Cameroon’s history is a history replete with half truths, myths, fallacies, and outright distortions. The Foumban Conference of July 1961, which sealed the fate of the British Southern Cameroons in its stormy marriage to French-speaking La Republique du Cameroun, is no exception to that rule.
It has always been the position of even the most seasoned experts on Cameroon that the Southern Cameroons delegation was routed by their French Cameroons counterparts at Foumban because that delegation was composed of a bunch of politically inexperienced and intellectually inferior politicians who were no match for the politically savvy Ahmadou Ahidjo and his French advisers.
This was a view which Dr. Nfor Susungi articulated in a series of articles on the now defunct SCNC forum back in 1997. Back then, he argued that the British abandoned “…the inexperienced Southern Cameroonian team of Foncha, Endeley, etc.” to their own devices at the conference. To hammer this point home, he emphasized that “Foncha [was] a Grade Two teacher who had been a Prime Minister for only two years.” Definitely not a person who could logically be expected to negotiate the future of an entire nation!
Most recently, the issue of the “illiteracy and inexperience” of Southern Cameroons political and administrative class in the late 1950s and early 1960s has resurfaced on Camnetwork, the leading Cameroonian internet forum, as some insisting that this is the reason behind the inferior status that Southern Cameroons ultimately had within the bilingual Cameroon republic.
This school of thought completely ignores the fact that the fate of Southern Cameroons was sealed long before the June 1961 Foumban conference, or even before the plebiscite, and that by the time this conference took place Southern Cameroons was doomed– not even the most astute negotiators from Her Majesty’s Government could not have saved her from the clutches of Ahidjo’s La Republique – and this had little or nothing to do with the Alhadji’s “superior political skills” as some claim today.
My contention, therefore, is that Southern Cameroonian politicians were neither naive nor inexperienced negotiators, and that even if they were, they had they benefited immensely from the expertise of Southern Cameroons intellectuals who played a key role the movement toward unification. The resolutions of the Bamenda Conference, for example, which the Southern Cameroons delegation presented at Foumban tend, confirm this claim. My claim therefore is threefold;
- That Southern Cameroons politicians were political veterans who knew what the stakes were at Foumban;
- That the pro-unification positions of these politicians had been defined and refined over the years by various pro-unification lobbies in Southern Cameroons whose members were products of the some of the best universities in Nigeria and Britain, and;
- That other Cameroonian and British administrators, legal and constitutional experts also helped these politicians at both informal and formal levels.
1) Southern Cameroons Politicians, Country Bumpkins?
What is generally ignored is that while Southern Cameroons politicians may not have been Ph.D. holders, they were nonetheless veteran politicians who had been groomed in the tough and very dynamic pre-independence Nigerian political scene. The Kales and Endeleys, etc., had fought alongside leading Nigerian nationalists in the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) such as Nnamdi Azikiwe, and later, they successfully wrested major political concessions from the British on the negotiating table — ranging from the granting of quasi-federal status for Southern Cameroons, to the granting of full regional autonomy and ministerial government. Many, like Muna, Shang, Mukete, etc., had occupied top legislative and ministerial positions in the Eastern Nigerian House of Assembly and the Federal government in Lagos. Others like Mbile [and Endeley] were not just seasoned politicians, but also reputable Trade Unionists who had successfully launched the CDC trade union which was a perpetual thorn in the British colonial flesh.
Practically all of these politicians were veterans in political negotiations; skills that had been developed and sharpened not just through their involvement in Nigerian politics, but also at various constitutional conferences from Enugu in Nigeria, Lancaster in Britain, to Mamfe in the Cameroons, etc., — conferences which were no different from that which took place in Foumban . To put it bluntly, these guys were not illiterates and neophytes from the backwoods but political pros. The reasons for their “failure” at Foumban should therefore be found elsewhere.
2) The Pro-Unification Lobby
It should be noted that the fight for unification was not merely a concern of politicians. In fact, the essence and ideology behind the Pan-Kamerunist idea were articulated primarily by the various pro-unification lobbies that existed at the time. The most influential of these was the KAMERUN SOCIETY, the KNDP brain trust, whose members are considered by many to be the real architects of unification. Its members were among the crème de la crème of Southern Cameroons intelligentsia trained in the most prestigious British and Nigerian universities.
Prominent among them were; Dr. G.G. Dibue, who later worked with WHO in East Africa; British-trained lawyer E.T. Egbe; Dr. Victor Anomah Ngu, Prof. of surgery at the University of Ibadan from 1965 and winner of the prestigious Albert Lasker award Medical Research Award in Clinical Cancer Chemotherapy in 1972; Oxford-trained economist, S.J. Epale, who in 1956 had aided S. A. George to formulate his famous “Kamerun Unification : Being a discussion of a 7-point Solution of the Unification problem”; famed West Cameroon educationist A.D.Mengot; PEN Malafa; REG Burnley; S. Lyonga; O.S. Ebanja, J. Pefok; Tamanjong Ndumu; S.C. Tamanjong; N. Ekeng, J.A. Kisob, F. N. Ndang, E.D. Quan, N.A. Ngwa, I.N. Malafa, J.B. Etame, N.A. Ngwa and S. E. Abangwa, etc.
Members of this KNDP think-thank, who helped to articulate most of the KNDP positions on unification, can certainly not be described as uneducated even if a good number of them were at the beginning of their careers in 1961. Their boss may have been a Grade Two teacher but they were intellectuals in every sense of the word.
Also prominent in the Pro-Kamerun camp were the various branches of the National Union of Kamerun students, whose members like Albert Mukong (Nigeria), Fon Gorji Dinka and Anomah Ngu (Great Britain), etc., were active participants in most of the conferences and discussions leading to unification. The Secretary General of the Ibadan Cameroon Students’ Union which championed secession from Nigeria, for example, was a certain J.N. EKANG, who later became deputy foreign minister of the Federal Republic of Cameroon and OAU Secretary General under the name of Nzo Ekhah-Nghaky.
3) Contributions of Administrators and Legal Practitioners
The formal and informal contributions of British and Cameroonian administrators and legal practitioners, and constitutional experts should not be overlooked. Some like retired Ghanaian supreme court judge and former Attorney General for West Cameroon, Emmanuel Kofi Mensah, a British-trained constitutional expert, was a legal adviser at Foumban. Retired Justice Inglis, originally from the British West Indies, was also a prominent player in the reunification process and eventually occupied a ministerial seat in the first post-unification West Cameroon government as the Attorney General.
Southern Cameroonian politicians, therefore, had more than enough “intellectual backup” in their frenzied quest for the Pan-Kamerun chimera, and their failure to achieve unification on their terms can be traced to factors that existed well before Foumban. To blame the so-called rout at Foumban on naiveté and illiteracy is a cop out. It is sometimes quite hilarious to watch both the supporters and critics of the Southern Cameroonian leadership use this particular argument to defend their contradictory positions; the former to absolve these leaders of any blame for the Anglophone predicament in the bilingual Cameroon republic, and the latter to simply denigrate the intellectual abilities of Anglophone Cameroon’s pre-unification leadership.
The Real Culprits
The truth is that while the United Nations and Britain may be blamed to a certain extent for the bungled decolonization of Southern Cameroons, the bulk of that blame lies with the Southern Cameroons political class which allowed ethnicity, personality conflicts, and inter-party rivalry to interfere with the adoption of a truly pro-Southern Cameroonian agenda.
The widespread belief that Ahidjo outsmarted the Southern Cameroonians at Foumban is one of those myths that take a life of their own over time, and substitute themselves for reality. Ahidjo was never the smart, cunning and calculating politician that history has made him to be. He was just another brutal African dictator who, thanks to an accident of history (i.e., the early independence of La Republique du Cameroun, and the political myopia of Southern Cameroons pro-unificationists) found himself in total control of the process leading to the unification of the two Cameroons. And like a true tropical dictator, he simply imposed his will on everybody else.