Practically all books and articles on the decolonization of the British Southern Cameroons focus primarily on the internal and external political factors that ultimately led to the February 11, 1961 plebiscite. There are very few studies (in fact I am unaware of any such study) that focus primarily or exclusively on how British businesses tried to influence the outcome of the decolonization process. This is quite intriguing, considering, as S. E. Stockwell has pointed out in the case of the Gold Coast, that "British companies were much more than by-standers in the transition from colony to independence" even when they “exercised little influence over imperial policy”.
“Tilney, a director with John Holt, which was one of the major operators in the region recalls that he and fellow Liverpool MP Norman Pannell had tried to persuade the Colonial Office to grant the British Cameroons its independence as a separate state.”
This point was driven home recently when I came across Conservative MP Sir John Tilney’s robust pre- and post-plebiscite defense of the independence option for Southern Cameroons – the (in)famous “Third Option” which was not included in the 1961 plebiscite questions. Tilney argued even before the plebiscite that the Southern Cameroons electorate had not been adequately educated on the stakes of the reunification vote and constantly demanded that the United Nations make clear to voters the advantages and disadvantages of the choices put before them. [To which the British Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Ormsby Gore, responded that “It is not the function of the United Nations to make clear to the voters in the Southern Cameroons the advantages and disadvantages of the two choices open to them in the plebiscite. That is the job of the political parties in the territory.” But that is a story for another day....]
After the plebiscite, a dejected Tilney warned that Southern Cameroons could become another Congo because it was joining a country where “Civil war is virtually endemic”: "I am worried that no though has been given to true independence and thereby we may in the future face another, and minor, Congo."
Intrigued by Tilney’s unapologetic pro-Southern Cameroons stance which was clearly at odds with that of his party and the British government, I tried to find out what exactly motivated his stance. Was he someone who really cared about Southern Cameroons and feared for its future in a union with a dominant French-speaking Republic of Cameroun? Or was his position driven by other interests that were only tangentally related to the wellbeing of the territory? Or was it a complex mixture of all of the above?
This mystery was partially resolved when I came across two interesting books – Philip Murphy’s “Party politics and decolonization: the Conservative Party and British” and S. E. Stockwell’s “The business of decolonization: British business strategies in the Gold Coast” – both of which shed light on some of the factors that shaped Tilney’s Southern Cameroons stance.
Sir John Tilney, who was the MP for Wavertree, Liverpool, from 1950 to 1974, was recruited to the Board of John Holt & Company Liverpool Ltd., a company with strong ties in West Africa and Southern Cameroons, following his election to parliament. Most significantly, from 1954 to 1962, Sir Tilney was Chairman of the London-based Conservative Commonwealth Council's West Africa Committee which was formed in 1953 and "in which British west African interests were strongly represented" (Business of Decolonization, p. 29). The West Africa group was the de facto mouthpiece of British business interests in West Africa, and did its best to protect British business interests in African countries that were slated for independence.
"The London Group ran a hospitality fund to entertain visiting West Africans in the United Kingdom, and to finance sponsorship of a residential club for club for West African students. Members of the group who were MPs were asked to consider raising various West African issues in parliament." (Business of Decolonization, p 29).
In his study of the West Africa Study Group, Philip Murphy explains in some detail how the group and Sir Tilney tried, unsuccessfully, to influence the course of events in Southern Cameroons in favor of Britain, or more precisely, British business interests:
"The extent of the penetration of the Council's study groups by outside interests rendered them little more than internal pressure groups. The West Africa Group displayed an overwhelming concern for the interests of British companies while the Central African subcommittee of the East and Central Africa group became the virtual appendage of the of the propaganda network of the United Federal party.
... the involvement of British firms in the activities of its west Africa Group was, however, particularly extensive...With the political future of Britain's West Africa colonies clearly charted, it was natural that the founders of the Council should have concentrated upon the economic means through which British influence might be maintained in the region. As such they sought to encourage the maximum degree of participation by British businessmen in the West Africa Group...
The danger of the West Africa Group's strong business bias producing a major conflict with the Colonial Office went largely unrealized in the period under discussion. There was, however, at least one near miss. A plebiscite was due to be held in 1961 in the southern part of the British mandate of the Cameroons which would offer voters a choice of either becoming a full part of the newly independent federation of Nigeria or joining the Republic of Cameroun. British companies held a near monopoly of trade in the Southern Cameroons and had reason to fear that a union with the Republic would lead to a reorientation of the local economy from Britain and the Commonwealth towards France. Tilney, a director with John Holt, which was one of the major operators in the region recalls that he and fellow Liverpool MP Norman Pannell had tried to persuade the Colonial Office to grant the British Cameroons its independence as a separate state. Their appeals were on the grounds that such a state would not be economically viable.
In November 1959 Tilney renewed his contacts with Dr E. M. L. Endeley, whose party the Kamerun National Congress, had since 1957 supported the Southern Cameroons' continued association with Nigeria. Tilney offered his services as Chairman of the Conservative [Commonwealth] Council's West Africa Group and chairman of the Economic and Development Sub-Committee of the Parliamentary Commonwealth Affairs Committee (Papers of Sir John Tilney, Rhodes House, box 1, file 3, Tilney to Endeley 4 Nov. 1959). He hoped that in the forthcoming plebiscite the Southern Cameroons would opt for federation with Nigeria but guessed that were the vote to favour union with the Republic of Cameroun, Endeley and his supporters would prefer full independence. He suggested that were Endeley to along those lines, a number of companies would assist in ensuring that the Southern Cameroons became a viable entity. Endeley rejected this option telling Tilney that his party was still fighting to preserve the link with Nigeria (Endeley to Tilney, 24 Nov. 1959). Had Endeley been more amenable, the Conservative front bench could conceivably have been faced with the embarrassing prospect of having one of its own study groups support a secessionist movement in clear opposition to the policy of the Colonial Office.
Without doubt, the strident support for Southern Cameroons independence in the British parliament and elsewhere was not always driven by altruistic motives, and in some cases had little to do with the actual interests of the people of Southern Cameroons. As more and more documents from that period become available to the public, either through declassified material or the opening up of personal archives, it is necessary to try to place the actions that these documents describe in their appropriate socio-political and even economic context. Only then can we carry out a more balanced and informed appraisal of the debates and differences that surrounded the decolonization of Southern Cameroons.
Also, it is obvious that a definitive study on the role of British business interests in the decolonization of Southern Cameroons is sorely needed. Any takers?