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  • Nation of Outlaws, State of Violence: Nationalism, Grassfields Tradition, and State Building in Cameroon by Meredith Terretta
  • Ralph A. Austen
Meredith Terretta. Nation of Outlaws, State of Violence: Nationalism, Grassfields Tradition, and State Building in Cameroon. Ohio University Press 2013. xvi, 368. US $32.95

In this study of the decolonization process and its immediate aftermath in Cameroon, Meredith Terretta sets herself three very ambitious goals: first, to see these developments from the local perspective of Grassfields/ Bamileke communities in both their savannah homelands and their southward diaspora into the Mungo River valley; second, to examine the global dimensions of the most dynamic (if ultimately unsuccessful) Cameroonian nationalist political party, the UPC (L’Union des populations du Cameroun); and, finally, to tell the “story of the [Cameroonian] state’s failure to become a nation.” [End Page 518]

Nation of Outlaws is most successful in linking the politics of the UPC to “Grassfields tradition.” Her major argument here—against most of the voluminous and prestigious extant scholarship—is that despite the disruptions of French colonial administration and piecemeal migration into alien regions the Bamileke continued up through the 1960s to base their political and even cultural identity on the various chiefdoms of their homelands. She here makes very good use of ethnography, archival records, and oral testimony to show, first, that loyalty to, and concern for the legitimacy of, hereditary rulers extended into Bamileke communities in the Mungo River valley; and, second, that the chiefs themselves took a leading role in both the UPC and the more conservative sides of decolonization politics. Her narrative pays particular attention to one chieftaincy, Baham, but this works to make the very complex issues of belief, ritual, and personal and factional manoeuvring understandable.

Because of its broad appeal and demands for immediate political change, the French colonial regime repressed and then banned the UPC in 1955, driving many of its members into exile. Terretta points out how such necessity put the party leadership (and many rank-and-file recruits who followed them to gain insurrectionary training) into contact with the global anti-colonial movement that developed after the Bandung (Indonesia) Conference of 1955. She provides particularly valuable insights into how Accra, in newly independent Ghana, functioned as an African hub of such Third Worldist thinking and organizing.

Terretta’s conscious goal here is to move beyond the French empire as the international context for francophone African political struggles and postcolonial aspirations. However, by viewing French policies only through the lenses of local UPC struggles and Accra-based pan-Africanism, she loses sight of France’s own disillusionment with continued investment in colonies and the importance of the 1956 loi cadre in signalling a British-type decolonization (the UPC, for understandable reasons, perceived it as a half-empty glass of continuing French control).

The “national” question gets a bit lost in this book in part because the focus is on the Bamileke and Mungo regions and because the UPC does not seem to have had any clear vision (especially after Terretta strips away the myth of its anti-traditional elite populism) of social goals beyond reunification and independence. Terretta does make some interesting observations on how the Bamileke term lepue shifts its meaning from the autonomy of specific chiefdoms to Cameroonian independence from France, but this explains only the immediate appeal of the UPC in this region.

One of the controversial strategic choices made by the UPC leadership was to pursue violence rather than compromised electoral politics. In her discussion of Accra, Terretta evokes Frantz Fanon and his theories of violence as a necessary anti-colonial catalyst. She also provides lengthy [End Page 519] descriptions of the violence actually practised both by and against the UPC during the decolonization era as well as in the first decade after Cameroon’s 1960 independence under the conservative Ahidjo regime and shows how, on both sides, it degenerated from politics into criminality and personal vendettas. However, this outcome is never theorized in Fanonian terms (“state of exception” is evoked but with reference only to the late-colonial “state of emergency” rather than the ideas of Carl Schmitt or Giorgio Agamben). Thus, despite the claims of Terretta’s...


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