributed to the fundamental legitimisation crisis of colonialism, and indeed, the empire.
After the Great Depression, social unrest grew at an unprecedented scale in a number of Europe overseas territories. Political movements gained momentum, in place of what had been sporadic anti-colonial resistance. In India, the most significant anti-colonial movement in the British Empire took shape under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi. Similarly, in French-Vietnam, the end of the 1920s saw the beginning of a wave of intensified anti-colonial movements by nationalists. Egypt.....
The French colonial empire's hold in North Africa became progressively more threated as the 20th Century progressed. In Morocco, it was not until the late 1920s that France regained any semblance of control against military uprisings, with mass protests remaining in 1936. In French Algeria, a multifaceted, anti-colonial and nationalist wave of protests swept through in the mid-1930s. Even in Tunisia, after the First World War, nationalists were demanding the independence of their country under the leadership of Habib Bourguiba.
The end of the Second World War marked the beginning of substantial anti-colonial and nationalist movements in sub-Saharan Africa. In the mid-1930s with the support of black activists in the United States and the Caribbean, there began a wave of labour unrest that threatened the stability of many colonies in West and Central Africa. In 1912, the African National Congress was founded to promote voting rights for Coloureds and black Africans, becoming massively popular in the 1950s.
As the decolonisation process began in colonial Africa, traditional notions of chieftaincy held primacy in the discussion of local and territorial politics. European administrators and their African subjects had to decide how to integrate indigenous power structures into the newly established governments. However, in many territories, chieftaincies were 'invented' by French settlers as a misinterpretation of indigenous cultures. However, in some areas, such as the Grassfields of British and French Cameroons, chieftaincies had roots in the precolonial past, which would later be revived by nationalist movements.
While anticolonialism and nationalism have often intersected in resistance movements in African colonies, their relationship is by no means dependant. National identity and state autonomy are not mutually exclusive. Actually, the anti-colonial demand for complete autonomy was a relatively late development. Rarely were these demands for agency apparent in early anti-colonial movements. Instead, there was often a lengthy phase of civic and violent mobilisation that aimed at the removal of abusive and discriminatory structures within existing political frameworks.
This chapter explores the semantic bedrock of Bamileke communal memory of political and spiritual practices that predated foreign rule, particularly the elements that later guided the diffusion of UPC nationalism.
For at least twenty-five hundred years the region has been characterized by the incorporation of newcomers due to the mobility of regional and long-distance traders and exogenous marriage. Against a backdrop of violence, massive displacements, and rampant insecurity, small, autonomous chieftaincies expanded and vied for positions of strength in the region. Internally, founders of new chieftaincies used centralizing narratives to construct a common identity for a diverse population.
Despite the importance to them of their political autonomy, the hundred or so Grassfields chieftaincies were linked by shared cultural, spiritual, and political practices, which appeared similar in content but contained particularities and historical references specific to each chieftaincy. As such, Grassfielders demonstrated none of the usual criteria for defining an ethnic identity. Indeed, a “Bamileke identity” was entirely absent before French rule, and only emerged during the interwar period, primarily in the Mungo Region, as a result of a fluid interplay between the administration’s classification of “races” and the African populations’ agency when it came to defining ethnic identity.
French administrators applied the term Bamileke to Grassfielders who came from the chieftaincies of the Bamileke Region, the portion of the Grassfields that fell under French rule after the delineation of the Anglo-French boundary, in 1919.
As French administrators in the Mungo Region used the term Bamileke more frequently from the 1930s onward, Bamileke populations gradually assumed this identity and began to assert themselves as belonging to a larger Bamileke collectivity when it suited them.
Accordingly, this chapter makes use of the term Grassfielders to identify migrants to the Mungo Region before the 1930s, when the term Bamileke began to be used to designate newcomers from the Grassfields under French rule.
By 1947, Bamileke newcomers made up roughly 33 percent of the Mungo’s overall population, and by 1955, some 54 percent of Mungo inhabitants were of Grassfields origin, the majority of whom were from the Bamileke Region.5 Their settlement of the Mungo coincided with that of European farmers during the interwar period. With one hundred and ten European owned.
Plantations extending over nearly twenty-three hundred square kilometres out of a total surface area of thirty-seven hundred square kilometres at the high-water mark of the white settler presence in the reason (during and just after World War II), the Mungo Region hosted the largest number of European agricultural settlers in the territory.6 Conflicts over the most fertile lands arose between Europeans and Africans—both those indigenous to the region and those arriving from elsewhere. During the mandate and trusteeship periods, Mungo-based planters, regardless of origin, competed over resources, and the resulting tensions were exacerbated by administrative policies that established ethnic identity as a factor determining access to land as well as by discriminatory regulations of cash-crop agriculture that favored European planters.7 Yet by the 1950s, Richard Joseph argues that “a class of Bamileke capitalist farmers had clearly emerged,” in the Mungo Region, and Bamileke planters were producing a greater amount of coffee for export than their white-settler counterparts.8 In contrast, the landholdings and agricultural productivity of the region’s autochthonous populations as well as those of the Duala, who had been first among the region’s African planters in the German and early French mandate periods, had shrunk to negligible quantities.
UPC use this understanding
A combination of factors provoked deep-seated reactions among those who lived through the Baham affair. But the depositions of Bamileke chiefs, coinciding as they did with the implementation of internally autonomous governments throughout the colonial territories under French rule, forced a convergence of colonial, nationalist, and chieftaincy politics, drawing a greater proportion of the Bamileke population than ever before into local, territorial, and international political processes.
The depositions of Kamdem Ninyim and other young, nationalist mfo drew significant portions of the Bamileke population into political action on a territorial scale for many reasons. Many of those residing in the affected chieftaincies, as well as emigrants who remained spiritually, culturally, economically, and politically tied to chieftaincy governance, viewed the mfo’s depositions as a violation of the spiritual alliance underwriting Grassfields political culture.
In desperate need of laborers to work their plantations, French administrators, like their German predecessors, rounded up laborers from the Bamileke Region and put them to work in the fields.21 Forced labor violated the terms of the mandate system, but nevertheless it regularly occurred throughout the interwar period in French Cameroon and increased during World War II.22
Although French administrators turned a blind eye to negotiations between African planters and field hands during the 1920s, they passed a number of laws favoring European settlement, both in the plantations and in burgeoning town centers. In the early 1920s High Commissioner Théodore Marchand, anxious to win the approval of the League of Nations Permanent Mandates Commission (PMC), initially avoided granting immense plantations to European settlers. Instead, he approved parcels of one hundred to four hundred hectares for the development of “small-scale European colonization.”36 The number of individually owned plantations granted increased steadily during the first ten years of the mandate (1922–32), peaking at twenty-nine in 1929, and bringing the total number of hectares allotted to Europeans to 21,730, or about 3 percent of arable land.37
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Marchand’s posturing for the PMC concealed the administrative policies and practices that privileged French planters and ensured their economic advantage over African planters in the Mungo. Complex zoning laws and a variable classification system restricted African access to the best agricultural lands and grazing lands. The first land decrees, passed in 1920 and 1921, defined the private and public domains of the state.
Problems with land distribution and classification surfaced right away. Inhabitants of the Mungo Region had historically used many of the expropriated “vacant lands” for communal purposes, such as grazing livestock or gathering wood. Furthermore, European settlers in and near Nkongsamba circumvented administrative land policies as a matter of course. In 1930, High Commissioner Marchand wrote: “The creation of the Nkongsamba center, without any compensation for the natives, and the granting of new rural concessions side by side within the borders of the village, have reduced to a bare minimum the lands available to the autochthonous collectivity.”48
In the Bamileke Region, upéciste notions of legitimate political representatives overlapped with a regional initiative to recuperate chieftaincy from its submission to a foreign administration. As chieftaincy became articulated with nation in the political imaginary of Bamileke nationalists, lepue, the term designating a sovereign polity that paid tribute to no ruler outside its borders,13 was recycled and redefined to mean “independence from European rule.”
The key to the UPC’s success as a popular nationalist party even after its official proscription was its members’ ability to articulate UPC nationalism with an international and Pan-Africanist anticolonialism on the one hand and people’s local and regional concerns within the territory on the other.
The party thus created a dual nationalist front: one located within the territories, and the other beyond its borders.
Nationalistic ideas and a popular desire for independence from French rule spread along the channels carved out by the UPC from 1948 to 1955, and in 1956 made new inroads, via the institution of chieftaincy and the Baham affair, into the popular consciousness of Bamileke communities, both in their home chieftaincies and in urban settlements throughout the territory.
As chiefs became involved in electoral processes and the Bamileke elite drew parallels between chieftaincy and national governance as they did in discussions of the Baham affair, national and Bamileke identity became mutually constitutive in the political imaginary of Bamileke populations. For most Bamileke political actors in 1956, the acceptance of a national identity thus became contingent on the simultaneous preservation and promotion of a Bamileke identity.
As elsewhere in equatorial Africa, in the Grassfields, identity and tradition have been “constantly reworked.”146 The “tradition of invention” in the region has long manifested an adaptive quality that has ensured the survival of particular ways of identifying in the face of dramatic changes over time. But in late 1950s Cameroon, the “tradition” of Bamileke identity lacked sufficient historical foundation to serve as a basis for continuity. Still relatively new and more useful outside the region than within, the collective Bamileke identity masked internal fragmentation and competition. Despite the prominence of the institution of chieftaincy, being Bamileke did not rest on a uniform identity; nor did it translate to a homogenous political position in the 1950s.
The reworkings of political tradition that surfaced in Bamileke communities in Cameroon’s decolonization era were “‘fixed’ in narratives of the past,” and yet contained new interpretations and emphases. Nationalists used Grassfields histories of the past as well as political notions such as lepue and gung to suit their political needs in mid-1950s French Cameroon. Their engagement with territorial politics, in turn, reshaped their understandings of the past.145
Atangana, M. (2010). The end of French rule in Cameroon. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America.
This secondary source, specifically its chapter “The Transition and Transfer of Power” will be used in the contextual analysis of post-colonial violence in Cameroon.
DeLancey, M. (1989). Cameroon. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.
This source will be used as a preliminary overview of the conflict within Cameroon. In particular, it will be used to examine the role of economic policy as an explanation for rebellion.
Geschiere, P. and Konings, P. (1989). Conference on the political economy of Cameroon, historical perspectives. Leiden: African Studies Centre.
This collection of papers will be used to obtain a thorough understanding of the interactions between the Cameroon state and society, as well as its history of national mobilization.
Jansen, J, Osterhammel, J and Riemer, J. (2017). Decolonization: A Short History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
This text will serve as my principal understanding and definition of the moment and process of decolonization.
Terretta, M. (2013). Nation of outlaws, state of violence: nationalism, Grassfields tradition, and state building in Cameroon. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press.
This source will be used to examine the role of nationalisation in Cameroon. Specifically, it will address the legitimacy of a nationalist explanation of rebellion.
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