By Dibussi Tande
Thanks to its stand-off with government and the sympathy generated by the Bamenda incident, the SDF was able to successfully present itself as a credible alternative to the ruling CPDM. The party’s launching also mobilized political activists, particularly those in exile, who began thinking of creating other political parties.
On March 16, 1990, barely six days after the Biya regime insisted that multipartyism was not illegal in Cameroon, John Fru Ndi, a Bamenda-based bookseller, and Dr. Siga Assanga, a lecturer at the University of Yaounde, submitted an application with the Mezam divisional office seeking authorization for a political party called the Social Democratic Front (SDF).
Although the application was in direct response to the government’s declaration that multipartyism was not proscribed in Cameroon, the SDF had actually been in gestation months before the Yondo affair.
According to the official version of the creation of the SDF, the party sprung out of the Study Group 89, a group created in November 1989 at the initiative of John Fru Ndi, whose goal was to sensitize national and international opinion about the marginalization of Cameroon's English-speaking minority. It was during a meeting at John Fru Ndi’s residence in Bamenda on February 17, 1990 that members of the study group decided to transform it into a political party. This was apparently at the urging of foreign diplomats who felt that the group would be more effective as a political party.
The cauldron seethes
The SDF application set the stage for a confrontation with the government. First, the Minister of Territorial Administration, Ibrahim Mbombo Njoya, claimed that his ministry had not received the SDF application, and then later declared that the application was incomplete. As the government dragged its feet, SDF officials argued that under the 1967 law on associations, the party did not need prior authorization from the administration to go operational, and announced that if the government did not formally respond to its application within two months, they would go ahead and unilaterally launch the party (Krieger, 1996: 105). The SDF’s launching was initially scheduled for May 16 in Bamenda. On May 14, the Minister of Territorial Administration dispatched a delegation to Bamenda to ask Northwest traditional rulers and administrative authorities to convince John Fru Ndi to call off the planned launching. Fru Ndi insisted that the launching would go ahead, but announced on May 15 that it had been postponed to May 26, 1990 as a good faith gesture, and in order not to perturb preparations for the May 20th National Day celebrations.
On May 23, Northwest provincial authorities issued an order banning the rally and closing all public places in Bamenda. Thousands of troops were also deployed to the city. In spite of the heavy military presence, the cordoning off of the city center, and the roadblocks on all major roads, thousands of SDF sympathizers flocked to Bamenda for the launching. On May 25, John Ngu Foncha, the former Vice President of Cameroon visited Fru Ndi and asked him to call off the rally to avoid a bloodbath. That same day, Foncha sent a telex to the Minister of Territorial Administration in a desperate last-minute attempt to diffuse the ticking time bomb. He pointed out that the “increased presence of uniformed men with heavy equipment and additional checkpoints have excited the population who have become angry.” He added that “drawing from past incidents which ended in gunshots, deaths, and burning of GMI quarters, I advise government to exercise restraint.” That evening, the SDF leadership met and agreed to go ahead with the launching. With that decision, all was set for the inevitable confrontation between the SDF and the Biya regime – Cameroon’s five-month struggle over multipartyism was about to claim its first victims…
On May 26, 1990, a crowd estimated at about 20,000 by CRTV ( Krieger,1998: 105), and about 80,000 by the SDF defied the over 2000 troops sent in to prevent the launching.
Initially, the day’s events were supposed to begin with a march from the City Chemist round-about to the Bamenda municipal stadium where the official launching ceremony was scheduled to take place. However, this plan was scuttled due to the dissuasive presence of troops on Commercial Avenue and the stadium. Undeterred, SDF officials switched the venue to the Ntarikon Motor Park where Fru Ndi officially launched the party. In his speech, the SDF Chairman described May 26 as “the most significant day in the struggle for democracy in Cameroon.”
"Trampled by bullets"
As SDF supporters left Ntarikon Park, they clashed with troops stationed at Commercial Avenue. According to various reports, the troops were either taunted by the crowd or were simply “frustrated at having been outfoxed” (Kreiger, 1998: 5 &105). When it was all over, six civilians lay dead, shot by security forces. They were Fidelis Chosi Mankam (Corn Mill Operator), Tifuh Mathias Teboh (Student), Asanji Christopher Fombi (Student), Nfon Edwin Jatop (Tailor), Juliette Sikod (Student), and Toje Evaristus Chatum (Student).
In a communiqué broadcast during the 1:00 p.m. radio and 7:30 p.m. bilingual TV newscasts on May 27, the government claimed that the six people who died in Bamenda had been trampled upon, and put the blame squarely on the SDF which it accused of having failed to take the necessary precautions to protect those who turned up for its “illegal rally.”
The lie unravels
It was not long before cracks started appearing in the Government’s narrative of events surrounding the launching of the SDF. In fact, the first alternative narrative emerged during the infamous bilingual TV newscast of May 27 during which the government’s claim that the dead in Bamenda had been trampled up was read. While Francophone journalists faithfully read the the government statement, the English language desk went out of its way to report on eyewitness accounts from Bamenda. As Julius Wamey who took part in the May 27 1990 English newscast alongside Eric Chinje, recalls:
Eric Chinje and I devised a strategy to deliver both the official version and the truth, which made our bosses very unhappy. We went on the air together and Eric read the government statement... Then Eric turned to me after explaining to viewers that I had been telephoning to Bamenda to get details of the event from eyewitnesses and local authorities and suggested that the information I had was radically different from the government version he had just read. I confirmed that and gave the details of the SDF march and shootings in Bamenda. Eric asked a few more leading questions and I supplied more damning information that contradicted the official version. The minister was furious. Even our Francophone colleagues were furious that we had the temerity to expose an official lie under the very nose of the minister of information.
Julius Wamey’s report that the Bamenda six had died of bullet wounds—“trampled by bullets” as the French language private press would later put it—was backed by the foreign media. For example, the Paris-based Le Monde newspaper in its May 29, 1990 issue quoted witnesses who said that security forces had shot at demonstrators as they tried to enter the city center. The most credible confirmation of what transpired in Bamenda eventually came from John Ngu Foncha, one of the few individuals allowed to view the corpses of the dead at the Bamenda mortuary. In a written testimony, the former Vice President stated that:
I went to the hospital myself where I saw the victims; two had gun-shot wounds on their shoulder blades and one had an injured collar bone; one had bullet holes around the buttocks; and another with bullet wounds on the foot. There was clear evidence that those who died were shot and killed and not trampled upon as suggested in some quarters.
Catalyst for change
Thanks to its stand-off with government and the sympathy generated by the Bamenda incident, the SDF was able to successfully present itself as a credible alternative to the ruling CPDM. The party’s launching also mobilized political activists, particularly those in exile, who began thinking of creating other political parties. Thus, days after the launch, Bello Bouba Maigari, President Biya’s first Prime Minister who was in exile in the northen Nigerian city of Kaduna launched the Union nationale pour la démocratie et le progrès au Cameroun (UNDPC) in Paris (Daloz & Quantin, 1997: 115).
Political Reawakening of the University of Yaounde
Apart from a strike by Anglophone students in 1983 over attempts by the Ministry of National Education to “Francophonize” the English language General Certificate Examinination (GCE), practically all other strikes at the University of Yaounde had been over living conditions or bursaries. This was the case, for example, of the December 1987 strike over the non-payment of bursaries. The May 26, 1990 demonstrations were technically the first political demonstrations at the University in nearly a decade, and the first that cut across Cameroon’s linguistic divide. The fallout from these demonstrations (the arrests, the demonization of the student population, the militarization of campus, etc.) created a politically-charged and highly politicized environment which gave birth to a new crop of student activists who would, within a year, transform the university into beehive of pro-democracy and anti-government activity.
On May 26, students at the University of Yaounde also organized a pro-multiparty rally to coincide with the launching on the SDF. Their march was violently quelled by security forces and the students demonized by the Biya regime whivh falsely accused them of singing the Nigerian national anthem - the ultimate act of betrayal in the eyes of Francophone Cameroonians.
Click here for a narrative of those events at the University of Yaounde.
An excerpt from Reform and Repression by Dibussi Tande (forthcoming).