Cameroon war: will the opening of the archives be enough to "shed light" on the responsibilities of France?

Cameroon war: will the opening of the archives be enough to “shed light” on the responsibilities of France?

The commission of historians charged by Emmanuel Macron to investigate the action of France during the colonization in Cameroon has begun its work. Several voices question the context of this research and its purpose.

“When this work is done, there will be no more possible denial”, hopes Blick Bassy. The Cameroonian artist was charged, with the French historian Karine Ramondy, to lead a commission whose role is to study the action of France in Cameroon between 1945 and 1971. The work began in March and must be returned public at the end of 2024.

Unknown to the French, Cameroon’s war of independence is absent from the history books, as are the years of repression that followed. Some historians speak of tens of thousands of deaths. Others even estimate that the conflict is the cause of more than 100,000 deaths.. Many specialists have documented the deportation of populations, bombings, targeted assassinations of opponents, enforced disappearances, exhibitions of severed heads, torture… “People are still traumatized. My grandfather whispers when he talks about this period”says Blick Bassy.

A long French silence

After the defeat of Germany at the end of the First World War in 1918, the League of Nations (SDN, ancestor of the UN) had placed part of the German colony of Kamerun under French tutelage. Before independence in 1960, French colonial troops and their local allies bloodily repressed the separatists of the Union of Cameroonian Peoples (UPC) and their supporters.

To date, Paris has never recognized this war. “All this is pure invention!”swept away Prime Minister François Fillon in 2009. In 2015, President François Hollande recognized a “repression”, not to mention “war”. Emmanuel Macron finally uttered this word during a visit to Yaoundé, capital of Cameroon, in July 2022. “It is clear that there have been abuses, a war and martyrs”he said, according to The world (article for subscribers) .

“Historians have looked into this past, they tell us that a conflict took place, the word ‘war’ is used… It is up to historians to shed light on this past.”

Emmanuel Macron

during a speech in Yaoundé, July 26, 2022

It was during the same visit, more than seventy years after the events, that the Head of State announced the creation of a commission of historians. This working group includes a memorial component and a heritage component. “On the French side, we will have access to all the archives, including those still classified”depicts the historian Karine Ramondy, responsible for the “memory” part. “I will travel through Cameroon to question direct and indirect witnesses. I will try to find objects, places, practices of the time, such as patriotic songs”details for his part Blick Bassy.

“We are not writing from a blank page”

But the announcement of this commission, at a time when Emmanuel Macron is trying to renew France’s ties with Africa, makes people cringe. The Cameroonian Historical Society has expressed its “indignation”in a press release published at the end of February, and taken up in particular by the media News Cameroon. “In France, we choose a historian and in Cameroon, we appoint an artist? It’s contempt for Cameroonian historians”, criticizes one of the members of the company, David Mokam. “No belly dancer accompanies Benjamin Stora in the commission he heads on the Algerian war”reproach on Facebook the writer Gaston Kelman. “Ces two perspectives, memorial and heritage, do not oppose each other, they complement each other”replies Blick Bassy.

Others feel that this commission is sweeping away past published research. “Many works already exist and no one now disputes the essentials of the facts”declared the historian Achille Mbembe in Young Africa in August 2022. Researchers from Cameroon and other nationalities, as Meredith Terretta, Richard Joseph or even Mongo Beti have notably documented the war.

Thomas Deltombe, co-author of Cameroon! A hidden war at the origins of Françafrique, 1948-1971 (La Découverte) studied the archives of this conflict for five years and collected dozens of testimonies from ministers, soldiers and combatants. “Contrary to what one might have thought, many people want to talk. We have accumulated a huge amount of datadescribes the journalist. Macron communicates on the opening of the archives, but many of them have already been accessible for a long time. Thomas Deltombe, for example, met General Pierre Semengue, trained by France and who led the repression in the 1960s. “He evokes without problem the use of torture and the exhibition of the severed heads of the ‘rebels'”, he points out.

“Do we have to ‘know everything’ to recognize what we already know? In this regard, the slightest historical uncertainty becomes a good pretext for never taking the next step…”

Thomas Deltombe, journalist

at franceinfo

Faced with criticism, Karine Ramondy tempers: “Works that already exist will be included in our research. We are not writing from a blank page.” The commission will also make their inventory. “History has never finished being written once and for all. We will continue the work, with new archives, new angles”, she decides.

Dark areas to be clarified

Many questions remain unanswered, such as the identity of the author of the fatal blow to Ruben um Nyobe in 1958. The independence leader was hiding in the maquis when he was shot by colonial troops. In certain French archive services, such as the gendarmerie, “the files contained names, so we did not have access to them”, remember Valérie Osouf, co-director of the documentary Cameroon: autopsy of independence (2008). “In order not to give us the files, they were able to tell us that there was asbestos. What was striking was the systematic erasing of the traces”she adds

The opening of the Foccart collection (which brings together the archives of Jacques Foccart, secretary general of the Elysée for African and Malagasy affairs between 1960 and 1974), did not provide all the answers. “He did a lot on the phone or in person. We were told that his office was emptied when he died, while his body was still warm”says the filmmaker.

The same Jacques Foccart had been questioned about the perpetrators of the assassination of Félix Moumié, Cameroonian independence leader: “The archives will one day respond to your question”he replied, as historian Jean-Pierre Bat recalled in 2015 in Release . The latter adds that it has since been established that the political opponent was poisoned by the French secret services.

The attitude of Cameroonian power uncertain

“Things are known, but we still need clarity and precision”, adds Karine Ramondy. Although some responsibilities are known, “We have to establish the exact circumstances. Our mission is to clarify all of this in order to come up with balanced and complete proposals.”

But will Cameroon leave the field open to researchers? After independence, pro-UPC activists continued to be massacred by the regime of Ahmadou Ahidjo, elected with the consent of France. However, the current President of Cameroon, Paul Biya, was its Secretary General and Prime Minister.

“There is an asymmetry. For the French, history is perceived as old, as a closed past. For Cameroonians, it is a story that continues.”

Thomas Deltombe

at franceinfo

“If we are requested, this will be done subject to the appreciation of the Cameroonian authorities”, warns Esther Olembe, director of the National Archives of Cameroon. Will Yaoundé declassify its archives? “You would know if it was”launches the manager. “We were told that the archives would be at our disposal”says Karine Ramondy.

France took away most of the archives after independence. “What is decisive for historical truth is not in Cameroon”, believes Esther Olembe. And what remained was not necessarily well preserved. Due to the tropical climate, the few means allocated for their conservation, many resources are unusable. “When Cameroon came out of the occupation, there were other priorities than that of memory, we needed roads, schools”loose the person in charge of the archives.

The historian Noumbissie M. Tchouaké was confronted with this situation. “During my research on repression in the maquis, I was unable to obtain anything on the interrogations, the role of the courts, the military commissions, he explains. They didn’t want to give them to me, or they told me they were in Vincennes (where the military archives are kept)“.

The same observation applies to images. “Being able to access it cost a fortune”describes Jean-Marie Teno, director ofAfrica, I will pluck youreleased in 1992. In addition, “many of them were in a deplorable state, the films were rusty”.

It’s not time for repairs, but…

The Cameroonian filmmaker hopes that the commission will allow more freedom of speech. “I have a whole bunch of memories in the 1960s, of how we were bullied, mistreated, by the army and the police. They could come home and destroy everything”, remembers Jean-Marie Teno. “These stories are always laced with terror.”

For Blick Bassy, ​​the goal of the work is also to bring together Cameroonians, divided by colonization. “Anglophones, Francophones, we are all Cameroonians”, he said. The singer intends to address particularly the new generations. “Young people don’t know their history. They live in places where they don’t know people have been thrown away, tortured.”

“My participation was conditional on the fact that we could transcribe our research into documentaries, books, cartoons…”

Blick Bassy, ​​commission co-director

at franceinfo

In its report, the commission will have to make recommendations, like what was done for Algeria or Rwanda. And after ? For the moment, it’s not time for repairs, but Blick Bassy is thinking about it. “Compensations, national funerals, steles…”he suggests. “We have to reclaim this memory and finally build a national narrative.”

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