I was quite intrigued a couple of days ago, when writer George Ngwane described the new reunification monument in Buea, which I had not yet seen, as "ahistorical", that is, lacking historical perspective or context. It was therefore with great interest that I watched its unveiling today by President Biya to see what this was all about.
Structurally, the monument is an imposing edifice which weighs 162 tons, is 17.2 meters in diameter and 10 meters high. It consists of 10 pillars around a 2-ton reunification logo made of glass fiber. Impressive indeed. Nonetheless, as soon as I saw the first images of the monument, I immediately understood what George Ngwane, a cultural and historical purist, meant by an ahistorical monument.
This edifice is supposed to celebrate 50 years of (re)unification of the British Southern Cameroons and the French Cameroons. However, it fails to convey the spirit of "the road traveled" by the two entities that came together in 1961 to form the federal bilingual Cameroon republic. The 10 pillars that surround the reunification logo seem a rather unimaginative way of representing the 10 regions of the country and they do not tell us anything whatsoever about reunification. Ahistorical indeed!
The equally imposing wall that partially rings the monument from behind - which in a weird way echoes similar walls at the Vietnam and Korean war memorials and the MLK memorial all in Washington DC, or the wall at the Heroes' Acre in Windhoek, Namibia - has a garish blue color (any cultural or historical significance?) and is adorned with stereotypical "afrocentric" drawings that don't allow for the kind of solemn introspection that such monuments are supposed to evoke.
The paintings on the wall would have been a great opportunity to tell the story of the separation and coming together of the people of Kamerun after "40 years in the wilderness" as the official narrative puts it - for example, engraved headshots of key individuals who fought for and against reunification but who ultimately came together after 1961 to try and make the federation work against all odds (a kind of heroes' pantheon), or carvings that visually depict the major milestones of the reunification journey. Instead, we are presented with historically meaningless and culturally irrelevant paintings - (some that look like Egyptian pharaohs but which are supposed to represent Cameroonian traditional gods!) - with no connection to the Cameroonians who fought for independence and reunification. The result? Anyone who walks across the wall doesn't come out any more informed about the reunification story than before.
As a rule, inscriptions on monuments are supposed to be inspirational quotes and/or sayings that galvanize and mobilize. This monument with its now tiresome "Cameroon is United. One and Indivisible" reads more like a veiled threat to the English-speaking town of Buea than a cri de ralliement for all Cameroonians, including those who have their doubts about this union. Even the now derided “How Nice it is to meet our brothers” of the 1961 Foumban Conference seems far more inspiring...
It is unfortunate that Kizito Ngoa, the President of the National Order of Civil Engineers, who according to Cameroon Tribune conceived (designed?) the monument was not interviewed today about his work; maybe we would have addressed these questions and concerns.
Whatever the case, in terms of architectural splendour the Buea monuments towers over the Reunification monument in Yaounde, however, in terms of symbolism and historical relevance, the Buea monument pales in comparison to the Yaounde Reunification monument.
Pictures courtesy of the website of the Presidency of the Republic of Cameroon