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date: 22 April 2019

Nationalism and Decolonization in Cameroon

Summary and Keywords

The union between the former French Cameroun and the British Southern Cameroons on October 1, 1961, to form the Federal Republic of Cameroon was a unique experiment in nation building and the struggle for independence in Africa. For instance, the Union des Populations du Cameroun (UPC), the first truly nationalist party in the former French trusteeship that advocated immediate independence and reunification with the British Cameroons, was banned in May 1955 by French colonial authorities because of its radical views, since France was still reluctant to grant its African colonies complete independence. For France, the choice of who and which party could lead the territory to independence depended on who French authorities thought could guarantee continued relations with France following independence. In the end, Ahmadou Ahidjo and his Union Camerounaise (UC) emerged as the best candidate to meet France’s objectives in a postcolonial Cameroun. On the other hand, because of the colonial arrangement that allowed Britain to administer its section of the former German colony as part of its colony of Nigeria to the west, the nationalist struggle took a different trajectory and was more against Nigerian rather than British colonial domination. In other words, for many Southern Cameroonians, the focus by the two major parties (Kamerun National Democratic Party (KNDP) and Cameroons Peoples’ National Convention (CPNC)) during the campaign leading to the plebiscite on February 11, 1961, was whether the territory should be part of the Republic of Cameroun, which was engulfed in violence and bloodshed following its independence on January 1, 1960, or face the threat of Igbo domination if Southern Cameroonians decided to become part of an independent Nigeria.

Keywords: Ahidjo, Britain, French Cameroun, Foncha, France, Mbida, reunification, Southern Cameroons, Um Nyobè

During the European scramble for Africa, Germany occupied the territory that became known as Kamerun (1884 to 1916).1 Following Germany’s defeat in World War I and the return to France of a section of French Equatorial Africa that had been ceded to Germany in 1911, the rest of the former German colony was divided between Britain and France as League of Nations mandates; a decision that was finally ratified on July 20, 1922.2 France received four-fifths of German Kamerun while Britain received the rest, consisting of two tiny non-contiguous territories straddled the British colony of Nigeria to the west, which it named the British Northern and British Southern Cameroons. As Class B mandates, Britain and France were given full administrative and legislative authority over both territories with minimal supervision from the League of Nations, and later, from the United Nations (UN) when they became UN trust territories following World War II. Under this arrangement, France administered its section of Cameroon as an independent administrative entity that was similar to, but separate from, its neighboring colonies of French West Africa and French Equatorial Africa. Similar to its other colonies in Africa, France instituted a highly centralized system that did not necessarily depend on local institutions. Claude Welch argues that the French High Commissioner to Cameroon was the main trustee of power and governed the territory through decrees in accordance with general policy directives from Paris.3 By contrast, Britain, for its administrative and financial convenience, administered its section of Cameroon as an integral part of its colony of Nigeria, where it pursued a policy that encouraged indigenous participation in the administrative process through the use of Native Authorities and elected local councils in the administrative process. As a result of this unique administrative arrangement, which impacted the cultural, economic, and political lives of the people in the former German colony in different ways,4 the nationalist struggle that culminated in the creation of a federal structure that brought together the former British Southern Cameroons and the French Cameroun was different from the struggle for independence elsewhere on the continent. The article is divided into three broad sections; the first, “Nationalism and the Independence Movement in French Cameroun,” examines the independence movement in French Cameroun, while the second, “Nationalism and Decolonization in the British Southern Cameroons,” focuses on the British Southern Cameroons. The concluding section, “Constitutional Discourse and Reconciling the Dual Heritage,” examines the constitutional discourse between the already independent Republic of Cameroun and the Southern Cameroons, which culminated in the creation of the Federal Republic of Cameroon.

Nationalism and the Independence Movement in French Cameroun

One of the goals of French policy in Cameroun and throughout its African colonies was to undermine the legitimacy and effectiveness of long-existing traditional institutions while simultaneously promoting the prominence and dominance of French political and administrative institutions. For instance, Le Vine notes that regional chiefs were often chosen by the chefs de circonscription (district officers) because of their eagerness to serve French authority rather than their loyalty and legitimacy to traditional norms. These chiefs were only expected to execute the authority delegated to them by French authorities. Indicative of such policy was the case of Charles Atangana, who was not only reinstated as chief of the Ewondo people, but whose authority was extended by the colonial authorities to include the Bane people. By contrast, because he was unwilling to surrender complete control to French colonial authorities, Sultan Njoya of Bamoun was deposed and eventually exiled to Yaoundé in 1931.5 With the exception of the city of Douala and its immediate surroundings, where a few traditional chiefs, local elites, and trade union activists were involved in quasi-political activities before World War II, French colonial policy in Cameroun had effectively limited any form of organized political challenge to its policy in the territory. Even with these limited exceptions, such activities only emphasized greater economic and political opportunities for Cameroonians and a closer relationship with France.

That was the case with the Jeunesse Camerounaise Française (Jeucafra), the first political organization founded in the city of Douala in 1938, with Paul Soppo Priso as its first president, and André Fouda and Louis-Marie Pouka as the vice president and secretary general, respectively. Jeucafra also included a few traditional chiefs and notables,6 and had been initially established in 1933 as Jeunesse Camerounaise (JC). However, because French policy prohibited the formation of political associations, the group simply represented itself as a cultural and social improvement society before changing its name to Jeunesse Camerounaise Française in 1938. As an organization that also included representatives from both French administrative and economic institutions in the country, Jeucafra’s political platform emphasized its opposition to Germany’s international campaign to regain control of Cameroun. Instead, the organization expressed its desire for greater integration into the French orbit and for Cameroonians to enjoy the same rights as Frenchmen.7

World War II and the Rise of Nationalism in French Cameroun

As in many African colonies, World War II led to demands for independence in French Cameroun, especially among returning soldiers whose experiences in Europe and elsewhere during the war led to demands for self-rule and democracy as promoted by the very principles of the war and by the Atlantic Charter. Despite these demands, France was still unwilling to make such drastic political concessions. In fact, despite the abolition of the Code de l’indigénat and all forms of forced labor in its African colonies, which Charles de Gaulle had approved as a sign of gratitude to the colonies for their support against Nazi Germany during the war, France’s policy of promoting the idea of greater integration within the French orbit remained the focus of its relations with its African colonies. For instance, under the 1946 constitution of the Fourth French Republic, France’s colonies were given the opportunity to elect representatives to various French parliamentary institutions, including the National Assembly, the Council of the Republic, and the Assembly of French Union. Indeed, Richard Joseph reminds us that even some of the more liberal and progressive French governors in colonial Africa were determined to “stymie the growth of any movement that encouraged ‘separatists’ or ‘autonomist’ sentiments among the population . . . and that African subjects were allowed to be nationalists so long as the nation in question was that of ‘Greater France’.”8 Therefore, any African who challenged that ideology was considered anti-French and subversive.9 As a result of France’s dogged position on the future of its African colonies, nationalist groups such as the short-lived Mouvement Démocratique Camerounais (MDC), founded in Douala and led by the trade union leader Léopold Moumé-Etia, and the Cameroun branch of the Front Intercolonial (FI), founded by the ex-soldier James Eboumbou in 1946, never gained popular appeal in post-war politics in the territory.10 Meanwhile, in 1946, Jeucafra changed its name to Union Camerounaise Française (Unicafra). Evidently, the new name was a reflection of Unicafra’s willingness to maintain its association with France.

Ultimately, it was the Union des Populations du Cameroun (UPC), founded on April 10, 1948, in the city of Douala by a group of civil servants and trade union leaders, including Ruben Um Nyobè, Félix-Roland Moumié, and Leonard Bouly, that would emerge as the first truly nationalist party in the territory. Soon after its founding, the UPC affiliated itself with the Rassemblement Démocratique Africain (RDA), which had branches in French West Africa and French Equatorial Africa. Like the RDA, the UPC supported the idea of greater civil and political rights for French-speaking Africans. However, the relationship between the RDA and the UPC was short-lived as the RDA developed a more accommodating attitude toward France. At the same time, it rejected UPC’s continued affiliation with the French Communist Party.11

Nationalism and Decolonization in CameroonClick to view larger

Figure 1. UPC leaders. Creative Commons License (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Note. From left: Ossendé Affana, Abel Kingué, Ruben Um Nyobè, Félix-Roland Moumié, Ernest Ouandié.

For instance, unlike the RDA, Jeucafra, Unicafra, and various trade union organizations in Cameroun in the 1930s and 1940s, which were more interested in seeking greater political and economic opportunities within France’s colonial orbit, the UPC challenged the continued exploitation of the territory and pushed for immediate independence and reunification with the British Cameroons. At a time when France was accelerating its exploitation of its colonies in an effort to rebuild its economy following World War II, this idea was rejected as too radical. Efforts by French colonial authorities to intimidate and neutralize the party by transferring many of the leaders to remote parts of the country backfired. According to Joseph, Félix Moumié and Ruben Um Nyobe used their reassignments from Douala, the nerve center of the party and nationalist politics in Cameroun to spread UPC doctrine and “sharpen their own radical critique of colonialism.”12

Eventually, the UPC’s insistence on both issues—immediate independence and reunification—and France’s refusal to grant these, led to violent confrontations between the UPC and French authorities, which culminated in the May 1955 riots and the banning of the party on July 13, 1955. Richard Joseph has discussed various reasons for the riots, including well-orchestrated efforts by the administration and its agent provocateurs to disrupt UPC meetings in various parts of the country, to ideological splits within the party and the influence of revolutionists such as Ho Chi Minh and Mao Tse Tung.13 Regardless of the cause or causes of the riots, the decision to ban the party unleashed a wave of violence and sabotage by the UPC and strong government countermeasures, especially in Wouri and other UPC strongholds in the Sanaga-Maritime region. As a result, Ruben Um Nyobè (assassinated on September 13, 1958, with the help of the French military) and many of group’s leaders went underground, from where they continued the violent struggle until 1971, when the last of the leaders, including Ernest Quandie, Celestin Takala, and Wambo Le Courant, were arrested and executed by the Ahidjo regime after a show trial. Meanwhile, with the unfolding political developments throughout Africa in the 1950s, including the Gold Coast, which had gained its independence in 1957, the thought of independence was no longer a distant dream for Cameroonians. Cognizant of the new reality on the continent, France was forced to give up its utopian vision of creating a greater France d’outre-mer. In other words, the issue for France was no longer a matter for independence for its territory, but one of selecting a leader and the party that would guarantee continued preferential economic and political relationship with France after independence.

In the end, the leader selected by France was the ex-seminarian Andre-Marie Mbida, leader of the Parti des Démocrates Camerounais (PDC). Born in 1917, in Edingding, near the city of Yaoundé, Mbida was educated at a Roman Catholic seminary before his eventual involvement in Cameroun politics in 1952. Perhaps his greatest political success was his victory in the January 1956 election of deputies to the French National Assembly. Riding on the crest of a strong nationalist and anti-French sentiment among Cameroonian elites in the territory, Mbida defeated the incumbent and his political mentor, Louis-Paul Aujoulat, founder of the Bloc Démocratique Camerounais (BDC). Commenting on Mbida’s victory in the elections. Joseph opines that:

When one examines the political pronouncements of Mbida before the elections, one discovers an echoing of many upeciste arguments, albeit combined with profuse statements of loyalty to France, indicative of Mbida’s ambivalence in adopting a nationalist rhetoric on purely opportunistic grounds while still retaining the contradictory assimilationist attitudes he had shared with Dr. Auhoulat.14

Indeed, Mbida’s ambiguity toward France may explain why he was selected as prime minister and confirmed by the Cameroun National Assembly on May 15, 1957. However, his tenure was short-lived, as his abrasive personality, uncompromising attitude, especially toward the banned UPC, and reluctance to push for immediate independence and reunification with the British Cameroons not only put him at odds with French authorities who envisioned independence for Cameroun in accordance with the provisions of the loi-cadre (Reform Act) of June 23, 1956, but also with many of his political friends and foes. For instance, rather than proposing a plan for immediate independence, Mbida introduced a ten-year economic, social, and political agenda for the territory, after which an assessment for the possibility of independence could be made. The proposal was rejected and Mbida was forced to resign as prime minister on February 17, 1958, by Jean Ramadier, the French High Commissioner to Cameroon.15 He was replaced by Ahmadou Ahidjo, a northern Muslim and leader of the Union Camerounaise (UC), who had served as Mbida’s deputy prime minister and Minister of the Interior, and whose decision to withdraw five members of his party, who made up the eight of the ministers in Mbida’s cabinet, precipitated the collapse of the coalition government. Mbida eventually went into self-exile in Conakry, Guinea, where he attempted to form an alliance with the external wing of the UPC.16 Richard Joseph notes that because of his unimpressive political credentials at the time, the selection of Ahidjo as Mbida’s replacement was perceived by French authorities as a temporary solution until a more qualified candidate capable of protecting French interests in the territory could be identified from the ranks of indigenous politicians.17

Nationalism and Decolonization in CameroonClick to view larger

Figure 2. President Ahmadou Ahidjo arrives for a visit in Washington, DC.

Photo by William Firaneck (public domain).

Notwithstanding the skepticism among French authorities at the time, Ahidjo seized the opportunity to establish himself as an astute leader. Not only did he express his support for immediate independence for the territory as advocated by France, but he also indicated his desire to maintain and protect French interests in Cameroun. Le Vine argues that the fact that Ahidjo was all too willing to protect French interests became evident in a series of pre-independence agreements (similar to agreements signed between France and many of its former African colonies) negotiated in 1958 between Cameroun and the French government that virtually guaranteed French control on issues related to foreign affairs, the military, and the nation’s monetary system.18 Moreover, even though Ahidjo might not have initially supported the idea of reunification, as advocated by the banned UPC, he, unlike Mbida, knew that it was the politically astute thing to do in order to ingratiate himself to the French, retain his position as prime minister, and win broad political support from other pro-nationalist groups and parties that supported the idea.19 Commenting on his appointment as prime minister, Gardinier notes that:

[Ahidjo] was a modernist who saw the need for economic development, educational advancement and political changes if the North were not left behind. His presence at the head of the Government reassured the North, which showed uneasiness about a self-governing Cameroon in which the more advanced South might dominate. His presence made many changes that would be introduced more palatable and less disturbing. To the more advanced regions, his flexible attitude towards internal political problems and his support for independence and reunification made participation in a Government headed by a northerner acceptable.20

Indeed, Richard Joseph described Ahidjo as a political opportunist who used whatever ideas seemed appropriate at any particular time only to discard them when they were no longer appropriate or had become “threadbare.”21 For instance, he was willing to strike a deal with opportunists within the ranks of the UPC leadership and other opposition parties and groups who were willing to give up their strongly held political convictions in exchange for the chance to acquire power and privilege in the administration. At the same time, however, he was quick to punish those who refused to do so. That attitude was evident in the composition of his first government and his general approach toward the UPC. For instance, soon after his appointment as prime minister, Ahidjo created a broad coalition government that included representatives from the major political parties and regions of the country. His first ministerial appointments included Charles Assalé, a co-founder of the UPC who had left the party in 1957 because of its violent and revolutionary approach to independence, and Michel Njine, one of the co-chiefs of the Bamileke-dominated Paysans Independants.22 As for the UPC itself, Ahidjo took a carrot and stick approach in dealing with the party; on the one hand, he promised amnesty to members of the party who had gone underground following the banning of the party in 1955, if they gave up their campaign of violence against the administration and the population, especially in the Sanaga-Maritime region. On the other hand, however, he promised a ruthless military campaign (with support from France) against those who refused to surrender.

The overture was successful. In the three months following the ambush killing of Ruben Um Nyobè in the Sanaga-Maritime region on September 13, 1958, and the surrender of his chief lieutenant, Théodore Mayi Matip, over 2,000 UPC fighters had surrendered to government forces.23 In April 1959, Mayi Matip and former UPC fighters who had surrendered and reconstituted themselves under the banner of the reformed internal wing of the UPC known as the rallie upecistes, were allowed to run candidates to fill the seats of six legislative members in the Nyong-et-Sanaga, Sanaga-Maritime, and Bamileke regions, who had either resigned, died, or had been assassinated by UPC liberation fighters after the 1956 legislative elections.24 Although Le Vine speculates that candidates from Ahidjo’s UC Party could have won those seats if it had decided to field candidates, Ahidjo decided that candidates from the rallie upecistes stood a better chance of winning if they ran unopposed. At the same time, Ahidjo felt that representation by members of the rallie upecistes in the legislature would enhance his political credentials while also creating a rift between the internal and the external wings of the party. The latter had established its base in Conakry, Guinea. He was correct; in a series of heated exchanges between the two factions, the external wing of the party accused Mayi Matip and members of the rallie upecistes of being stooges and political opportunists. On the other hand, the rallie upecistes accused the external UPC of spreading false propaganda and being uninformed about the political realities at home.25 However, the disagreement between the factions and the fact that the rallie upecistes had apparently reconciled with the regime did not mean that the internal struggle was over. In fact, Ahidjo used the intensification of violence by remnants of the underground UPC in the Bamileke region in 1959 as an excuse to coerce the legislature to give him emergency powers that would allow him to rule by decree until new legislative elections were held in March 1960. He would later use the same emergency powers to request French military support in the final brutal suppression of the UPC resistance. Ultimately, by the time the former French territory was granted independence on January 1, 1960, Ahmadou Ahidjo, whom the French had perceived as a political neophyte, was well on his way to establishing himself as an astute, manipulative, and ruthless politician. Unlike the more uncompromising and abrasive Mbida, Ahidjo had succeeded by wisely playing the game that French authorities wanted him to play—that is, by forming coalitions even with his political enemies as well as supporting France’s agenda for the territory. Having attained independence on January 1, 1960, Ahidjo had to wait for the unfolding political developments in the British Southern Cameroons before making his next move.26

Nationalism and Decolonization in the British Southern Cameroons

While the relationship with France was the main focus of the nationalist struggle in the former French territory, alongside the search for a leader who was willing to maintain a friendly relationship with the former colonial power following independence, the situation in the British Southern Cameroons was more complex. For one thing, the fact that Britain administered the territory as part of its colony of Nigeria to the west made the territory almost an integral part of Nigeria. To illustrate the complete control that Nigeria had over the territory, Johnson notes that until 1954 Britain created no separate representative institutions in the British Southern Cameroons. Even after the creation of representative councils in the different regions in Nigeria under the 1946 Richardson Constitution, no special seats were reserved either in the central or regional assemblies for Cameroonians. Additionally, until 1951, no Cameroonians were elected to the central legislature as part of the eastern or northern Nigerian delegation. Meanwhile, the Southern Cameroons received limited financial support from Nigeria and even when it did so, the amount it received was much less than what it was due.27 To make matters worse, Southern Cameroons’ economy and bureaucracy was dominated by Nigerians, especially Igbos from the Eastern Region of Nigeria. Amaazee estimates that there were nearly 10,000 Nigerians in the Southern Cameroons, most of them Igbos and Ibibios.28 In fact, in addition to the nearly 400 Nigerians in various administrative positions in the British Southern Cameroons, including most of the policemen and judges, Igbos controlled 85 percent of the small commercial businesses and most of the African-run transportation services in the territory.29 Therefore, Nigeria, more than Britain, was seen by many Southern Cameroonians as the real colonial authority. Consequently, the focus of the nationalist struggle in the territory was whether to continue its relationship with Nigeria or reunify with French Cameroun.

Although reunification, or what Ardener describes as “the Kamerun idea,”30 was initially promoted by R. Jebea K. Dobonge and other prominent French Cameroonian immigrants in the Southern Cameroons, Welch opines that that the idea was eventually supported by the Cameroons National Federation (CNF), ostensibly as a threat and a way of calling attention to the social and economic conditions in the territory, and to win a measure of autonomy from Nigeria.31 Founded at a conference in Kumba, in May 1949, CNF was an umbrella organization brought together by Dr. E. M. L. Endeley, and including almost twenty disparate groups, including the Bakweri Land Committee, the French Cameroons Welfare Union, and the Cameroons Federal Union.32 Born in Buea on April 10, 1916, Endeley was educated in Cameroon and later in Nigeria, where he also started his political career. After a brief medical career in Nigeria, this founding member, in 1939, of the Cameroons Youth League (CYL) in Lagos, was among four Cameroonians also involved in the founding, in 1944, of the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC), one of the three major political parties in Nigeria. Endeley returned to Southern Cameroon in 1947, where he became involved in national politics and the organization of labor unions, becoming general secretary of the newly formed Cameroon Development Corporation Workers’ Union (CDCWU).

Despite the fact that Southern Cameroon had been administered as part of Nigeria since 1922, its leaders were disappointed by the fact that some of the post-war developments in Nigeria, including the 1946 Richards Constitution that granted some level of internal self-government for Nigeria and three regional houses, failed to provide Southern Cameroons with adequate representation or regional status. Indeed, not only did the decision prompt Southern Cameroonian leaders to become more involved in Nigerian politics, but it led to significant political developments in the territory. For instance, as a result of this renewed political spirit in the Southern Cameroons, Endeley, in 1952, became the leader of a new party, the Kamerun National Congress (KNC), following the merger of the CNF and the Kamerun United National Congress (KUNC) led by Dibongue. KUNC strongly advocated reunification and the rights of French Cameroonian immigrants to vote for representatives from the Southern Cameroons under the provisions of the 1951 Macpherson Constitution. Southern Cameroons could elect thirteen of the eighty elected members to the Eastern Regional House of Assembly, and seven out of the 136 elected members to the federal assembly.33 Nationalist politics in the Southern Cameroons would also be closely tied to political developments in Nigeria in other ways. That was the case in 1953 when a leadership disagreement within the NCNC in the Eastern Regional House of Assembly also led to division among the Southern Cameroonian politicians in the party. For instance, while Endeley and the KNC called for neutrality in the NCNC leadership crisis, P. M. Kale, Motomby-Woleta, and N. N. Mbile urged continued support for Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and his leadership of the NCNC. Kale and his colleagues would go on to form the Kamerun People’s Party (KPP) in 1953.34 As a result of the NCNC crisis, two major parties had emerged in the British Southern Cameroons by mid-1953. Despite the ideological division between these parties, it is important to note that both took the German spelling of “Kamerun,” an apparent indication of their commitment to reunification and the “Kamerun idea.”

However, as a savvy politician, Endeley was not totally committed to the idea of reunification, but saw it as an opportunity to achieve separation from eastern Nigeria and regional autonomy for the Southern Cameroons. The strategy paid off because the 1954 Lyttleton Constitution that gave greater autonomy to the various regions in Nigeria also granted a quasi-federal status for the Southern Cameroons, together with its own regional House of Assembly. Endeley was appointed leader of government business for the Southern Cameroons under the new administrative structure. Unfortunately, having achieved his objective of a separate government for the Southern Cameroon government, Endeley retreated from the idea of reunification and increasingly saw the future of the territory as a self-governing region within an independent Nigeria. The sudden about-face by Endeley angered John Ngu Foncha and other members of the KNC, who continued to view reunification as a serious political option to be kept alive.

Nationalism and Decolonization in CameroonClick to view larger

Figure 3. John Ngu Foncha, 1964.

Photo by Harry Pot/Anefo. Nationaal Archief, (public domain).

Disenchanted by Endeley’s action, Foncha and some of his supporters left the KNC to form the Kamerun National Democratic Party (KNDP) in March 1955. Born in Nkwen, Bamenda, on June 21, 1916, John Ngu Foncha received his primary education in Bamenda before proceeding to Nigeria for further education. He worked as a teacher in Nigeria and, like Endeley, was a founding member of both the CYL in Lagos and the NCNC. He eventually returned to Cameroon where he played an important role in union organization and the territory’s nascent political life. Unlike Endeley, however, Foncha’s simple and down-to-earth persona endeared him to many ordinary Cameroonians, especially those in the Grassfield region. On the basis of Endeley’s vacillation on the issue of reunification, Foncha’s KNDP won the January 1959 House of Assembly elections (fourteen for the KNDP and twelve for the KNC/KPP alliance). Foncha became Prime Minister of the Southern Cameroons.

Political Uncertainty and the 1961 Plebiscite in the Southern Cameroons

Although Foncha and the KNDP had won the 1959 elections on the basis of reunification, the territory’s political future was still uncertain. In fact, as political developments progressed in the former French trusteeship—which gained its independence on January 1, 1960, and Nigeria, which eventually gained its independence on October 1 that same year—it became more urgent for Southern Cameroonian politicians to decide on the political future of the territory. The two options could not be more starkly different. Foncha and the KNDP advocated complete severance of political ties with Nigeria and felt that reunification should occur only after both the French Cameroun and the Southern Cameroons had gained their independence and sufficient time to carefully discuss the provisions for reunification. By contrast, Endeley and the KNC argued that the issue to be decided by Southern Cameroonian voters should be unambiguous—“continued association with Nigeria as a fully autonomous member of the Nigerian Federation, or unification with an independent French Cameroun.”35 It is apparent from the position of the KNDP that, like Endeley, Foncha was hedging on the issue of immediate reunification as advocated by many French Cameroonian immigrants and the Union des Populations du Cameroun (UPC), and saw reunification simply as an opportunity to extract more political concessions from Britain on the future status of the territory. The fact that neither Foncha nor any Southern Cameroonian politician was truly committed to the “Kamerun idea,” was evident in a letter from the commissioner of the Cameroons to the chief secretary to the governor general in Lagos, in which he noted that the issue of reunification with the French Camerouns only surfaced whenever politicians in the Southern Cameroons had difficulties with the issue of autonomy for the territory within the Nigerian framework.36

Nationalism and Decolonization in CameroonClick to view larger

Figure 4. Cameroon boundary changes from 1911 to 1972.

Adapted from Roke, Creative Commons License (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Unable to arrive at a consensus on the future of the territory after a meeting in Cameroon in August 1959, a month later at the UN, both leaders, especially Foncha who was the prime minister, were faced with the hard realities of international involvement in the territory’s domestic politics. Ultimately, the two alternatives—immediate independence by joining Nigeria or the Cameroun Republic—imposed by the UN for Southern Cameroonians to vote on in the plebiscite that was scheduled for February 11, 1961, was one that neither side really wanted. The leaders returned home disappointed but determined to prevail in the plebiscite campaign that would follow. In an effort to gain more leverage and victory in the upcoming plebiscite, Endeley’s KNC and Kale’s KPP merged in May 1960, to form a new party known as the Cameroon People’s National Convention (CPNC).

The campaign rhetoric that followed was heated, as each side exploited the vulnerability of the other. While the CPNC pursued a campaign that highlighted the danger and uncertainty which were likely to engulf the territory if it joined the newly independent Republic of Cameroun, which had been embroiled in much violence and bloodshed since the banning of the UPC in 1955, Foncha and the KNDP highlighted the complete domination of the territory and of Cameroonians by Nigerians, especially the Igbos, if they joined Nigeria. Johnson illustrates the latter by highlighting the large number of Nigerians within the Southern Cameroons civil service. He notes that despite the policy of Cameroonization of the civil service staffing, Nigerians still constituted 12 percent of the staff when Foncha came to power in 1959. At the same time, Nigerians “filled nearly a quarter of the positions in the federal services operating in Southern Cameroons, nearly one-fourth of the positions in the ports, one-third of those with post and telegraph offices, one-half of those with customs services, and three-fourths of those in technical services.”37 For many Southern Cameroonians, the “Igbo scare”38 became the watchword in the campaign as rumors of Igbo aggressiveness, exploitation, arrogance, and disrespect of Cameroonians became the order of the day. When the plebiscite was finally held on February 11, 1961, the KNDP, a reluctant party for reunification, prevailed, winning 233,571 (70.5 percent) of the 331,312 votes cast. For Foncha and the KNDP, the next challenge following the victory was negotiating a constitution with President Ahidjo of the Republic of Cameroun that would finalize the nationalist struggle in Cameroon and ensure the nation’s dual heritage.

Constitutional Discourse and Reconciling Dual Heritage

Supported by French authorities, the Republic of Cameroun had gained its independence on January 1, 1960, without a constitution. That decision gave Ahidjo a decided advantage in influencing the formulation of a constitution for the new republic when it came time to do so. Neville Rubin notes that the new constitution that was finally produced in February 1960, by a forty-two-member advisory committee established in October 1959, was strikingly similar in many respects to the constitution of the Fifth French Republic, with the president serving as head of state and guardian of the constitution.39 The new constitution also gave President Ahidjo enormous powers, including a role as Head of the Army and the opportunity to declare a state of emergency. At the same time, it gave the president authority to rule without legislative constraints. What a new constitution that brought together the French heritage dominant in the Republic of Cameroun and the Anglo-Saxon heritage in the Southern Cameroons would look like was going to be a challenge. And because Foncha still held hopes even as late as November 1960 that Southern Cameroons might be granted a period of transition after independence that would give it a stronger footing in negotiating a better constitution with the Republic of Cameroun, not much time and effort was dedicated by the party in developing a framework for any planned constitutional negotiation.40 In fact, while Ahidjo, a late convert to the reunification idea, may have had an idea of the kind of constitution that he envisioned, Foncha and members of his Kamerun National Democratic Party (KNDP), who had been pressured by the UN to choose between the unpleasant alternative of reunification with the Republic of Cameroun or continued association with Nigeria, had no clear idea what such a union would look like. Johnson notes that there were two significant points of departure going into the negotiations for the post-independence structure of the new union. He argues that while the leader of the Republic of Cameroun envisioned a tightly centralized federation, the Southern Cameroonians advocated a loose federal structure with a distribution of power between local, state, and federal levels of authority.41

A hurriedly arranged conference of representatives from all the major political parties in the Southern Cameroons was convened by Foncha in Bamenda, in June 1961, to discuss a framework for the constitutional convention to be held between July 17 and 21, in the western city of Foumban, Republic of Cameroun, failed to arrive at a consensus on some of the major issues to be presented to their counterparts. The lack of consensus among the Southern Cameroons delegation was evident when the two sides met in Foumban to draft a constitution for the proposed union. According to Johnson, Foncha and his delegation were distracted by all the festivities that had been organized in their honor and during the conference. Consequently, the Southern Cameroons delegation spent all but an hour and a half of the five-day conference discussing the draft constitutional proposal that had been presented by Ahidjo and members of his delegation rather than actually considering proposals from both sides.42 Ultimately, what emerged from the discussion was what Ahidjo had wanted all along—a highly centralized federation that provided him (the president) with all the levers of power. Indeed, Johnson notes that:

[T]he constitutional debates provide little evidence that the Western (Foncha’s) delegates recognized the nature of the disparity between their view of the federation and that of the Ahidjo regime, namely that it involved the difference between a decentralized federation, almost a con-federation, and a highly centralized one, almost a non-federation.43

In fact, Article 8 of the new Federal Constitution gave the president sole authority to uphold the constitution, ensure the unity of the federation and the conduct of the affairs of the Federal Republic. This provision was so broad that it gave the president complete authority to supersede any constitutional rights and responsibilities accorded to each of the federated states. President Ahidjo would use that power to dominate the institutions of the state and in dismantling the federal structure, replacing it with a unitary state in May 1972. Sadly, while the latter marked the end of the federal structure that was established at the Foumban Constitutional Conference, it also ushered in what has become known as the “Anglophone problem,” as English-speaking Cameroonians systematically found their Anglo-Saxon heritage to be diminished and marginalized by the dominant Francophone culture. That remains a struggle that might be solved by Cameroonians during another phase in the country’s postcolonial history. While the struggle for independence that resulted in the creation of the modern Cameroon state followed a similar trajectory as the struggle in many post-war African colonies, its path to freedom was different because it resulted in the creation of a new nation known as the Federal Republic of Cameroon.

It is evident from the preceding discussion that the rhetoric during the plebiscite campaign in the British Southern Cameroons was largely against the possibility of Nigerian, particular Igbo, domination, rather than British colonial rule. By contrast, the burning issue in the former French Cameroun was how to maintain a credible neocolonial relationship with France following independence. Consequently, the radical Union des Populations du Cameroun (UPC) that advocated complete independence from France and was at the forefront of reunification of the Cameroons was left out in the cold when the marriage of convenience between the Republic of Cameroun and the British Southern Cameroons was memorialized on October 1, 1961.

Discussion of the Literature

As African colonies steadily extricated themselves from colonial rule from the late 1950s, the continent also witnessed a significant increase in the number of scholarly publications on its rich history. While many of these publications often focused on the history of colonial rule in Africa, they also included narratives on the rising tide of nationalism.44 That was certainly the case in Cameroon where Engelbert Mveng’s Histoire du Cameroun (1963) remains a seminal French-language publication on the history of pre-independence Cameroon. However, while Mveng discusses the nationalist movement in the former French trust territory, little space is dedicated to the independence movement in the British Southern Cameroons. In the same year as Mveng’s publication,45 David Gardinier’s 142-page Cameroun: United Nations Challenge to French Policy provided a general understanding of French colonial rule, and of the emergence of the Union des Populations du Cameroun (UPC) and its critical role as the first genuine pro-reunification nationalist party in Cameroon.46 However, as the book’s title indicates, Gardinier fails to include a discussion of the nationalist movement in the British Southern Cameroons.

The first English-language publication to take a more comprehensive approach in the nationalist struggle in Cameroon was Victor Le Vine’s The Cameroons: From Mandate to Independence (1964).47 In addition to its historical narrative covering the period when the territory was partitioned between Britain and France as League of Nations mandates and later as UN trust territories, the book details the struggle for independence in both the French and British trusteeships. Later came Willard R. Johnson’s 1970 publication—The Cameroon Federation: Political Integration in a fragmented Society. Both Le Vine and Johnson’s publications remain important foundational English-language must-reads for students and scholars interested in Cameroon’s political history.

Two other publications in 1977 and 1984—Richard Joseph’s Radical Nationalism in Cameroun: Social Origins of the UPC and Achille Mbembe’s Ruben Um Nyobè, Le Problem Nationale Kamerounaise— respectively, provide detailed insights of the critical role that the UPC played in the struggle for independence in the former French trusteeship and its advocacy of reunification of the French and British Cameroons, especially at a time when politicians on both sides of the colonial divide were not totally committed to the idea.

Since the late 1990s, research by many Cameroonian scholars, including Bongfen Chem-Langhee (The Paradox of Self-Determination in the Cameroons under United Kingdom Administration, 2004), Martin Atangana (The End of French Rule in Cameroon, 2010), Anthony Ndi (Southern West Cameroon Revisited (1950–1972), 2014), and Joseph L. Nfi (The Reunification Debate in British Southern Cameroon, 2014), have added to the growing literature on decolonization and the nationalist struggles in Cameroon. For example, while Atangana’s volume focuses exclusively on the struggle for independence in the former French Cameroun, Chem-Langhee and Ndi center their discussion on developments in British Southern Cameroon. Meanwhile, Nfi discusses the important role that French Cameroonian immigrants in the British Southern Cameroons, led by Robert Jabea Kum Dibongue, a founding member of the Kamerun United National Congress (KUNC), played in propagating the idea of reunification among politicians in the territory. Another important development during this period is the focus by English-speaking Cameroonian scholars and others who decry the political process and the unfair negotiations that culminated in the reunification of the two Cameroons in the first place. Prominent among these scholars is Carlson Anyangwe, whose publications in 2008 (Imperialistic Politics in Cameroun: resistance and the Inception of the Restoration of the Statehood of Southern Camerouns) and 2009 (Betrayal of too Trusting a People) challenge the legal and constitutional provisions that created a union which ultimately led to the creation of the Republic of Cameroon in 1984. According to Anyangwe, the decision by President Paul Biya to unilaterally change the name of the country from the United Republic of Cameroon to the Republic of Cameroon (the name given to the former French trusteeship when it gained its independence on January 1, 1960) was further evidence of the marginalization of English-speaking Cameroonians and the illegal (re)colonization of the territory by French Cameroun.48 Meanwhile, in Cameroon Plebiscite: Choice or Betrayal, published posthumously, John Percival, who, as a young British colonial officer, was intimately involved in conducting the February 11, 1961 plebiscite in the British Southern Cameroons, questions whether the alternatives that were imposed on the people of the British Southern Cameroons with the complicity of the UN and Britain, were fair or foul.

Primary Sources

Documents on colonial occupation and the nationalist struggle in Cameroon can be found on three continents. While often challenging to navigate the bureaucracy, the national archives in Yaoundé and Buea in Cameroon are rich repositories that include official documents as well as letters by colonial administrators and Cameroonian politicians during the waning days of colonial rule. In Britain, the National Archives (formerly the Public Records Office) and the London School of Economics Archives, and the Archieves Nationale d’Outer-Mer in Aix-en-Provence, remain important destinations for scholars of Cameroon colonial history and politics. Meanwhile, the United Nations Archives in New York City is important for documents on the debates and discussions by member nations and representatives from parties in Cameroon during the struggle for independence. It is also a repository for the annual reports dating back to the 1920s when the League of Nations and later the UN were required to submit such on developments in Cameroon.

Further Reading

Amaazee, Bong Victor. “‘The Igbo Scare’ in the British Cameroons, 1945–61.” Journal of African History 31 (1990): 281–293.Find this resource:

Amaazee, Bong Victor. Imperialistic Politics in Cameroun: Resistance and the Inception of the Restoration of the Statehood of Southern Cameroons. Mankon, Bamenda: Langaa RPCIG, 2008.Find this resource:

Anyangwe, Carlson. Betrayal of too Trusting a People: The UN, the UK and the Trust Territory of the Southern Cameroons. Mankon, Bamenda: Langaa RPCIG, 2009.Find this resource:

Atangana, Martin. The End of French Rule in Cameroon. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2010.Find this resource:

Chem-Langhee, Bongfen. The Paradox of Self-Determination in the Cameroons under United Kingdom Administration. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2004.Find this resource:

DeLancey, Mark. Cameroon: Dependence and Independence. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1989.Find this resource:

Gardinier, David. Cameroon: United Nations Challenge to French Policy. London: Oxford University Press, 1963.Find this resource:

Johnson, Willard R. The Cameroon Federation: Political Integration in a Fragmented Society. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1970.Find this resource:

Joseph, Richard A. “National Politics in Postwar Cameroun: The Difficult Birth of the UPC.” Journal of African Studies 2, no. 2 (1975): 201–239.Find this resource:

Joseph, Richard A. Radical Nationalism in Cameroun: Social Origins of the U.P.C. Rebellion. Oxford: Clarendon, 1977.Find this resource:

Joseph, Richard A. “Cameroon under Ahmadou Ahidjo.” In Gaullist Africa: Cameroon under Ahmadou Ahidjo. Edited by Richard Joseph, 28–42. Enugu, Nigeria: Fourth Dimension, 1978.Find this resource:

Kale, Peter. Political Evolution in the Cameroons. Buea: n.p., 1967.Find this resource:

Le Vine, Victor T. The Cameroons: From Mandate to Independence. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1964.Find this resource:

Mbembe, Achille, Ruben Um Nyobè. Le Probleme National Kamerounais. Paris: L’Harmattan, 1984.Find this resource:

Mukong, Albert. Prisoner without a Crime. Bamenda, Cameroon: Alfresco, 1985.Find this resource:

Mukong, Albert. My Stewardship in the Cameroon Struggle. Enugu, Nigeria: Chuka, 1992.Find this resource:

Mveng, Engelbert. 1963. Histoire du Cameroun. Paris: Presence Africaine.Find this resource:

Ndi, Anthony. Southern West Cameroon Revisited (1950–1972): Unveiling Inescapable Traps. Mankon, Bamenda: Langaa RPCIG, 2014.Find this resource:

Nfi, Joseph N. The Reunification Debate in British Southern Cameroon: The Role of French Cameroon Immigrants. Mankon, Bamenda: Langaa RPCIG, 2014.Find this resource:

Ngoh, Victor. Cameroon, 1884–1985: A Hundred Years of History. Limbe, Malawi: Navi Group, 1988.Find this resource:

Percival, John. The 1961 Cameroon Plebiscite: Choice or Betrayal. Mankon, Bamenda: Langaa RPCIG, 2008.Find this resource:

Rubin, Neville. Cameroon: An African Federation. London: Pall Mall Press, 1971.Find this resource:

Takougang, Joseph. “The ‘Union des Populations du Cameroun’ and its Southern Cameroons Connection.” Revue Franciase d’Histoire d’ Outre-Mer 83, no. 310 (1996): 7–24.Find this resource:

Torrent, Melanie. Diplomacy and Nation-Building in Africa: Franco-British Relations and Cameroon at the End of Empire. London: I.B. Tauris, 2012.Find this resource:

Welch, Claude Jr. Dream of Unity: Pan-Africanism and Political Unification in West Africa. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1966.Find this resource:

Wonyu, Eugene. De L’UPC a L’U.C.: Temoignage a l’aube de l’independence (1953–1961). Paris: L’Harmattan, 1985.Find this resource:


(1.) Under the Germans, the territory was called Kamerun. The British named its section of the former German territory British Southern Cameroons and British Northern Cameroons, while the French section was called Cameroun. Throughout this article, we will use the appropriate spelling in referencing either French or British Cameroon.

(3.) Claude Welch Jr., “Cameroon since Reunification,” West Africa (October 1963), 117.

(4.) Rubin, Cameroon, 42.

(7.) Le Vine, The Cameroons, 117.

(8.) Richard A. Joseph, “Radical Nationalism in French Africa: The Case of Cameroon,” in Decolonization and African Independence: The Transfer of Power, ed. Gifford Prosser and William Louis (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988), 321–345.

(9.) Joseph, “National Politics,” 215.

(10.) Joseph, “National Politics,” 207–208.

(12.) Joseph, “National Politics,” 207–208.

(13.) Joseph, Radical Nationalism in Cameroun: Social Origins of the U.P.C. Rebellion (Oxford: Clarendon, 1977), 265–288.

(14.) Joseph, Radical Nationalism, 296.

(15.) For an excellent discussion of Mbida’s brief role as prime minister, see Le Vine, The Cameroons, 157–163.

(17.) Richard A. Joseph, “Cameroon under Ahmadou Ahidjo,” in Gaullist Africa: Cameroon under Ahmadou Ahidjo, ed. Richard Joseph (Enugu, Nigeria: Fourth Dimension), 28–42.

(18.) Le Vine, The Cameroons, 168. Also see, Atangana, The End of French Rule, 97–99.

(21.) Joseph, “Cameroon under Ahmadou Ahidjo,” 33.

(22.) Le Vine, The Cameroons, 167.

(23.) Rubin, Cameroon, 96.

(24.) Le Vine, The Cameroons, 180.

(25.) Le Vine, The Cameroons, 121.

(26.) The Northern British Cameroons decided on a plebiscite on February 11, 1961, to join the Republic of Nigeria, which had gained its independence on October 1, 1961, while the British Southern Cameroons decided in the same plebiscite to join the independent Republic of Cameroon. Therefore, our discussion in the section on “Nationalism and Decolonization in the British Southern Cameroons[Link this section]” will focus on political developments in the Southern Cameroons.

(27.) Johnson, The Cameroon Federation, 180.

(29.) Amaazee, “The Igbo Scare,” 94.

(30.) Edwin Ardener, “The Political History of Cameroon,” World Today 18, no. 8 (1962): 341–350. The “Kamerun idea” was aimed at recreating a single Cameroon as existed under German colonial rule.

(32.) Johnson, The Cameroon Federation, 119.

(33.) Moses K. Tesi, Balancing Sovereignty and Development in International Affairs: Cameroon’s Post-Independence Relations with France, Africa, and the World (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2017), 20–22.

(34.) For a detailed discussion of the 1953 political crisis in Nigeria and its impact on Southern Cameroons politics, see Neville Rubin, Cameroun: An African Federation (New York: Praeger, 1971), 82–88. Also see, Le Vine, The Cameroons, 199–205.

(35.) Le Vine, The Cameroons, 208.

(37.) Johnson, The Cameroon Federation, 93.

(38.) Amaazee, “The Igbo Scare,” 281.

(39.) Rubin, Cameroun, 100. Also see, Le Vine, The Cameroons, 225.

(40.) Welch, Dream of Unity, 243.

(41.) Johnson, The Cameroon Federation, 168.

(42.) Johnson, The Cameroon Federation, 184–185.

(43.) Johnson, The Cameroon Federation, 188.

(44.) See, for example, Gann Lewis and Peter Duignan, Colonialism in Africa, 1870–1960 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970). Also see Prosser Gifford and Roger Louis, France and Britain in Africa: Imperial Rivalry and Colonial Rule (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1971); and James S. Coleman, Nigeria: Background to Nationalism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1958).

(46.) Gardinier, Cameroon.

(47.) Le Vine, The Cameroons.

(48.) Carlson Anyangwe, Betrayal of too Trusting a People: The UN, the UK and the Trust Territory of the Southern Cameroons (Mankon, Bamenda: Langaa RPCIG). See also, Carlson Anyangwe, Imperialistic Politics in Cameroun: Resistance and the Inception of the Restoration of the Statehood of Southern Cameroons (Mankon, Bamenda: Langaa RPGIC).