By Dibussi Tande
"In the days following the military crackdown, reports began to emerge of widespread looting and rape by soldiers, and of students killed and either dumped in a lake near the university or buried in mass graves outside of Yaounde."
20 years ago today, on May 6, 1991, elements from the Cameroonian security forces launched a brutal assault on the University of Yaounde student residential area called Bonamoussadi to decapitate the Parlement student movement.
The May 6 assault was the bloody culmination of a month-long confrontation between University of Yaoundé students and the Biya regime which quickly spread beyond the gates of the University, transforming itself into a nationwide civil disobedience campaign which was anything but civil.
The events that led to the attack on Bonamoussadi began fairly innocuously in late March 1991 when the University campus was flooded with tracts calling for a protest march on April 2 in support of a general amnesty and a national conference. On April 1, 1991, Chancellor Joel Moulen issued a statement banning the planned demonstration, and warning students that there would be severe reprisals if they went ahead with the march. Given the disturbances that had occurred in other parts of Cameroon and elsewhere in Africa, what Joel Moulin did was to effectively publicize and legitimize the demonstration.
On April 2, 1991, thousands of university students assembled at the “Carrefour Orly” next to the old university restaurant. This motley crowd consisted of individuals who supported the demands of the organizers of the protest march, opposition sympathizers, thrill seekers itching for a confrontation with the much-hated gendarmes who had occupied the campus for months, and curious onlookers who simply wanted to see how the event would unfold. Clashes began as soon as the students fanned out of the university into the streets. Violent confrontations occurred particularly at Obili and the Mokolo market between placard-brandishing students and anti-riot police backed by water cannons and helicopters. The clashes went on until late in the afternoon when the students retreated to the university campus.
The Parlement is Born
On the night of April 2 -3, 1991, thousands of students gathered again at Carrefour Orly to take stock of a very violent day during which scores of students had been arrested and injured. Speaking from a hastily erected stand, Corantin Talla, one of the movement’s leaders, informed the students that an organization and leadership structure were necessary to manage and keep the “resistance” alive, raise funds to help wounded students, and carry out the vital public relations campaign. It was agreed that the organization would be known as the “parlement” to symbolize the democracy that was would exist within its ranks. A provisional bureau was also put in place. Talla was selected as leader and given the nom de guerre of Schwarzkopf – a reference to General Norman Schwarzkopf who had led US troops during the Gulf War campaign. He was assisted by Christopher Atane Acha, First Vice President; Waffo Wanto Robert alias Collin Powel, Second Vice President; Yimga Yochou Blaise, alias Abou Nidal, as Secretary; and Elsie Chebe alias Margaret Thatcher, as Treasurer.
The leaders of the newly created Parlement also decided establish its headquarters in the Bonamoussadi student residential quarters, precisely at the junction linking the Obili neighborhood to the University. The selection of Bonamoussadi was no accident. It was a strategically-placed location with four exits that made it easier to evade any security dragnet. That location was named “Bassorah”, another Gulf war reference (Bassorah is the French name for Basrah, Iraq’s second largest city). From then on, until May 6 1991, the Parlement organized daily meetings at Bassorah every evening at 6 p.m. That time was later moved to 9 p.m. to avoid the regular attacks and raids by security forces.
On April 3, clashes between Molotov cocktail-throwing students and security forces continued with renewed intensity on campus. Students who attempted to march out of campus and link up with street vendors at the Yaounde central market who had also joined the protest action were attacked on the outskirts of campus by mixed brigades of the police and gendarmes, backed by tear gas-spraying helicopters manned by Israeli commandos from the President Guards.
With the situation getting out of hand, authorities immediately banned all public gatherings in Yaounde, but the genie was already out of the bottle. Within a matter of days, towns across the country - Douala, Bafoussam, Mutengene, Kumba, Ngaoundere, Foumban, etc. - were ablaze.
By the end of April, the University of Yaounde had become a war zone occupied by heavily armed gendarmes whose appalling brutality soon became legendary; all of this capped by claims of student deaths, disappearances and rapes. The situation degenerated to the point that the top three Parlement leaders, Talla, Waffo and Yimga, eventually took refuge at the offices of the European Economic Community (EEC) where they asked for political refugee status. The government used every ruse in the book to extract these student leaders out of the EEC compound, including requiring that all students personally show up on campus to re-register or be dismissed – this plan was foiled after the three students were brought to campus to re-register under the protection of US marines – yet another improbable chapter in an uprising that had already witnessed the involvement of Israeli soldiers…
The MATECO Rally
Faced with the worsening situation on campus and the indefinite suspension of classes, university authorities tried the carrot approach by authorizing students to organize a rally on campus to express their grievances. On May 4 1991, about 20,000 thousand students gathered the MATECO university sports complex for a rally organized under the auspices of another student group, the National Coordination of Cameroon Students led by Senfo Tonkam.
Even though the rally was officially organized by the National Coordination of Cameroon Students, it was effectively the Parlement’s official coming out party, and it ended with a merger of both groups and the promise of a mammoth protest march through the streets of Yaounde on May 6.
As students returned home after the incident-free rally some of them were attacked in the nearby neighborhood of Obili by members of a local vigilante group, the “comité de vigilance” headed by Joseph Manda Fils, a native of the area and a local leader of the ruling CPDM. This vigilance committee was allegedly a branch of shadowy Beti group Action Directe which was behind most of the anti “Anglo-Bami” tracts that inundated Yaounde. Manda Fils was extremely hostile to opponents of the Biya regime, particularly the Anglophones and the Bamileke who were also accused of having “stolen” Beti land. As he would explain years later in a 1998 interview (Socpa, 2003):
It is true that it hurts a little to see that we have been invaded [by the Bamileke], we cannot even breathe... It is also true that I don't like the way in which the Bamileke support the opposition. They even created an SDF ward right here. This is not normal... you cannot go to someone's home and command him or her to this extent. (p.85)
The Assault on Bassorah
On Monday May 6, thousands of students gathered in front of the Chancellor’s office to protest against the attacks by the vigilante groups. Students camped out in front of the chancellery for the entire day making speeches and asking the hapless Chancellor Joel Moulen to take action. By late afternoon crowd had grown to at least 10,000 students. It was this crowd that marched off to Bassorah around 5 p.m. for an emergency meeting convened by the leaders of the Parlement. About an hour into the meeting, hundreds of heavily-armed troops launched an assault on Bassorah in what remains the most brutal crackdown in the university’s history. Orders to attack Bassorah had come directly from the Presidency, and regime hardliners hoped the assault would lead to the capture of the Parlement’s top brass and the decapitation of the movement. By the time the raid on Bassorah was over, an estimated 1000 students had been arrested and hundreds more wounded.
The soldiers also launched a full-scale raid on Bonamoussadi, breaking into rooms and arresting even those who had not participated in the day’s events. Auto-defense, the pro-government student group, and Beti vigilante groups from nearby neighborhoods also joined in the attack on students which soon became a full-scale hunt for the Anglo-Bamis in the neighboring quartiers, including non-students. ..
On May 7, the leadership of the Parlement officially launched “Operation Ghost Campus.” Within a matter of hours, what was arguably the most massive “internal exodus” in the country’s history began as over 20,000 students abandoned the University for the provinces. By May 10 the deserted Ngoa-Ekelle had become a ghost city in ruins, ransacked and pillaged by security forces. In the days following the military crackdown, reports began to emerge of widespread looting and rape by soldiers, and of students killed and either dumped in a lake near the university or buried in mass graves outside of Yaounde. This information was picked up by local human rights organizations which relayed it to the international media. For example, in an interview with Radio-France Internationale (RFI), Charles Tchoungang, President of the Organisation des droits de l'homme au Cameroun (ODHC), claimed that four students had been killed during the raid on Bassorah. Government spokesperson, Professor Kontchou Kuomegni, however, declared that there had been “zero morts” (zero deaths) not only on May 6, but since the beginning of the month-long student uprising. The government also claimed that only 218 students had been arrested and 17 wounded, 16 of them lightly, and that 205 students were released on 9th May, and the last group on 13th.
Side note: I was among the students who arrested at Bassorah, then teargased and taken to the Gendarmerie legion at Camp Yeyap next to the Yaounde municipal lake. I was later transferred, first to the detention center within the national Secretariat for Defense (SED) and then moved again to the Commissariat de Djongolo opposite the offices of the General Delegation for National Security where I and other students were locked up with common law criminals. On Thursday, May 10, we were finally brought back the Gendarmerie legion where we were processed and then set free [Of course, this is a brief and sanitized version of my experiences during those harrowing 4 days…]
Commission of Inquiry
As national and international outrage grew over the alleged abuses by security forces at the University of Yaounde, President Biya created a commission of inquiry on May 15, 1991 to investigate the events at the university since April, and to establish definitively if any students were killed during the month-long protest movement. The commission which was made up of nine members was chaired by Justice SML Endeley, a former President of the Buea Court of Appeal in the Southwest province. He was assisted by Mballa Mballa Odile. The Endeley Commission of Inquiry, as it came to be known, was given one month to submit its findings. When it did, it was a damning report which confirmed the excessive violence, the rapes, etc., but was unable to confirm the alleged deaths.
As students converged in the provinces, they organized mammoth anti-government rallies in different towns during which they reiterated their initial demands and highlighted the brutality of the police and gendarmes since April. The largest rallies took place in Douala, Bafoussam, Bamenda, Garoua, Buea and Limbe. Even the “pro-regime” Eastern province joined the fray with protest marches organized in Bertoua. Representatives of the Parlement also formally began taking part in meetings of the National Coordination of Opposition Parties. On May 12, 1991, 22 political parties and 10 human rights associations, including the Yaounde University Students' Parliament, met in Bamenda under the banner of the National Coordination of Opposition Parties and Associations.
The Wind that Became a Whirlwind
In the university of Yaounde, May 6, 1991 was just another bloody landmark as the protest movement continued full blown well into 1993 when the entire Parlement leadership was banned for life from all institutions of Higher Education in Cameroon and forced into exile. Long, before then, however, Jean Fochive, Cameroon’s Police boss, would grant the Parlement’s leaders “Safe Passage” out of the EEC compound to the opposition stronghold of Bamenda, Senfo Tonkam would be arrested in Makak some 100 km away from Yaounde by Gendarmes receiving instructions from a certain Ebale Angounou, Biya’s “young friend” with the 9mm Browning revolver, who was in charge of armed vigilante groups on campus. And Ebale Angounou himself would be arrested and jailed in the Kondengui maximum security prison, alongside Tonkam – he would respond with two incendiary books about the Biya regime; the self-serving Paul Biya, the nightmare of my life, or, The other side of my destiny, and the fantastical Blood: Biya's Power Lotion...
The wind of protest, confrontation and repression that blew over the University of Yaounde, beginning in March 1991, was a sign of things to come; in fact, it soon transformed itself into a violent and ferocious whirlwind that engulfed the entire country, as town after town was rocked by anti-government protest, shaking the Biya regime to its very foundations, and bringing the country to the closest it has ever been to a full-scale civil war since the 1960s. These were the so-called "années de braise" or the "smoldering years" - smoldering with widespread discontent, political activism and repression....
Article based on a chapter in forthcoming book on the Smouldering Years.
Mateco pictures courtesy of Etienne de Tayo