As I watched the tragic events at the University of Buea unfold in the past couple of weeks, and listened to the official narrative of events regarding the shooting of two students by the Cameroonian security forces, it all sounded so eerily familiar. And with good reason; we had been down this path before.
The Government’s reaction to the death of the students reminded me of its reaction to another student demonstration some 16 years earlier at the University of Yaounde.
Just as in Buea this year, the government narrative of what actually occurred at the university of Yaounde campus in Ngoa-Ekele on May 26, 1990 did not square in with the facts. And in a bizarre twist of fate, one of the central figures in the events of May 26, 1990 also happens to be at the center of the UB maelstrom of November 2006…
May 26, 1990. Cameroonians apprehensively await the outcome of the inevitable confrontation between the Social Democratic Front (SDF) and the Biya regime in the town of Bamenda. Officials of the SDF, a political party created a couple of months earlier, have chosen this day to officially launch the party in Bamenda, in spite of a government order formally banning the event on grounds that the SDF is illegal – a view not shared by SDF members and sympathizers who are determined to go ahead with the launching come what may. Bamenda is flooded with troops sent in to crackdown on any SDF-led public manifestation while thousands of SDF sympathizers from all over the Northwest province and beyond converge on the city under siege.
Against all odds, the party is successfully launched at the Ntarikon motor park where John Fru Ndi, the party’s Chairman, reads the inaugural speech. By the end of the day, however, six teenagers lose their lives, “trampled to death” at the rally, according to an official communiqué from the Government.
On the same day students at the University of Yaounde organize a pro-democracy rally on campus in support of multiparty politics. The rally itself is incident-free. However, as students disperse from the rally grounds a band of pro-government students begin harassing female students who took part in the event.
A clash ensues with the agents provocateurs eventually taking refuge in the University cafeteria which is pelted with stones by the irate crowd. This is just the cue that university officials have been waiting for all day long. Security forces are immediately called in to crack down on the “rioters” who are allegedly in the process of completely destroying university.
What follows is a six-hour orgy of violence and destruction as troops spread their dragnet across campus and the nearby quartiers where, with the assistance of university-appointed “student delegates” they zoom in on residential areas with a high concentration of English-speaking students. Hundreds of rooms are broken into, their occupants severely beaten and then carted away to the Brigade Mixte Mobile (BMM) and other detention centers around town. About 400 students are arrested by the end of the day.
Even before the arrested students settle down in their respective detention centers later that evening for their first dose of “coffee”, the official spin machine is already working in overdrive.
According to a communiqué repeatedly broadcast on radio and TV, contrary to claims by the International media, the University of Yaounde demonstration was not a “national affair”, but an ethno-regional venture spearheaded by a “handful of misguided students” of from the Northwest province who had gone on the rampage after being confronted by a larger group of patriots made up of students from “all ten provinces of Cameroon”.
Worse, continued the communiqué, these “vandals” had committed a most treasonous act by singing the national anthem of “un pays voisin” (a neighboring country). Anyone remotely familiar with Cameroonian politics knows that when a “pays voisin” is mentioned with regards to Cameroon’s English-speaking minority, the country in question is none other than Nigeria. The communiqué also stated that the crowd at the rally in Bamenda had consisted primarily of thousands of Nigerians imported from across the border for the occasion by the SDF, and that SDF leader, John Fru Ndi, had fled to where else? Nigeria!
In Cameroonian politics, linking “les anglophones” with “le Nigeria” or “un pays voisin” in times of crisis is not an innocent act; it is a powerful tool for demonization and exclusion which is meant to conjure images of the Biafrazation of the country; of a fifth column serving the interests of Nigeria rather than Cameroon’s; and of a powerful neighbor busy manipulating the “Anglophone Trojan horse” to its advantage. Expectedly, the communiqué resonated quite well with large segments of the Francophone majority which generally believes in the inherent (pre)disposition of English-speaking Cameroonians to betray la patrie.
“Enemies in the House”
Within hours of the communiqué being broadcast, pseudo-patriots of all stripes rose up in unison to condemn those “Biafrans” in Yaounde and Bamenda who had had finally showed their true colors. The opening shots were fired on May 28 by the Mfoundi section of the ruling CPDM party whose President, Emah Basile (also Mayor of Yaounde at the time), declared on national radio that Anglophones were “Enemis dans la maison”(enemies in the house).
In an interview published in the Government-owned Cameroon Tribune the next day, Ibrahim Mbombo Njoya, the Minister of Territorial Administration lashed out at the alleged traitors: “Those who do not feel Cameroonian should go elsewhere” (Ceux qui ne se sentent pas camerounais peuvent aller ailleurs).
The patriotic fervor that gripped the French News desk of CRTV reached fanatical proportions as otherwise level-headed journalists did their best to outdo each other in spewing out the most virulent anti-Anglophone vitriol which had nothing to envy from the kind of material that would be heard a few years later on Rwanda’s Radio Milles Colines.
One of these notorious commentaries titled "La cinquième colonne” (The Fifth Column) was read by Zacharie Ngniman (later CPDM Member of Parliament from Mayo Banyo) on the French Newscast of Monday May 28, 1990. The opening lines went straight for the jugular:
When an individual claims to be a patriot, and believes that it is his right to demonstrate on the [university] campus and in the streets, this presupposes that the said individual has nothing but respect love and fidelity towards his nation.
What should we therefore make of the individual who, claiming to express this right, sings the national anthem of another country?
Isn't that the manifestation of an inherent disposition to betray one’s own nation and compatriots?
This blasphemous and divisive act, which is an insult to the nation, was indeed committed on May 26 by a handful of activists at the University of Yaounde and in the streets of Bamenda. Individuals who were victims of intoxication and manipulation sang the national anthem of a neighboring country". [My translation].
Even the usually critical French language private press swallowed this tale, hook, line and sinker. The Douala-based La Détente best captured the general mood East of the Mungo River with a three-word headline: “Ils ont osé!” (They had the guts!).
The Spin Machine Unravels
As with most lies, it was not long before cracks started appearing in the Government’s story. First, pictures and leaked autopsy reports from Bamenda confirmed that the six youngsters had died of bullet wounds – “trampled by bullets” as the French language private press would later put it, once it regained its senses. Also, a painstaking effort to reconstitute the events at the University of Yaounde eventually proved that university students never sang anything close to the Nigerian national anthem.
Zacharie Ngniman and Antoine-Marie Ngono, respectively Editor-in-Chief and Chief of Service for Political Affairs on CRTV Radio, the two Francophone journalists who had led the vicious attack against the Anglophone community, would later write a pathetic open letter to the Minister of Information, complaining that Government officials had deliberately misled them.
“By making us say things like ‘the dead in Bamenda were trampled upon’ did we lie or were we misled? By making us announce that Mr. John Fru Ndi had escaped to Nigeria when he was relaxing in his bookshop in Bamenda… we were sacrificed to public vilification”.
In his 1993 book, Cameroun: la démocratie emballée (Yaoundé, 1993) Ngniman tries explain how he unwittingly became part of one of the most shameful episodes in recent Cameroonian history.
The coup de grace was given by Cardinal Tumi during a Press conference on June 11, 1990 when he berated the journalists of the official media and lashed out: “You have lost all credibility in the eyes of the public you are merely ‘your master’s voice’”.
The Puppet Masters
While the French language official media was roundly condemned - and rightly so! for their overzealousness in going after the “treacherous Anglophones” they were nonetheless mere pawns in a macabre puppet show put up by puppet masters puppets pulling the strings in the shadows.
It would be eventually revealed that the tale of “Anglophone treason” had been concocted at the highest levels of Government, precisely by the infamous “cellule de communication” at the Presidency. This communications cell, whose notoriety would increase during the “fiery years” of 1991-1992, was headed by none other than … Jacques Fame Ndongo .
Neither Fame Ndongo nor anyone else was ever sanctioned for their role in the "Nigerian treason" scandal. Instead, Fame Ndongo continued his meteoric rise within the Biya regime which began in the early 1980s with the publication of his overly effusive treatise titled Paul Biya ou l’incarnation de la rigueur (Paul Biya or the Incarnation of Rigor). After the events of May 1990, he would subsequently be rewarded with the position of Chancellor of the University of Yaounde I, then Minister of Communication, and Minister of Higher Education (while still maintaining his position as a Chargé de mission at the Presidency – a position he has held since 1984…).
Today, Fame Ndongo is the central player in the University of Buea crisis which culminated in the death of two youngsters. And like 16 years earlier, he is one of the brains behind the “police self defense” narrative which has been used to justify the killing of unarmed students in Buea.
Self Defense of Excessive Force?
According to a communiqué that the Minister published in the national daily Cameroon Tribune, on November 29, 2006, a violent mob armed with machetes, stones and locally-made hunting guns, invaded the university campus with the "strong determination" to ransack the university computer center. After being pushed back by forces of law and order, the communiqué goes on, the assailants turned their attention to the Molyko police station and began firing at the police. Two of the assailants were killed as the Police defended themselves, the communiqué claims.
During a stormy question-and-answer session at the National Assembly a few days later, the Vice Prime Minister of the Republic, who also serves as Minister of Justice, added insult to injury by declaring that the “student vandals” had it coming: “Ils se sont livrés à des actes de violence et de vandalisme, et mal leur en a pris”.
However, eyewitness reports tell a completely different story. For example, according to an article in The Post, (a version confirmed by a variety of sources including some UB officials):
Earlier at 7.00 pm, that same day, heavily armed anti-riot police had entered the University campus and began beating students indiscriminately. They also fired tear gas at them. Some of the students who were reportedly beaten had been hospitalised by press time.
As the anti-riot police descended on the campus, the students dispersed and filled the main road. They pulled down kiosks, billboards and other structures, setting them on fire. The police followed them and a running battle ensued.
More tear gas was fired and the students replied with a volley of stones. That is when gunshots rang out felling two students. By press time, it was alleged that more deaths had occurred in the Molyko neighbourhood.
The indiscriminate nature of the violence unleashed by the security forces was seen in the case of Laura Ambang, a hairdresser who was shot in the neck as she tried to close her saloon in the vicinity of the University. This particular case was confirmed by the Mayor of Buea, Mbella Moki, who in an interview to The Post described how he “braved all the teargas and bullets to come to the succour of the lady" as she lay dying in a local clinic that lacked the facilities to save her life – a snapshot of the havoc that security forces wrought during the “peacekeeping” mission.
A culture of impunity
The UB crisis has once again demonstrated in the most macabre way, the culture of impunity and arrogance which reigns in Cameroon - a country where the Government never accepts responsibility (even if only moral responsibility) for acts committed in its name; where government officials are never punished for crossing the line as long as they are "toeing the line" of the regime in power; and where dissenting voices that deviate from the official discourse are considered criminal and treated as such. As a foreign observer of the UB crisis rightly put it:
While the violence has ended and students have resigned themselves to the government’s initial position, the government has only succeeded in proving to Anglophones (and many Francophones) once again … that they are welcome to participate in the political process as long as they support the “correct” positions.