by Dibussi Tande
"Ruben Um Nyobe is too little known among Anglophone africanists, he was undoubtedly one of the most brilliant political thinkers and organizers to emerge after the Second World War in Africa. Had he survived to lead his country to independence, he would most certainly be ranked today on the same level as Julius Nyerere, and the late Kwame Nkrumah and Patrice Lumumba." Richard Joseph
Exactly 50 years ago, on 13 September 1958, Ruben Um Nyobe, leader of the nationalist Union des Populations du Cameroun (UPC) was assassinated by French forces in the outskirts of Boumnyebel in the Sanaga Maritime division. Um Nyobe’s death set in motion a series of events that culminated in the elimination of the UPC as a political force in Cameroon, the exiling and/or assassination of its entire leadership, and the establishment of a French-controlled neo-colonial police state in Cameroon led by individuals who either played a marginal role in the struggle for independence or were even opposed to that struggle.
Born in 1913 at Song Peck near Boumyebel, Um Nyobe was one of the founders of the Union des Populations du Cameroun (U.P.C) which was created in 1948. According to Joseph Richards, the UPC was “the only major political party to emerge in French sub-Saharan Africa which demanded from the first years of its existence independence from France and the French Union as its main and unalterable goal”. Another main goal of the UPC was the reunification of the British and French Cameroons.
As leader of the UPC, Um Nyobe made several trips to the United Nations headquarters in New York where he criticized France’s refusal to prepare the Cameroun for "self government or independence" as stipulated in the Trusteeship agreement. Thanks to these trips, theTrusteeship Council issued numeorus resolutions demanding that France implement political reforms in the territory. France was however reluctant to do so because of well-founded fears that any political reforms would favor the well organized UPC rather than the feeble and divided pro-French or French-promoted “moderate” political groups.
In order to remove the UPC from the political equation while foisting political power on a pro-French elite, the French branded the UPC a movement that was intent on promoting communist subversion in Cameroun – a position which was backed by the Catholic Church which issued a proclamation asking catholics to stay away from the “anti-God” party. In 1955 the French colonial administration banned the UPC and the party’s leadership went underground. One section of the party, under the leadership of Felix Moumie, sought refuge in the British Cameroons while another, led by Um Nyobe, went into the maquis in the Sanaga maritime. In 1956 the UPC’s armed insurrection began [For a more detailed narrative of events leading up to the insurrection, click here for my earlier posting on the UPC insurrection]
On September 13, 1958 Um Nyobe was ambushed and executed by a French reconnaissance team in the Sanaga maritime. He was only 45 years old. Nyobe’s lifeless body was dragged for miles to his village, completely disfiguring and dehumanizing him in the process. His mutilated body was then put on public display - a warning to all those who dared oppose the French and the Ahidjo government.
Before being buried at the Presbyterian mission cemetery in Eseka, Um Nyobe’s body was entombed in cement to prevent anyone accessing it. Today the burial site of Cameroun’s foremost nationalist is a nondescript one covered by weeds. Attempts by his family to bury him in a more befitting location in his village have been met by resistance by government authorities.
After his death, “even his ghost was hunted down”, as one historian puts it. During Ahidjo’s entire reign and until recently, every effort was made to erase every trace of Um Nyobe’s existence. His pictures, his writings and audio soundtracks of his voice, were systematically destroyed, his family, friends, and sympathizers were persecuted. Anyone who mentioned his name, even in private, could be arrested and jailed for subversion.
Significance of Um Nyobe’s death
The significance of Um Nyobe’s death on post-colonial Cameroon was best summed up by Richard Joseph in a 1974 article titled Ruben um Nyobe and the 'Kamerun' Rebellion (African Affairs, Vol. 73, No. 293, Oct., 1974):
The failure of the contemporary [Cameroonian] political regime to establish a political system that is not buttressed by concentration camps, the extensive use of physical brutality and torture by soldiers and gendarmes, a ubiquitous military and security-service presence, the retention of the state of emergency in most of the South, the use of military tribunals for political - even apolitical - offences, etc., is specifically related to the devolution of power by France to the very political forces in the territory which had played no part whatsoever in the nationalist struggle and which, until the eve of the power-transfer, had vigorously opposed the movement...
... the modern political state of Cameroon has arisen not so much as the realization of a national consciousness uniting diverse peoples into one movement against the colonial power - as was the case in most African countries - but out of the suppression of such a movement. IN short, it was on the basis of struggling against the most politicized sections of its own population that the independent Cameroun state established its authority... The abnormality of having not only to derive its legitimacy from the armed force of the colonial power, but also of having to destroy both radical and moderate exponents of the profound nationalist sentiments which took root in post-war Cameroun, resulted inexorably in the establishment of a police state...
The post-war generation of nationalist leaders in Cameroun are now dead, permanently exiled, or have been obliged to abandon politics and be 'integrated' into the new order. It remains to be seen which of the two main traditions in their modern political history the emerging Camerounian generation will choose to honour: the glorious but only partly successful anti-colonial struggle of Ruben Um Nyobe, or the less glorious but more successful neo-colonial rule of Ahmadu Ahidjo.