By Churchill Ewumbue-Monono (culled from Youth and Nation-Building in Cameroon, 2009)
A policy advocacy initiative, the origins of the National Youth Day in Cameroon can be traced to the special days celebrated by youth organizations in the Southern Cameroons such as 22 February, the “Thinking Day”, celebrated by the Girl Guides and Brownies in commemoration of Lady Banden Powell. There was also the Commonwealth Youth Sunday marked by the reading of a Message from the Queen, Church services and a March-Past by youth groups such as the Boys Scouts, Girl Guides, Boy’s Brigades, Red Cross and other youth organizations. It was presided by His Honour the Commissioner of Southern Cameroons, or his Deputy Commissioner who took the salute and read the speech to the parades...
The “Thinking Day” and the “Commonwealth Youth Sundays” were however limited to members of youth movements, most of who were in Victoria and Kumba Divisions. It did not have a very important territorial impact like the “National Days” which were celebrated throughout the territory. In colonial Southern Cameroons, there were two of such important national days. First was the “Empire Day”, which was celebrated in the territory for the first time in 1949 and featured sporting and cultural events, as well as by a march past. Then was the Southern Cameroons Day, celebrated every 26 October to commemorate the creation of a quasi-region for Southern Cameroons in 1954.
Following the 11 February 1961 and the formal reunification of Southern Cameroons and the French Cameroons on 1st October 1961, Southern Cameroons was replaced by the federated state of West Cameroon, which made its continuous celebration irrelevant, especially as the KNDP propagandists saw in the day a mark of Dr. Endeley’s success. In acknowledging both the importance and irrelevance of the day, the Prime Minister, Dr. John Ngu Foncha argued that:
The 26th of October which marked the separation of Cameroon from Eastern Nigeria region was celebrated as a partial national day because we were still under Trusteeship rule. However, its observance gave us the impetus to regain a wider nationhood, for separation from Eastern Nigeria was the beginning of our independence.
The West Cameroon leadership therefore opted to transform a “National Day” into a “Youth Day” as a tool for nation-building and consolidation, and greater mobilization of the population, most of whom were youths. With the desire to keep 1st October as a national day to commemorate the reunification, the choice was between 26 October, the Southern Cameroons Day, and 11 February, the Plebiscite Day.
In 1962 therefore, less than a year after reunification, Dr. Foncha recommended that it was befitting to dedicate West Cameroon’s National Day to its youth on whom the future of the nation depended. Consequently, on 26 October 1962, the first “Youth and Sports Day” was organized in West Cameroon in a manner different from the usual national day celebrations. As stipulated in a circular by the SDO Bamenda George Kisob to organizers in his administrative jurisdiction:
The 26th of October will no longer be known as National Day but Youth Day. Since it is no longer a National Day, there will be no Guard of Honour. The March-past will be done by the school children only. There would be only one speech to be read and this would be the Prime Minister’s Speech.
A number of reasons could be advanced for the choice of 11 February as the West Cameroon Youth Day over the other national days. First, it was a matter of practical convenience for organization of festivities and examinations for school children. As stated in August 1963 by the Secretary of State for Education and Social Welfare, the Hon. L.M Ndamukong:
Youth Day is February 11th each year. This means that the school sports normally held on October 26th, will now be on February 11th. The new date has two advantages over the old one – it enables sports to take place in the dry season and it enables children studying for examination in November to devote their time to their studies. Teachers and pupils should, therefore, note that February 11th 1964, is the date on which youth sports will take place. On October 1st, Reunification Day, which is a public holiday, school children will, as usual, participate in the march past.
Second was its political significance in the process of nation-building. As justified by the Prime Minister for West Cameroon J.N Foncha on 14 January 1964, “the idea of the Youth Day springs from the desire that Cameroonian Children should inherit and continue to implement what has been achieved”. He continued on 7th February 1964 by stressing that the day should be one of festivities for children, but also one of stocktaking and reflection for adults, arguing that :
To children, February 11th might just mean a well spent day for sports and feasting and to the grown-ups that day should mean something more, for it was on that day 3 years ago that by an overwhelming number of 233.571 to 97.741 a majority of 135.830, the people of West Cameroon made history by their almost unanimous, honest, and voluntary decision to achieve independence and re-unification with the former Cameroon Republic …
The 11th of February was therefore celebrated as a Youth Day in West Cameroon exclusively in 1964 and 1965. In 1964, celebrations marking the inaugural ceremony started on Sunday 9th with a Thanks-giving Service offered by the Bishop of West Cameroon, His Lordship Julius Peteers, followed by football and volley ball matches between East and West Cameroon Colleges, and an open-air dance with music from the Police Band.
On Tuesday 10th February, celebrations took place in Victoria where the Prime Minister and his East Cameroonian hosts: the Prime Minister Charles Assale, Hon. Marigoh Mboua, and the Sultan of Foumban watched a Canoe race won by Bota over Bimbia.
The final phase of the celebrations on 11th February took place in Buea and marked by athletic competitions, traditional dances, a reception offered by the Prime Minister and his wife at his Lodge for 500 guests, as well as choral competitions and a film show at the Buea Motor Park.
In 1965, the Youth Day celebration centres were Buea and Bamenda. In Buea, celebrations were presided by the Prime Minister and were marked by sporting competitions, traditional dances by 15 groups, choral singing and folklore by youth clubs, an open air cinema show at the Motor Park, and decoration of meritorious Cameroonians.
In Bamenda, celebrations were presided by the Vice-Prime Minister in Charge of Finance Hon. A.N Jua and lasted until 12 February when the Prime Minister and Mrs. Foncha arrived to watch the display of traditional dances at the Mankon Stadium.
President Ahidjo sent special messages to the Youths of West Cameroon during these events, and following a positive technical evaluation by the Commissariat for Youth and Popular Education in 1965, the event was celebrated in East and West Cameroon in 1966 for the first time.
Consequently, in 1967, the Youth Day which was initially celebrated on in the English speaking part of the country became a national event during which the President of the Republic made nation-wide broadcasts not only on youth policy, but also on the leadership’s expectations of the youth’s contribution towards national development.