Between 1957 and 1960, the French insisted that their « advisers » in Cameroon were simply taking part in a « peace keeping operation », a « police action » rather than a military campaign. This terminolgy was not an innocent one. Because Cameroon was a United Nations Trusteeship territory, France could not legally carry out full-fledged military operations in the country without a specific UN mandate, which it never received.
However, once the territory gained independence on January 1, 1960, President Ahmadou Ahidjo signed a series of « cooperation » (ie military) agreements which gave France military carte blanche in Cameroon - something which it, ironically, could not get when it was colonial power in the French Cameroons.
Backed by these accords, France immediately dispatched an expeditionary force to Cameroun which consisted of five infantry battalions, one armored division, T-26 fighter planes and tanks to crush the UPC rebellion.
Time Magazine Jan. 11, 1960: On the morning of the first day of independence, terrorists killed five people in the capital of Yaounde, and the foreign dignitaries who streamed in by air at Douala the day before could see the ruins of the control tower ransacked by another insurgent gang. In six months of struggle 22 whites have died—more than were killed in a similar period during the Mau Mau war in Kenya—and 500 or more Africans.
Responsible for most of the slaughter are the exiled leaders of a dissident political party banned in 1955, who are working to undermine 35-year-old Premier Ahma-dou Ahidjo's fledgling government. The party is led by Dr. Felix-Roland Moumie, who has been issuing Czech pistols to Bamileke tribesmen. Just back from Moscow, Moumie operates from his refuge in nearby really independent Guinea. His followers hide in the hills or attack from across the border in the neighboring British Cameroons.
The French expeditionary force in Cameroon was led by a certain General Max Briand a.k.a the « Viking ». Like Lamberton before him, General Brian was was a veteran of Indochina where he had commanded the 22nd Colonial Infantry Regiment (le 22eme RIC Régiment d'Infanterie Coloniale - RIC) for two years. The RIC22 was known in French military cycles as « the breakers of the Vietcong » because of their savage methods in dealing with the Vietcong insurgency. General Briand had also served in Algeria where he commanded French forces at Aumale.
April 08, 1960 - CAMEROON Riot Erupts; 29 Are Slain 4 Policemen Dead; in Raids on Commies. United Press International. Police killed 25 Negro rebel tribesmen at Duala. Cameron Republic on Africa's west coast, when they opened fire vith tommyguns on a rampaging mob of 200 terrorists who hacked a French police officer to death last night, four policemen, including the French officer, were killed. Oakland Tribune.
At the same time, the SEDOC, the Cameroonian branch of the Frnech secret service was created and placed under the command of Jean Fochive. The French forces, the Cameroonian “Gestapo” and the Cameroonian police would form a lethal combination that would unleash an absolute reign of terror.
Post Mobilization Set In Cameroun
YAOUNDE, Cameroun, June 25, 1961 (UPI) --The Cameroun government has ordered general mobilization of the population in the five Bamileke districts to fight against terrorists, it was reported today.
Officials enlisted more than 5000 men as auxilary anti-terrorist force and armed them with machete bush knives and a few hunting rifles, the report said.
The same methods used in the Sanaga Maritime were also used in the Mungo and Bamileke regions with much more ferocity and more violence. Thousands of people were deported, tortured and summarily executed, and hundreds of villages razed to the ground (156 villages in the first three months of 1960). More than in the Sanaga Maritime, French forces engaged in whole scale punitive expeditions against villages suspected of haboring UPC rebels. According to the Swiss Weekly Hebdo:
"Villages are set on fire including dozens of schools and dispensaries, civilians are chased into the forest and assassinated. Individuals are beheaded and their heads put on display to terrorize the population."
The expeditionary force puts its aircraft to good use, indiscriminately straffing villages suspected of being rebel strongholds.
UPC rebels and collaborators, along with innocent citizens caught in the crossfire are locked up in detention camps which one observer describeds as "frightful camps for torture and extermination". In Franck Garbely’s documentary on the assassination of Felix Moumie, Maurice Delaney who was a French administrator in the Bamileke region, describes one of these camps as « a camp with barbed wires.” He adds with a smile: “You know, I was a prisoner for a while in a camp in Germany, and I knew how such things were done.”
The blood-cuddling eyewitness reports of Charles Van de Lanoitte, the Reuters correspondent in Duala in the early 1960s sheds more lights on the methods of the Ahidjo regime and its French allies:
I loved Cameroon a great deal, and made it my adopted country, but I was revolted by the innumerable abuses of the veritable Gestapo regime, which was rapidly installed after independenc…the villa of my daughter and son-in-law was situated 150 metres from the sinister torture camp of Manengouba. I know that nameless horrors took place there. Some nights, one heard of the howls of the wretches; during the day, the lorries came up the road filled with men in chains. Around three in the morning, it was the creaking and grating noise of the military lorry going to the cemetery where a team of prisoners buried the dead, naked and bloodied – unfortunates who had been tortured to death, and sometimes still breathing…I couldn’t eat, or work or sleep.. There have been massacres, summary executions, even hostages executed … It is estimated that 3.000 to 4.000 is the number of persons who have been deported … to Mokolo and another concentration camp in North Cameroon (without trial) often, on the basis of an anonymous denunciation, the local “Gestapo” (policemen of the SEDOC) came at three in the morning to seize someone brutally in the midst of his dazed family who were then ordered to keep quiet (Beti Main Basse in Richard Joseph (ed) Gaullist Africa: Cameroon under Ahmadu Ahidjo, 1978:96.
And the world stayed silent
Like the campaign in the Sanaga Maritime, the campaign in the Mungo and Bamileke region was either absent from the pages of the Western press, or simply reported in sanitized or biased terms.
PARIS, Dec.22 1961 -- Bands have been raiding villages, destroying crops and attacking factories in the area around Douala in the West African Republic of Cameroun during the last two weeks, according to reports reaching here today. The Washington Post.
The most notable example of this biased reporting was the coverage of the fire which, in April 1960, completely destroyed the Quartier Congo, a huge shanty town in Douala which had an estimated ten thousand inhabitants. It was a very sanitized version of this story which appeared in major newspapers in Europe and America:
"About 100 persons were killed, 1000 injured, and 5000 made homeless when fire raced through a quarter of Douala in the Cameroon Republic Friday, it was reported here today."
Subsequent reports, however, revealed that the army suspected that the UPC was using the area as an operational base, and had deliberately set the fire, and that the very next day, the structures that were still standing were brought down by bulldozers. To this day, survivors and witnesses of the destruction of quartier Congo insist that just before the fire began, the army sealed off the entire area and then set it ablaze. The army then proceeded to gun down inhabitants as they tried to flee.
Two survivors interviewed in the Felix Moumie documentary reveal that the army was after two UPC leaders, Tankeu Noe and Makanda Pouth. They say that once the fire started and the quarter cordoned off, inhabitants had only three very bad options: either perish in the fire, face the soldiers’ bullets, or jump into any of the numerous wells in the quarter and drown.
Jacques Vergès - the controversial French lawyer who as a young anti-colonial lawyer defended African nationalists (e.g. he filed a wrongful death suit against X in Geneva in November 1960 on behalf of the family of Felix Moumie) but who in his twilight years defended Nazi killer Klaus Barbie, terrorist mastermind Carlos the Jackal, the butcher of the Balkans Slobodan Milosevik, Gabonese dictator Omar Bongo, among others, and unsussessfully tried to be part of Saddam Hussein’s defence team – claims that the French army incinerated Quartier Congo with Napalm. It is estimated that over 1000 people (and not 100) perished in the fire.
While some might consider the Napalm accusation far-fetched, especially coming from a figure as controversial as Vergès, it is worth noting that during an interview with Charles Ndongo on Cameroon Television in 2000 (on the program « un siecle d’histoire »), Pierre Messmer revealed that Andre Marie Mbida once asked that the French crush the UPC rebellion in the Sanaga Maritime by rounding up the Bassa, « village by village », and wiping them out with Napalm. Messmer claims that he strongly opposed the idea. Similarly, Mongo Beti in book Main basse sur le Cameroun which was banned in France in 1972 reveals that the French expeditionary force used napalm on numerous Bamileke villages.
The Train of Death
One of the rare acts of barbarity which the Western media reported on was the “Train of Death Incident” in 1962. In this infamous incident of February 1962 which had all the hallmarks of Nazi Germany, scores of UPC militants were arrested in Douala and herded into a sealed meat wagon on a train heading for Yaounde. When the ill-fated train arrived Yaounde, most of the occupants of the sealed wagon had died of asphyxiation. The Ahidjo regime tried to cover up the incident but Archbishop Jean Zoa brought the issue into the open in the pages of the Catholic newspaper l’Effort Camerounais. It was actually Ahidjo’s reaction and not the deaths that caught the attention of the Western media :
Feb 19, 1962 - Cameroun Priest Ordered Out
YAOUNDE, Cameroun Republic, Feb. 18--Cameroun authorities today ordered the expulsion of a French Roman Catholic Priest, editor of the weekly L'effort Camerounals which was seized by police Saturday.
The order, signed by President Ahmadou Ahidjo, gave father Pierre Fertin until Monday to leave the country.
Police seized copies of the paper in which the Archbishop of Yaounde said he would say a requiem mass for 25 political prisoners found suffocated in a railroad car early this month. The Washington Post.
By the end of 1964, the expeditionary force had succeeded in severely weakening the UPC rebellion. The armed insurrection which began some seven years earlier by Ruben Um Nyobe was virtually over, although the last of the UPC foot soldiers were still a thorn in the flesh of the administration. According to Meredith Terreta,
The scale of these attacks was significant in both the Mungo and the Grassfields. In a five-month period selected from my records at random, July to Nov. 1964, 53 heads of cattle and 200 pigs were slaughtered on farms in the Mungo, 4,500 coffee trees were uprooted in the Menoua (the region surrounding Dschang in the Grassfields), 9,300 coffee trees were uprooted in the Bamboutos, and orange, kola and banana plantations were also sabotaged, and 2,000 coffee trees were uprooted in the Mungo. All of these were carried out in operations attributed to maquisards.
After the departure of the French, Ernest Ouandie, the last historic UPC historic leader who had returned to Cameroun from his exile in Ghana to lead the rebellion, continued a desperate and largely futile effort to cripple the Ahidjo regime. Also, UPC militants, led by Osende Afana and Woungly Massaga alias Commandant Kissamba, attempted to open an “eastern front” in the South of Cameroun, particularly in the forests of Djoum. This ill-fated front fizzled out with the decapitation of Osende Afana in 1966. Its most memorable action was Massaga's capture of the Divisional Officer of Djoum and the hoisting of the UPC flag in the area.
The UPC rebellion officially came to an end in 1971 with the arrest and execution of Ernest Ouandie.
Saturday, January 16, 1971: YAOUNDE. CAMEROON.A firing squad publicly [executed] three men in a public square in Bafoussam Friday on charges of plotting rebellion against the government. The men had been sentenced to death with Roman Catholic bishop Albert Nkongmo. But the bishop's sentence was commuted to life in prison by President Ahmadou Ahidjo. The three men executed [included] Ernest OUANDIE, a leader of the opposition [UPC], Raphael Fotsing, Ouandie's alleged liaison [with] Ndongmo, and Gabriel Tabeu [Wambo le Courant], leader of a religious movement whose aim was [to] kill Ahidjo. Two other persons have been sentenced to death in the series of trials - Bucks County Times.
To this day, there are no official casualty figures for the seven-year French campaign against the UPC. Existing estimates vary wildly. General Briand is quoted as saying that 3000 people died in the campaign in the Bamileke region. Willard Johnson on his part estimates that 6000 lives were lost in the entire campaign. Most estimates are however much higher. According to Time Magazine of Friday, March 13, 1964, the UPC rebellion was “the longest, bloodiest rebellion in Africa, a seven-year war that has cost 50,000 lives.”
Writing specifically about the pacification of the Sanaga Maritime, Anthony Clayton in frontiersmen argues that :
Figures of insurgent strengths and people killed were exaggerated by nationalists. Several hundred Africans were certainly killed either by the security forces or the UPC, although the nationalists allege several thousand. A few Europeans were killed by the UPC.
And, according to the United Nations Visting Mission which visited Cameroon in 1958 (cited in Tribune du CID), between September 1957 and October 1958, 75 civilians were killed, 90 wounded, 91 kidnapped, about 200 houses burned, 371 rebels killed, 104 wounded and 882 arrested.
These overly cautious figures are drastically at odds with what archival material and eyewitness accounts have revealed. Van de Lanoitte, for example, estimates that 40,000 people were killed during the campaign in the Sanaga Maritime. In his seminal book on the French Secret Service Pascal Kropp writes that:
Thousands died in the Sanaga forest, and dozens of villages were burnt down or razed to the ground. Many officers later concede that such a bloodbath could have been averted.
Most of the accusations of genocide emanate from the “Western Front” where most of the atrocities and horrors took place. In Main basse sur le Cameroun, Mongo Beti puts the figures at about 60,000.
Max Bardet who served as a helicopter pilot in the French expeditionary force in Cameroon goes much further in his memoir, OK Cargo:
“In two years, from 1962 to 1964, the army completely ravaged the Bamileke country. They massacred between 300,000 to 400,000 people. A real genocide. They practically annihilated the tribe. It was a matter of spears versus rifles. The natives had no chance. Villages were razed to the ground, just like Attila the Hun did.”
The most appropriate conclusion to the casualty debate comes from Mongo Beti who wrote in June 2001, just months before his untimely death that:
The main point [of the debate] is not about casualty figures, which will always be unconfirmed, but about the fact that we are faced with a situation similar to many others – in Saint Domingo at the beginning of the 19th century, in Indochina after the Second World War, in Algeria, and later in Rwanda. French colonization is a generator of massacres, some which are potentially genocide attempts, and in at least one uncontested case, pure and simple genocide.