By Xavier Moyet
Review of Thomas Deltombe, Manuel Domergue, and Jacob Tatsitsa, La guerre du Cameroun: L’invention de la Françafrique, Paris: Éditions La Découverte, 2016, ISBN, 9782707192141, 245pp.
In his preface to the book under review, philosopher and theorist Achille Mbembe, states (p. 3) that the book is “irreplaceable”. I would agree, as indeed, this work is critical for the understanding not just of Cameroun, but of contemporary Africa. It takes as its focus the war that occurred in this country, and allows to grasp the complex relation tying the French colonial administration with the post-colonial state. This “independent” Cameroon epitomizes the ally state controlled by France, as elsewhere in the pré carré. The book also sheds light on the resistance of an African population. Furthermore, its publication observes acutely the process of decolonization, and challenges the hitherto dominant narrative of a peaceful transition occurring in francophone Africa. Now, the book is particularly welcome because its decolonial gaze, strengthened by a sound knowledge of the objective conditions of decolonization, is required to get a good sense of the situation in the Western World.
The book is separated in six chapters, following a substantial introduction. The overall tone is factual and clear, and the authors, who are journalists and a historian, exhibit a deep knowledge of the topic. In order to make their case, they mobilize a sizeable number of original oral and archival sources, collated during the exploratory phase of a first massive opus (750 p) devoted to this war and titled Kameroun! Une guerre cachée aux origines de la Françafrique, 1948-1971. According to an interview given in French by Thomas Deltombe, the two books are dealing with the same topic but have a different form: the first book is more detailed and conventionally academic, whereas this one is aimed at an audience of non-specialists. In this sense, it conveys academic results to a larger platform, and brings this “forgotten conflict” in the public space.
The thesis of the book is that the conflict that led to maybe hundred-thousand casualties, has been invisible so far, as a result of a French official amnesia. This strategic memory lapse was facilitated by the context of the cold war. To avoid another crushing failure, like the one it had just experienced in Indochina, the French army deployed in Cameroun a dispositive that will be also implemented soon in Algeria (e.g. the use of torture, forced grouping of civilians in camps, systematic use of propaganda). The conflict was rooted in the opposition between an independent (“revolutionary”, in the rhetoric of its adversary) party, Union des Populations du Cameroun (UPC), and the local economic elite. The tension was compounded by the fact that Cameroon was in theory a territory controlled by the United Nations (UN), but in practice, most of the former German colony was administered by France while United Kingdom was in charge of Western Cameroon. The authors show also that the country’s independence in 1960 was only formal, if not fictive: the real power regarding money, trade of strategic materials, military decisions, diplomatic relations, in a nutshell, its sovereignty, remained within France direct orbit, through the system called Françafrique. This system is embodied by the current Head of State of Cameroun, Paul Biya, currently 87 years old.
To get a sense of the way the earlier work on which the book is based was received, let us consider the opinions of two experts: Professors Marc Michel and Tony Chafer. The first one appreciates the value of the archives used but he charges this previous work for being journalistic. Marc Michel is also seemingly adopting a “neutral” approach, hostile en creux to the ethical line of the authors. But are the historians, on the basis the “historical method”, always sticking to Weberian axiological neutrality? The emphasis of Western Historians on written archives is arguably Eurocentric. Besides, recent history is naturally entwined with engagement, and within it, neutrality is a figment of imagination. At least, I agree with Professor Michel that this book is laying the ground for further debates. As for Professor Tony Chafer, he also values the richness of the sources consulted, and then praises the depiction of a complex web of top stakeholders (administrators, military) involved in the conflict. However, he regrets that the reticular analysis, centred around individuals, is not put into the “wider historical context”. As to redeem this shortcoming, the international context, at least, is depicted in the new version of the book (chapter 4). Professor Chafer also calls for more attention to the perspective “from below” and is ultimately worried that the authors give an impression of the top-echelon of French authorities being in control of the situation whereas they might as well have been overwhelmed.
From my perspective, looking at the abridged recent version of the Cameroonian War, I concur that much of the network analysis has to do with the French elite, whereas too little is known of the local agency, aside from the role of UPC leadership. The book has obviously other limitations, regarding the appreciation of the sub-regional context or the economic exploitation of natural resources. But it is important to bear in mind that this version of the book is geared towards the grand public, and thus deliberately avoids the quibbles inherent to quarrels of experts. Furthermore, its most outstanding quality is that it can help to transform the current public debate, in which African politics is also envisaged not only with precolonial history but also through the lens of its colonial and post-colonial fate, with its lot of criminal records. It builds on the idea of “Françafrique”, introduced in this controversial sense by the journalist François-Xavier Verschave in 1999
Finally, this book encapsulates the function of knowledge, not to be hidden under a bushel in a closed academic Ivory Tower, but rather disseminated in the larger society from which the university is not isolated. From this perspective, the content of this book is inestimable! It awakes us to the realities of current African affairs. It allows us to connect with the ongoing anglophone conflict in West-Cameroun and the instability of neighbouring Nigeria. It also lays the ground for a fruitful analysis of French-British rivalry, and its impact on “local” conflicts, like the Biafran war. Moreover, it casts in a fresh light the already much debated question of the state in Africa. The question is very crucial in the sub-region, where separatism is on the rise (Ambazonia, Biafra, Oduduwa), and which shares a common rejection of the contemporary state seen as mostly connected with external/colonial forces. Additionally, this book, being endorsed by an academic of repute, symbolizes engaged historiography, in line with decolonial perspectives, in a context in which, en réalité, academic “neutrality” act for the preservation of the status quo. In the end, the work promotes the emergence of a point of view which considers the violence inflected on the victims of this hidden war and is thus a milestone towards reconciliation.