Friday, October 22, 2010

Remembering Ndeh Ntumuzah: An African Freedom Fighter

Ndeh Ntumuzah was a remarkable Pan-African spirit who was one of the leaders of one of the foremost Pan-Africanist liberation movements in Africa, the Union of the Peoples of Cameroon (UPC). He was one of the sterling leaders of the liberation movements of Africa. He was a freedom fighter who devoted his life to African independence. He worked with Ruben Um Nyobé, Félix-Roland Moumié, Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba, Abdel Nasser, Frantz Fanon, Walter Rodney and those leaders who believed in the full emancipation of Africa. The UPC and Ndeh were independent of China or the Soviet Union and independent of France and the United States. In our discussions, Ndeh stressed the importance of independence because at that moment African liberation movements were torn by the Sino-Soviet split, Ndeh Ntumazah was born in Mankon, Bamenda in 1926. He was residing in London, United Kingdom when he joined the ancestors on 21 January 2010. He was 84 years old.


I first met Ndeh Ntumuzah in the home of Walter Rodney in Dar es Salaam in June 1974. I was staying at the home of Walter Rodney at the time of the 6th Pan African Congress. Ntumuzah was then living in exile in Tanzania, under the protection of the Tanzanian government. When I arrived in Dar es Salaam a week before the congress, I met Ndeh before Walter went off to the History Teachers’ Conference in Morogoro. There were three of us in the house, Ndeh, myself and Omowale. Omowale, originally from the Grenadines, was in exile in Tanzania, after his involvement in the students’ struggles at Sir George Williams University in 1969. When Walter returned from Morogoro, he fell ill and it was Ndeh, Omowale and I who cared for him. Walter was admitted to the Muhimbili Hospital and the three of us cooked and took food to him at the hospital. Slowly, as I was driving back and forth between the home in the university and the hospital, I began to learn of the life of Ndeh Ntumuzah.

We had discussions late into the night on the history of the Cameroonian struggle. He spoke of how the struggles of the peoples of Algeria, Vietnam and the Cameroon were interwoven. Like the settlers in Algeria, the colonists in Cameroon used the most vicious racism to oppress the people.

I learnt that Ndeh was one of the freedom fighters of the UPC and that he had joined the organisation in 1948 as a young man, devoting himself to full independence. This made Ndeh one of the top five leaders of one of the most radical freedom parties in Africa after the Second World War. The other leaders were Ruben Um Nyobe (1913-1958), Ouandie Ernest (1924-1971), Abel Kingue (1924-1964) and Felix Roland Moumiė (1925-1960). Cameroon had been handed to the German imperialists at the Berlin conference in 1885. After the first imperialist war, the peoples of the Cameroon were divided between the French and British colonialists. After the Second World War, Cameroon was under the trusteeship of France and the British, courtesy of the United Nations. Ndeh had been involved in building the UPC as a force capable of uniting people from all parts of Cameroon, regardless of class status or ethnic association.


Indeed, for younger Pan-Africanists, the history of the political independence of the UPC is worth studying because of its belief that liberation struggle should be grounded in all of the peoples of Cameroon. The party did not make any distinctions between the French and British Cameroonians, between Christians and Muslims, between men and women, or between the different ethnic groups. It was a remarkably united movement.

Also, the party believed in the full independence of the Cameroon. The UPC had broken with the French Communist party over the question of independence. Younger readers might not know that in the late forties and early fifties, the European communist parties wanted the colonial territories of France to remain part of France. The UPC, founded in 1948, was originally part of the Rassemblement Démocratique Africain (commonly known as the RDA), led by former president of Côte d'Ivoire, Félix Houphouët-Boigny. Founded in Bamako in 1946, the RDA was a nationalist movement that had been inspired by the anti-colonial struggles all over Africa and the Third World. The UPC supported independence in the Cameroon, Algeria and Vietnam while Félix Houphouët-Boigny joined the anti-communist camp of imperialism. Félix Houphouët-Boigny became a darling of western imperialists, and under his leadership Côte d'Ivoire became a cockpit for imperial subversion in Africa. Today Côte d'Ivoire is reaping the unfortunate fruits of the kind of divide and rule policies of Boigny in the Côte d'Ivoire. Félix Houphouët-Boigny was among those Francophone leaders who accepted a version of independence that reinforced French political control. In 1958, General de Gaulle, in a draft constitution inaugurating the Fifth Republic in France, proposed a referendum which gave colonies the chance to choose between the French community or independence, by either voting ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. A majority positive vote would mean that the colony in question was willing to accept the French proposal of a French community made up of colonies and the colonial power, while a majority negative vote would mean total rejection of the community and complete independence.

On 28 September 1958, among all the French African colonies, only Guinea voted ‘No’, hence obtaining total independence from France. Cameroon was not included in this farcical scheme because this was a UN trust territory and the French had not yet liquidated the UPC.

The UPC believed that Pan-Africanists should be ideologically self-reliant. Banned by the French colonialist because it was anti-colonial, the UPC was marginalised by those liberation movements who sought to curry favour with Moscow. At the height of the Cold War, anti colonial movements were pressured to take sides in the Sino-Soviet struggle in order to access material and military support. When there was a split in the socialist camp between the USSR and China, the UPC was able to stay out of this manipulation because it was a liberation movement whose force derived from the strength of workers, poor peasants, traditional healers and cultural workers. This ensured that the UPC could not be easily defeated politically.

Fourthly, the UPC worked hard to gain the diplomatic support of the non-aligned movement and the United Nations. The UPC successfully isolated France at the UN and worked with the Algerians to carry forward the position of full independence for Africa. The UPC worked very hard with other non-aligned forces to strengthen the decolonisation Committee of the United Nations.

Finally, the UPC was a Pan African organisation that believed in the unity of Africa. It was one of the leading parties represented at the All African People’s Conference in Ghana in 1958.

The same harsh and repressive policies that France used against the freedom fighters in Algeria were used against the freedom fighters in Cameroon. France had outlawed the UPC in 1955, branding this African liberation movement as a communist party. Throughout the building of the party, Ndeh worked in what he called a ‘twilight’ position – that is, he worked above and below ground. He was known to appear and disappear making it difficult for the French to track his movements. But France had many educated Africans who were working for the French security services. These were elements from the evolué strata, who loved France more than they loved Africa. It was the work of the French security that led to the capture of the popular strategist and organiser Ruben Um Nyobé (1913–1958). Ruben Um Nyobé was killed by the French colonialists in the midst of liberation struggles. Like Che Guevara, he was captured alive but later executed by the French colonial overlords. France worked hard to execute the leaders of the UPC, buying off some, tricking others and building a strata of Africans who would be forever subservient to France and European interests in Africa. Cameroon, Gabon and the Congo were three territories that were tremendously rich, and Europe ensured that African nationalism would be killed in these areas to protect their interests.

Part of the reason many Cameroonian youth do not know this history is because France sought to assassinate both the leaders of the UPC and the history of the UPC. After killing Ruben Um Nyobé in 1958, the French secret service poisoned the next leader of the UPC Félix-Roland Moumié. He was killed in Switzerland. Ndeh was on the list for assassination and he related the kind of charmed life that he lived while fighting against French colonialism. After the assassination of Moumie, France managed the internal puppet parties to a form of ‘independence’ where French companies dominated the economy. The French fought the UPC and guided a puppet regime to power, led by Ahmadou Babatoura Ahidjo. French intellectuals covered up the brutal crimes of France and it is not by accident that some of the foremost French scholars who now write on ‘the politics of the belly’ in Africa are children of the racist colonists who worked to derail the independence of the Cameroon.


Ndeh told me of his itinerant life as a freedom fighter in Africa. He worked in Africa with the support of the Ghanaian peoples. His life remained under threat from the French secret service and Ahidjo. By the time the imperialist forces assassinated Patrice Lumumba, the French, British and US neo-colonial forces were in full control of certain parts of Africa and the forces of Portuguese and British colonialism worked with apartheid to derail African freedom. Every leader who supported independence was called a terrorist and a communist. The UPC was isolated outside as a communist organisation and with the carrot and the stick; France worked hard to eliminate the grassroots leaders of the UPC. Ahidjo was very forceful in destroying the nationalist networks in the country. Organisers were arrested, killed and driven into exile.

Ndeh was living in exile in Ghana. After Nkrumah was overthrown, the UPC forces and diplomats had to leave Ghana. Ndeh later moved to Egypt. When Cameroon established diplomatic relations with Egypt, Ndeh had to leave Egypt. Ndeh could not go to Guinea because Sekou Toure wanted to have good relations with Ahidjo. He then moved to Algeria. When Ahidjo opened diplomatic relations with the Algerian leaders, Ndeh Ntumuzah had to leave Algeria. He was accepted in exile in Tanzania. During this aggressive period of Ahidjo’s rule, Cameroon came under the complete military, commercial, cultural and ideological control of France. This external control was even more rigid after Cameroon started to export oil. Once France established the liquidation of the UPC, Ahmadou Babatoura Ahidjo was of no use to them. They tricked him and removed him. The nature of his removal demonstrated that he had no firm political base among the Cameroonian people.

It was during these conversations that Ndeh revealed his close connection to Fanon and we learnt of the intense efforts of the French to kill Fanon. Fanon had been an effective doctor, freedom fighter and diplomat for the FLN of Algeria. Born in the Caribbean island of Martinique, Fanon worked in the Algerian liberation struggle and worked very closely with the allies, the UPC. Ndeh was warning us of journalists who were in the service of French Secret service. There was one remarkable story of the journalist writing about the hospitalisation of Fanon in Rome. When Fanon read about this in the newspaper, he demanded to be removed from the room. The very next day gunmen and paid assassins of the French shot up the room where Fanon had moved from.

These stories of hospitalisation and health were not just historical because after a week, Walter Rodney was not getting better. The doctors at the hospital could not diagnose what was wrong with Walter Rodney. A US doctor at the hospital recommended to us that Walter Rodney should probably be transferred to Washington, D.C. to Walter Reed Hospital. As soon as we left the hospital Ndeh immediately objected, reminding us that Fanon had died in the hands of the US at the Walter Reed Hospital. Immediately, there was a consultation with Joe Kanywanyi (of the University of Dar es Salaam) and Andrew Shija (of the TANU Youth league) on seeking the support of the Chinese government for Walter Rodney to be treated in China. We immediately requested that Walter be released from the hospital. While we were making the arrangements for assistance from China, Walter slowly recovered; he had been suffering from exhaustion and malaria. With rest, care and good nutritious food, Walter was able to recover.


During the 6th Pan African Congress in 1974, Ndeh could not attend and participate in the conference because of his refugee status, but he met with us every night for our sessions in promoting the cause of liberation movements in Africa. During the 6th PAC our small ad hoc group typed up documents on the on-going liberation struggles in all parts of Africa. In those days the OAU did not recognise liberation movements in independent African states. Ndeh was familiar with the struggles in the Congo, (then stabilized under Mobutu and later to be called Zaire) the struggles in Ethiopia and other less known struggles such as those in the Comoros. In those days, many of those who called themselves communists opposed the holding of the 6th Pan African Congress in Tanzania. This was especially the case of those liberation movements that were aligned to the Soviet Union. They had made a false dichotomy between Pan-Africanism and Communism. Ndeh was aware of the experiences of George Padmore with the Soviet Union and his reasons for writing the polemic, ‘Pan-Africanism or Communism’. However, both Walter and Ndeh understood the need for a Pan-African movement grounded in the oppressed Africans at home and abroad. This was the spirit behind the essay by Walter Rodney, ‘Towards the 6th Pan-African Congress: Aspects of the International Class Struggle in Africa, America and the Caribbean.’


Ahidjo continued to pursue Ndeh Ntumuzah in Africa, and Ndeh became an exile in London. The condition of his exile was a tacit understanding with the French that they did not attempt to assassinate Ndeh in the UK. I renewed my relationship with Ndeh in London in 1977 when Ndeh was living with Ahmad Rajab. We would meet often to discuss Pan-Africanism and the African revolution. From both Rodney and Ntumuzah, I learnt that Pan-Africanists had to be completely self-reliant and independent of intellectual fads. Ndeh worked with our support groups in London, supporting liberation in the Caribbean and in Africa. In his conversations in London, Ndeh spoke of his village and his longing for home, but he did not make this longing turn into a compromised subservience to neo-colonialism. Additionally, Ndeh used to say that in his village there was such a strong memory of the destructiveness of the slave trade that clans were always thinking of how to make new and healthy links with their brothers and sisters who were sold across the Atlantic.

When Walter Rodney was assassinated, Ndeh’s spirit was not broken; he was still of the view that Pan-Africanists should continue the fight. Ndeh urged us to intensify the struggles for Pan-African emancipation and to carry forward the ideas and principles of self emancipation. He believed that we should organise, not agonise. He had lived through the assassination of numerous leaders and understood that the Pan-African revolution could not be assassinated.

Ndeh, who had been one of the foremost leaders of the African liberation struggles was in 1980 working as a parking lot attendant in London. Ndeh did not compromise with imperialism and did not go back to Cameroon to join the plunder of the society under the French and Paul Biya.


In his time in London, Ndeh supported the black liberation struggles and was very close to the youth who were in motion. At the time of the New Cross fire (in 1981), he was close to Frank and the youths who were opposed to British racism. I moved to Tanzania in 1981 and saw him occasionally when I passed through London on the way to the Caribbean. He was then living with his children in South London. The last time I saw Ndeh was in January 2006. I had travelled to Tanzania for a Walter Rodney conference and had requested Ahmed Rajab to take me to the home of Ndeh. We went with Tajudeen Abdul Rajheem. Ndeh was frail. I had wanted to ask Ndeh about a group that I met in Venezuela in October 2005 at a Pan-African meeting. This was a group that called itself a liberation movement, fighting for the independence of Southern Cameroon. I had listened very carefully to the husband and wife team from the USA,who were presenting documents as freedom fighters calling for armed struggles in the Cameroon, so that Southern Cameroon could secede from the rest of the Cameroon.

I wondered if the Chavez government in Venezuela had the intellectual infrastructure to understand the genuine liberation movements in Africa. After listening very carefully to the husband and wife team and seeking to understand their position of the wider emancipation of Africa, I sensed that their movement, Southern Cameroon’s Peoples’ Organisation (SCAPO), was a front for elements hostile to Pan-Africanism. As a Pan-Africanist, it was not that I was opposed to secession in Africa (after all we had supported the Eritrean struggles for independence), but it was clear that we could not as Pan-Africanists support armed struggles for secession that did not have a firm base among the working people. On this question, Tajudeen and I were in agreement.

We were not able to discuss the question of the secessionist movement with Ndeh that evening, because Ndeh’s illness and vision impairment did not provide the conditions for a real discussion. In fact Ndeh’s health was so poor that he had asked us, ‘What is Kwame Nkrumah doing these days?’


France and the puppet leaders in Cameroon have sought to liquidate the UPC and to liquidate the memory of the UPC. French intellectuals who cover up the criminal acts of the colonial past and present have become experts at writing on corruption, the criminalisation of the state and the politics of the belly of Africa. This genre of scholarship – along with the new focus on the so called ‘failed states’ in Africa – is meant to reinforce psychological warfare against Africans. It is not by accident that some of these leading French scholars were socialised in the colonial context of the Cameroon.

Ndeh Ntumuzah was one of the leading freedom fighters in the struggles for independence and emancipation in Africa. He worked with the Cameroonian independence struggles, the Algerian independence struggles and while in exile in London, he worked with the democracy movement of Kenya and Zanzibar. He worked with the free Ngugi committee. He did not succumb to the regional, ethnic and religious differences that were promoted by the colonialists and carried out with fervour by the neo colonial evolués in Africa today. It is important that the youth of Africa today study and learn of the unflinching passion for true independence grounded in the people. Cameroon is a rich country and with the people mobilised, this society can be transformed. In the interim, the Cameroonian youth have focused their energies on making good music and producing great soccer players.