Stop the Killing
by Robert Wanager (West Cameroon 1969-71)
I and my fellow Volunteers arrived in the grasslands of West Cameroon late in 1969. But, much too soon, I was back on the plane and leaving the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.
Now, in stories such as “Cameroon on Brink of Civil War” (Ashley Gilbertson, New York Times, Oct. 6, 2018), I learn that the grasslands have been assailed by horrors straight out of Southeast Asia. And that friends are dying, charred in cruel “Zippo missions,” wasted and left to die on dusty village roads…. And so, for the sake of the people I love I must speak out….
The West and the East joined to become states of the Federal Republic of Cameroon in 1961. But, the parts didn’t fit and the union really didn’t work. For example, the West, once part of Nigeria, was of a different government “culture” and language than the East, once a part of French Africa.
Nevertheless, from the 1940’s on, the UPC ─ Union des Populations du Cameroun ─ had called for the union of East and West and independence for all. But French businesses and immigrants in the East had major investments and were reluctant to place themselves under Cameroonian control.
However, by 1955, the UPC was the biggest political party in Cameroon and was gaining far too much influence. As a result, the French banned it as a Communist front and the UPC took to the bush.
A 15 year war was the result and the French, using troops from Southeast Asia and the “tactics of counter-revolutionary war”, scourged the countryside ─ some 200,000 people dead by 1970. The current brutalities are but a recapitulation by the Cameroonian army of the methods first used by the French in the 50’s. The following are my experiences of that earlier war.
Soon after arrival, my fellow volunteers and passing through Nkonsamba on the way to our assignments in the West when we learned that there were “killer(s) on the road”. Prowling nearby were the “Maqui”, diehard UPC guerrillas who made it dangerous to be French.
Just out of town, we had our first taste of “counter-revolutionary tactics”. Submachine guns slung across their shoulders like Germans in a movie, red bereted gendarmes checked papers. And, everyone had to have a government issued ID and a permit to travel between cities.
But, arrogant and unpredictable, the gendarmes were practiced in extortion ─ even though they made 1000 times what the average farmer made. Any “problems” could get you detained. It was a tight spot but our mentor greased some palms and got us through. Thereafter, I kept a healthy distance between myself and any gendarme.
Soon after, I was living in Bamenda when I was introduced to further “tactics”. Dogs barking at 3 AM, you’d wake to gendarmes thumping doors. And you’d better be damned quick with your ID. It was chilling to hear the pounding, shouts coming closer and closer….
In 1970, I was living and working in Nkwen and John Foncha, a local resident, was removed as Prime Minister of West Cameroon in a power play. He was a decent man and my Cameroonian friends were pissed.
At about the same time there was a land dispute between Nkwen and another village and allegedly a gendarme was killed. That night, the gendarmes swooped in and hauled off almost half the village. Rumors soon spread that people were tortured; some even rolled down hill in barrels.
In fact, it was mighty suspicious that the gendarme was “killed” soon after Foncha’s removal. In fact, his fall may have been the real reason the people from my village were tortured….
But, knowledge was dangerous and we were told by our mentors to keep our suspicions/opinions to ourselves. Secret police were everywhere and a word could get you deported. Indeed, a volunteer was ejected soon after we arrived. Helping people market their handicrafts, he had openly criticized the fact they were paid a pittance while French middlemen got rich.
Native Cameroonians, however, would meet a different fate. People were known to just disappear. I once was shown a picture of a line of Cameroonian soldiers fronted by a row of severed heads, said once to have belonged to “suspected” UPC. And, the fears whispered by my Cameroonian friends evidence enough of other horrors unseen.
In any case, after independence in 1961, the French maintained their power by turning the government over Ahmadu Ahidjo, a pro-French native of the East ─ but without elections. Ahidjo then continued the war while keeping a tight political, military and economic relationship with France.
In 1970, Ernest Ouandié, the surviving leader of the UPC was caught. In January 1971, he was publicly executed and the war was over. Ahidjo then consolidated power by eliminating the states in 1972 ─ the real reason Foncha was removed. But, with only 25% of the population, the West had the greater part of the resources.
But, while the West’s resources were exploited, very little money was appropriated for the West’s infrastructure and human service needs. In addition, the West’s “English” court/education system and methods of government were devalued. Thus, the seed of the current troubles was planted.
In October, 2016, protests erupted over a government requirement to teach French ─ as opposed to English ─ in the western schools. In addition, French would replace English as the language of the courts. Predictably, the protestors were met with a response reminiscent of Diem attacking the Buddhists.
Within a year, the demonstrators began to call for independence. True to pattern, the government sent in the army to deliver another period of terror a la the earlier war. As a result, echoing the UPC, guerrilla attacks began in support of an independent West Cameroon ─ “Ambazonia”.
On February 7 of this year the American government finally decided to stop aid to the Cameroonian military due to its human rights violations. Nevertheless, we also need to insist on a ceasefire and talks. However, whatever the actions taken, the killing needs to stop.
Robert Wanager (West Cameroon 1969-71) was raised in the Midwest and attended Southern Illinois University. He majored in Microbiology and graduated in 1969. After the Peace Corps he became a Clinical Microbiologist and the supervisor of a hospital microbiology laboratory. Twenty-five years later he returned to school, earned a teaching certificate, and taught high school science. Retiring in 2007, he now lives with his wife in Missouri.