The Cameroonian writer, Patrice Nganang, gave a historic speech at the United Nations on May 13. It was during the Emergency World Voices Congress of Writers, organized by PEN America. An opportunity for this famous writer to pay tribute to the leadership of the Cameroonian independence leader Ruben Um Nyobe, and to call the world’s attention to current issues such as the systematic incarceration of blacks people in the United States, the war in the English-speaking parts of Cameroon, but also, the intervention and non-intervention of Africans and black people in the great wars that the world has known.
The French version of this speech is here :
I am speaking under the illumination of this room, the Trusteeship Council, or Conseil de Tutelle, as its other name reads in French. It is the place where in 1952, Ruben Um Nyobe, the leader of the Cameroonian independence movement, the Union des Populations du Cameroun, UPC, gave a historical speech that articulated the will of the Cameroonian people to be free. He then went back home only to pick up arms against the colonial government. In 1958
, he was murdered in the bush of Boumnyebel, his village, by the colonial soldiers of Charles De Gaulle. De Gaulle knew well was maquis was. Having defected from France’s army, he had come in 1940 to Cameroon to join his companion Leclerc and rally his first battalions. These were tens of thousands of Cameroonians, of African, of Black soldiers. As we know, he had then become a hero after the liberation of France. Um Nyobe had a different fate: he was not only killed, but he was also deemed a ‘terrorist’ by the French, his body was profaned, displayed on the street like a vulgar bandit. He was then buried in concrete.
For all Cameroonians, this room still resounds with the echo of his decisive voice, asking for independence and for the unification of the then English-speaking Cameroon that as ruled together with Nigeria, with the French-speaking Cameroon in which he lived. Cameroon was not a colony, he argued, but was only put under the trusteeship of the United Nations – was ‘un pays sous tutelle.’ And yet the country was administered like a colony, which he said was wrong.
Legally wrong. But colonials did not care about legalities.
It is important for me to start with the mention of his name because for any Cameroonian, this room still resonates with Um Nyobe’s sandy voice, as recorded in the United Nations’ oral archive. A voice that until today carries the promise of Cameroon’s failed independence. To us, Cameroonians, this room is therefore haunted by his missing corpse, by his body that was never buried properly – according to the will of the Cameroonian people. Of course, I can therefore only sit on his shoulders to speak. I wish my voice to be wrapped with his. And it is from the top of his shoulders that I would like to formulate five questions.
Those questions are related to Ukraine.
My first question is: Why are African countries not sanctioning Russia? As you know, of the fifty-three states of the African continent, none has sanctioned Russia.
Number two: Why are African countries not giving weapons to Ukraine? As you know, African countries and armies do not lack weapons, riddled as the continent is with civil wars.
Three: Why are African countries not providing soldiers to defend Ukraine? African countries have participated in white wars, starting in 1870, and till 2003, during the war in Iraq, African soldiers were involved in combat. And as we know, Ukraine asked for soldiers, and created a foreign legion to welcome them all. The Ukrainian ambassador to Senegal even tried enlisting combatants in Senegal, and was threatened with being expelled from the country, a country that has the longest tradition of providing soldiers to non-African wars, so much so that the very name of African soldiers in a white war is tirailleurs sénégalais.
Four: Why do African countries refuse to listen to Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, even though he asked the African Union to give him a platform to make his case, as he did in many Western parliaments, including the US Congress. And yet, the president of the African Union, Macky Sall, published Zelensky’s request on his twitter handle, but did not give him a platform to speak. Zelensky then went lower and asked the secretary general of the African Union. Moussa Saki did also not give him a platform even though he published Zelensky’s also request – this time on BBC.
Five: Should African writers be ashamed about all that? And I ask these questions quite bluntly to anyone who speaks to me about Ukraine. Should we be ashamed about our continent refusal to be involved in a war that mobilizes the West so vocally? Should Black people be ashamed about it?
There are writings on the wall. Writings with blood, writings done by Africans. Down from Ruben Um Nyobe who spoke in this room, before being murdered by French colonials. It is the African voice, the Black voice that is listened to, but not heard. That voice addresses the process of decision-making at the center of the world. And today as we see, decisions about Ukraine are rather made at NATO or EU gatherings, and not at the United Nations. Like Um Nyobe back then, most Africans prefer to come to the United Nations to have their voice heard. For Africans know that when decisions are taken from the point of view of a world that has as its center NATO and EU, and I am afraid to say, from a unipolar world, they have never been to the benefit of them. To Africans and Black people, a world without a counter-power is hell on earth.
After all, slavery was only possible in a unipolar world. Africans know that.
Colonialism and specifically the scramble for Africa, was possible only during the time of a unipolar world. And even if Russia was part of the countries that gathered in Berlin in 1884, it left the company twenty years later and never had colonies. In fact, because of its antiimperialist tradition defined by Lenin, Russia and its successor the Soviet Union, has been instrumental in making the independence of most African nations possible by providing logistics, money and training. Africans know that as well.
As far as the world we are living in is concerned, one may ask: when did it start becoming unipolar? Probably in 1972 when Richard Nixon went to China, setting in motion a rapprochement that transformed the globe before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 in the hands of Ronald Reagan, and installed the current dominance of the United States. Yet, for Black people a world without counter-power is a Black gulag. Take this: inside the United States herself, incarceration rose by 700% since 1972, making the country become the place on earth that incarcerates most people today. What a swap of the soviet Gulag of the fifties, which Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously described! It is hard to believe that the world that caused the ire of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X did not chain Black people as much as our world. And yet the numbers are staggering. For those who are incarcerated are in their immense majority Black: they are trapped inside a carceral system that encompasses parole and probation, populates Black neighborhoods with bail bond shops and robs Black people of their voting rights and even of their simple citizenship.
Yes, in the United States, those who are incarcerated the most, or harassed by the police daily through systems of policing that were militarized with the end of the Vietnam war, are mostly as black as I am. I am a Professor at the University of Stony Brook where in 2022 students of all couleur sit on furniture made by prisoners, the majority of whom are as Black as I am.
Black people know that, and African people know that as well.
The world that has a center, the unipolar world has produced unilateral wars, all of them waged in countries like my own. And the last time the United States discovered war on its soil was with the Civil War, while for Europe Ukraine marks the return of a spell that was banned since the war in Yugoslavia. African know of wars, be they civil or not, the way people from other continents know of education and vacations on the beach. Till today the continent has the highest number of violent conflicts, and has even managed to add a genocide, no, many, to its history that did have none before colonialism!
The unipolar world has produced unilateral sanctions, and a quick look at the databank of the Sanctions Committee of the United Nations’ Security Council will make you realize that Africa has the highest number of countries that since its creation have been sanctioned for one reason or another. On earth!
The unilateral world has produced a unilateral justice, that mostly targets Black people. Since African students posted videos of themselves being used as human shields by Ukrainian soldiers at the beginning of the war, the proof of those soldiers effectively committing war crimes has been mounting, with videos of children being used as child soldiers, pictures of women with wooden guns, and yet there is no chance of seeing Zelensky’s photo being branded on the walls of the International Criminal Court where Jean-Pierre Bemba, the vice-president of the DRC, Laurent Gbagbo, the president of Côte d’ivoire and Blé Goudé, his youth minister, were brandmarked only to have all changes against them collapse, let alone Uhuru Kenya who still has his photo there despite the fact that he was received at the White house! There is of course no chance of having an American, or a French or British soldier stand trial there, whatever the crime they commit as the ICC’s accusation chair seems to be monopolized by Black men.
With this record of the unipolar world, it becomes clear to most Black people in the United States, that a world without a counter-power can only manufacture rightlessness for them. Outside of the United States, it becomes clear to most Africans that not only the endless wars on our continent, but poverty also is a construction that is possible only in a world where a few countries make decisions. And sanctions create nothing else, but poverty.
To sum it up, African countries realize that those countries that made the triangular slave trade, colonization and the mass incarceration of Black people possible, are the very few, they are seven!, yes, only seven!, that sanction Russia unilaterally. Count thirty-two out of the one hundred and ninety-four countries of the United Nations, and they are the only ones that provide weapons to Ukraine. African people quickly realize that it is the very same countries that chained the African continent and Black people for so long, that are clamoring freedom at the border of Ukraine.
But we also know that from the Black slaves who fought for the British during the American revolution because they were promised freedom, to those who gained their emancipation when America was divided by the Civil War, to even those who populated the streets of Alabama and Georgia with chants of liberation at the very moment when the Cold War was waging from Cuba to Algeria, and to the Black Panthers who were certainly inspired by Ho Chi Minh’s armed struggle, the multipolar world is the ferment of Black freedom.
And that is the cornerstone of our decision on Ukraine.
As for Um Nyobe his voice that still resonates in this room makes us realize this: sentences matter. They can destroy lives and can save lives as well. But more than sentences, the language in which they are written matter. The war of liberation he started here is not settled. Like the one in Ukraine, it is also fought across language lines, and has opened a bleeding wound between Francophones and Anglophones that since 2017 produces its share of burnings, killings, rapes, and refugees, and has made Cameroon become the playground of a genocide. French is not the language of beauty. It is the language of power, of subjugation, of murder. And English the language of suffering. The daily destruction of the lives of Anglophones, who now call themselves Ambazonians, does not make it into the news like Ukraine in the United States, even though the body count has already reached tens of thousands, and the number of refugees close to a million.
And Cameroonians see that.
There are writings on the wall only Africans see.