By Jean Charles Biyo'o Ella
Cameroon's Banen community has been forced to wait 60 years — and counting — to return to the home they were driven out of by a catastrophic mix of war and colonial oppression.
Parliamentarian Samuel Moth, a member of the Cameroon People's Democratic Movement party and a spokesperson for the Banen tribe, has been at the vanguard of the struggle to get back the forest lands that belong to his people.
"The erstwhile colonialists had promised to take us back to our villages once the territory was purged of armed rebels. Three generations have passed, and that promise has not been kept," Moth says of the community's plight.
With his "Return to our Roots" project, the MP aims to give an impetus to efforts to reunite an entire community displaced and left fragmented by the former colonial French regime's war against the maquisards, or resistance fighters, in the Nkam and Sanaga-Maritime areas.
History of conflict
Between 1955 and 1971, Cameroon, which gained independence on January 1, 1960, was still under the influence of the French colonial administration.
The nationalists of the UPC party (Union des Populations du Cameroun), founded in 1948, waged a relentless war against the former colonisers.
The resentment that fuelled this resistance dates back to 1919, just after Germany's defeat in the First World War.
The League of Nations, the forerunner of the United Nations, placed most of the then German colonies, including "Kamerun", under French trusteeship.
In practice, however, Cameroon was managed as a French colony. This did not please the UPC and its leader, Ruben Um Nyobé. It is believed that the French army assassinated Um Nyobé on September 13, 1958.
Banned and bloodily repressed, the UPC party went underground. It was against this backdrop that the Banen community, located not far from the coast of Cameroon, was called upon to liberate its territories.
The administration aimed to remove and dislodge these nationalists, considered maquisards, from the forest. To clear the area of rebels, more than 37 villages were destroyed, and more than 51,000 villagers were forced into exile.
Cut off from its base, members of the community have since been scattered across the country for 60 years.
"Our parents were persecuted, killed, and their homes burnt down," Miloumi, the chief of the Indikibassiomi village and son of a combatant, tells TRT Afrika.
"We are disconnected from our roots, so we must return to our 'real' villages."
Dressed in traditional attire, Miloumi isn't the only member of the Banen community smarting from the upheaval inflicted on them by the French army at the time.
Private state property
When will the Banen return to their roots? This is the question that regularly comes up in discussions between members of the ethnic group in Cameroon.
As they await the end of their forced exile, an April 27 prime ministerial decree classifying the territory of the Banen ancestors as "private state land" and converting it into a forest management unit has stoked controversy.
The administration has since sought to appease the local population. The text of the decree now provides for the return of the local population to their ancestral lands, as requested by certain applicants.
It also mentions respect for the enclaves created within the forest estate and demarcated around the old villages when the management plan was drawn up.
In prospect, this should pave the way for the long-awaited return of the displaced population to their ancestral land.
"The Prime Minister's text is a little clearer than we need to comment on," says an official of the Cameroonian ministry for forestry issues.
He explains that by definition, all land belongs to the state, "which does what it wants with it for the good of its people".
As far as this formerly occupied territory is concerned, which is now a forest mass, "the state, by classifying it in its private domain, has simultaneously responded to the people's grievances".
One of the immediate challenges is getting operators exploiting the area's riches to open it up by creating roads leading to the old villages.
"It's a trick!" exclaims Victore Yetina, one of the Banen traditional chiefs opposed to the prime ministerial decree.
While he is not opposed to the planned exploitation of the forest, he fears that it will only benefit a few people to the detriment of the community.
"Wrong!" retorts parliamentarian Moth, a defender of the government's position. "The decree is a godsend for the Banen community," he says.
At the epicentre of this debate is the Ebo forest, a reservoir of 35 million tonnes of carbon and rare species of flora and fauna.
The displaced Banens are mounting pressure to regain and retain their customary rights.
The forest has huge economic potentials. It could be a revenue source for the government while forestry companies and agro industries eye the arable land and biodiversity of the region.
Several NGOs are campaigning for the conservation of this rare ecosystem. Six decades on, the battle seems to have only just begun.