Political Assassination: Lead up to African Independences

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the independence of most of the French-speaking African states and has been so celebrated in France and in the former French Sub-Saharan African states.  The independence of North Africa followed a different course, but the 1954-1962 Algerian War heavily influenced French policy in Sub-Saharan Africa — usually referred to as Afrique Noire (Black Africa).  Less celebrated are the political assassinations which were carried out in the lead up to the 1960 independences. Thus the November 3, 1960 death of Felix Moumie, the Cameroun independence leader, by poison in Geneva, merits attention to remind us that State-sponsored murders have terrorism of population as an aim.

Felix Moumie was 34 at his death at the hands of William Bechtel, a reserve officer of the French intelligence agency – Service de documentation exterieure et de contre-espionage (SDECE). Bechtel had served in London with the Free French forces and was called back to service in the later stages of the Algerian War as an African specialist. The Geneva police was able to offer proof of his role in the assassination and had issued an international warrant of arrest. However, Bechtel lived out the rest of his life in calm in the south of France. (1)

When he was killed, Felix Mounie was President of the banned Union du Peuple Camerounnais (UPC), a major political movement demanding the end of the UN Trusteeship over the Cameroun and the full independence of the country.  Moumie had twice led delegations to New York to testify at the UN Trusteeship Council and so was well known to other African leaders, especially Sekou Toure, the President of Guinea, which was already independent since 1958. Moumie spent part of his time in exile in Guinea.

He had received his education in a Protestant primary school and kept strong links to the active Protestant community in Cameroun, though he was considered by the French colonial officials as a Marxist.  In effect, he had been spotted as an “up-and-coming” leader and had been invited to conferences in Eastern Europe organized by the International Union of Students and the World Federation of Democratic Youth, both part of the network of Soviet-influenced organizations led by the World Peace Council. There is, however, little of a Marxist framework in the records of his talks.

Moumie was educated as an “African doctor” in Brazzaville and later Senegal so that he was early in contact with student leaders from other parts of French-speaking Africa who were discussing roads to independence. African doctors received three years of post-secondary education rather than the six years for the usual French medical schooling, but they had the same tasks as French doctors, and Moumie had become known for his surgery talents. However, he was also known for his political activities, and so he was constantly being shifted from one small town to another in fear that he would build up a local political following.  Then, in a classic mistake of the authorities, he was sent to Douala, the major coastal city of the Cameroun in the belief that the authorities would be better able to keep an eye on him. The reverse was the case; in Douala he was able to come into contact with people coming from many different sections of the country and different tribal groups.

He was elected President of the UPC when the earlier leader Ruben Um Nyobe was killed in September 1958. Moumie moved the center of activity from the Bassa tribal area to the larger and more dynamic Bamileke tribal area.  Moumie led a delegation to the UN Trusteeship Council in the Spring of 1959, although the UPC had already been banned within the Cameroun. However, the Trusteeship Council was impressed by his presentation of the situation and the need for an early end to the Trusteeship status. Moumie was living in the summer of 1959 in Cairo under the protection of the Egyptian authorities. Then, in a decision which proved fatal, the UPC began an armed uprising in the Bamileke area. It is difficult to know if Moumie ordered the start of the armed uprising or if he went along with the decision taken by local UPC leaders. The uprising made two strategic mistakes. It underestimated the determination of the French authorities, and especially the French governor Roland Pre, an old African hand, to put down the uprising at all cost. There was a fear among the French colonial officials that the uprising would upset the French policy of “soft” independence for its colonies and that violence might spread as it had in Algeria. The French military undertook a violent repression, and many thousands of Bamileke were killed. Since French public opinion, even anti-colonial opinion was focused on the Algerian War, the repression in Cameroun went largely unnoticed by the French, except for Africa specialists.

The second strategic mistake of the UPC was to attack Bamileke chiefs as being supporters of colonialism. Thus the uprising took on a generational aspect, and the French army was able to gain the support of the village chiefs who felt themselves menaced. The armed uprising basically lasted from mid-1959 to late 1960, although when I was in Douala in 1962 there was still a curfew after 9:30 at night.

In the Fall of 1960, Moumie left Conakry, Guinea where he was then living and went to Europe to see UPC supporters and then to Geneva, perhaps to buy arms. Geneva was the private arms dealers base and so the field of action for counter-terrorism agents. In 1957 two well-known arms dealers, George Geitser and Marcel Leopold who were supplying the Algerian FLN had been murdered, probably by French agents in Geneva.

William Bechtel had already contacted Moumie in Africa posing as a journalist. They arranged a supper interview at a good restaurant, Le Plat d’Argent near the Geneva cathedral and the Parliament building.  Moumie was accompanied by Jean Marin Tchaptchet, a young French-based UPC member.  During the meal, Bechtel put thallium, a slow-acting poison into the wine glass of Moumie.  It seems that Bechtel thought that the poison would act more slowly than it did and that Moumie would be back in Guinea before he died. However, Moumie died in the main Geneva hospital and so Swiss doctors were able to analyse the cause of death.

By the time Moumie was killed, the UN had already ended the Trusteeship status and Cameroun became independent on January First, 1960. Independent Cameroun politics went on without the UPC though in 1991, in an effort to heal old wounds, the Parliament of Cameroun declared Felix Moumie a National Hero.

Rene Wadlow is editor of the online journal of world politics www.transnational-perspectives.org and an NGO representative to the UN, Geneva.


1. See the book of the investigative journalists Roger Faligot and Pascal Krops La Piscine: Les Service Secrets Francais 1944-1984 (Paris, Seuil, 1985)