By Dibussi Tande
The use of political assassinations against key leaders of liberation movements has had a major impact on the course of history in Africa and the Middle East. Not only have some of the greatest of Third World leaders been killed but so, too, has the hope for political change they embodied - Victoria Brittain [Race & Class, Vol. 48, No. 1, 60-74 (2006)]
Early in October 1960, Dr. Félix-Roland Moumié, the exiled leader of the Camerounian nationalist movement, the Union des Populations du Cameroun (UPC), traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, on a mission. On the eve of his return to Conakry (Guinea) where the UPC had set up its headquarters in exile, he was invited to dinner by an individual whom he had met earlier in July in Accra, Ghana. The individual, 66-year old William Bechtel, claimed to be a journalist interested in the UPC’s armed struggle against the French-backed regime of Ahmadou Ahidjo.
But William Bechtel was no ordinary journalist. A former member of the French Foreign Legion and one of the first soldiers to rally De Gaulle’s Free France Forces in London in 1940, he was also a reserve officer in the French secret service, the SDECE. Most importantly, he was a member of the "Main Rouge" (Red Hand), a covet unit within the SDECE charged with assassinating anti-French and pro-independent African nationalists and their supporters in Europe.
According to Richard Belfield in The Assassination Business: A History of State-Sponsored Murder,
Moumie knew he was at risk as the French were running a major assassination programme at the time, targeting and murdering African Nationalists, as well as journalists and academics who supported them (or even wrote about them from anything other than the French government point of view). Moumie believed that while he was in Geneva he would be safe, a big mistake as Swiss neutrality meant nothing to the French.
In their award-winning investigative book on the French secret service titled La Piscine [English version], Roger Faligot and Pascal Krop give a detailed account of the Moumie assassination as narrated to them by General Paul Grossin, the head of the SDECE from 1957 to 1962.
According to Grossin, Moumie showed up for the dinner at the Plat d’argent restaurant on Saturday October 15, 1960 with Jean Martin Tchaptchet, the President of the French section of the UPC. Upon their arrival, Moumie was informed that he had a phone call. Surprised that anyone knew of his whereabouts at that moment, Moumie left the table to answer the phone. Bechtel distracted Tchaptchet with some documents on Cameroon and then poured a lethal dose of Thallium into Moumie’s aperitif. Moumie returned shortly, complaining that no one had answered the phone. He did not touch his aperitif. When it became obvious that Moumie did not intend to drink his aperitif, Bechtel seized on a moment of distraction during diner to pour another dose of Thalium into Moumie’s wine.
This time Moumie literally swallowed the bait.
Bechtel was ecstatic: The poison would take effect only after Moumie arrived in Conakry where the doctors would be unable to figure out what was wrong with him. And, in a classic case of killing two birds with one stone the French expected that Guinea’s rabidly anti-French President, Sekou Toure, would be blamed for Moumie’s death. But things would not go as planned.
According to Belfield,
“It was the first time this particular poison had been used and the French doctors who had made it were incompetent. The poison was poorly refined and did not work in the way it was supposed to. This was just the beginning of the ineptitude of the French: their assassin then administered the wrong dose.”
Krop and Faligot however quote General Grossin as saying that the plan went awry when, just before the end of the dinner, Moumie suddenly picked up his untouched aperitif and drank thereby taking a double dose of the Thalium poison! The poison which had been carefully prepared at the “carsene Mortier” was now too strong, and took effect before Moumie could catch his flight for Conakry. The next day, a very ill Moumie was admitted into the Hôpital Cantonal de Genève where he lived in great pain and agony for two weeks before dying on November 3 1960 at the age of 34.
As a result of the botched operation, the Swiss police quickly realized that Moumie was the victim of foul play. They initially suspected Lilianne F., described either as Moumie’s secretary or as a “woman of the night” with whom he spent his time in Geneva. Their suspicion even extended to Jean Martin Tchaptchet who had accompanied Moumie to the plat d’argent. Eventually their attention turned to Bechtel. The Swiss police found traces of Thalium in Bechtel’s apartment and on his clothes. In spite of this, no arrest was made as the investigation painfully dragged on, ostensibly because of immense political pressure from the French.
Bechtel was ultimately whisked out of Geneva by the French while the Swiss turned a blind eye, and was resettled in Southern France. Switzerland eventually issued an international warrant of arrest for Bechtel. However, no real efforts were made to arrest and bring him to justice. It was some 30 years later that he was “accidentally” arrested in Belgium in 1979 and extradited to France. In 1980 he was set free without a trial after a French judge inexplicably rendered a judgment of nonsuit.
According to Frank Garbely, producer of the acclaimed documentary on the assassination of Moumie which was broadcast on Swiss TV in 2005, the Moumie case was a political hot potato that both France and Switzerland badly wanted to go away.
On the Swiss side, there were fears that the Moumie case would reveal how the allegedly neutral Swiss collaborated with, and covered the tracks of the French secret service as it persecuted and eliminated african nationalists.
For France the stakes were even higher; an in-depth investigation of the Moumie case would have revealed that the SDECE had carried out an « Operation Homicide » on the nationalist leader, and would have invariably exposed France’s brutal « pacification campaign » in Cameroon, which was being carried out far from the scrutiny of of the international community, distracted at the time by the ongoing Algerian war of Independence.
William Bechtel died in a French military hospital shortly after he was set free without paying for his crime.
So who exactly ordered the hit on Moumie and how high up in the French government did the plot the assassinate Moumie go? That will be the focus of Part II of the Moumie Story.