Achille Mbembe unpicks the assassination, disfigurement, and attempted degrading of Ruben Um Nyobè.
Ruben Um Nyobè, Secretary General of the CPU (Cameroonian Peoples Union), was shot dead on September 13, 1958, in the early afternoon, by French troops dispatched to put an end to a rebellion sweeping the Sanaga-Maritime region since 1955 – a rebellion fomented by the CPU. His death came seconds only after one of his aids, Pierre Yém Mback, was killed. This is how it came about. Men who had started out with Um, but who were now firm allies of the state, told the French – one Captain Agostini, an intelligence officer, and a sidekick of his by the name of Inspector Conan – where to find Um’s base camp. At dawn, on Saturday September 13th, several patrols systematically searched Bumnyébel, a small town off the main road linking the cities of Douala and Yaoundé. One of the search parties, which had started off in the village of Libel li Ngoy, was accompanied by local collaborators of the state and by a gaggle of prisoners; among the latter was Esther Ngo Manguèlè, whom the French suspected of being a liaison officer for Um.
Military reinforcements had arrived from Makai. Still others had crossed the Pugè River, on their way from Njok Nkong. The lot of them met up at the base of a hill near Um’s camp. First they cordoned off the area; then they set out on a manhunt. Ralliés (finks), prisoners and local trackers were made to help. Shortly, one of the trackers turned up traces of the shoes Um was wearing. Aware of the danger he was in, and at the insistence of his entourage, Um had left the camp, probably the night before. His plan had been to move to a new hideout, which Alexandre Mbénd was setting up for him. But the preparations were taking too long, so Um and his companions had decided to lay low in the brush, near a boulder abutting on a swamp. That very morning, Mayi Matip had queried the spirits: nothing bad, he said, was slated to happen today.
Now that it had found the shoe prints, the search party sped up. Within minutes, it located Um’s group. Martha, Um’s companion on the run, was with him. She was pregnant with his son-to-be, Daniel Ruben Um Nyobè. Um Ngos, the man charged with overseeing Um’s base camp, was there too, as well as Pierre Yém Mback, the CPU secretary, Yèmbel Nyébél, the party’s administrator, Ruth Poha, Um’s mother-in-law, and, of course, Um himself. Immediately, the guns went off. Yém Back was hit first. The soldiers, among them a Chadian conscript called Sara Abdoulaye, were firing in all directions. At first, the trackers had not recognized Um. Yém fell inches from Um’s feet. Um tried to step over a log, so he could shift his body around the boulder and get past the swamp. At that very moment, one of the trackers, Makon ma Bikat, recognised him. Abdoulaye shot Um in the back. He crumbled, dropping as he fell a briefcase containing some documents and several notepads he used to jot down recollections of his dreams. Um moaned and died.
The bodies (among which his mother-in-law’s) were dragged to the village of Liyong. They arrived bloody and disfigured. The locals were corralled so they could get a good look at the corpses. The peasants recognised Um and Yém and said so. Ruth Poha’s body was left with them. The villagers buried her according to local custom. Um and Yém’s corpses became the property of the state. And so they were transported to the town of Eséka.
Yém Mback was buried right away in the Catholic mission cemetery. Um was packed off to the local hospital. There, a doctor by the name of Ntimban examined the corpse – just enough for the necessary papers to be signed attesting to Um’s death. Then the body was set up in a large room usually reserved for the ill and dying. In the meantime, the authorities had made up and distributed a tract announcing the death of “He who had turned out to be wrong.” Several thousand copies of the tract were printed and passed out in cities and towns all along the railroad line running through southern Cameroon. On the tract was a picture of Um lying dead on the ground. Back at the hospital, Jacques Bitjoka – one of the government’s main men – attempted to desecrate the corpse.
He showered it with insults, smacked the dead man’s forehead with his right index finger, and defied the corpse to stand up and fight – live up to its reputation, godamnit, Bitjoka would win no matter what. Getting rid of the corpse altogether was impossible. But it was suggested that the head be cut off and the brain removed, for examination. The burial, since one had to happen, was of the kind reserved to reviled men. The families were not invited. Mourning was forbidden. Pastor Song Nlend, of the American Presbytarian mission, held a brief service. The rites to which a man is entitled who has been killed as Um was (nyémb matjel) were denied him. No questions were put to the dead man. No meal was held in his honour. No explanations were given. True, he was granted a grave. But, on strict orders from the government, his corpse was first covered in cement; only then was it lowered into the ground.
To understand the sheer weight – the symbolic drama – of Um’s burial, it is worth remembering why he was assassinated: for opposing, without ever resorting to compromise, the colonial regime and for refusing to be corrupted as so many were by a government willing to go to any lengths to morally vanquish those who dared rise against it. He had also managed to evade public execution – the lot usually reserved for dissidents (men like Douala Manga Bell and Paul-Martin Samba, put to death publicly in 1914). As he had been a source of disorder during his lifetime, the state decided to use his burial as a means of restoring order. The idea was to abolish, metaphorically, the ruptures, the discontinuities that Um had sought to create in the history of colonial power in Cameroon and, in the process, to show the shining glory of the power he had meant (and succeeded) to disrupt. The very manner of his burial was a play on images of order and disorder, deployed to rob Um’s death of the very elements that made it so powerful. The colonial state wanted to shut Um’s corpse up. It went about this in several ways.
First, from the forest in which he was killed all the way to the village of Liyong where he was identified by local peasants, the corpse was dragged in the mud. The whole body was disfigured: Um’s skin, his head, his hair, his face – all were marred with deep tears. And so Um lost his singularity, the specificity of his features, what made him distinctive – his appearance as a human being. The idea behind disfiguring the corpse was to destroy the individuality of the man, to turn what was left of him into an unrecognizable blob. Then came Bitjoka’s insult. This too had its reasons. It had proven impossible to humiliate Um while he was alive, so it was now essential to humiliate him in death, by refusing to grant him the status he deserved – the status that his life, the witness he had borne to his times and the awfulness of his death should have allowed him to claim. For this reason too, he was given but a miserable, anonymous grave. No epitaph, not even a name. As the point was to deny everything that he had been, to erase the very face of him, nothing was to subsist that might allow for the faintest glint of life to live on.
Just to make sure, the body was immersed in concrete. Um’s corpse would be allowed no contact with the earth in whose bowels he lay, no physical means to commune with his forebears or, in time, his descendants. The goal, in the end, was to erase Um from the collective memory of humankind, to consign him to chaos and, thus, to nothingness. When independence came in 1960, the freedom Um had fought for so hard fell to a clique that had objected to the very principle of it. This new state saw to it that no means were made available to recall the man or his death.
Determined to drown Um’s name in a sea of silence and forgetfulness, the postcolonial state went about disappearing everything he had been (what he had done and written, who he had been in relation to others – every one of those things that had made him the singular being that he was). For a long time after Um’s burial it was dangerous to say his name in public, to refer to his teachings, to keep in one’s home an effigy of the man or a trace of his writings. Thirty years on, in the late 1980s, Um and his memory were still buried deep under the denial and censorship of the state. Still, his “trace” and his “shadow” perdured, lived on as if phonetically, spoken, written, in spite of the state’s insistence that he be forgotten – in spite of an insistence whose very excess, for years, stood as the sole, strident cry of a crime duly admitted. In the very act of forgetting – within an official fable that sought once and for all to do away with him, exiling him deep in the night of those forever unnamed – something of Um had remained.
In the unconscious of this African place that had come to be known as Cameroon, neither his “name” nor the text of his death and burial had disappeared, even as the postcolonial state denied that there had been a death or that, for participating in it, it had incurred a debt. “Um”: in death, like a grapheme, the name lived on; Um’s very name became his testament. In the act of seeking to forget Um, in trying to sink his memory, to say that he was no thing – in their desperate quest to purge the country of its recent past – those who had taken over the reins of power showed how irreplaceable the dead man in fact was, how impossible it was to replace his name or the text of which he had been the bearer. For one can only un-do what was previously done, remove what once was there.
Achille Mbembe is the author of On The Postcolony. These words are excerpted from La naissance du maquis dans le sud-
Cameroun (1920-1960), and translated from the French by Dominique Malaquais. They previously appeared in print in Chimurenga Vol. 11: Conversations With A Poet Who Refuse To Speak.