Isaac Njoh Endeley*
On the 6th of April 1984, I was an ambitious and enthusiastic young student simultaneously enrolled in the Advanced School of Mass Communication (ASMAC) and the Faculty of Law & Economics at the Université de Yaoundé in Cameroon. Like many others in my age group at the time, I was very optimistic about the future of my country, having previously witnessed what appeared like a smooth and peaceful transfer of power from President Ahmadou Ahidjo to his hand-picked successor, President Paul Biya.
The November 1982 transfer of power was hailed as historic, since this was one of the rare occasions in the African context where there had been a change at the helm of a State without gunshots being fired. Cameroon seemed at the time like an island of stability and calm in a sea of chaos and disruption. There was an abundance of food and drink, oil had been discovered, the economy appeared to be booming, qualified young people were able to find gainful employment, and the optimism seemed justified.
It was widely believed at the time that the new President’s “New Deal” regime had the best interests of the Cameroonian people at heart and that its credo of “rigour and moralisation” would bring salvation to the country. There were grand speeches about fixing, among other things, the broken public service system, the shattered infrastructure, and the inadequate education system. There were great promises about the desire to improve the quality of the people’s lives. Those of us who even then were keenly interested in public affairs hoped to see a transformation of the public space from one dominated by ethno-regional considerations to one where merit, competence and accountability would be the norm. Many citizens chose to give Mr. Biya the benefit of the doubt and, consequently, some 17 months after his accession to the highest office in the land, he was still enjoying a honeymoon of sorts.
Then, on the 6th of April 1984, the reverie was brought to an abrupt and brutal halt by an insurgency. Apparently, some members of the Republican Guard, predominantly from the northern parts of the country and still bearing allegiance to former President Ahidjo, were dissatisfied with the diminished stature that Northerners in general had acquired under the Biya regime. In reality, though, the violent outburst of April 1984 was the culmination of a long-simmering conflict between the Hausa-Fulani clique from the North, who benefited the most from Ahidjo’s patronage, and the Beti-Bulu elite from the South, who believed that with Biya at the helm, it was now their turn to feast.
A number of my friends and acquaintances were personally caught in the cross-fire on that fateful day in April 1984. There were bursts of gunfire everywhere and it was impossible to move from one part of the capital to another. Those who ventured out later recounted stories of dead bodies littering the streets, particularly in the areas surrounding military camps. There were even stories of dead paratroopers whose landing gear had got caught in the trees and whose bodies were left dangling for several days. There were also tales of heroism and foolhardiness as the people loyal to one President or the other fought to seize control of key locations in Yaoundé. Few people in the capital or elsewhere in the country knew exactly what was happening, but since the primary source of information, Radio Cameroon, was now broadcasting only martial music, it seemed logical to conclude that a coup d’État was in the works. This was subsequently confirmed by a number of foreign broadcasters such as the BBC and RFI, as well as by a most bizarre broadcast on Radio Cameroon by the putchistes.
Since President Biya still enjoyed some measure of popularity among the public, the insurgency effort failed to garner much sympathy or support and was relatively easily suppressed. Beyond Mr. Biya’s popularity, however, many, if not most, Cameroonians were also tired of the autocratic hegemony of the Northerners and few were prepared to countenance a return to the status quo ante as advocated by the coup plotters.
It would not be an exaggeration to characterise what ensued as Cameroon’s version of “ethnic cleansing”. With political, military and economic power now firmly in the hands of its acolytes following the suppression of the insurgency, the Biya regime proceeded to rid the public space of any trace of dissent. The term « le 6 avril » soon became a catch-all phrase used to justify repressive measures or to discredit opponents of the regime. Many members of the Republican Guard and others suspected of involvement in the plot to overthrow the new regime were rounded up, carted off, and summarily executed; those who hailed from the north were generally victimised and treated with suspicion and disdain; some were thrown in jail; many of them chose to go into exile; and a good number of those who managed to flee in the nick of time, including former President Ahidjo, had no choice but to stay away.
In the days and months that followed the 6th of April 1984, everyone could observe a palpable change in the atmosphere throughout the country. Behind the dozens of “motions of support” addressed to the President, broadcast over Radio Cameroon and published in Cameroon Tribune, there was a lot of unease and dissatisfaction at what the Republic had become. As the Biya regime attempted to consolidate its authoritarian grip on the State apparatus, other groups began to worry that they would be the next scapegoat. There was also a growing fear among the more moderate elements in the governing elite that the tightening of the noose might lead to a severe backlash. At one point, it even became necessary for the regime to send out small groups of people to reassure the public that Mr. Biya was still in control and that not everyone was necessarily considered one of the so-called “misguided elements” who had sought to topple the “New Deal” government. Some of the students of mass communication at the country’s sole university were among those assigned to such groups.
Many have argued that « le 6 avril » 1984 marked a turning point for the Biya regime and for Cameroon. Some have said that any genuine interest that the President himself might have harboured in the wellbeing of the Cameroonian people evaporated with the realisation that not everyone was in support of his government. Others maintain that the severe trauma engendered by the near-death experience of « le 6 avril » pushed Mr. Biya to abandon the moderate and rational stance he had hitherto adopted, and to espouse extremism instead. The President had now come to the unfortunate conclusion that he could no longer trust anyone other than his brethren from the Beti-Bulu clan. Tribalism and nepotism easily supplanted any other consideration.
On a personal level, following the events of the 6th of April 1984, my ambition of becoming a practicing journalist was seriously questioned as I observed the increased level of censorship and the severe curtailment of what little freedom of expression had hitherto existed in Cameroon. I was very dismayed and disappointed at what my beloved country had become. Later that year, when the opportunity to pursue a different career path presented itself, I gladly took it.
In my opinion, the country has been in a downward spiral ever since those terrible events of « le 6 avril » 1984. The rest, as they say, is history.
Dr. Isaac Njoh Endeley is a legal officer at the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania