The Cameroonian waging war against a French war hero’s statue

BBC | Cameroonian activist Andre Blaise Essama has been on a decades-long mission to purge his country of colonial-era symbols, long before the issue came to international prominence in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests.

His main target has been French World War Two hero Gen Philippe Leclerc in the country’s biggest city, Douala.

“I have decapitated Leclerc’s head seven times and toppled the statue at least 20 times,” Mr Essama told the BBC.

“I use my bare hands… but I make an incantation to the ancestors first,” he said.

His aim is to replace them with Cameroonian and other African heroes, but he will make an exception for those who campaigned for “the good of humanity”.

He is especially keen on erecting a statue of Diana, the late Princess of Wales.

“Diana was against racism and she stood for humanity. We loved her here in Cameroon,” Mr Essama said.

Mr Essama has also targeted a statue of Gustav Nachtigal, who arrived in Cameroon in 1884 to establish a German empire.

During World War One, British and French troops forced the Germans out, later splitting the German-occupied territory between them.

Seven heads restored

The authorities see his activities as vandalism, arguing that African heroes can be celebrated without removing colonial symbols.

Mr Essama has been imprisoned several times for cutting the head off Gen Leclerc’s statue – serving up to six months at a time.

Sometimes he has avoided a jail term by paying fines, with the money mostly raised by his supporters in Cameroon and in the diaspora.

Each time he has damaged Gen Leclerc’s statue in the main square in Douala, the authorities have restored it.

With one hand on hip, the other holding a walking stick, the French hero stands on a plinth in front of a curved stone relief depicting the French World War Two military arsenal, including tanks and planes.

It was erected by the French colonisers in 1948, long before Cameroon became independent in 1960.

‘Seen as a god in France’

In France, Gen Leclerc is celebrated for his role in rallying troops in the 1940s in France’s then-colonies to fight the German occupation.

“Leclerc is the great hero who helped liberate France… so the French regard him as a god,” a history professor at the UK’s Oxford University, Robert Gildea, told the BBC.

But he was unpopular in Cameroon, retired Cameroonian academic Prof Valere Epee said.

“Cameroonians didn’t like him because he seemed not to care for the people.

“He was not like French President Charles de Gaulle, who visited Cameroon twice, and whom people seem to have an affection for.”

Gen Leclerc died in a plane crash in Algeria in 1947, three years after the liberation of Paris. Thousands of people lined the streets in the French capital to pay tribute to him.

Several memorial plaques have been installed in his honour in France, two streets in Paris have been named after him and a military tank, still in service, bears his name.

‘Our heroes first’

His venerated status does not impress Mr Essama.

“He is not our hero,” says the 44-year-old activist, who is a computer science graduate.

“Gen Leclerc has come to represent the erasure of Cameroonian colonial memory and replacing it with a French one.”

Mr Essama has collected seven heads of Gen Leclerc over the years, and has occasionally taken them on to the streets to “sensitise Cameroonians about the country’s history”.

He says he was inspired by Cameroonian nationalist Mboua Massock, who once graffitied the general’s statue with the words: “Our own heroes and martyrs first.”

“We sing in our anthem, ‘Oh Cameroon land of our ancestors.’ How is it that our ancestors are not represented in public spaces?”

In 1991, Cameroon’s President Paul Biya signed a declaration to rehabilitate the memory of the country’s heroes who had been denigrated because of their role during the fight for independence.

“Not much has been done since the law was signed,” Mr Essama said.

French hero ‘now behind bars’
A history professor at the University of South Africa, Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni, says that statues and monuments “have become soft targets in the struggle against decolonisation”.

“The Europeans were thinking they were the only people on earth and, therefore, there was emptiness outside Europe, which was waiting to be discovered,” he told the BBC, quoting the late American anthropologist James Blaut’s views on Eurocentrism.

“If you follow that logic: you discover a place, you name it, eliminate what you find there, then you conquer, then you own it, and statues are symbols of ownership,” he said.

“In the former colonies, the statues mean that the colonisers have not repented for the sins they committed against the local people but their presence in the home country means that this is the conqueror of the world, this is our hero.”

He dismisses the argument that statues should be protected because of their historical significance.

“If your statue is history, the indigenous people are saying: ‘But you wrote your history on top of my history. It is overshadowing our own histories.'”

Prof Ndlovu-Gatsheni said the targeting of statues was part of a multifaceted campaign by Africans.

“There are those who topple statues, others want to stop the use of West Africa’s CFA currency [which is pegged to the euro], others are pushing for reparations, all these are part of the struggle against the empire.”

As for Mr Essama, he is now less focussed on decapitating statues, turning his attention to fundraising to build statues of Cameroonian heroes and calling for reparations for colonial-era crimes.

o far his advocacy group, Essama Hoo Haa, has helped install two statues.

One is of Samuel Mbappé Léppé, considered Cameroon’s best ever footballer, “better than Roger Milla and Samuel Eto’o”, Mr Essama says.

The other is of John Ngu Foncha, a former prime minister who championed the cause of greater autonomy for Cameroon’s mainly English-speaking regions.

Gen Leclerc’s statue does still occupy Mr Essama’s mind, though it has become more difficult to target because it is now sealed off and has guards protecting it.

“He is in prison,” Mr Essama said with a wry chuckle.

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8 comments

  1. In the current global competitive economy , Poor leadership can seriously affect National morales and even cause the countries bottom line to plunge. Bad leadership leads to poor public service retention and discourages the remaining employees, causing them to be much less productive than they would otherwise be under a strong decisive leader. Unfortunately, Cameroon is running on autopilot, even the few motivated ministers left in the country are under serious pressure to work miracles and make magic happen with little or no top management. I strongly believe that nothing good will happen unless , we as young Cameroonian citizens, look in the mirror , examine ourselves and choose a brand new breed of leadership that is up to the challenges of our time. The time is now.

    • KORAC,,,, HOW LONG WILL IT TAKE YOU TO UNDERSTAND THAT THERE ARE DIFFERENT WAYS TO SOLVE A PROBLEM?what is the sense in calling for new leadership when you know it will not happen?why not change this approach and try something different like a bottom up approach where we first concentrate on economic construction through basic industries that do not need heavy equipment and capital. Is it not more easy to succeed with money than without?

      • The current leadership does not have the political will to try anything different from what they have been doing since 1982 when they first came to power. You cannot teach old dogs new tricks.

      • @BAH:_ i often say you seem to have a brain filled with BREAD AND SARDINE.
        You seem to live in a world where developement is only achieved through dreaming and talking.
        if there is no good leadership, there will be no ecomic growth in cameroon..
        As long as we dont have a good political system, nothing will happen..
        Economic growth is driven oftentimes by consumer spending and business investment.
        Tax cuts and rebates are used to return money to consumers and boost spending.
        Deregulation relaxes the rules imposed on businesses and have been credited with creating growth but can lead to excessive risk-taking.
        Infrastructure spending is designed to create construction jobs and increase productivity by enabling businesses to operate more efficiently

        • French speaking countries want to eternally dependent on France. They are not ready for independence, Still stocking their foreign exchange reserves in France and borrowing it back at higher interest rates. Soon France is introducing a new colonial currency called eco in west Africa. How are they ever going to be free?

      • @Bah is a categorical numbskull. He gets his theories so confused that he spews gibberish. Change approach? Yeahhh? How about the system stifling growth?

        When I was at UB we made suggestions for a change of finance laws and tax policies to spur investment and growth. No movement!
        The country doesn’t have money, so whatever you do will meet VAT roadblocks. It’s a French tax in Francophonie Africa.
        Everyone can talk about farming and industrial commercialization but that would only be lip service in the absence of reforms. Reforms attract business not wishful thinking of Mr. Bah and vain speeches of despot Biya and his crime ring.

    • @ Korak, Well said bros.

  2. Dans l’économie mondiale concurrentielle actuelle, un mauvais leadership peut sérieusement affecter le moral national et même faire plonger les résultats nets des pays. Un mauvais leadership entraîne une mauvaise rétention de la fonction publique et décourage les employés restants, ce qui les rend beaucoup moins productifs qu’ils ne le seraient autrement avec un leader décisif fort. Malheureusement, le Cameroun fonctionne sur pilote automatique, même les quelques ministres motivés restés dans le pays sont soumis à de sérieuses pressions pour faire des miracles et faire de la magie avec peu ou pas de direction. Je suis convaincu que rien de bon ne se produira si nous, jeunes citoyens camerounais, ne nous regardons pas dans le miroir, ne nous examinons pas et ne choisissons pas une toute nou

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