"Let me state it loud and clear: The past is what it is. We are on our part determined to look toward the future... Let's refrain from throwing an armful of wood into a fire which is about to go out … We have forgotten. Why do they want us to remember again? Ahmadou Ahidjo (responding to calls to rehabilitate UPC exiles) - February 25, 1959.
On November 30, 1989, Ahmadou Ahidjo, Cameroon’s first President, died in exile in Dakar, Senegal, far away from the country that he had ruled with an iron and bloody fist for over two decades.
Ostracized by the Biya regime which considered him public enemy number one, scorned by Cameroonians for his alleged role in the bloody 1984 coup attempt against his successor; and banished from official Cameroonian discourse and memory (bank notes with his image were withdrawn from circulation, public spaces that bore his name - such as the Ahmadou Ahidjo stadium - were renamed, his name a taboo in the official media, etc.), Ahidjo like the UPC exiles of the 50s and 60s, became, in his final years, a sad and lonely figure in exile, moving from Morocco, to France, and then finally to Senegal.
According to a report in Jeune Afrique cited in Cameroon Life Magazine (1991),
“[Ahidjo] was bitter. And sad. He felt profound grief at the way things had turned out between him and his successor. Saddening news about the daily worsening economic situation in Cameroon exacerbated his illness.”
As soon Ahidjo's death was announced, messages of condolence poured in from over the world, except from Cameroon whose government was visibly irritated by the interest generated by his passing. His death was merely a footnote in the national news.
Barely a month earlier, on October 31, the Government of Cameroon had reacted angrily to rumors that secret negotiations were underway between Biya and Ahidjo. In a statement in the national daily Cameroon Tribune (no. 4506, 31 octobre 1989, p. 1), Simon Nko'o Etoungou, Cameroon’s ambassador to Paris and former minister of foreign affairs under Ahidjo in the 1960s, lashed out against the rumor in very acerbic terms reminiscent of Ahidjo’s own declaration at the UN some 30 years earlier:
“The Cameroonian Government under the leadership of President Paul Biya has better things to do than to resuscitate the dead” / "Le gouvernement camerounais, sous la houlette de son chef, le president Paul Biya, a mieux a faire... que de ressusciter les morts."
Ahidjo was buried at the Muslim Cemetery in Yoff, Dakar, where he still lies today, his grave tended by his wife, Germaine Ahidjo - a sad end for the “Father of the Cameroonian nation” whose regime left a trail of blood and tears…
Since his death, there have been regular calls for his full rehabilitation and the repatriation of his corpse to his native Garoua for a burial befitting of his status and stature in Cameroonian history. These attempts have been met with indifference and even hostility from Cameroonian authorities although a 1991 amnesty law (no. 91/022 of December 16, 1991) rehabilitated Ahidjo, along with Um Nyobe, Felix Moumie, and Ernest Ouandie.
What is Good for the Goose…
There are many who are however not shedding a tear for Mr. Ahidjo, and who believe that his ignominious end is merely retributive justice for the leader who perfected the art of ostracizing and inflicting violence on the dead.
As Ahidjo himself vehemently argued at the UN in 1959, rehabilitating the UPC and its leaders would also "rehabilitate violence and crime, resuscitate the memory of mourning and tears, provoke individual score-settling and private vengeance, and insult the victims.”
“We have forgotten. Why do they want us to remember again?” he asked.
The list of those whom Ahidjo “forgot”, whom he refused to “remember”, and whom the entire nation was ordered not to remember, is a very long one. That list begins with the historic leaders of the UPC.
The Roll Call of Infamy
The most famous among those whom Cameroonians were asked to forget was Ruben Um Nyobè, the leader of the Union des Population du Cameroun (UPC) who was ambushed and executed on September 13 1958 (when Ahidjo was already Prime Minister of the French Cameroons). That he was dead was not enough for the regime. His body was dragged for miles to his village, completely disfiguring and dehumanizing him in the process. His mutilated body was then put on display - a shocking warning to all those who dared oppose Ahidjo and his French masters.
But that was not enough.
Before being buried at the Presbyterian mission cemetery in Eseka, Um Nyobe’s body entombed in cement to prevent anyone having access to his body. Today the burial site of Cameroun’s foremost nationalist is a nondescript one. Attempts by his family to bury him in a more befitting location in his village have been met by resistance by the administration
Even that was not enough. As one historian put it, “even his ghost was hunted down”. During Ahidjo’s entire reign, and until recently every effort was made to erase every trace of Um Nyobe’s existence. His pictures and his writings 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.
Next on the list of infamy is Félix-Roland Moumié who succeeded Um Nyobe the leader of the UPC. After his assassination in Geneva in 1960, Moumie was buried Conakry in the Republic of Guinea. Unlike Ahidjo, there is not even the slightest hope that his body will ever be repatriated to Cameroon - His grave was vandalized and his body stolen.
Abel Kingue, the UPC’s first Vice President, also died in exile. He is buried in an unknown grave in Egypt.
Also on the list is Osende Afana, Cameroun’s first PhD in economics and leader of the UPC's "eastern front" who was decapitated in 1966 in the South Province. It is alleged that in one of the most macabre events of the period, his head was taken to Yaounde and put on display for some dignitaries of the Ahidjo regime. His headless body lies in an unmarked grave somewhere in the forests of Djoum. Another national hero without even a street named in his honor...
The same is the case of Ernest Ouandie, the last historic UPC leader executed in Bafoussam in 1971. Like Um Nyobe, his grave is known but it is largely nondescript. In 1990, some members of the Cameroon opposition decided to lay a wreath at the spot where Ouandie was executed. A narrative of what happened next is found in Achille Mbembe’s On the Postcolony (p.119):
On Friday 18 January , a communiqué issued by the Governor of Western Province invited the population to stay at home and to refrain from going into the streets for any reason whatsoever. Troops had been placed on alert since dawn on January 19. The municipal airport was closely guarded. Surveillance at all strategic points in the city had been increased, and extra vigilance ordered. Anyone remotely suspicious had to be identified and questioned as necessary.
The spot where Ernest Ouandie was executed on the 15th January 1971 was taken over by men in uniform. The place is just behind the BICIC [bank] at Bafoussam and is [today] covered with grass.
...The forces of law and order, alerted by the gathering crowds, descended on the site, dispersing the crowd and seizing the bouquet of flowers. [Some people] were arrested by soldiers and taken to the office of the provincial Governor; there they were interrogated.
Without doubt, it is one of the cruelest ironies of modern Cameroonian history that Ahmadou Ahidjo, the man who made it his mission to erase all traces of the UPC historic leadership from Cameroonian history, is today suffering the same fate –buried in anonymity in a foreign land, and virtually forgotten in his native Cameroon.
Which Way Paul Biya?
Some have argued that by making Ahidjo’s corpse person non grata in Cameroon, Paul Biya may be inadvertently setting himself up for the same fate that befell his one-time “illustrious predecessor” turned mortal enemy. To Biya’s credit though, the amnesty law of 1991 allowed the return of many Cameroonians who had gone on exile in the 1950s and 1960s, among them, Ndeh Ntumazah, founder of the One Kamerun party, the Southern Cameroons equivalent of the UPC; Woungly Massaga, who with Osende Afana opened the UPC’s “eastern front”; Mongo Beti, renowned for his virulent criticism of Ahidjo and who until his death in 2001 was a veritable thorn in Biya’s flesh; and even Bishop Ndogmo who had the opportunity to visit Cameroon before his death.
In Need of National Healing
Ahmadou Ahidjo is just one piece of the puzzle in Cameroon’s dire need to come to terms with its history and collective memory. What the country desperately needs is a recognition of all its heroes - from early nationalists such as Kuv’a Likenye who defeated the Germans in 1891 but lies in an unmarked grave in Buea while his German adversaries are immortalized in grandiose monuments across Cameroon; to Duala Manga Bell, Martin Paul Samba, the historic leaders of the UPC, and even Ahidjo himself. As Francis Wache rightly pointed out in 1991,
Let us make no mistake; until we exorcise the ghost of our political forefathers – Ahmadou Ahidjo, Um Nyobe, Felix Moumie, Ernest Ouandie, Osende Afana… the center of this triangle called Cameroon can never hold.”