By Dibussi Tande
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 Nigeria rather than Cameroon’s; and of a powerful neighbor busy manipulating the “Anglophone Trojan horse” to its advantage.
On May 26, 1990, Cameroonians apprehensively awaited the outcome of the inevitable confrontation between the Social Democratic Front (SDF) and the Biya regime in Bamenda. Officials of the SDF, a political party created a couple of months earlier, decided to officially launch the party in Bamenda on this day, in spite of a government order formally banning the event on grounds that the SDF was an illegal organization – a view not shared by SDF members and sympathizers who were determined to go ahead with the launching come what may.
In response, the government flooded Bamenda with troops whose mission was to to crackdown on any SDF-led public manifestation as thousands of SDF sympathizers from all over the Northwest province and beyond converge on the city under siege.
Against all odds, Ni John Fru Ndi, the SDF Chairman officially launched the the party at the Ntarikon motor park. By the end of the day, however, six people lost their lives. The government initially claimed that they had been “trampled to death” at the rally, however, it later emerged that they had been gunned down by soldiers.
As the SDF was being launched in Bamenda, students at the University of Yaounde organized a pro-democracy rally on campus in support of multiparty politics. The march kicked off around 1:00 pm at Carrefour Orly, opposite the university restaurant. Singing songs and waving leaves and placards, the students called on the government to give in gracefully to multipartyism. The students then marched to the Chancellery where gendarmes had been stationed. The gendarmes tried to break up the march by attacking the students who retaliated by pelting administrative buildings, Amphitheaters, and vehicles with stones.
As troop reinforcements arrived, the demonstrators fled in different directions; some towards the melen market where they continued their demonstrations and clashed again with anti-riot police. Other students who tried to flee towards the student residential quarters were attacked by pro-government students who were soon outnumbered and sought refuge in the University cafeteria which was also pelted with stones by the irate crowd. More troops were called in to crack down on the “rioters” who were allegedly "destroying the entire university."
What followed was a six-hour orgy of violence and destruction as troops spread their dragnet across campus and the nearby quartiers where, with the assistance of university-appointed “student delegates,” they zoomed in on residential areas with a high concentration of English-speaking students. Hundreds of rooms were broken into, their occupants severely beaten and then carted away to the Brigade Mixte Mobile (BMM) and other detention centers around town. About 400 students are arrested by the end of the day.
Even before the arrested students settled down in their respective detention centers later that evening for their first dose of “coffee”, the official spin machine is already working in overdrive.
According to a communiqué repeatedly broadcast on radio and TV, contrary to claims by the International media, the University of Yaounde demonstration was 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 patriots made up of students 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 had consisted primarily of thousands of Nigerians imported from across the border for the occasion by the SDF, and that SDF leader, John Fru Ndi, had fled to where else? Nigeria!
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 Nigeria rather than Cameroon’s; and of a powerful neighbor busy manipulating the “Anglophone Trojan horse” to its advantage. Expectedly, the communiqué resonated quite well with large segments of the Francophone majority which generally believes in the inherent (pre)disposition of English-speaking Cameroonians to betray la patrie.
“Enemies in the House”
Within hours of the communiqué being broadcast, pseudo-patriots of all stripes rose up in unison to condemn those “Biafrans” in Yaounde and Bamenda who had had finally showed their true colors. The opening shots were fired on May 28 by the Mfoundi section of the ruling CPDM party whose President, Emah Basile (also Mayor of Yaounde at the time), declared on national radio that Anglophones were “Enemis dans la maison”(enemies in the house).
In an interview published in the Government-owned Cameroon Tribune the next day, Ibrahim Mbombo Njoya, the Minister of Territorial Administration lashed out at the alleged traitors: “Those who do not feel Cameroonian should go elsewhere” (Ceux qui ne se sentent pas camerounais peuvent aller ailleurs).
The patriotic fervor that gripped the French News desk of CRTV reached fanatical proportions as otherwise level-headed journalists did their best to outdo each other in spewing out the most virulent anti-Anglophone vitriol which had nothing to envy from the kind of material that would be heard a few years later on Rwanda’s Radio Milles Colines.
One of these notorious commentaries titled "La cinquième colonne” (The Fifth Column) was read by Zacharie Ngniman (later CPDM Member of Parliament from Mayo Banyo) on the French Newscast of Monday May 28, 1990. The opening lines went straight for the jugular:
When an individual claims to be a patriot, and believes that it is his right to demonstrate on the [university] campus and in the streets, this presupposes that the said individual has nothing but respect love and fidelity towards his nation.
What should we therefore make of the individual who, claiming to express this right, sings the national anthem of another country?
Isn't that the manifestation of an inherent disposition to betray one’s own nation and compatriots?
This blasphemous and divisive act, which is an insult to the nation, was indeed committed on May 26 by a handful of activists at the University of Yaounde and in the streets of Bamenda. Individuals who were victims of intoxication and manipulation sang the national anthem of a neighboring country". [My translation].
Even the usually critical French language private press swallowed this tale, hook, line and sinker. The Douala-based La Détente best captured the general mood East of the Mungo River with a three-word headline: “Ils ont osé!” (They had the guts!).
The Spin Machine Unravels
As with most lies, it was not long before cracks started appearing in the Government’s story. First, pictures and leaked autopsy reports from Bamenda confirmed that the six youngsters had died of bullet wounds – “trampled by bullets” as the French language private press would later put it, once it regained its senses. Also, a painstaking effort to reconstitute the events at the University of Yaounde eventually proved that university students never sang anything close to the Nigerian national anthem.
Zacharie Ngniman and Antoine-Marie Ngono, respectively Editor-in-Chief and Chief of Service for Political Affairs on CRTV Radio, the two Francophone journalists who had led the vicious attack against the Anglophone community, would later write a pathetic open letter to the Minister of Information, complaining that Government officials had deliberately misled them.
By making us say things like ‘the dead in Bamenda were trampled upon’ did we lie or were we misled? By making us announce that Mr. John Fru Ndi had escaped to Nigeria when he was relaxing in his bookshop in Bamenda… we were sacrificed to public vilification.
In his book, Cameroun: la démocratie emballée (Yaoundé, 1993) Ngniman tries explain how he unwittingly became a key player, in fact a pawn, in one of the most shameful episodes in recent Cameroonian history.
The coup de grace was given by Cardinal Tumi during a Press conference on June 11, 1990 when he berated the journalists of the official media and lashed out: “You have lost all credibility in the eyes of the public you are merely ‘your master’s voice’”.
The Puppet Masters
While the French language official media was roundly condemned - and rightly so! for their overzealousness in going after the “treacherous Anglophones” they were nonetheless mere pawns in a macabre puppet show put up by puppet masters puppets pulling the strings in the shadows. It would be eventually revealed that the tale of “Anglophone treason” had been concocted at the highest levels of Government, precisely by the infamous “cellule de communication” at the Presidency.