Orders of the Day — Southern Cameroons

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 1st August 1961.

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Photo of Mr George Thomson Mr George Thomson , Dundee East 12:00 am, 1st August 1961

To make my own position clear, may I say that if the Minister wishes to make a statement in answer to his hon. Friends I have no desire to stand in his way? I rose because the Minister did not rise and it is for that reason I assume that you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, called me.

As I was saying, I was anxious to raise with the Government the situation in the Southern Cameroons. As the House will know, this is a Territory for which we operate a trusteeship under the United Nations. The Southern Cameroons chose in a United Nations plebiscite on 11th February of this year to join with the Cameroun Republic, a former French Territory. The United Nations in its wisdom decided that the union between the Southern Cameroons and the Cameroun Republic should take place on 1st October this year. This is a very short period indeed even in the most favourable circumstances but the circumstances here, as the Minister will agree, are in many ways anything but favourable.

The problem of uniting these two territories would in any event be difficult. They are two territories of completely different cultures, with different political systems, the one English-speaking and the other French-speaking in the language of its administration. There are extremely complex problems in bringing these two countries together within one national State. So far as I can discover, no serious work has been done on joining these countries and getting down to the hard problems of bringing them together. So far only a number of very general declarations have been made about the kind of framework that might be proposed. In these circumstances a potentially very dangerous situation has arisen.

I bring the matter before the House tonight for three reasons; first, out of concern for the safety of our own nationals in the Southern Cameroons and because I think the House is entitled to have a statement from the Government on this vitally important matter; secondly, out of a regard for the welfare of the inhabitants of the territory, for which we have been responsible ever since the First World War and whose wishes we would like to see fulfilled so far as we possibly can; and, thirdly, because if anything goes wrong in the Southern Cameroons on and after 1st October—we pray that it will not—the British Government and the British people will get the blame for it. I therefore raise the matter because we in this House are concerned with the good name and reputation of the Government in administering this kind of trusteeship territory.

It may be suggested that I am painting an unusually gloomy picture of foreboding for the future of the Southern Cameroons. If that is so, I should like to produce evidence for expressing these views. I can conveniently do it from two sources—The Times and a letter which I received today from a correspondent in the Southern Cameroons.

In a recent issue The Times drew attention to the anxieties in the Cameroons. It said, among other things, that When British rule in the Southern Cameroons ceases on October 1, a situation is likely to develop which could be fraught with danger. It went on to state that Expatriate civil servants, of whom there are about 130 in the territory, are loth to remain there after independence unless their safety can be assured.… A proposed aid mission has had to be shelved because there will be no civil servants to administer it. That is a very serious situation indeed. It also states that: weapons licences are being issued to the senior staff of commercial firms to enable them to defend their own estates.… As a further precaution, the British Government plan to have a naval vessel in the vicinity for some weeks after October 1. When The Times reports in these terms I think there is reasonable cause for anxiety.

I also have here a letter from the Southern Cameroons written by one of our citizens who has been there for some time. I do not wish to embarrass him by quoting his name, and I am not, of course, suggesting that all the things that he says would necessarily be found on investigation to be factually true, because he is an ordinary citizen who is simply giving his honest impressions of what he has been told by the authorities in the Southern Cameroons about what the situation is. The letter is dated 2nd July, and I ask the Minister to note what he says: … the latest development is that the British Government have now decided to withdraw her interests from the territory completely—more or less in disgust and because of heavier and more crucial crisis in other parts of the world. At the same time the Nigerian Government has declared a similar policy…and has declared further that with immediate effect from 30th September … she will withdraw all her federal interests in the territory. Consequently, with effect from 1st October it seems that chaos will reign there. For in effect it means that from this date the 1st Battalion the Grenadier Guards leaves the territory aboard the troopship 'Devonshire,' and on the same ship all Nigerian and British Government representatives leave the Cameroons. At a rough estimate there are some 150 Government officials here, and it is common knowledge that there are no more than 30 Cameroon officials capable of taking on such responsibilities. The Post Office will close down completely as this is completely run by the Nigerian Government, and also it is almost certain that the police force will do likewise, as some 70 per cent. of the local police force (which is the Nigerian Police Force) will be pulled out unless they personally opt to stay. This actually applies also to all the Government officials as well, but as the Southern Cameroons Government can, of course, offer them no security as regards pensions rights, etc., it is almost certain that there will be no such offers to stay. I do not know if these fears are necessarily wholly accurate, but these are the views which have been expressed by somebody there who is saying what has been reported to him by the authorities in the Southern Cameroons. If there are exaggerations, then I ask the Minister to try to clear them up and say exactly what the situation is, because it certainly seems to be a very alarming one.

There are, of course, three problems involved here for the Government. There is, first, the problem of the form of government that is to succeed in the Cameroons—the kind of union that there is to be between the Southern Cameroons and the Cameroun Republic. Secondly, there is the serious problem of maintaining the administrative machinery of the country. Thirdly, there is the problem of security, of maintaining law and order and of protecting our own people there. I do not put these things in any order of priority.

First, then, is the question of the kind of government that is to be set up. There have been a number of statements from the Prime Minister of the Southern Cameroons, Mr. Foncha, and the President of the Cameroun Republic that they have agreed in general terms that the best form of government would be a federation. There can be no doubt that, given the difficulties facing the two countries, with their different systems of administrations and their different languages, federation is the only practicable system, certainly in the interests of the inhabitants of the Southern Cameroons. But there is no sort of clarity as to how far this is a definite commitment on behalf of the Cameroun Republic, and I should be grateful if the Minister could tell us how far the Cameroun Republic is committed to a federal form of government.

I know that in the Republic many voices are being raised to express a very different and much more alarming point of view. If the House will bear with me while I talk French for one sentence, I understand that "Le premier Octobre on va saisir le Camerun du Sud" is a familiar slogan. I am wondering how far this is an official slogan of the Government of the Cameroun Republic, and what our Government are doing to try to ensure that there is a firm agreement in black and white that there should be a proper federal system which will allow the two territories to work out their future harmoniously and gradually. I think that the House deserves much more information than we have been able to obtain through repeated questioning by hon. Members on both sides.

Secondly, I come to the problem of maintaining the administration. It is now fully twelve months since I raised with the Government the question of the administrative machine running down seriously. At the time, certain temporary measures were taken by means of seconding from the newly-independent Government of Nigeria and by means of taking on people on short-term contracts. Is it true, as is being said, that most of the expatriate civil servants in the Southern Cameroons have decided to withdraw on 1st October? If it is true, what is to be done to carry on their work.

According to the last Trusteeship Report which the Government made, out of 6,829 civil servants in the Southern Cameroons, 129 were British and 880 were other Africans apart from Cameroonians. I take it that they were mostly Nigerians. This means that 1,000 expatriates who, I take it, are the top civil servants in the Southern Cameroons, the people holding the key positions in the administration, are, by and large, to be withdrawn or are going to withdraw themselves on 1st October. This gives one an alarming picture of a kind of Congo chaos which may develop in this small country if adequate steps are not taken to fill the posts held by these people. A number of us want to know from the Government tonight what steps are being taken to carry on the essential administration of the country during the period that the unification arrangements are being carried through.

Thirdly, one comes to the question of security. Here, of course, first and foremost one is dealing with the safety of our own people, men, women and children, in that country. According to the correspondent whom I quoted earlier, the women and children are already very largely, being evacuated from the territory, and arrangements are being made for those men staying behind to barricade themselves in the clubs and other communal buildings in the places where they live and to be ready to face a dangerous situation if it arises.

What are the arrangements which the Government are making to ensure the safety of our people there? The 1st October comes at the end of the rainy season in the Southern Cameroons. I am told that there are three methods by which we can get people out of the Southern Cameroons. One is by a road into Nigeria, the Kumba-Mamfe road, and that is likely not to be in very good shape at that time of the year. The second method is by air from the airfield at Tiko which can deal only with light aircraft that can carry a relatively few people. Therefore, one comes to the question of evacuation by sea.

I have already read to the House the report from The Times saying that arrangements are being made to have a naval vessel in the vicinity. Can we have some more information about this and a firm assurance that as far as our people are concerned the Government are taking all steps necessary to safeguard their lives?

Can we have some information from the Government concerning what they are doing about the maintenance of law and order after 1st October? There was a story in the Daily Express earlier this week in which its correspondent in the Southern Cameroons stated: The Premier of the Southern Cameroons, Mr. Foncha, has appealed to Britain to let the troops stay when the British adminstrators move out. Indeed, I think that Mr. Foncha told the Daily Express:My Government and business interests have appealed to Britain three times, but Britain has refused. Is this true? Can we be told what requests have been made to the British Government about maintaining law and order after 1st October and what sort of response has been made?

I must confess that the information which I receive is very disturbing. A number of hon. Members on both sides of the House have been pressing this matter on the Government by Questions in recent months. I have here a report from one of the Cameroon newspapers of 1st July giving a statement by our Commissioner in the Southern Cameroons who refers to the questions that we have been asking in the House about British troops staying on there and law and order being maintained. He says: I have been advised that there has been no change in Her Majesty's Government policy in this respect and that it is definitely the intention of Her Majesty's Government to withdraw the British troops on 1st October. I think that we are entitled to know whether that is irrevocably the Government's position, and, if it is, what are the alternatives. What are we going to do in this territory for which, in my view, we have a very strong moral responsibility, quite apart from our legal responsibilities?

Before I come to the suggestions I wish to put before the Government for dealing with the matter, it is only fair to try to measure up what the Government's responsibilities have been and how far they have fulfilled them. It is a pretty poor story. The Government had ample warning of the difficulties which were mounting up in the Southern Cameroons. Month after month has gone and indeed year after year. We are now within a few weeks of 1st October and nothing effective has been done to ensure that this Territory, into which we have put much work, will have a reasonable chance of going forward into a prosperous and peaceful future.

The Government have been guilty of neglect in a number of different instances. They should have fought much harder than they did at the United Nations in the Trusteeship Council for a third choice being offered to the peoples of the Southern Cameroons when the plebiscite took place. The fact was that both the Prime Minister of the Southern Cameroons and the Leader of the Opposition there, though they had same differences between themselves, were anxious that there should be sufficient breathing space for the Southern Cameroons to negotiate with the Cameroun Republic proper arrangements for union and that they should not be suddenly forced into the kind of union which may well be thrust upon them without adequate preparation.

I appreciate the difficulties of our getting our way in the Trusteeship Council of the United Nations, but it does not seem to me from reading the debates there and from what I have been able to gather that Her Majesty's Government made nearly a big enough effort to back up the elected leaders of the Southern Cameroons in facing up to this problem.

The way we have behaved towards our own civil servants there cannot be described by any other word than disgraceful. They are devoted overseas civil servants who have been working a long time in the Southern Cameroons. They have done fine work there and are anxious to go on doing fine work, if they are given reasonable security about the future. When during recent months they have asked Her Majesty's Government what arrangements are to be made, the Government have had to shrug their shoulders and reply, "We cannot tell. We do not know. We cannot give you any information". Is it any wonder that against that background these civil servants feel that they cannot possibly take the risks of going on beyond 1st October?

Then there is the way the Government's behaviour matches up to the commitments we have there. The Government have a very big Colonial Development Corporation investment there. There has been a certain amount of criticism from behind the Minister about the fact that in a country which, even if all goes well, will be a foreign country after 1st October the Colonial Development Corporation has been allowed to carry on with a very large investment programme indeed. It has an investment in the Cameroon Development Corporation which will rise to £3 million, if all goes well. We on this side welcome the suggestion that the Cameroon Development Corporation should be allowed to expand beyond the point of independence, but it is astonishing that a Government who decide to make this kind of large-scale investment of a quite novel sort, because it is unique in the annals of the Colonial Development Corporation, should not take much more adequate steps than have been taken to safeguard the maintenance of the administration there and the future of law and order in the Territory.

Another matter which is vitally important to the Southern Cameroons is the pace of Africanisation of the public service. Progress has been dismally slow. This is vital for the carrying on of the administration as our own people come out. It is also vital for getting a harmonious feeling amongst the diverse elements in the country that the trusteeship power has done its best.

One of the reasons for some of the more violent political resentments in the Cameroons is the feeling that the Africanisation of the public service has not gone ahead nearly fast enough. This feeling is there on the French as well as the British side of the border. If one looks at the figures in our report to the Trusteeship Council, it will be seen that in 1955 expatriate civil servants formed 30 per cent. of the public service—presumably the top 30 per cent.—and in 1959 they still formed 28 per cent. A drop of 2 per cent. during those four critical years when everyone knew that this situation was coming was a miserable rate of progress and does not reflect well on the kind of drive which the Government put behind this important aspect of their policy.

One is bound to come to the conclusion that the Government have failed to take the problem of the Southern Cameroons sufficiently seriously. I admit that they have had many other important problems to tackle, but it is tragic that they 'have not paid more attention to ensuring that this situation could not arise in this trusteeship territory.

One comes down to the question of what one can try to do to save this situation. I put this proposal first and foremost to the Minister. I suggest that even at this late stage the Government should send to the talks which are to be resumed in a day or so between the Cameroun Republic, the Southern Cameroons and Her Majesty's Government, not a civil servant, but a Minister. I do not know whether it ought to be the Minister now on the Front Bench opposite, or a Minister from the Foreign Office, but the situation demands the personal attention of a Government Minister to make sure that the necessary sense of urgency is given to trying to make proper arrangements between the Cameroun Republic and the territory of the Southern Cameroons.

Secondly, I suggest that the Minister who goes to the talks should seek to obtain the consent of the Government of the Cameroun Republic to an urgent approach to the United Nations to gain some sort of breathing space for dealing with the problems which I have been describing. The difficulties here are immense, but the scale of the tragedy which might ensue is so great that emergency action is justified. As I understand the United Nations arrangements, this is a matter for the General Assembly. It is possible that an emergency session of the General Assembly will be called in any case over the Bizerta situation, and perhaps we could appeal to that meeting for a decision which would give more breathing space.

If that is not possible, the ordinary meeting of the General Assembly takes place in September—before the final date of 1st October—and I think it is necessary that we should try to get a decision then. I agree that our responsibility is to the United Nations—I will have a word to say about that in a moment—and that it is necessary to gain their consent to any effective proposals to meet this situation.

Looking at this problem, I feel more and more convinced that the United Nations need some sort of permanent expeditionary force which could be drafted at short notice to deal with this kind of situation in this kind of place. Clearly it would be very much better if our military commitments in terms of maintaining law and order could be taken over by a military force responsible to the United Nations. I recommend that the Government try to get this proposal accepted by the United Nations. Failing that, cannot we persuade the United Nations to give us, as the trusteeship power, the right to stay there to maintain law and order while the processes of independence initiated by the Trusteeship Council are carried through?

The advantages of a United Nations force are obvious. One of the reasons for the political violence in both territories of the Cameroons is the strong objection to the military forces of ourselves and the French. It would help to take the edge off that kind of opposition if the forces which maintained law and order were genuine United Nations forces. I think it important that law and order should be maintained and life safeguarded, and the possibility of peaceful progress preserved.

It is also desperately important that some arrangements be made about giving technical assistance to the Cameroons and emergency help in maintaining the administration there. That should be put to the United Nations by the Government. I yield to no one in my appreciation of the importance of the United Nations. I believe that in a real sense the United Nations is the hope of the world. But my regard is this side of idolatry, especially after reading the reports of the debates of the Trusteeship Council.

A failure by the United Nations to avoid chaos in a country like the Cameroons does not seem to me to absolve this country from doing something about it. Article 4 of the original trusteeship agreement between this country and the United Nations says that the administering authority shall be responsible (a) for the peace, order and good government and defence of the territory and (b) for ensuring that it shall play its part in the maintenance of international peace and security. I cannot imagine anything more likely to cause a disturbance to international peace and security or less likely to bring peace, order and good government to the territory than the sudden creation of the kind of vacuum which will confront us unless something is done urgently.

I believe that this country has a good record of giving independence to Colonial Territories and we have a good record in terms of our trusteeship responsibilities to the United Nations as has been shown clearly in the case of Tanganyika. I hope that even at this late stage something will be done to allow this country to maintain the record which it has enjoyed hitherto.

I suppose that the optimistic view to take in this situation amidst all the gloom which I have been expressing, is that in the Cameroons we may be able to get the kind of satisfactory results which we have been able to get in difficult circumstances in Somaliland. But in Somaliland the Government did a number of things which apparently they have not been able to do so far, at any rate, in the Cameroons. Before the point of independence in Somaliland they were able to prepare a proper compensation agreement for the civil servants who knew where they stood, and to make arrangements for a substantial number of them to stay on for a time to make sure that the take-over took place as smoothly as possible. They were able to give the new Government financial assistance on the scale of £1,500,000 for the coming five years with the promise of more in the light of circumstances. I think it desperately important that we should do something of the kind for the Cameroons and I hope that the Minister will tell us that some of these things are in hand.

Despite the tremendous difficulties in both the Cameroun Republic and in the Southern Cameroons the possibilities through bringing about a union between these two territories are considerable, not only for themselves but for the kind of example which they can set for other African territories in the future. If it is possible to bring about a peaceful and progressive union between the French-speaking and English-speaking territories, the old arbitrary boundaries of the nineteenth century pro-Consuls would be wiped out and we could get new countries established in Africa which would take better account of the feelings of African nationalism. This is a very late stage at which to try to do the right thing in the Cameroons. In a real sense, it is the eleventh hour. But I plead with the Government that although they have delayed so long and have neglected so many things, they should act even now, before it is too late.