- Nation of Outlaws, State of Violence: Nationalism, Grassfields Tradition, and State Building in Cameroon by Meredith Terretta
In 1956 the southern part of Cameroon entered a period of popular unrest followed by an armed rebellion and a ferocious repression by French and Cameroonian troops. The violence lasted until the late 1960s. This territory had been part of a German colony placed under French trusteeship by the League of Nations in 1919. It achieved independence in 1960 under the French-controlled government of Ahmadou Ahidjo.
The armed rebellion of the Union des Population du Cameroun (UPC) developed mostly in two areas: the Bassa country in the coastal hinterland, and the so-called Bamileke, in the western highlands, or Grassfields. Meredith Terretta’s book focuses on the latter. The rebellion here had been variously interpreted as a revolt of the rank and file of the chiefdoms against their leaders, a communist-led movement in a Cold War context, a nationalist endeavor to achieve true political independence, a local manifestation of the Pan-African movement, or a mix of everything in various proportions.
Several excellent studies have been published on this popular rebellion, both in English and French. Terretta remarks, however, that the many studies, both scholarly and popular, that have proliferated since the democratization movement of the 1990s have produced a narrative that is too plural and fragmented to serve as a coherent expression of Cameroon’s national history. Hers is a timely endeavor, and the book achieves a thorough discussion and synthesis of all the components of the UPC movement. The author also expands the narrative by including the local spiritual, political, and cultural content of the nationalist movement as well as the contributions of subaltern actors, thus bringing to fruition a turn that has been taken by several scholars in the 1990s.
The book’s argument develops in three parts of two chapters each. The first part is a tentative synthesis of Grassfields political traditions and Bamileke identity, including an account of the settlement of Bamileke migrants in the Mungo valley from the 1920s. The second part presents a historiography of local politics in the Bamileke and Mungo regions, based on the notions of independence (lepue) and chiefdom/nation (gung). The author then presents a discussion of the role played by the chiefs in the rebellion—a topic that had been hotly debated right from the origin of the unrest. [End Page 255]
The UPC sought redress from the General Assembly of the United Nations without much success, given the pressure exercised by Cold War international politics on independence movements suspected by the West, not without bad faith, to be manipulated by the Communist bloc. The Pan-African movement provided its support to the rebellion and gave shelter to UPC exiles, mostly in Accra. The third part of the book discusses the way the movement went global while losing ground locally in the face of widespread wanton violence and ferocious repression. The conclusion attempts to assess the impact of state repression under the Ahidjo regime, the development of a culture of violence and impunity that contributed to later developments, and the frustrations of successive generations. Despite attempts at reconciliation and public confession, most Bamileke have turned inward, making it difficult for social scientists to shed light on such a painful episode of the decolonization process.
The book is reasonably compact (262 pages of text), with a very dependable critical apparatus. It is grounded in a thorough use of state and other archives from several countries, the published literature, and journals, tracts, and pamphlets, as well as some forty interviews. Altogether it is an excellent piece of scholarship and should become a reference on the Bamileke participation in the UPC upheaval.
Nevertheless, certain caveats seem necessary, especially concerning part 1. In its attempt to ground the UPC movement in the local spiritual, political, and cultural traditions, it relies on discourses and tropes constructed under colonization by missionaries, colonial administrators...