Patrice Nganang recalls the duel between politics and the literary sphere in 1990s Yaoundé – a time when the campaign for ‘democracy’ exposed the chiasmus that is the Cameroonian intelligence, and the words of Mongo Beti ignited a movement for dissent, return and reconstruction.
What I remember most about the years of fire is that I had a lot of time on my hands. But there are some days that stay with me – one of these in particular I recall, even though I can’t be sure of the exact date, is an evening in February 1991. And there are gestures, as well, that I recall – even if in the end they would have no effect. And moments that I won’t easily forget, because they are inscribed in that greater history in which we were all caught up during those years, and which went by the name ‘democratisation’.
The banned Mongo Beti conference, which was to have been held at the Hilton Hotel in Yaoundé on the occasion of his return to Cameroon after 32 years in exile, was one of those moments. The petition that we, students at the University of Yaoundé put together, in support of Beti to speak on campus instead of at the Hilton, is one of those actions without any effect about which I would like to speak. However, to make sense of what I am saying, one needs to be aware of a few things, most importantly of the public aura that surrounded intellectuals at that time.
In essence, Beti’s return to Cameroon would stay with me as a memory of the chiasmus that is l’intelligence camerounaise. First of all, the context is important. There had been an open letter by Célestin Monga, ‘Democracy falsified’, published in the newspaper Le Messager of 27 December 1990, opposite an acerbic article by Beti. This would be the opening salvo of the campaign for democracy. In the following February, too, there was an issue of Jeune Afrique Economie that set the groundwork for what was to come: a lengthy feature in which photos of Paul Biya and Mongo Beti appeared side by side (with the latter presented as the ‘pope of the opposition movement in Cameroon’), which symbolised the way we understood the duel between politics and the literary sphere in those years, and the way we would live out this duel.
Mongo Beti was the personification not only of the intellectual, but also of the political opponent: grounded in principle, bearing in his words a long tradition of battles waged, anchored in a Cameroonian civil society that was clearly in the process of constructing itself around him, around us, through the press, through public conferences, but not yet through public gatherings. Above all, it was Beti’s writing that resonated in our minds, adolescent youth that we were, writing we had all read at school – from his Cruel City most notably.
Now that I think of it, Mongo Beti was the political opponent by default, given that Cameroon had lost its guardian of the opposition, Ernest Ouandié, at the stake. Of the life-force of battles long past, there remained thus only the force of intellect: the mood of a certain spirit that Mongo Beti incarnated: the spirit of contestation. An entire political movement, previously wiped out, had found its final refuge in his words, in their infinite quest for independence, their resistance and their dissidence; above all in his book Main basse sure le Cameroun (The Rape of Cameroon), which was closed off to us as much as foreclosed by the authorities, because the men of whom it spoke remained silent in our midst, or more often dead. The Union des Populations du Cameroun (UPC), the nationalist party of whose spirit it was the bearer, was still banned, and departures from Cameroon were rationed by exit visas, with women forced to get their husbands’ permission to travel. Oh, those were the years of fire, at whose heart all that remained to call out the UPC’s memory was the meteor of a literary figure.
The extraordinary thing about the UPC is essentially that it hasn’t left behind any emblematic living persons whose return would be, above all and tautologically, a political act. They returned during those years, their faces forgotten, destroyed by suffering, by the pettiness even of their expression, with merely symbolic value because their stature had never been increased by the ‘democratisation’ project that we expected from them and that was too big for their shoulders to bear.
The power that still holds Cameroon hostage had, at the time, not only succeeded in fundamentally discrediting all those who lived abroad and were in opposition to it, but also managed to negate all the surviving pockets of political activity that would have been the vehicle for the return of the exiled politicians: there were no audio cassettes using underground means to spread the words of any renowned political dissident; no samizdat press ricocheting through the network of silently chattering conspiracy; and, above all, no banned party leaders for whom one could wait at the airport.
The Cameroonian history of ruin and destruction was still to come; a history that would be written in the blood of the Front Social-Democratique, which had awoken the hopes of the people in Bamenda on 26 May 1990. Nonetheless, 6 May 1991 – a few months after Mongo Beti’s return – saw the ‘parliament’ explode into being at the University of Yaoundé. Its structure would later be reproduced in Côte d’Ivoire in the form of the agoras and sorbonnes. In essence, this was a public explosion of conspiracies that had been formulated in the inspired and courageous meetings held by the students – word jugglers at best. Though sporadic, these quickly evolved a structured form – around a tree, in any free space at the university – to talk about everything, that is, about politics. In those years political discussion was banned at the University of Yaoundé and politics was practised in the form of a dictatorship, or through organisations of a purely tribal nature; politics had been taken hostage by so-called student representatives, who were none other than representatives of the administration.
This was not a spontaneous process. Before the student leaders who had been elected by us, their comrades; before the parliament that was very well structured and that defined the boundaries of free speech on the campus; and before this contestation, which would soon find its voice in Corantin Talla alias Schwarzkopft, Nene Fadimatou alias Winnie Mandela, Senfo Tonkam and numerous others who today are in exile, there were already self-defence groups, which had been artificially created by the powers-that-be – a repeat of the strategies that had previously permitted the negation of all dissident voices through intimidation and violence and that had kept Mongo Beti in exile.
It is impossible to talk about Beti’s return without talking about this parliament – even if it was only embryonic – because one must explain clearly who these young people were who had come to listen to him in February 1991, and why they were there. When I see the photos taken in those days, and compare them to the ones I have of the meetings of the parliament, what strikes me most is the presence of the same faces in both groups – the migration of the parliamentarians from the Beti conference photos to the ones taken at meetings in students’ rooms. Politics and literature were in total agreement, according to all the evidence, and suddenly, in a sort of seepage of communication, the students took the political initiative.
From that perspective, the very dynamic Literary Circle can be understood as their fortuitous meeting point – because it was within the framework of the Circle, whose sensibility and parliamentary relations were never hidden, that we took the initiative to invite the author returning to his native land to talk on the campus, as soon as we had learned that he was really back in Cameroon. But we still had to convince him to do so.
The most efficient method was obviously to talk to our professor, the critic Ambroise Kom, who remains his intellectual heir. By the way it was Kom, I think, who advised us to draw up a petition, because without this how could we convince the dean of the faculty that a conference on Cameroon’s most famous writer should be held on campus, during those years when it was still necessary to have a conference paper approved by the dean before it could be read?
I can still see us, on the eve of the conference to be held at the Hilton Hotel, striding up and down the campus accosting students to ask them to sign the long sheet of paper on which we had set out our position. The reason for this petition was all too obvious to us: why should Beti speak at the most expensive hotel in the capital when the university, with its empty lecture halls, was there and ready to allow him to share his knowledge? When, by the way, some of our professors had written and published doctoral theses on him? It was an insult to our intelligence, we all agreed.
If the Literary Circle previously had no raison d’être, here was one knocking on its door. And we, who were directing the events, would represent it before the author, delivering to him the student petition in the name of our courageous comrades, in the name of Cameroonian youth, hands on hearts as in the mass ceremonies of which we dreamt so much. The truth is that during these years we were nothing but dreams.
When I think of that time, I laugh. The first signature on this petition, I still recall clearly, was that of Bolanga Henri Pascal, at that time the president of the Literary Circle, the second that of Thierry Mouelle, his deputy, and the third was mine. All the other signatures were fakes, because the first friend, not a member of the Circle, whom we asked to sign, scrawled a name which – I remember it well – wasn’t his.
It astonishes me to this day: not the fake signature from this friend, whom I know nonetheless to be a political firebrand, but rather the fact that it never occurred to me to sign with any name other than my own. Naiveté? I still haven’t grown out of it. (Beti, by the way, signed his books with pseudonyms too – his real name being Alexandre Biyidi Awala. Indeed, the name of the president of Cameroon, Paul Biya, is a pseudonym). This friend advised to fill the petition with invented signatures as the most efficient way to get the writer to speak on campus – otherwise he would not come, ‘because the students won’t sign’.
‘If the students won’t sign, let’s ask the professors.’
Whose idea was this? I no longer know. But it was this that would lead us to discover the full extent of the cowardice of our lecturers who, in other circumstances, when it was a matter of exposing the meaning of apartheid, of colonisation, of racism, of negritude, a matter of semiology and semiotics, structuralism and deconstruction, would launch into lyrical flight.
‘Yes , Monsieur.’
‘So that Mongo Beti will come and speak on campus.’
‘On this campus?’
‘Yes , Monsieur.’
‘You know, it’s not as simple as that.’
I prefer not to mention the names of these professors here, especially because some have since died. Why sully their memory by revealing the fear that trembled in their eyes when they were confronted in their offices with a banal choice: to bring or not to bring a Cameroonian writer, whose works they were teaching, to speak at the University of Yaoundé?
‘You know, literature is more complex than that.’
‘In what sense?’
The foggy theories that conceal cowardice, I saw them in the course of those days; the tongue that turns to the hardest wood to maintain its silence, I heard it then. That theory is, in the end, nothing but the resignation of the intellect became entirely clear to me on that afternoon. I was truly chagrined at the discovery that the solemn ceremony of handing over the students’ petition to the dissident writer returned to his country would be a farce because the list of names that we had concocted was indeed a long one, very long, but fake.
I admit that I contributed false signatures. Under the trees in a garden, my friends and I threw ourselves into this shameful exercise in falsification, which under other circumstances we would have vilified. The cause! The cause! What didn’t we do for it in those years with our twisted and distorted blows? Bolanga, the president of the Literary Circle, was he the one who handed over our shabby document to Mongo Beti? I don’t know exactly, because on the evening of the mythical handover of the petition that was supposed to happen at the home of Professor Ambroise Kom, I wasn’t there.
What was certain was that Beti was not permitted to speak at the Hilton Hotel, his conference (where I was) having been banned at the last minute by order of the sous-préfet. He made a brief impromptu speech in front of the hotel, certainly, but the banning was followed by a campaign waged by the official media that presented him as a ‘French tourist travelling to Cameroon’.
The following morning, as a substitute for the evening event, Beti spoke at an architect’s office in the Avenue Kennedy, in a brief, improvised public exchange with his compatriots, who had been disappointed at the cancellation of the previous evening. I still remember that he was introduced there by, among others, Cilas Kemedjio – a member of parliament. He signed some books, including the issue of Jeune Afrique Economie, in which he placed his signature next to the photograph of himself to the amusement of the crowd. After this gathering, my friends from the Literary Circle and I had a group photo taken with him. He would later allude to our student conditions and to the parliament, in one sentence in an essay crammed with figures that he dedicated to his return to Cameroon, La France contre l’Afrique : Retour au Cameroun (France against Africa: Return to Cameroon). Eventually he became a bookseller in Yaoundé. But it would be ten years before he finally spoke on the campus of the University of Yaoundé.
As for the parliamentary leaders, they were no longer there, having been banned for life from all universities in Cameroon. Most of them are spending their 20th year in a sad exile that began in 1991, and has thrown them onto the tortuous roads of Burkina Faso, Benin, Germany, the USA and elsewhere. One of the rare among them, Jacques Tiwa alias Nkrumah, who returned to the country after his peregrinations, would be executed on 28 February 2008 in Douala, at the heart of another tumult orchestrated to get rid of the same tyrant.
This article first appeared in print in Chimurenga Chronic (August 2013).
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