French President François Hollande has broken a longstanding taboo on his country’s controversial role in the genocide of Cameroon’s Bamileke people. During the final leg of his west African tour in Yaoundé on Friday, he admitted that French forces had tried to quash colonial separatists in the 1950s and said he was ready to open up the history books.
“I recognise that there have been extremely traumatic and even tragic episodes,” Hollande declared at a press conference in Yaounde, Cameroon, on Friday, July 3rd, 2015.
During Cameroon’s struggle for independence, “[colonial] government forces quashed the Bamileke people in Sanaga maritime, in the country’s western province,” he admitted.
It’s the first time a French head of state has officially acknowledged France’s role in the repression of colonial separatists in Cameroon.
In the 1950s French forces were responsible for the massacre and exile of leaders of the dissident independent political party, the UPC, which was banned in 1955.
“Cameroon’s independence from France was a bitter struggle,” Cameroonian editorialist Gabriel Mbarga told RFI.
Nationalist unrest broke out at the end of France’s 10-year rule in 1955 and was brutally suppressed by French forces,leaving thousands dead.
“It became very violent after the suspension of the UPC independence party and the assassination of its leader Ruben Um Nyobe on 13 September 1958,” Mbarga said.
Estimates of the death toll, still debated by many experts, range from 100,000- 400,000 people killed between 1959 and 1964.
In the department of Sanaga maritime, largely populated by the ethnic group named the Bamileke,120,000 were killed in 1960 alone.
The Bamileke people were a prime target because they were suspected of harbouring UPC separatists, who controlled the western province.
“This bloody repression lasted until 1971 but it has never been acknowledged by French authorities. Many Cameroonians find that hard to accept,” Mbarga explained.
Cameroonians’ sensitivity over France’s failure to acknowledge the atrocities was exacerbated this week by the fact that, during his visit to Angola, Hollande visited the memorial of pro-independence leader Agostinho Neto, the country’s first president.
That gesture was seen by many Cameroonians as a sign of double standards and it is unlikely to have boosted Hollande’s credit rating in Yaoundé, where anti-French sentiment is growing, partly due to this denial of Cameroon’s colonial suffering.
“We are prepared, as we’ve always been, to open up the history books and search the archives,” Hollande said by way of compromise.
But this falls short of an official apology and is reminiscent of when France recognised the bitterness of Algeria’s independence struggle but omitted to say sorry.
The case of Cameroon is different.
As with Algeria, French forces behaved in a way that many consider betrayed the very foundations of Western democratic values. In Yaoundé this colonial legacy has had a long-term impact.
The Cameroon genocide was followed by independence in 1960, which gave rise to the election of Ahmadou Ahidjo, who was backed by the French government.
Africanists have long-held the belief that the Bamileke massacre paved the way for the cosy relations enjoyed between French political leaders and their African counterparts.
Often referred to as Françafrique, that relationship is blamed for France’s complicity in corruption attributed to long-term president Paul Biya.
Acknowledging the massacres and opening up the history books could have a domino effect on France’s relationship with Cameroon, for which critics urge a new paradigm, is needed.