Paul Biya with IMF Director, Christine Lagarde, 2016. Photo: Flickr/International Monetary Fund Paul Biya with IMF Director, Christine Lagarde, 2016. Photo: Flickr/International Monetary Fund

Explo Nani-Kofi gives a brief history of how British and French colonialism defined Cameroon’s power structures and maintains its influence in a rigged political system

Since France took control of part of Cameroon after the First World War, it had initiated an agenda in collusion with its puppet representatives to deepen its control and manipulation of Cameroon as well as destroy any domestic emergence of any group to lead self-determination. This is what has dictated its effort to destroy the oldest domestic political organisation, Union of the Population of Cameroon (UPC), which has been demonised just by claiming it is a communist organisation. It is the same agenda that is creating a crisis of how to “francophonise” the part of Cameroon previously under British rule. This agenda is what has guided the post-colonial governments of Cameroon under Ahmadu Ahidjo and Paul Biya. It is this which determined the atmosphere in which the last Presidential elections were held on 7th October 2018 with a very low turnout of 54% nationally and just 10% in the English-speaking Cameroon.

Colonial rule

Cameroon was declared a colony as a result of a protectorate agreement between the German explorer, Gustav Nachtigal, and local Douala coast kings, Ndumbe Lobe and Dika Mpondo. The agreement which was to last for 30 years was endorsed by the Berlin Conference of 1884-85. This implies that by the time of the First World War the agreement had lapsed. Under the authority of the League of Nations, Cameroon was arbitrarily divided into two with 80% to France and 20% to Britain. The trusteeship agreement was for France to work with the people towards independence but France took over the territory and ran it as an extension of France.

French-administered Cameroon became independent in 1960 and Cameroon under British rule became independent in 1961. Following a referendum in 1961, Southern British Cameroon merged with French Cameroon whilst Northern British Cameroon joined Nigeria.

Anti-colonial struggle

The trade union movement, Union des Syndicats Confederes du Cameroun led a huge strike in September 1945 and the colonial government responded with extreme repression shooting strikers dead. This taught the trade union leaders that they needed another structure. This led to the movement Rassemblement Camerounaise (RACAM). By 1947, the colonial regime declared RACAM illegal. Founders of RACAM then formed the Union of the Populations of Cameroon (UPC) on 10 April 1948 as the first indigenous nationalist party in Cameroon fighting for freedom from colonial rule and to continue the work of RACAM. Most documents describe UPC as communist/Marxist. At the heart of UPC’s programme was the reunification of Cameroon. The UPC was formed by the trade union movement.

There was the Pan-Kamerunian Conference in 1949 and also the Pan-Kamerunian Congress in December 1951 in Kumba, West Cameroon. There was a joint meeting of anti-colonial forces in Tiko. There was a strong UPC presence in all these conferences. The Kamerun United National Congress (KUNC) from West Cameroon was also present at the 2nd Congress of UPC in September 1952. The leader of UPC, Ruben Um Nyobe, appeared before the UN General Assembly in 1952, 1953 and 1954 as the spokesperson of the anti-colonial movement in Cameroon. The UPC was, therefore, in the leadership and forefront of the united anti-colonial movement in both English speaking and French-speaking Cameroon.

The UPC was also dissolved by a French colonial authority decree dated 13 July 1955 for its alleged involvement in the strikes and demonstrations in 1955. Unlike with RACAM, UPC decided not to dissolve but fight in illegality. The UPC continued to work alongside other liberation movements in Africa, Asia and Latin America. They were active in the All Africa Peoples’ Conferences and the Organization of Solidarity with the Peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America (OSPAAL).

Colonial structure collaborators

The colonial authorities manipulated those employed in the colonial civil service to be an alternative to the anti-colonial movement so that they could take over from the French at independence. Andre-Marie Mbida of Coordinating Committee of Cameroon (later Cameroonian Party of Democrats) was the head of state of French-speaking autonomous Cameroon from 12 May 1957 to 16 February 1958. Jean Ramadier came from France to Cameroon as High Commissioner on 25 January 1958 and addressed the Legislative Assembly. Mbida opposed Ramadier for attempting to interfere with the work of the government of French Cameroon. Ramadier influenced a number of people including Mbida’s deputy, Ahmadu Ahidjo, to resign from the government and pass a vote of no confidence in Mbida. Ahidjo became the head of state and continued into becoming the President of Cameroon at independence without an election. Although the French had sidelined the UPC and made the path to self-government a game for its agents, it still found it necessary to ensure that it is only the most docile agents who would run the country after independence.

Independence and the one-party state

After independence, Ahidjo declared Cameroon National Union the sole legitimate political party and insisted that all other parties should dissolve into it. Mbida led a coalition including the Party of Democrats, Labor Party, Socialist Party and a collaborating faction of the UPC in opposing the one-party state in 1962 and became the first post-independence political prisoner. The one-party state with Ahidjo at the head of the CNU blocked the more popular figure among these collaborators, Mbida, and his allies forever and institutionalised firm control of French imperialism in Cameroon. Mbida and his colleagues were arrested, showing the futility of opposing within the law as compared to UPC’s uncompromising route of armed struggle.

John NguFoncha, leader of Kamerun National Democratic Party, became the Premier of British Cameroon on 1 February 1959. He was the Vice President of the Federal Republic of Cameroon from 1961 until 1970, when he was sacked by Ahidjo who replaced him with S. T. Muna, after Foncha complained about unfairness in the relationship between French Cameroon and British Cameroon. The position was abolished after 1972 when a unitary constitution was adopted.

Ahmadu Ahidjo resigned as President in 1982 and was succeeded by Paul Biya who was Prime Minister from 1975. The successor was threatened by attempted coups in 1983 and 1984 and consolidated his hold on power through the defeat of the attempted coups and purged the political structures of all his likely rivals. Ahidjo left the country in 1983 and was tried in absentia in 1984 for involvement in a coup in 1983 and sentenced to death. Ahidjo’s mind might have gone back to how he replaced Mbida. Biya survived a coup attempt on 6 April 1984 and he then reorganized the Cameroon National Union into his Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement. Under pressure from the post-Cold war pro-democracy movement across the continent, he allowed opposition parties in 1990.

UPC in illegality and underground

Clearly, there emerged two parallel structures which were French imperialist and its agents on one side and the indigenous anti-colonial movement led by UPC on the other side. This became more visible with the creation of the one-party state and imprisonment of even the friends of the French colonial authorities who opposed one-party rule. The neo-colonial state machinery was at war against the UPC. In 1962, apart from killing the leaders of the UPC, military force was used in preventing the party from holding its congress. UPC continued the armed struggle backed by progressive African governments, Cuba, Russia and China. The overthrow of Kwame Nkrumah’s government in Ghana in 1966 was a damaging blow to the UPC and even the CIA-influenced military regime in Ghana arrested some of their leaders.

In that same year, one of their leaders Castor Osende Afana was captured and killed by the French-backed Cameroon government. In 1970, its leader, Ernest Ouandie, was also captured and later executed in 1971. After this, UPC had to reassess its capacity for the armed struggle and adjust its strategy and tactics. In 1974, the UPC launched a new united front under the banner of the National Manifesto for Democracy (MANIDEM) for the struggle for multi-party state and democracy. It worked with youth and mass movements underground with hundreds of their contacts suffering from repression in the country. They also unwaveringly committed themselves to the cause of Pan-Africanism and Internationalism. The researcher, Janie Stevenson wrote that “International solidarity was not merely a rhetoric tool for UPC but was rather an essential part of their strategy to achieve national goals”.

However, as a result of internal divisions, intrigues, as well as state manipulation, there are two rival UPC groups in Cameroon today. In the early 1960s, the allies of French colonial collaborators influenced division within the UPC as the non-fighting UPC and the armed struggle UPC. Although it ended in futility with the supposed non-fighting UPC also ending up in detention, the opportunist trend has re-emerged where there is the UPC which is friendly with the Biya regime and the UPC continuing the legacy for the All African Peoples’ Conferences and OSPAAL. The latter is now called UPC MANIDEM.

Multi-party Cameroon

The first multi-party elections were organised in 1992, in which Paul Biya had the highest votes among the candidates at 40%. John Fru Ndi of SDF, leading a coalition of parties – with active and open involvement of the UPC despite its illegality – was close behind with 36% of the votes despite the fact that the elections were seen as rigged. 60% of the electorate voted against Paul Biya but the opposition candidates could not unite and the constitution did not have provisions for a runoff.  A new constitution was adopted in 1996 limiting Presidential terms to two. The major opposition boycotted elections in 1997 and Biya won. Biya won again in 2004 and people thought that was going to be his last appearance but Biya led parliament to amend the constitution in 2008 removing the limiting of Presidential terms. It is with this background that Cameroon went into the 2011 Presidential Elections in which Biya won again.

In 1994, one time Vice President of the Federal Republic of Cameroon, John Ngu Foncha, led a delegation of the Southern Cameroon National Council (SCNC) to the United Nations for greater autonomy for Southern Cameroon. On 22nd September 2017, tens of thousands of people demonstrated across Anglophone Cameroon against the discriminatory treatment they were receiving in the country. On 1st October 2017, separatists declared that Anglophone Cameroon had become independent and was henceforth the Federal Republic of Ambazonia with its own army, the Ambazonia Defence Force. Ambazonia is a member of Organization of Emerging African States (OEAS) and has been a member of Unrepresented Nations and People’s Organizations (UNPO). The Cameroon Armed Forces have responded with force, virtually turning Anglophone Cameroon into a war zone.

It is in this context that the 2018 Presidential elections were organised. With the Anglophone area, which is a stronghold for the Social Democratic Front, second-placed among permitted political parties, being virtually a war zone, people could not go out to vote and the turnout there was just 10%. Biya gained 71.28% with the next candidate, a former Biya government minister, Maurice Kamto (who formed a late alliance with another candidate Akere Muna), getting only 14.23%. Cabral Libii finished a distant third with 6.28%, whilst the SDF candidate, Joshua Osih, whose strength is in Anglophone Cameroon could only get 3.35% of the votes. Since 1992, the opposition should have got the message that it is only through a popular front that they can defeat Biya.

The situation in Anglophone Cameroon, as well as the Boko Haram insurgency in North West Cameroon, calls for a peace initiative and this is a test for the global Pan-Africanist movement.

Explo Nani-Kofi

Explo Nani-Kofi is Societal Affairs Analyst and Social Justice Practitioner. He was born in Ghana where he started his activist as a grass root organizer for popular democracy. He coordinated the Campaign Against Proxy War in Africa and the IMF-World Bank Wanted For Fraud Campaign. He is a member of Counterfire and Director of the Kilombo Centre for Civil Society and African Self-Determination, in Peki, Ghana and London, UK.