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Slavery in the Lamidate of Rey-Bouba: When UNESCO Conceals its Legacies

On 30 October 1991, a tripartite conference was held in Yaoundé, Cameroon, bringing together the government, the opposition and civil society to work out the terms of a consensual electoral code for the forthcoming elections in the context of the liberalisation of socio-political life that had begun in 1990. Among the people invited to this forum were leading traditional authorities, the most prominent of whom was the lamido of Rey Bouba, a town in Northern-Cameroon. Many Cameroonians of this period will probably remember the astonishing image broadcast live by Cameroon Radio and Television (CRTV), that of the lamido of Rey Bouba, Bouba Amadou, contentedly seated in the conference room, surrounded by his noble slaves (locally known as dogari’en) seated at his feet. A scene like this, which has become commonplace in Cameroon, is in keeping with the Fulbe slavery practices of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. 

The inclusion of the lamidate of Rey-Bouba on the World Heritage Tentative List on 18 April 2006, followed by the publication of a dossier by UNESCO on 2 February 2018, has given rise to considerable controversy among groups who were once victims of the Rey-Bouba’s slaves raids. Indeed, while the publication praises the architecture and history of the palace, built between 1805 and 1808, UNESCO not only omits the dark aspects of slavery, which is such an integral part of the northern Cameroon lamidate’s history, but also ignores the continuation of such practices and the perpetuation of numerous human rights violations. Indeed, the social, political and economic experiences of the descendants of slaves within the lamidate still reveal visible constraints and incapacities, perceptible through discriminatory hierarchies in access to social structures, to land ownershiṕ, and to the exercise of religious functions as slaves were prevented to lead the Friday prayer. In this article, we look at the central place of slavery in the history of the lamidate of Rey-Bouba – a reality veiled in the UNESCO document under the term “servants” – and examine the persistence and the legacies of servile practices throughout this zone. 

The Origins of Slavery in the Lamidate of Rey-Bouba

The lamidate is a traditional political regime founded in the first half of the 19th century following the fulani jihad launched by Usman dan Fodio in Hausaland, Nigeria in 1804, to which the Fulbe societies of northern Cameroon responded. This jihad gave rise to the Sokoto caliphate, administratively structured around a conglomerate of emirates, each of which was in turn subdivided into lamidates. The northern Cameroon lamidates, including Rey-Bouba, were all part of the Adamawa (or Fombina) emirate, of which Yola was the capital. From Yola, the Emir of Adamawa, Modibo Adama, entrusted the Fulbe chiefs of northern Cameroon with the jihadist banner to conquer, subdue and dominate the indigenous peoples. Once the conquests were over, the Fulbe built up a centralised administration with Sharia law as its mode of governance, forcing the conquered peoples to pay them tribute in the form of slaves, failing which they themselves became the object of raids. The conquest of the region was bitterly fought, and it was only with the help of other Fulbe chiefs that the Yillaga established the lamidate of Rey-Bouba and their control over this ethnically diverse area, reducing the natives to the status of tributaries and groups to be enslaved. After the conquest, individuals from indigenous groups were incorporated into the army, which consisted mainly of slaves, transforming Rey-Bouba into one of the most important lamidates in the whole northern Cameroon. Historical sources indicate that throughout the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, northern Cameroon was the main source of slaves for the Sokoto caliphate, which itself was the largest African slave state of the 19th century.

All in all, the jihad of the 19th century, whose logic was more political and economic than religious, led to major transformations in the region. Until relatively recently, the slave trade and slavery were important elements in the socio-economic life of Rey-Bouba. Some slaves were used locally, notably in the agricultural plantations (dumbe), which became an important source of labour for the Fulbe. Others were also used for domestic purposes in the homes of aristocrats and in the sovereign’s household, where they held a wide variety of positions. Many others were exported to Yola as an annual tribute to the emir or traded with the Sokoto caliphate and Borno for luxury goods, particularly horses. To obtain slaves, long-distance raids continued until the end of the 19th century but were limited by the German (1902-1916) and then French (1916-1960) colonial occupations. On the other hand, slavery continued to be the mainstay of economic and political life in Rey-Bouba and many other North Cameroon lamidates.

Slavery and colonial rules 

Despite the proclamation by colonial rulers of the abolition of all forms of slavery in northern Cameroon in 1936, they did not really take any concrete measures to eliminate it. Indeed, it may seem paradoxical that the colonial presence, first Germanic (1902-1916) and then French (1916-1960), was marked by the informal accentuation of slavery rather than its regression. The reason for this is that colonial rulers relied mainly on Fulbe political structures to implement the colonial administration due to the lack of personnel and limited financial resources.  Insofar as slavery was the economic foundation of Fulbe society, the colonisers naturally adopted the ostrich policy regarding it, i.e., what cannot be seen does not exist. Some colonial rulers even advised their successors not to tackle the issue of slavery, on the pretext that it would inevitably lead to the failing of Fulbe political structures, the essential pillars of the colonial system. Moreover, the colonial masters were not only reluctant to address the issue of slavery; they also clearly praised it, and in many ways used the institution of slavery to their own advantage. For instance, the lamido Bouba Jama’a (1901-1945), third ruler of Rey-Bouba, provided Lieutenant-Colonel Brisset, Commander of the German column in North Cameroon, with soldiers, most of whom were slaves, to help the French defeat the Germans in Garoua during the 1914-1916 war. In return for this aid, the French granted Rey-Bouba a special status in the name of which they refrained from creating an administrative post in its territory, which enabled it to further strengthen its hold over the indigenous populations, whom the Rey-Bouba sovereigns considered to be subjugated into slavery.

This hegemonic control over the indigenous people was further strengthened under the regime of President Ahmadou Ahidjo (1960/1982), himself a Fulbe by origin, and under that of Paul Biya (since 1982). In this context, slavery has continued to persist within the lamidate throughout the postcolonial time, particularly in the form of royal slavery and concubinage. This persistence of slavery is due in particular to the logic of give and take between the lamibes of Rey-Bouba and the Cameroonian state authorities. In fact, in return for the unfailing support of the traditional aristocracy of Rey-Bouba, the state authorities have always ignored the issue of slavery and the numerous human rights violations, intervening only when circumstances or political interests required it. Since then, the lamidate’s rulers have positioned themselves as political clients, which earned the current lamido, Aboubakary Abdoulaye, a promotion to the rank of first vice-president of the Senate in 2013, and member of the national commission on human rights and freedoms in 2014.

Slaves or servants

In Rey-Bouba, the term “servant” is used to describe individuals at the bottom of the social ladder, but this softened terminology masks a much darker reality. Curiously, it’s the same word that is used by the author of the article approved and published on the World heritage convention website. These “servants” are often actually slaves or people enslaved by the historic and contemporary violence of the lamidate system. 

On the other hand, the lack of reference to slavery in the document presenting Rey-Bouba on the World heritage convention website contrasts with the age and topicality of this phenomenon within the lamidate, and as such, silences the role and functions of slaves in all areas of activity, including the construction of the palace and its surrounding wall presented by UNESCO as “a place of memory and identity that is still alive”.  The interior of the palace, according to the document, housed “the Lamido’s quarters, craft activities, servants, administrative staff, distinguished guests, livestock, food storage and housing”. By referring to the slaves as servants, UNESCO has simply taken up, without any form of criticism, the discourse of the descendants of the Fulbe aristocracy on slavery in northern Cameroon’s Lamidate, a discourse that was taken up by the German and then French colonisers.  In fact, embarrassed by the slavery practices of its Fulbe supporters, the colonial administration constructed a militant interpretation of slavery, presenting it as a form of servitude that was highly beneficial to the slaves – here referred to as servants and domestics. 

Even thought they were confronted with clear evidence of the widespread practice of slavery, the colonisers were always able to find extenuating circumstances by claiming that Fulbe slavery was more akin to a parental relationship between the masters and their “servants,” who were fully integrated into the masters’ family. This colonial approach was taken up again by the successive regimes of Ahmadou Ahidjo and Paul Biya when they were also faced with the same slavery practices, although they were vigorously contested by civil society organisations. The successive lamibes of Rey-Bouba took advantage of this interpretation, which made slavery invisible, to continue their servile practices, which are still going on today. By adopting this same interpretation, UNESCO has plunged subaltern social groups into absolute indifference, as they have no voice to be heard. This stance of denying slavery practices would have been countered by the facts of everyday life if UNESCO staff had diversified their sources of information. 

As the United Nations body responsible for promoting intercultural dialogue, UNESCO has a responsibility to help slaves, individually and collectively, regain their voice and dignity as full-fledged historical subjects in the history of the lamidate of Rey-Bouba. It is therefore expected to promote knowledge that includes all the points of view of both the dominant and the dominated. This can only be done by listening carefully to alternative accounts to those of the descendants of the slave masters who have hitherto built up and maintained an undisputed hegemony in Rey-Bouba. UNESCO should contribute, as far as possible, to breaking the silence surrounding slavery, and to restoring to the descendants of slaves and to those who are still deprived of their freedom their dignity as human beings.

Slavery Legacies and Human Rights 

It’s an open secret that respect for the most fundamental human rights remains a mirage in the Rey-Bouba chiefdom, even in a democratic context that enshrines individual freedoms. The rulers of Rey frequently resort to intimidation and arbitrary arrests to silence anyone or any group that challenges their oppressive actions. It would be naive to list all the examples of beatings, detention in private prisons, banishment, and violent dispersal of peaceful gatherings that have occurred over the past thirty years. We will mention just a few.

As in pre-colonial times, the sovereigns of Rey regularly intervene in the appointment or dismissal of indigenous chiefs whom they consider their ‘subordinates’, sometimes against the will of the concerned populations. For example, in 1992, Lamido Bouba Amadou deposed the Belaka (traditional Mbum chief) of Touboro, Aliou Gandeï, leading to peaceful protests by the people demanding his reinstatement. These protests were violently suppressed by the Lamido’s private militia, resulting in the deaths of two natives (Article-19 1995). Without any credible investigation, the Governor of the North Province, Gounoko Haounaye, attributed the attack to the local populations, not to the Lamido’s private militia. A few days after this repression, several palace guards went to Touboro at night to harass the population; they notably burst into the house of Michel Houlbaï, deputy to Nana Koulagna, a member of the National Assembly for the UNDP. While Michel Houbaï managed to escape, a family member was assaulted by the palace guards who opened fire on him (Article-19 1995).

As Yandal Celestin, the mayor of Touboro, asserts, the Rey-Bouba dynasty seems to consider the Mayo-Rey subdivision as its own possession (International Federation for Human Rights 2014), ignoring the fact that several indigenous groups were already established in this territory long before the Fulbe hegemony. These Indigenous populations are not only dispossessed of their ancestral lands but also reduced to a modern form of slavery under the yoke of the Rey-Bouba dynasty. In their book, Richard Atimniraye Nyelade and Alexis Bindowo highlight the arbitrary and tyranny that still reign in the Lamidate of Rey-Bouba, where fear and slavery are daily realities. They shed light on the extent of the oppression suffered by the inhabitants of the Mayo-Rey and depict a reality where the rights and dignity of the indigenous populations are trampled, thus illustrating the harsh reality of veiled slavery prevailing in the Lamidate of Rey-Bouba.

In this context, it is difficult to understand the World Heritage Convention’s statement that the Rey-Bouba palace reflects “inter-ethnic relations among the different human groups present” and contributes to “the promotion of the diversity of values.” Indeed, one cannot speak of peaceful ethnic cohabitation when the lamibes continue to regard indigenous groups as their vassals, subjecting them to taxes on livestock and crops. This imposition of illegal taxes on agricultural products contradicts the principles of the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

In addition to exercising hegemonic domination over ‘subordinate chiefs,’ the lamibes of Rey-Bouba, through their militia, constantly harass opposition activists and associative leaders working to defend their fundamental rights, through illegal detentions, beatings, and bans on public meetings. The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, for example, documented the pursuit, arbitrary detention, and judicial harassment suffered by Célestin Yandal between 2013 and 2018, while he was president of the Touboro Youth Collective (Observatoire pour la protection des défenseurs des droits de l’Homme 2017). He was detained for two years after denouncing the abuses committed by the lamido of Rey-Bouba, current vice-president of the Cameroonian Senate, against the people of Touboro. He had indeed ordered the local administrative authorities, including the Republic’s prosecutor in Tcholliré, to arrest fourteen youths for public order disturbances during an altercation with his private militia who came to extort the populations.

The day of his arrest, Yandal Celestin, now the elected UNDP mayor of Touboro, was going to the gendarmerie in Ngaoundéré to meet a relative; he was detained there before being transferred to the famous prison of Tcholliré for the attempted assassination of a certain Abdou, one of the Lamido’s militiamen. However, no evidence proving his guilt has ever been presented by the judicial authorities, leading to the belief that his detention was just a harassment maneuver for his legitimate human rights defense activities. Many other associative leaders are also facing the same type of intimidation. Yet, the Lamido and his guards have never been held accountable for their repeated abuses against the indigenous populations, even in cases known to high government officials.

In a report, Emilienne Soué indicates that the Lamido’s subordinates engage in extortion, racketeering, and scams in the Rey-Bouba markets. Specifically, the chief of the Rey Bouba sub-division is accused of illegally taxing 500 FCFA on each bag of maize and other cereals. This practice not only disrupts agricultural productivity but also constitutes a crime against individuals, often involving force or threats in cases of extortion and racketeering, and sometimes deception in scams. Moreover, this extortion has led to mass exodus, impacting not only economic rights but also the rights to education and health, as guaranteed by various international human rights documents. The youths’ statements reflect a deep concern for the systematic oppression and deprivation facing their community.

A Heritage to Revaluate

The comprehensive study of the Lamidate of Rey-Bouba, traversing its historical origins, colonial impacts, and the persistence of servitude, culminates in a critical reassessment of its UNESCO World Heritage status. This paper has meticulously chronicled the evolution of slavery in the Lamidate, from its roots in the Fulbe jihad of the 19th century to its modern manifestations, subtly veiled under terms like ‘servitude’ and ‘servants’. The role of colonial regimes in perpetuating these practices, despite formal abolition, and the contemporary indifference of both local and international entities to the ongoing human rights violations are particularly striking. The UNESCO inscription, while celebrating the architectural and historical significance of the Lamidate, glaringly omits the dark legacy of slavery and its current ramifications. This oversight not only perpetuates historical inaccuracies but also indirectly condones ongoing injustices. The persistence of servile practices, evidenced by socio-political stratifications and human rights abuses, starkly contrasts with the sanitized narrative presented by UNESCO.

Given this context, the call for the international community, particularly UNESCO, and Cameroonian authorities, to recognize and actively combat these new forms of slavery and servitude in the Lamidate of Rey-Bouba becomes imperative. This is not merely a matter of correcting historical records but is crucial for delivering justice to victims and their descendants. Ensuring that the heritage of the Lamidate is celebrated in a manner that is both historically accurate and ethically responsible requires acknowledging the full spectrum of its legacy, including the painful chapters of enslavement and ongoing servitude.

Therefore, the inscription of the Lamidate of Rey-Bouba as a UNESCO World Heritage Site demands a critical reassessment. Celebrating its historical significance without acknowledging the suffering and injustices it perpetuates today represents a profound oversight and complicity in these ongoing injustices. It is essential that the international community and Cameroonian authorities take decisive steps to address and rectify these issues, transforming the Lamidate’s legacy into one that is truly worthy of global recognition and celebration. This action would not only honor the victims of past and present injustices but also pave the way for a more truthful and inclusive understanding.

Richard Atimniraye Nyelade & Professor Melchisedeck Chetima

Richard Atimniraye Nyelade is a Lecturer in Anthropology and Sociology at the University of Ottawa, where he imparts knowledge in subjects like political anthropology and classic theories in anthropology. He is holder of a PhD in Sociology from Shanghai University, with expertise in the intersection of olfactory experiences and social connections among African immigrants. Notable works include "The Interconnection between the Global and the Local: Case Study of the Indigenous Baka Community of Nomedjoh, Cameroon" in Anthropology Southern Africa and "Autochtonie et colonialité en Afrique" published by Les Editions Persée. His scholarship includes the prestigious Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Fellowship and the Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs Fellowship. Richard's research spans several continents and fields, reflecting a dedication to interdisciplinary analysis and policy decision-making. Professor Melchisedeck Chetima is a distinguished academic and scholar in the field of African history, currently serving as a Professor at the University of Québec in Montréal. He is a Co-Editor of the Canadian Journal of African Studies and the African Economic History. His expertise and academic contributions have been recognized with the designation of 2024 Distinguished Scholar by the Harry Franck Guggenheim foundation and his role as an Associate Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. Professor Chetima's scholarly work spans a variety of themes related to African history, with notable recent publications including comprehensive studies on slavery in the Mandara Mountains and Lake Chad Basin, as well as socio-political issues involving Boko Haram in Cameroon. His research is marked by a focus on historical dynamics and their modern implications, particularly concerning socio-economic structures and human rights. His impressive portfolio of publications reflects a deep commitment to understanding and explaining complex historical narratives and contemporary issues in Africa.