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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The Kamerun plebiscites 1959-1961: perceptions and strategies Chem-Langhëë, Bongfen


The Kamerun Plebiscites of 1959-1961 were crucial to the rise and development of Western Kamerun nationalism. Some of the factors which shaped the events connected with that phenomenon can be traced' back to the pre-colonial period. Others emerged from the activities of the colonizers in the region during the colonial and trust period. But, it was against the British activities that a few Western-educated Southern Kamerunians, the political leaders, reacted and, in the 1940s, developed a nationalist movement. In 1953, these new leaders, who had made little headway in their demands of the British, involved the traditional leaders, the a-Fon, in the nationalist movement. The a-Fon who commanded the loyalty and support of most of the region's inhabitants, significantly strengthened and influenced the movement henceforth. During that crucial period, however, the movement witnessed several conflicts over policy regarding the future of Western Kamerun. In Northern Kamerun, the local authorities advocated integration with Nigeria while some dissident local Fulani and the a-Fon demanded secession from it. In Southern Kamerun, some political leaders stressed integration with Nigeria, others favoured secession from it and ultimate reunification of Kamerun, and, yet, others emphasized immediate secession and reunification. On the other hand, the a-Fon requested secession without reunification. Thus, there were fundamental differences among the political leaders and between them and the traditional rulers. During this period, the political leaders defined and redefined their varying programmes in an effort to win over the Crowned Princes who refused to budge. Realizing the firmness of the a-Fon, backed by massive support from the electorate, the organizers concentrated their efforts at the United Nations where they manipulated, confused, and engineered a split within its members. The division within the United Nations and among the organizers forced that organization to concentrate on reaching a compromise rather than finding out what the majority of the Western Kamerunians desired. The outcome of this approach was adverse decisions: in the case of Northern Kamerun, where the electorate, after the first plebiscite, had mistaken the reformed local administration for secession from Nigeria, the United Nations refused to postpone the second plebiscite, and, in the case of Southern Kamerun, it left out secession without reunification, the most popular view, from the plebiscite despite numerous appeals and protests from both regions. In the ensuing confusion in the North and dissatisfaction in the South, the electorate asked and answered their own questions at the plebiscites, interpreting the United Nations' questions to suit their local conditions and circumstances. This interpreting process was to be expected. In most plebiscites and elections, electors ask and answer their own questions, often with little reference to the larger issues, but the timing of the second plebiscite in the North and the unfortunate wording of the plebiscite questions in the context of politics in the South, contributed not only a good deal of confusion to the proceedings, but also significantly impeded the process of self-determination. Moreover, the conduct of the plebiscites, themselves, was characterized by the abuse of power by those interested groups in and out of authority, and by suspicion and accusation which were sometimes justifiable and sometimes not. Furthermore, the plebiscite undermined the Concert of the Crowned Princes, the symbol of Southern Kamerun unity, and left sections of the region standing at a distance from, and threatening, each other. Not only had the trust system ended in Western Kamerun on an uncertain note, but the United Nations had been less than effective in applying the principle of self-determination.

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