#WhiteHistoryMonth: Dr. Pierre Messmer, France’s Dirty War General

In the late nineteen-fifties, a brutal but secret war unfolded between French colonial authorities and the maquis, pro-independence nationalists, in the forests of what was then the French administered territory of Eastern Cameroun. The uprising was one of sub-Sahara Africa’s lost independence wars.

Most of the fighting, and the ensuing atrocities committed in the name of “decolonization” unfolded in Bassa and Bamilike villages in the region’s plantation belt. Though the figures vary, different reports point to tens of thousands being killed in what is often described as France’s dirty war. And given its outcome, it is no surprise that not a lot has been written about it. Yet the ghosts of that war loom over that chapter of the country’s history, its plantation belt an unexamined crime scene.

What had begun as a legitimate demand for self-rule quickly spiraled first into protests in Douala followed by repression, and ultimately guerrilla warfare. Soon the call for independence, initiated by the Union des Populations du Cameroun (UPC) — the Marxist-leaning party led by the charismatic Reuben Um Nyobe, spread from the region’s towns to surrounding villages like a raging fire.

Already under pressure from US president F.D. Roosevelt to grant independence to its colonies, France’s General De Gaulle’s response to the nationalistic trend in Cameroon, was to appoint an alumnus of the Ecole Nationale de la France d’Outre-Mer, and trusted envoy, Dr. Pierre Messmer.

Dr. Messmer, whose mission was to oversee the “decolonization” process and ultimately pacify Cameroon, was more than just an old colonial hand on another routine administrative duty in the tropics. He was a pillar of the French empire, a man of the system.

During World War II he had served as sous-lieutenant of the 12th regiment of the Senegalese tirailleurs, and later as a member of the13th Demi-Brigade of the French Foreign Legion. Messmer had participated in the Eritrean campaign against the Italians, and the defense at fort Bir Hakeim in Libya. He was with the Allies in the Suez Canal in Egypt, and in the battle against the Vichy in Syria.

Dr. Messmer even landed on Normandy and witnessed the liberation of Paris. Later captured in Tonkin by the Viet Minh  in the outbreak of the war in Indo-China, Messmer managed to escape after two months, but was left deeply impacted by the experience. Traumatized, Dr. Messmer was nonetheless impressed by how Mao had succeeded in leading revolutionary war using a civilian-military-intelligence apparatus.

Initially unable to quell the raging rebellion, in 1957, Dr. Messmer created the Zone de Pacification du Cameroun (ZOPAC), and began implementing the counter-revolutionary measures, which had been theorized in Indo-China, and tested in Algeria. In other words, he reversed Mao’s methods, creating a civilian-military-intelligence apparatus, fencing the villagers in a 7,000 km square area controlled by the French military and local civilian militia, isolating them from the guerrillas. Under Messmer’s direction, the colonial forces employed what amounted to a scorched earth policy during which entire villages were displaced. Measures allegedly included the use of napalm.

Even though pockets of resistance would outlast Dr. Messmer’s tenure in Cameroon, his measures not only crushed the nationalists, they dictated the country’s political succession. And for the first two decades of the country’s existence, the country’s political life would be dominated by the counter-revolutionary, and Dr. Messmer’s favorite, Ahmadou Ahidjo. Cameroon, as it is today, is as much Dr. Messmer’s creation, as it is the nationalists.

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