“Our emancipation… requires enormous sacrifices from us, of course” 

(Detail within letter from Um Nyobè to his friend Essi Essama, 1949)1

A major theme in Bassy’s work is the sacrifice of the UPC leaders and any who fought alongside them against the government’s forces. This can be analysed twofold; what was the sacrifice made by these men and women, and why did they do it? 


Sacrifice – How?


Bassy’s songs Maquis and Lipem contain details about the UPC fighters who were based in the Cameroon rainforests, or ‘Maquis’ as it was known at the time. It’s worth noting that this term didn’t refer exclusively to being in the jungle, as could be used simply to identify that someone was a part of the resistance.2 Maquis in particular gives a good insight into why it was that the rebel forces were driven into the bush in the first place. To begin with, he offers an understanding as to some of the abuses of the French administration that led to the UPC uprising. He tells us that:


“In shame,

they were chained like wild beasts

Under the whips



This imagery of enslavement conjures some of the worst associations that could be drawn about the European presence in Africa and suggests that while these events took place less than a century ago, they are reminiscent of abuses from a time before this. This is especially galling as Cameroon was supposed to be ran as a mandate state by the French, and thus any similarities to colonial administration should not be occurring. The reality was that France did continue to run the Cameroon in a way that catered for their own needs rather than those of the people they ruled. The policy of Indigénat in particular was a way of robbing Cameroonian people of their identity and allowing the administration to round up and jail native people without trial. They were denied their rights and individual freedoms, their native courts were supressed, and were grouped classes based upon their proximity to being ‘Europeanised’.One of the worst features of this system was the forced labour for ten days a year, a system akin to short-term slavery, as described by the line from Maquis. While the League of Nations issued rulings on the nature of this labour to try and restrict it, in reality these were ignored and abused, and stories of people being held for longer than the ten days themselves were not uncommon.On top of this, there were hard taxes for the native populations, which didn’t seem to bring anything better for their own communities. For example, the Bassa people (Bassy’s own community) were some of the most prolific growers of resources for the administration, yet were also among the least wealthy, a factor that Joseph directly associates with them joining the UPC in rebellion against the state.5


Because of these abuses committed by the administration, the years after the second world war were filled with unrest, which culminated on the 13th July 1955 when the UPC was banned from the country’s government for its perceived role in the dissidence, and the party and its followers officially made the transition from radicals to resistance fighters.Bassy expands on this transition in the latter part of Maquis, singing that:


“Our village

had been ransacked

so the people had returned in the maquis.

Our villages

were filled with blood,

That's why we entered in the maquis”


This harrowing imagery, alongside other lines such as the Cameroonian’s land being ‘ripped off’ suggest that the journey into the maquis was a bloody one and occurred often out of necessity as their old homes had been eradicated by the administration’s forces. It implies that these resistance fighters, who were often later portrayed by the French state as terrorists, had little choice in their actions, and were simply responding to an escalation of violence committed by the state itself. Bassy also mentions in this song that those who associated with the UPC were ‘killed with premeditation’, which sticks out in his lyrics as this is an odd thing to specify. The reason for this clarification is that, following on form the last point, the violence that drove the rebels into the maquis was planned and started by the French, rather than being a reaction to UPC violence. This is backed up by an argument from Joseph, who claims that the Sanaga maritime rebellion from December 1956 until Nyobè’s death in 1958, was forced upon the UPC, and their primary goal rather than violence and resistance were instead to find a way to legally enter the nations elections as a party again. He even lists a quote from Um Nyobè telling his forces to ‘avoid all contact with the military and the guards in order to pursue the organizational goals without being disturbed’. In response to this however, the French administration declared a ‘pacification zone’ in which Joseph claims the ‘systematic, and in no doubt brutal, hunting of the rebels took place’, just as Bassy described.7



The results of the warfare that began in the maquis are further elucidated by Bassy in many of his songs, with their most prominent victim being Ruben Um Nyobè himself. While this was no secret, Bassy emphasises the loss of the leader’s life repeatedly across many of his songs in the album. In Ngui Yi for instance, the phrase ‘is dead’ recurs again and again to hammer home the ultimate sacrifice given by the leader in the conflict. Yet while the loss of such a visionary figure for the UPC was surely damaging, Bassy also manages to reference the fact that while he was one man, many other nameless people were also being slaughtered as part of the conflict. He does this by referencing his own personal losses from the struggle, due to the participation of his mother’s family on the side of the rebels. In Kunde he references the sacrifice both his Grandparents made for UPC, and in Maquis he sings that:


“Grandfather died for our freedom like Um Nyobè

Aunty too.

Grandfather died for our freedom like Um Nyobè.

Aunty too.”

By linking his own family to Um Nyobè, Bassy finds a way to show it was not just Um Nyobè sacrificing his life for the sake of the UPC, but many others who fought alongside him, and many families across Cameroon may have lost loved ones because of this, thus giving them, like Bassy, an intimate connection to the suffering of the past. The use of familial epithets rather than their actual names allows any Cameroonian to substitute their own grandpa or aunty into the song. This is poignant as for many Cameroonian families today, the search is still ongoing for loved ones who disappeared during the period.8

The actual number of resistance fighters who sacrificed their lives during this period is still debated greatly. Official British estimates put the number between 61,300 and 76,000, but there is uncertainty surrounding this, sickeningly due to the fact that distinctions between civilians and supposed terrorist were hard to identity, and thus whole villages were simply burned. 

Terretta settles for the assertation that whatever the number may be:

“the independence-era violence impacted the lives of a majority of cameroonians, and especially those residing in the regions where UPC soldiers were active” (Terretta, p.178/9)


Sacrifice – Why? 


As demonstrated, the numbers of UPC fighters who lost their lives for the cause was a great deal, prompting the question of what exactly it was they were fighting for; this too is elaborated upon by Bassy in several of his songs. 

In Poche, Bassy describes how:


“Ouandjié sacrificed himself,

leaving his precepts.”


Ouandjié was one of the UPC leaders who rose to take control of the movement after the death of Um Nyobè. Bassy’s description of his sacrifice here, alluding to his ‘precepts’ demonstrates that what the movement was fighting for was their own ideas about how the future of their country, rather than any tangible desire such as money of fame. In terms of what these ideas were, Bassy elucidates this in Maquis, detailing in his description for the song that:


“They were bound together, coming under the fiercest fire, because they believed in their dignity and their sovereignty.”


The ideas of freedom and sovereignty are backed up further later in the song when he sings that ‘the blood had sunk… for our freedom’. An emancipation from the French administration who was supposed to be looking after their country was at the core of why the UPC was formed. Um Nyobè himself stated the aims of reunification, then independence, to a UN committee in December 1952, seeing freedom from the French state as the best way to secure a better life for the lowest classes in Cameroon.9 Joseph goes as far as to commend the uniqueness of the UPC among organisations within French former colonies as they had an ‘early and consistent desire for independence’.10 

Yet it is worth noting that while the ideas that lead the UPC are characterised by Bassy as being homogenous no matter the leader, in reality the different characters that made up the organisation differed somewhat in their political outlooks and their attitudes towards compromise with the French state.11Therefore while a desire for independence was key to the whole group, the beliefs on how to get to this point could be quite nuanced.


The reason why this desire for emancipation lead to conflict, as elaborated by Joseph, is that the desire of the French state to assimilate the native population was simply incongruous with the UPC’s desire for self-government. On top of this, they were fearful that Nyobè was pointing out to the whole world (by nature of his UN speeches) a truthful flaw within their colonial system. This comprised of the fact that the French wanted their colonies to be ‘unitary, centralised, and indivisible states’ yet the trustee system which they were supposed to be governing under demanded ‘self-government and independence’ for the native peoples.12 Therefore, any hopes for true French decolonisation were a myth, as even if they made small cessations to their colonies, they would never truly give them up completely without a fight. Furthermore, on a more global context, the uprising came at a very bad time for France, with the ongoing Algerian and Indo-Chinese revolts meaning that to many Frenchmen in power there was the devastating and very real threat of losing their entire overseas empire.13

While the French couldn’t accept a full-scale independence, such as the UPC desired, what they eventually granted the Cameroonian people, by means of a compromise which recognised the fervour that the rebels had stirred up, was a sham independence. Their puppet Ahmadjou Ahidjio became the first president of Cameroon on 1st January 1960, and two years later they were reunified with the British Cameroon to form a federal republic, which would become fully integrated into a unitary Cameroonian republic in 1972.14 Bassy, in his song Lipem, sings from the perspective of the UPC fighters that:


“Woo, we kept for you the seed.

We have you bequeathed the baits.

We have prepared the country to build a people.

We bequeathed the field to the people

Our struggle was for the fatherland.”


This highlights an interesting point; did the UPC succeed in their aims due to the fact that Cameroon was granted independence? The short answer is no, as what Nyobè and his party were really struggling for was a reunification BEFORE independence, and even then, he would not want the government leading the new nation of Cameroon to have such close ties to the French government they were seeking freedom from. The subtle point of when reunification should occur, with Um Nyobè desiring it before independence and it actually occurring after, would go on to have major ramifications for the nation, and could even be suggested to contribute to much of the divisions that rack the country today in terms of the conflict between the anglophone and francophone halves of the country.15


Yet Bassy would know that the desires of the UPC were not matched by the independence and installation of Ahidjio, which would actually lead to far more years of suffering for his people. Instead, he highlights this to show the disconnect between the optimism of the UPC and their aspirations for the country, and its current status today, as while they fought to ‘prepare the country to build a people’, cameroonians today have failed to maintain and live up to this vision. Or, in a more pessimistic vein, you could see this as a eulogy for the broken dreams of the UPC, which could actually allude as to why many cameroonians today do not celebrate the achievement of the organisation, as they ultimately failed and simply demonstrate the futility of fighting against the behemoth of the state. 




A pan-African sacrifice?

A point to briefly end on with regards to the sacrifice of the UPC, is whether it was tinged with the flavouring of pan-Africanism. The thing that alludes to this most in Bassy’s album is his video for the song Ngwa. The director of the video, Tebogo Malope, writes on the description of the video that:

the visuals attempt to draw parallels between Cameroonian history and the history of Africa as a whole.”


This occurs through imagery alluding to both the Kenyan author Ngugi Wa Thiongo, and the South African political icon Solomon Mahlangu. 



The point that Bassy and Malope are trying to enforce is that the struggle for Cameroonian independence fought by the UPC was not a unique event and contained many characteristics of other struggles taking place across the continent at similar times. On top of this, there is the suggestion that the UPC leaders themselves such as Um Nyobè may have had a desire to unite the fledgling nations of Africa into larger organisations more capable of competing on the global stage. Nyobè himself met many other anti-colonial leaders speaking against France as he was at UN meetings and other such international leagues, including the future leaders of Algeria and Togo.16 While Terretta has characterised this as an ultimately failed endeavour, she notes that:





“the symbiosis between nationalist movements and Pan-Africanism built on a historic and diasporic ideological precedent and in turn established a new precedent for the Pan-African support of exiled freedom fighters that characterized later African liberation movements.”  (Terretta, p.259)

[1] Walter Gam Nkwi, ‘Ruben Um Nyobe: Cameroonian Maquis, Radical, and Liberator, ca 1948-1958’, in Biographies of Radicalization, ed. by Mirjam de Bruijn (Berlin/Boston, 2019), pp. 65–85 (p. 71).

[2] Nkwi, p. 79.

[3] Nkwi, p. 71/2.

[4] Nkwi, p. 73.

[5] Richard Joseph, Radical Nationalism in Cameroun: Social Origins of the U.P.C. Rebellion (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), p. 335.

[6] Nkwi, p. 80.

[7] Joseph, p. 346.

[8] Meredith Terretta, Nation of Outlaws, State of Violence: Nationalism, Grassfields Tradition, and State Building in Cameroon [Electronic Resource], New African Histories Series (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2014), p. 251.

[9] Nkwi, p. 76/7.

[10] Joseph, p. 338.

[11] Joseph, p. 339,348.

[12] Joseph, p. 341/2.

[13] Nkwi, p. 79.

[14] Terretta, p. 178; Joseph, p. 345.

[15] Nkwi, p. 82.

[16] Nkwi, p. 78.