Culled from Reform and Repression in Cameroon: A Chronicle of the Smoldering Years (1990-1992), a forthcoming book by Dibussi Tande commemorating the 20th anniversary of the beginning of Cameroon’s tumultuous democratization process.
On March 16, 1990, barely six days after the Biya regime insisted that multipartyism was not illegal in Cameroon, John Fru Ndi, a Bamenda-based bookseller, and Dr. Siga Assanga, a lecturer at the University of Yaounde, submitted an application with the Mezam divisional office seeking authorization for a political party called the Social Democratic Front (SDF).
Although the application was in direct response to the government’s declaration that multipartyism was not prohibited in Cameroon, the SDF had actually been in gestation months before the Yondo affair...
The SDF application set the stage for a confrontation with the government. First, the Minister of Territorial Administration, Ibrahim Mbombo Njoya, claimed that his ministry had not received the SDF application, and then later declared that the application was incomplete. As the government dragged its feet, SDF officials argued that under the 1967 law on associations, the party did not need prior authorization from the administration to go operational, and announced that if the government did not formally respond to its application within two months, they would go ahead and unilaterally launch the party (Krieger, 1996: 105).
The SDF’s launching was initially scheduled for May 16 in Bamenda. On May 14, the Minister of Territorial Administration dispatched a delegation to Bamenda to ask Northwest traditional rulers and administrative authorities to convince John Fru Ndi to call off the planned launching. Fru Ndi insisted that the launching would go ahead but announced on May 15 that the launching had been postponed to May 26, 1990 as a good faith gesture, and in order not to perturb preparations for the May 20th National Day celebrations.
On May 23, Northwest provincial authorities issued an order banning the rally and closing all public places in Bamenda. Thousands of troops were also deployed to the city. In spite of the heavy military presence, the cordoning off of the city center, and the roadblocks on all major roads, thousands of SDF sympathizers flocked into Bamenda for the launching. On May 25, former Vice President John Ngu Foncha visited Ni John Fru Ndi to appeal that he call off the rally to avoid a bloodbath.
That same day Foncha sent a telex to the Minister of Territorial Administration in a desperate last-minute attempt to diffuse the ticking time bomb. In the telex, he pointed out that the “increased presence of uniform men with heavy equipment and additional checkpoints have excited the population who have become angry.” He added that “drawing from past incidents which ended in gunshots, deaths, and burning of GMI quarters, I advise government to exercise restraint.” That evening, the SDF leadership met and agreed to go ahead with the launching. With that decision, all was set for the inevitable confrontation between the SDF and the Biya regime – Cameroon’s five-month struggle over multipartyism was about to claim its first victims…
On May 26, 1990, a crowd estimated at about 20,000 by CRTV ( Krieger,1998: 105), and about 80,000 by the SDF defied the over 2000 troops sent in to prevent the launching. Initially, the day’s events were supposed to begin with a march from the City Chemist round-about to the Bamenda municipal stadium where the official launching ceremony was scheduled to take place. However, this plan was scuttled due to the dissuasive presence of troops on Commercial Avenue and the stadium. Undeterred, SDF officials switched the venue to the Ntarikon Motor Park where Fru Ndi officially launched the party. In his speech, the SDF Chairman described May 26 as “the most significant day in the struggle for democracy in Cameroon.”
He lamented about the state of fear that prevailed in Cameroon and Africa and argued that:
democracy is about people because we believe that with the non-observance of the fundamental freedoms, namely the freedom of conscience and religion, freedom of thought, belief, opinion, and expression, including the freedom of the press and other media of communication, freedom of peaceful assembly and the freedom of association, the people cannot be expected to enjoy their basic rights which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as human beings.
He insisted that the SDF had come to stay:
Let us make this clear to all those who are hearing us today that in the view of the Social Democratic Front, the struggle will continue, not only here, but anywhere in the world as long there is someone who is governing and someone who is governed. This struggle can only stop when all the people participate in their own government.
As SDF supporters returned from Ntarikon Park, they clashed with troops stationed at Commercial Avenue. According to various reports, the troops were either taunted by the crowd or were simply “frustrated at having been outfoxed” (Kreiger, 1998: 5 &105). When it was all over, six civilians were dead by gunshot wounds. They were Fidelis Chosi Mankam (Corn Mill Operator), Tifuh Mathias Teboh (Student), Asanji Christopher Fombi (Student), Nfon Edwin Jatop (Tailor), Juliette Sikod (Student), Toje Evaristus Chatum (Student).
The Spin Machine Goes into Overdrive
In a communiqué broadcast during the 1 p.m. radio and 7:30 p.m. bilingual TV newscasts on May 27, the government claimed that the six people who died in Bamenda had been trampled upon, and put the blame squarely on the SDF which it accused of having failed to take the necessary precautions to protect those who turned up for its “illegal rally.” The communiqué claimed the Ni John Fru Ndi was a shady businessman, a conman who had helped ruin Cameroon Bank by taking a colossal loan of 400 million CFA which he never repaid.
Regarding the demonstrations at the University of Yaounde, the communiqué stated that contrary to claims by the international media, these demonstrations were 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 patriotic students made up of individuals 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 was made up primarily of thousands of Nigerians whom the SDF had brought across the border for the occasion, and that SDF Chairman had fled to Nigeria (Mbaku & Takougang, 2004: 463).
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 English-speaking Nigeria rather than Cameroon’s; and of a powerful neighbor busy manipulating the “Anglophone Trojan horse” in Cameroon to its advantage (Tande, 1993). Expectedly, the communiqué resonated quite well with large segments of the Francophone community which generally believes in the inherent (pre)disposition of English-speaking Cameroonians to betray la patrie. Within hours of the communiqué being made public, pseudo-patriots of all stripes rose up in unison to condemn those “Biafrans” in Yaounde and Bamenda who had finally shown their true colors.
The reaction of the ruling CPDM was similar to that in the wake of the Yondo affair a few months earlier. Motions of support for the Biya regime poured in from all over the country while CPDM branches held emergency meetings to condemn the SDF for threatening the stability and unity of the country. The opening shots were fired by the Mfoundi section which held an extraordinary conference on May 27. During the conference, Emah Basile, the section president and Mayor of Yaounde described English-speaking Cameroonians as “enemis dans la maison” (enemies in the house).
In a communiqué published at the end of the conference, the Mfoundi CPDM section characterized the Bamenda rally as a “sordid maneuver aimed at undermining national unity and jeopardizing the fight against the economic crisis,” and argued that "The multipartyism which they want to absolutely impose on us from the outside is not necessarily a guarantor of democracy.” Mfoundi CPDM militants claimed that the launching of the SDF and calls for multipartyism was a pretext to awaken “old demons of sterile discord, the war of chiefs, and at the end of it all, doubtful and prejudicial alliances [and] the chaos which we overcame with so much difficulty.” Finally, they insisted that the single party “presently remains the only framework through which true democracy can be practiced.”
In an interview published in Cameroon Tribune, the Minister of Territorial Administration, Ibrahim Mbombo Njoya, described the SDF as a clannish party with no national aspirations. He insisted that the Bamenda rally was illegal and lashed out at those traitors who had pledged their allegiance to a foreign country: “Ceux qui ne se sentent pas camerounais peuvent aller ailleurs!” (Those who do not feel Cameroonian can go elsewhere!) he hammered.
As CPDM militants across the country inundated the airwaves with virulent messages condemning the SDF march, the lone voice of dissension within the ruling party came from Jean-Jacques Ekindi, the President of the Wouri section who had ironically initiated the anti-multiparty marches a few months earlier. During an extraordinary conference of the Wouri section on May 29, Ekindi asked his militants to pray for the “six martyrs of Bamenda” who had made the ultimate sacrifice while defending what they believed in: “Whatever their opinions, let’s respect their memory,” he appealed.
Ekindi also intimated that the conditions necessary for multiparty politics already existed in Cameroon and argued that “no minority has the right to hijack, obscure or avoid the multiparty debate.” He advised that “instead of condemnations and exclusions, we should prepare our case and get ready for the debate.” Ekindi’s appeal went unheeded as the regime launched a witch-hunt against Anglophone “subversives” at the University of Yaounde and within the administration, while the French language desks at CRTV and Cameroon Tribune instituted a virulent anti-Anglophone editorial policy.
Catalyst for Change
The launching of the SDF once again brought into focus the multiparty question in Cameroon:
A political ripple that started last March 16th in a divisional office in one of our provincial capitals was to turn into a blood-tinged wave, jolting this nation into a state of collective, tense alertness never before experienced in its chequered history.
Even more than the Yondo affair, the launching of the SDF forced the government’s hand on the issue of political pluralism in the country. As Jean-Jacques Ekindi rightly argued, “The deaths of Bamenda come to remind us of the urgency of the debate on multipartyism.”
Thanks to its stand-off with government and the sympathy generated by the Bamenda incidents, the SDF was able to successfully present itself as a credible alternative to the ruling CPDM. The party’s launching also mobilized political activists, particularly those in exile, who began thinking of creating other political parties. Thus, days after the launch, Bello Bouba Maigari, President Biya’s first Prime Minister who was in exile in the northen Nigerian city of Kaduna, launched the Union nationale pour la démocratie et le progrès au Cameroun (UNDPC) in Paris (Daloz & Quantin, 1997: 115). In June, the UNDPC formed an alliance with the Union des populations du Cameroun (UPC) and the Front patriotique camerounais (FPC) and invited all patriots and democtrats to join the alliance and fight for the liberation of all political prisoners, a general amnesty, the abrogation of repressive laws, multipartyism, a national debate to discuss the way forward, and the organization of free and fair elections.
Culled from Reform and Repression in Cameroon A Chronicle of the Smoldering Years (1990-1992), a forthcoming book by Dibussi Tande to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the beginning of Cameroon’s tumultuous democratization process.
Picture courtesy of Eden Newspaper