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Monumental Failures

 

 

Dominique Malaquais reports from Cameroon on the active objection of one ‘Combattant’ to the negation of many, cast in stone. Decrying these monumental symbols to the least salubrious of colonial exploits, his rebellion is most fitting in a country that stands on ceremony other than its own.

His name is Mboua Massock. He is the founder, in Douala, of an organisation called Conseil supérieur de la rebellion morale (Superior Council for Moral Rebellion), ‘dedicated to peaceful means of waging battle’. Though his full name is Camille Mboua Massock ma Batalong, he answers to one name only: Combattant (Fighter). A political figure known to most, he has never held elected office. To underscore the point, he identifies himself as l’Honorable deputé nationaliste non declaré élu (The Honourable Nationalist Deputy yet and never to be declared elected). He has served many prison terms for his participation in endeavours deemed unacceptable by the state. Among these is a fight he has been waging since 2001. Its focus is a monument.

In the heart of Douala stands a statue to which Mboua Massock powerfully objects. Erected in 1948, it depicts Marshal Philippe Leclerc de Hautecloque (1902-1947), a high-ranking member of the military in General Charles de Gaulle’s government. Cast in bronze, some 1,8m tall and positioned on a cement pedestal, it shows the marshal in a relaxed pose, right hand resting on a walking stick and left hand on hip. He wears everyday army gear – a short-sleeved shirt, pants tucked into combat boots and a visor cap characteristic of the French military. Behind him is a large, curved panorama of white cement. On this, among low-relief renditions of tanks, airplanes, assorted architectural structures and military insignia, are the names of multiple cities and battlefields (primarily, though not exclusively, African) and dates ranging from 1940 to 1946. At the base of the pedestal is a circle cast in bronze, adorned with various military insignia including the croix de Lorraine, General de Gaulle’s symbol of choice.

Leclerc’s place in Cameroonian history is not a pretty one. During the Second World War, France was lacking in soldiers to combat the German army. To fill its ranks, it turned to its African colonies. On August 26 1940, Leclerc arrived in Douala by sea. By November 10 he had, as French history books put it, ‘rallied’ Cameroon and Chad ‘to the forces of Free France’ (that part of France and its colonies which was not under the rule of pro-Nazi Marshal Pétain and was governed from London by de Gaulle). Douala was Leclerc’s first port of call on the continent; then came other African cities and colonies, whose names appear on the curved background that frames his statue. In Cameroon as elsewhere in Africa, the goal was not simply to gather up soldiers so as to shore up the French army; it was to collect cannon fodder. Sent out, as they were, on impossible missions, under-equipped and given treatment worse than the lowest-ranking white soldiers, thousands upon thousands of Africans died in the European theatre during the Second World War.

A similar state of affairs prevailed during the First World War. As would happen some 30 years later, thousands of colonial subjects were forced to fight for France, both in Africa and in Europe. When hostilities came to an end, those who had survived were shipped home and forgotten. In 2006 only, following years of work by activists and the release of Indigènes, a blockbuster film seen by hundreds of thousands of viewers across France, did some manner of recognition come: African veterans of the First World War, the Elysée announced, would henceforth receive the same pension as their French counterparts. The announcement came a little late: the overwhelming majority of survivors had since died of old age or illness.

This brief detour into the vagaries of First World War helps situate the monument in Leclerc’s honour. His statue is located at the very centre of Bonanjo, Douala’s administrative and business district. It looks out onto the Place du Gouvernement, a vast plaza framed by the city’s main courthouse and post office, a stunning structure that was home, in the second half of the 1800s, to King Rudolph Douala Manga Bell (of whom more later), two major banks, Air France’s headquarters, and the offices of PMUC, a multi-million Euro, French-owned, horse-betting outfit. At the centre of the Place is a large circular walk, pleasantly enhanced with flowers at election time. Benches are arrayed around a centrally located monument, whose pedestal rests in a low-lying fountain. Larger than the Leclerc statue, this monument, also in bronze and inaugurated in 1920, depicts a French soldier seen in profile, striding forward, bearing a heavy backpack, a bayonet slung over his left shoulder and, clasped in his right hand, a crown of golden laurels. A plaque indicates that the monument is dedicated to all the unknown soldiers and seamen ‘French and allied’ who fell ‘on the field of glory’ during the ‘battle for Cameroon’ in the First World War. The ‘allied’ soldiers in question had, of course, been conscripted by force and the Cameroon for which they fought was not theirs. Naturally, no mention is made of this.

Thus, Leclerc’s statue, which celebrates a man who forced thousands of Cameroonians to fight against Nazi troops during the Second World War, directly faces a monument hailing the conscription against their will of thousands in yet another battle between France and Germany. Both monuments were erected by the (ex)-coloniser. Every year, a ceremony is held around them, organised by the French Consulate, at which veterans appear and French flags are hoisted in commemoration of battles past. No monument, stele, statue or plaque on this, the most visible and largest plaza of central Douala, celebrates any man or woman involved in the quest for freedom from colonial rule. Indeed, no such thing exists anywhere in the city. All that one encounters is a thoroughfare named Boulevard de l’Indépendance.

It is to this, rather than to Leclerc specifically, that Mboua Massock objects. The situation is, to say the least, odd. One would be hard-put to find a country in sub-Saharan Africa whose largest city bears no memorial whatsoever to the end of colonial rule. Far poorer cities have made a point of erecting monuments celebrating the end of colonialism – Lomé, to cite but one example. Others have integrated colonial statuary with new monuments and steles celebrating independence – Bamako, for instance, and cities throughout South Africa. Elsewhere, monuments hailing the participation of African soldiers in French wars have been done away with altogether. Such was the case in Algiers, when, in 1984, the Monument aux morts de la seconde guerre mondiale (Monument to soldiers who died in Second World War), erected by the French and dedicated to Algeria’s soldats indigènes (cannon fodder again), was destroyed and replaced with the Maquam E’chahid, (Martyrs’ Monument), which commemorates Algeria’s blood-soaked battle for independence.

As Massock sees it, there are many others – ‘local martyrs’, he calls them – whose effigies should appear in Douala generally, and on the Place du Gouvernement in particular. A case in point is Rudolph Douala Manga Bell (1872-1914), whom the German government hung, along with some 20 others, on charges of treason. All that remains to remind the people of Douala – of this man – is his tomb, a simple affair located behind his home of yore and maintained by the Bell family, and a stump said to be the base of the tree from which he was hung. Many others could have been celebrated as well, members of the Duala community, who fought for freedom from the Germans first and then the French. Non-Duala fighters certainly deserve their place in the city’s squares as well – among them Ruben Um Nyobé, the true father of independence, who was murdered by colonial troops in 1958.

Tired of demanding that action be taken to ensure a more equitable representation of the country’s past, in 2001 Massock took matters into his own hands. Armed with a 10kg weight, he smashed Leclerc’s effigy in the face. He had been under the impression that the figure was made of painted cement. Had it been, the whack Leclerc received would have done considerable damage. As the statue is made of bronze, however, it barely budged. Only the nose suffered, so that now it appears slightly off-kilter – out of joint, as it were. Massock was briefly detained, then released. The next time he took his ire out on the statue, however, things did not go so well.

On July 29, 2006, Massock decided on more radical means to deface Leclerc’s monument. With blood red paint, on the curved background that frames the statue, he wrote in giant letters: A DEMOLIR: NOS MARTYRS D’ABORD (Must be destroyed: our martyrs first). He gave the Communauté Urbaine de Douala (CUD) – the municipal authorities – 180 days to accomplish the demolition. The phrasing he chose, the delay he accorded and a large red cross he painted on the backdrop were explicit references to a practice encountered citywide: all over Douala are buildings and lean-tos marked with a thick red cross and the words, A démolir, (to be demolished) followed by a number of days and signed CUD. Inhabitants of these buildings and shops move or decide to stay on, but are always at the mercy of the municipality, constantly at risk of incipient displacement, all of which results in a highly unstable environment in which all but the wealthiest city dwellers can hope to settle permanently.

Massock was promptly arrested and charged with ‘subversion’, an act punishable by a significant prison sentence. The first hearing of his trial was set for February 3, 2006, then moved to March 3, to allow the defence time to prepare its case. In the meantime, French authorities saw to the removal of Massock’s offensive graffiti. The March 3 audience, presided over by one Judge Nzali, proved Ubuesque. Massock pleaded guilty and matters were set to move forward. The prosecutor, however, complained that the defendant was ‘indecently dressed’. Massock was not wearing a coat and tie; instead, he had chosen clothing associated with the Bassa region, whence he hails: a long skirt, embroidered shirt and sandals. He sported a thick beard (not a common sight among ‘proper’ Doualais) and, wrapped around his waist, a sash of green, red and yellow, the colours of the Cameroonian flag. In his right hand, he held a wooden baguette that was interpreted by many as a ‘magical’ device. The defence, represented by attorney Momo Jean de Dieu, bristled at the prosecutor’s comment. ‘Decent does not mean Western,’ Momo responded. ‘My client is dressed in the tradition of his people. Insofar as this is also the trial of colonisation, acculturation and alienation,’ he went on, Massock’s sartorial choice was a perfectly reasonable one.

For the judge, the prosecutor and the defence attorney, there were questions of a technical nature to address. Whom, in fact, did the statue belong to: France or Cameroon? If the former, Momo argued, some manner of French authority should be present; if the latter, a representative of the ministries responsible for national monuments should be in attendance. For Massock, however, these were peripheral issues. As Momo’s words suggested, Le Combattant’s principal concern was and remains the widespread and profoundly damaging effects of alienation: in this lay the roots of his vandalism.

Ultimately, Massock knows that his gesture was just that – a gesture. It was meant, however, as a meaningful (or as he put it a ‘productive’) one – a response, as it were, to Frantz Fanon, who, better than anyone, has described the effects of alienation. It was in a similar vein – and in echo, Massock underlined, to the writings of Cheikh Anta Diop – that one must understand his refusal to appear in coat and tie. (What Fanon and the Cheikh would have thought of this pairing of their views is another question).

The same holds true of another act of refusal on Massock’s part that caused considerable commotion in court: on the fourth day of his trial, he announced to the judge that he would not stand throughout the proceedings, as defendants are expected to do, and promptly sat down in the seventh row of seats, typically occupied by spectators. Here again, the gesture was largely symbolic, but it did make a point that clearly struck a chord in the city, as it was widely reported in the local press.

Through his actions, symbolic though they have been, Massock seeks to educate. A half-century after Cameroon’s accession to independence, he means to show how much remains to be done in his country to decolonise the mind. The education he seeks to dispense through his acts is urgently needed. In history books read by schoolchildren across Cameroon, there is none but the most glancing reference to Leclerc. The participation by Cameroonian soldiers in the fight for French interests and land during the two world wars is presented as a subject of pride. The fact that schoolchildren are taught little or nothing about France’s conscription of their forefathers, the violence done to those conscripts or the role played in this context by men like Leclerc has had stunning effects. Today, few passers-by on the Place du Gouvernement, Massock notes, have any idea who or what the two statues represent. Young couples come to be photographed there, with one or the other monument in the background. One cannot possibly make light of this ignorance, he holds, especially when one takes into consideration the identity of the ministries responsible for national monuments in Cameroon: the Ministries of Basic and Secondary Education.

The dual failure to teach about and to celebrate those who fought to end the colony should come as little surprise, Massock points out. Fostering knowledge about them and erecting monuments in their honour would only underscore the obvious: that those who waged battle in the name of freedom lost and that their place was taken by others, who can make no such claims. An extraordinary side-effect of this state of affairs, he might add, is the fact that even those who battled German rule – for a relatively short period, which ended with the First World War and has no bearing on the leaders who came to power after independence – are not commemorated. Thus, neither in Douala nor in Yaounde are there monuments commemorating Rudolph Douala Manga Bell or his cousin Adolf Ngosso Din, both of whom were executed on August 8, 1914 for refusing to give over to the city’s new rulers the Joss Plateau, where Bonanjo is located today – a clear breach by the Germans of a treaty signed in 1884 between the Reich, in the person of Gustav Nachtigal, and Kings Akwa and Bell.

In addition to refusing dispossession, Bell was held guilty of seeking to federate men of power across Cameroon against apartheid-like urbanisation plans designed for Douala by the Germans. Among these men were Martin Paul Samba (executed on the same day in the town of Ebolowa) and Henri Mabolla of Kribi, the rulers of two Northern sultanates (Kalfu and Mindif) and several others linked to them, all of whom were condemned to death. Of these independence fighters, there is nary a sign, not a single act of recognition on the part of the government. Instead, what one does come upon in Douala are monuments to such men as Gustav Nachtigal and Otto von Bismark and, in Yaounde, to the likes of Charles Atangana, who played an active role in supporting the German colonial occupation.

‘Cameroon,’ writes the historian, Achille Mbembe, reflecting on the nature of monuments such as those described above, ‘represents … the very anti-model of how a community might relate to its dead and, in particular, to those whose death is the direct consequence of acts meant to change the course of history.’

With this, Massock would no doubt agree. So too, one suspects, he would second Mbembe’s diagnosis as to the effects that such a state of affairs has on the nation: ‘A country that doesn’t give a damn about its dead cannot give rise to a politics of life. It can but promote mutilated life – life teetering ever on the edges of death.’

Where he might stand on another matter is a different question. For Mbembe, the very notion of monuments should be done away with:

I propose that in every African country we establish a careful inventory of all colonial statues and monuments. These we shall collect in a single park, which will serve as a museum for generations to come. This Panafrican park-cum-museum will serve as colonialism’s symbolic grave on our continent. Once we have effected this burial, let us … promise never again to erect statues to anyone at all. Instead, let us build everywhere libraries, theatres, cultural centres – all things that, from this day forward, will nourish tomorrow’s creative growth.

Whether Mboua Massock would see eye to eye here with Mbembe is unclear. As for me, there is no doubt but that statues should go the way of the dinosaurs, in Africa and everywhere else.
CHRONIC Front Page

This story features in the Chronic (April 2013). Contributors to this edition of the newspaper include Jean-Pierre BekoloBinyanvanga WainainaDominique MalaquaisMahmood MamdaniNiq MhlongoPaula AkugizibweHoward French, and Billy Kahora. Stories range from investigations into the business of moving corpses to the rhetoric of land theft and loss; from latent tensions between Africa’s most powerful nations to the soft power of the biggest satellite television provider; and from the unspoken history of Rushdie’s “word crimes” to the unwritten history of PAGAD.

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