He may be poorly known, yet he was a key figure in the African freedom movement. If Ruben Um Nyobe had been permitted to lead Cameroon to independence, he would have been on par with liberation leaders Patrice Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, and others.
Nyobe, the then-leader of the nationalist political organization Union des Populations du Cameroun (UPC), was slain by French forces on September 13, 1958, not far from his native hamlet of Boumnyebel. Following his death, French soldiers exiled or assassinated the UPC’s leaders, and then established a neo-colonial police state in Cameroon.
Residents of Cameroon were forbidden to speak Nyobe’s name in public until recently, as the French wanted to obliterate his history.
Nyobe was born on April 10, 1913, in Song Mpeck, Cameroon, while the nation was still a German colony. He was baptized as a Presbyterian in 1921 after attending Presbyterian Church primary schools. At the close of World War I, Nyobe would witness the colonial administration of Cameroon being transferred from Germany to France and the United Kingdom.
By 1929, he had acquired his first high school certificate. He enrolled in a primary teacher training school in Fulassi two years later but was fired during his final year for criticizing the style of instruction he was receiving. He did, however, complete his education and teach for a few years before joining the colonial government service in 1935. Nyobe received a Bachelor of Secondary Education in 1939 at the same time.
He was assigned as a registrar to the Edea Court of Law after leaving the colonial service. It was there that he developed an interest in international law and saw how wrong French colonialism was.
With the support of the General Confederation of Workers (CGT) of France, Nyobe helped form the Union of Confederated Trade Unions in 1945. Nyobe requested better working conditions for Cameroon’s laborers as the organization’s first general secretary, believing that only an independent Cameroon could solve the laborers’ difficulties.
Nyobe became the leader of the UPC, also known as the Cameroon People’s Union, which was created in 1948. According to Joseph Richards, the UPC was “the only significant political party to arise in French Sub-Saharan Africa that desired independence from France and the French Union as its main and unalterable goal from the first years of its existence.” It also aimed to bring French and British Cameroon back together.
Nyobe became well-known in his homeland and internationally as the leader of one of the most influential nationalist political organizations in Sub-Saharan Africa. According to history, he made multiple journeys to the United Nations headquarters in New York in the early 1950s, where he denounced French colonial rule in Cameroon and demanded self-government or independence.
Nyobe would be the first African political leader to declare his country’s independence in front of the United Nations General Assembly. However, he and his group became targets of the French colonial authorities as a result of their actions.
According to sources, the French labeled the UPC as a movement promoting communist subversion in Cameroon. As a result, the Catholic Church advised its people to avoid the “anti-God” party. By 1955, the party had been declared illegal, and many of its members had been jailed or assassinated, while others had been banished. While some of the chiefs escaped to the British Southern Cameroons, Nyobe stayed in the French Cameroons.
According to one narrative, he went on to lead a nonviolent resistance organization in the Cameroonian tropical jungle, demanding independence and democratic elections. However, the anti-colonialist commander was ambushed and assassinated by the French troops near Boumnyébel on September 13, 1958. The body of the 45-year-old was then hauled for miles to his hamlet, disfiguring him along the way.
Nyobe’s mutilated body was shown in public to serve as a warning to anyone planning to oppose the French. Furthermore, before being buried at the Presbyterian mission cemetery in Eseka, his body was encased in cement to make it less accessible.
Apart from making it illegal to use his name, the French destroyed his papers, photographs, and speeches. These efforts were all intended at erasing the existence of the man known as “Cameroon’s Forgotten Father,” who fought valiantly to end French control in his motherland.
Cameroon is still grappling with violence, poor resources, poverty, and young unemployment more than six decades after his death, all of which have sparked pockets of protest, resistance, and insurrection across the country.
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