He might be little known but without doubt a major figure in the African independence campaign. Ruben Um Nyobe would have been on par with the likes of independence leaders Patrice Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, and others, had he been allowed to lead his country Cameroon to independence.
Exactly 63 years ago, on September 13, 1958, Nyobe, who was then leader of the nationalist political party, Union des Populations du Cameroun (UPC), was assassinated by French forces not far from his native village of Boumnyebel. Following his death, French forces got rid of the UPC by either exiling or assassinating its leaders and then established a neo-colonial police state in Cameroon.
Until recently, Cameroonian residents were forbidden to mention Nyobe’s name in public as the French sought to erase his history.
When Nyobe was born at Song Mpeck in Cameroon on April 10, 1913, the country was still a colonial possession of Germany. He attended Presbyterian Church primary schools before being baptized in 1921 as a Presbyterian. Nyobe would witness the colonial administration of Cameroon being transferred from Germany to France and Great Britain at the end of World War I.
By 1929, he had earned his first school leaving certificate. Two years later, he enrolled in a training school for primary teachers in Fulassi but he was sacked while he was in his last year for criticizing the type of education he was given. He however managed to get his teaching degree later and taught for a few years before joining the colonial civil service in 1935. Nyobe at the same time earned a Bachelor’s of Secondary Education in 1939.
From the colonial service, he was sent to the Edea Court of Law as a registrar. That was where he became passionate about international law and began realizing how unjust French colonialism was. By 1945, Nyobe had helped found the Union of Confederated Trade Unions, with the backing of the General Confederation of Workers (CGT) of France. As the first general secretary of the labor organization, Nyobe demanded better working conditions for laborers in Cameroon, arguing that it was only an independent Cameroon that could curtail the problems of the laborers.
In 1948, the UPC, otherwise known as the Cameroon People’s Union, was founded and Nyobe became its leader. According to Joseph Richards, the UPC was “the only major political party to emerge in French sub-Saharan Africa which demanded from the first years of its existence independence from France and the French Union as its main and unalterable goal”. It also sought the reunification of French and British Cameroon.
As the leader of one of the most important nationalist political parties in sub-Saharan Africa, Nyobe became well known in his country and beyond. History says that in the early 1950s, he made several trips to the United Nations headquarters in New York where he condemned the French colonial rule in Cameroon while demanding self-government or independence. Nyobe would become the first African political leader to claim independence for his country before the General Assembly of the United Nations. But for doing so, he and his party became targets of the French colonial administration.
Sources say the French branded the UPC a movement whose aim was to promote communist subversion in Cameroon. Thanks to this, the Catholic Church asked its members to stay away from the “anti-God” party. By 1955, the party was banned and many of its members were arrested or killed while some were exiled. Some leaders fled to the British Southern Cameroons but Nyobe remained in the French Cameroons.
He went on to organize a non-violent resistance movement in the Cameroonian equatorial forest while demanding independence and democratic elections, according to one account. But on September 13, 1958, the anti-colonialist leader was ambushed and executed by the French army near the town of Boumnyébel. The 45-year-old’s body was then dragged for miles to his village, disfiguring him in the process.
And to serve as a warning to anyone who had plans of opposing the French, Nyobe’s mutilated body was put on public display. What’s more, his body was entombed in cement to make it less accessible before being buried at the Presbyterian mission cemetery in Eseka. And apart from the mention of his name being prohibited, the French destroyed his writings, photos, and speeches. These actions were all aimed at striking out the existence of the man many refer to as “the forgotten father of Cameroon”, who fiercely fought for the end of French rule in his homeland.
More than six decades after his death, Cameroon is still struggling with problems of conflict, scarce resources, poverty and youth unemployment, all of which have triggered pockets of protest, resistance and rebellion across the country.