UN Res. 1608 (XV): Problem or Answer to Southern Cameroons Independence?


Prof. Carlson Anyangwe

Ambazonia, which is the erstwhile Southern Cameroons has frontiers that are well described and delimited by boundary treaties. During the period of international administration (mandate and later trusteeship) it had international status and a degree of international personality. By 1958 it was firmly on the path of sovereign statehood. It achieved self-government status in 1954 and became a state in status nascendi in 1958. Preparatory to independence, it was provided in 1960 with a Westminster-modelled independence Constitution, The Southern Cameroons Constitution Order in Council. The national sovereignty of the country was in abeyance waiting to revive and rest on the new state at the moment of its independence.


Decolonisation of the Third World occupied a major part of the activities of the UN during the first three decades of its existence. The UN decolonisation agenda derived from two sources: Chapters XI, XII, and XIII of the UN Charter devoted to the interests of dependent peoples, and two distinct but interrelated rights under international law, namely, the equal rights of peoples, and the right of self-determination of peoples. Since 1960 the UN has also been guided in its decolonisation efforts by the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples. In that binding instrument UN Member States proclaim the necessity of bringing to a speedy end colonialism in all its form.

Some colonial territories achieved independence consensually, others through armed struggle. In cases of consensual decolonisation sovereignty was simply transferred to the new state. The departing colonial power concluded devolution agreements with the new state providing for inheritance of certain treaties. In rare instances the plebiscite procedure was used to ascertain the wishes of the dependent people on the question of independence. Sometimes the UN also uses that procedure to ascertain the freely expressed wishes of a given population when satisfied that the population in question constitute a people within the meaning of the legal right to self-determination. It appears therefore that the plebiscite was considered a legitimate method of decolonisation, provided of course that all the political status options are put on the table for the people concerned to choose from.

In terms of UNGA Resolutions 648, 742, 1541 (XV) of 1960, and 2625 (XXV) of 1970, termination of colonial status may result in any of the following political status options: independence, internal autonomy within a freely formed association, integration in an independent state, or emergence into any other political status freely determined by the people concerned. To be meaningful and legitimate, therefore, a self-determination plebiscite must make available all the political status options to choose from. A free and informed choice from all the various options would amount to the full exercise of the right of self-determination and would result in complete decolonisation. Dependent political status (annexation, occupation, absorption, re-colonisation etc.) cannot possibly be a permissible outcome of implementation of the right to self-determination. If a colonial territory is transferred to another state the territory in question cannot by any stretch of the imagination be said to have been decolonised. The termination of colonial status, even where it results in integration with an independent state, must at the very minimum result in autonomy or internal self-government for the territory in question.

The excuse for the incomplete decolonisation of the British Southern Cameroons was the self-serving ‘reason’ given by Britain that the territory would not be economically viable to stand on its own as a sovereign state. This clearly had no merit. It was a red herring. If indeed it was a real issue the UN would have been requested to despatch an expert mission to the Southern Cameroons to ascertain the issue of economic viability, in cooperation with the Government of the Southern Cameroons and the Administering Authority, with a view to determining its implications for the independence of the Southern Cameroons, and to recommend corrective measures. The real reason for the incomplete decolonisation of the Southern Cameroons was the UK’s long standing policy of sinking the territory into Nigeria. Britain considered the Southern Cameroons as mere material for infilling on Nigeria’s south-eastern border. It is clear decolonisation principle that economic self-sufficiency is irrelevant to that matter. Economic viability can be used to support a claim to independence. But it can never be used to deny entitlement to independence. The Declaration on the Grating of Independence puts the matter beyond any shadow of doubt when it emphatically states that “Inadequacy of political, economic, social or education preparedness should never serve as a pretext for delaying independence.”

The UN stampeded the Southern Cameroons into a plebiscite for which the people were not mentally ready. The political leadership of the Southern Cameroons requested deferment of the plebiscite to 1962 and termination of the trusteeship agreement in accordance with Art 76 b of the UN Charter on 26 October 1962. But the UN denied this simple and sensible request. It went ahead to impose a plebiscite to be concluded “not later than March 1961.” This diktat deprived the people of the Southern Cameroons of much-need breathing space and time for cogitation on a very serious matter affecting their future. The Southern Cameroons was not drowning. The plebiscite was not a God-ordained life jacket for rescuing the territory from a UK-perceived perdition. The UN could have taken direct administration of the territory for a year or so pending a well informed and mature decision on its future. Had the plebiscite been deferred just to 1962, as the political leaders of the territory had requested, there would certainly have been the third option of separate independence, consistent with the 1960 Declaration on Decolonisation. The vote would undoubtedly have gone in favour of that third option. The refusal to defer the plebiscite was compounded by other acts of misfeasance by the UN: refusal to give the fundamental political status option of independence, and use of woolly and deceptive language (‘independence’, ‘joining’) in framing the plebiscite questions. The whole procedure was one big charade. The Southern Cameroons had advisedly left Nigeria in 1953 and separated from that country in 1960. How could going back to Nigeria to be permanently federated to that country be politically correct? Cameroun Republic was not only a foreign country but also a terra incognita in relation to the Southern Cameroons. It was in the throes of a bitter civil war, awash with blood and literally in flames. How could anyone who meant well for the Southern Cameroons have made ‘joining’ that country a well-meaning alternative? 

The purported decolonisation of the Southern Cameroons was deeply flawed procedurally and substantively. It resulted in the re-colonisation of the territory, this time by the adjacent foreign state of Cameroun Republic. The so-called ‘two alternatives’ were not alternative political status options. They were two alternative countries to choose from in the exercise of one political status option, the option of continuing dependent status. The people of the Southern Cameroons were required to choose between becoming a dependency of Nigeria or a dependency of Cameroun Republic. The imposition of that Hobson choice willy-nilly meant that the people of the Southern Cameroons were in fact never allowed to decide freely what their wishes were as to their future. The whole plebiscite was a cynical public relations exercise, designed to make the world at large believe that the people of the Southern Cameroons were being given freedom of choice, whereas in fact the only choice they really wanted was denied to them. The plebiscite was in fact unnecessary and thus redundant. The UN should simply have decolonised the territory in consultation with the administering authority as happened, for example, in the case of Tanganyika, Ruanda-Urundi and French Cameroun. There was therefore no credible issue for the UN to resolve by imposing a Hobson choice that was demonstrably not in the interest of the people and territory of the Southern Cameroons.

Chronology of events leading to the adoption of Res 1608 (XV)

From 1916, well before the inception of the international administration of the Southern Cameroons in 1922, and up to 1st October 1960, the UK administered the territory as a dependency of Nigeria rather than directly from London. By so doing, the UK created an environment that eventually eclipsed the issue of separate independence for the Southern Cameroons. It was not therefore surprising that much of the political struggle in the Southern Cameroons at that time was about extricating itself from Nigeria by way of separation from that country. Had there been no forced administrative union with Nigeria, the issue of outright independence would have been the primary focus of politicians of the Southern Cameroons. The question of joining Nigeria or Cameroun Republic would hardly have arisen.

  • 27 June 1958: Britain submitted to the General Assembly Memorandum T.1393 in which it informed the UN that the Southern Cameroons, as the case with Nigeria, had not been delayed in its political evolution towards full autonomy and independence.
  • 25th February 1959: At the 849th Session of the Fourth Committee of the UN, French Cameroun Premier, Ahmadou Ahidjo, declared that his country was not annexationist. He gave the undertaking that French Cameroun would never annex the Southern Cameroons should it vote ‘to join’ French Cameroun. He further declared that both countries would associate on a footing of complete equality. “We are not annexationists … If our brothers of the British Cameroons wish to unite with independent Cameroun, we are ready to discuss the matter with them, but we will do so on a footing of equality.”
  • 13 March 1959: The GA adopted resolution 1350 (XIII) recommending, inter alia, that the Administering Authority takes steps, in consultation with the United Nations Plebiscite Commissioner for the British Cameroons, to organise, under the supervision of the United Nations, separate plebiscites in the northern and southern parts of the British Cameroons, in order to ascertain the wishes of the inhabitants of the Territory concerning their future.
  • 10-11 August 1959: At the very representative Mamfe Conference the Paramount Chief (Fon) of Bafut expressed the sentiment of the day when he declared that the people of the Southern Cameroons removed Dr Endeley as Premier by voting against him because he wanted to take the Southern Cameroons to Nigeria and that should Mr Foncha the incumbent Premier try to take the Southern Cameroons to French Cameroun the people of the Southern Cameroons would also remove him from power because French Cameroun is fire and Nigeria is water. He stated that he supported secession from Nigeria without unification with French Cameroun. The Conference was in complete agreement with that profound assessment and position. It accordingly resolved that the question to be put at the plebiscite should be this: Integration with Nigeria or Secession from Nigeria. It was understood that secession from Nigeria entailed achieving independence as a sovereign state. The UN ignored the resolution of the Mamfe Conference thanks to wheeling and dealing by the Administering Authority. It arm-twisted Premier Foncha to accept ‘joining French Cameroun’ as the second plebiscite question in exchange for a short period of continued trusteeship.
  • 7 October 1959: The Fourth Committee of the GA discussed the fake question of the economic viability of the Southern Cameroons. Miss Brooks (Liberia) who chaired the meeting closed it by declaring that paragraph 2 of the proposed draft resolution of the Committee to be forwarded to the General Assembly would be framed in such a way as “to allay any apprehension that the Southern Cameroons might become independent as a separate entity, an eventuality which all were agreed should be ruled out in view of the territory’s limited economic potential.”
  • 16 October 1959. The GA adopted resolution 1352 (XIV) in which it: (i) decided that arrangements for the plebiscite had to begin on 30 September 1960 and the plebiscite concluded not later than March 1961; (ii) recommended that the two questions to be put at the plebiscite should be: “(a) Do you wish to achieve independence by joining the independent Federation of Nigeria?” “(b) Do you wish to achieve independence by joining the independent Republic of Cameroun?”; and (iii) recommended that “only persons born in the Southern Cameroons or one of whose parents was born in the Southern Cameroons should vote in the plebiscite.”
  • June 1960: Foncha sent an outline of his constitutional proposal to Ahidjo and suggested that an early opportunity be found to discuss it.
  • 15-17 July 1960: Foncha and Ahidjo, together with certain members of their respective governments, held discussions on the outline of the constitutional proposal by Foncha. At the end of the discussions a communiqué was issued stating that the two sides “unanimously adopted” a resolution by which they, inter alia, “agreed to unification on a federal basis adapted to the conditions peculiar to all sections of Kamerun.”
  • August 1960: Further discussions were held between the two sides on outline proposals for a federal constitution. The proposals were submitted by the Southern Cameroons.
  • Early October 1960: Talks in London between the UK and the Southern Cameroons on the implications of “achieving independence by joining Republic of Cameroun.” Speaking through its Secretary of State for the Colonies Ian Macleod, the UK Government claimed that the UN in adopting the resolution on the plebiscite ruled out a period of continued trusteeship, and ruled out separate independence for the Southern Cameroons. Macleod went on to declare that if the plebiscite went in favour of joining Republic of Cameroun, arrangements would be made “for the early termination of trusteeship and the transfer of sovereignty to Cameroun.” The UK Government further stated that a vote for attaining independence by joining Cameroun Republic would mean that “the Southern Cameroons and Cameroun Republic would unite in a Federal United Cameroon Republic. The arrangements would be worked out after the plebiscite by a conference consisting of representative delegations of equal status from the Republic and the Southern Cameroons. The United Nations and the United Kingdom would also be associated with this conference.” This formula was accepted by Cameroun Republic as consistent with the meaning of the second plebiscite question.
  • 10 to 13 October 1960: A third meeting took place between the Southern Cameroons and Cameroun Republic. It ended with the adoption of two documents, a Communiqué and a Joint Declaration. The Communiqué stated that “the implementation of unification on the federal basis adaptable to conditions peculiar to all sections of the Cameroons cannot be automatic but gradual.” It further stated that the political leadership of both countries have examined and adopted the broad outlines of the constitution which they will implement in the event of the plebiscite vote being favourable to them.  The Joint Declaration contained the ‘Outline Proposals for a Draft Constitution for a Federal United Kamerun Republic.’ It declared inter alia that the two sides “wish to create a federal State”; that “nationals of the federated states will enjoy Cameroon nationality”; that “the Federal Legislature will consist of a Federal Assembly and a Federal Senate”; that federal laws will only be enacted in such a way that no measures contrary to the interests of one state will be imposed upon it by the majority; that the Federation will be created by the Southern Cameroons and Cameroun Republic; and that if the vote went in favour of federating with Cameroun Republic those entrusted with the affairs of the unified Cameroon would put the federal constitution to the people to pronounce themselves on it. These two documents were signed by John Ngu Foncha, Premier of the Southern Cameroons, on the one part, and by Ahmadou Ahidjo and Charles Assalé, President and Prime Minister of Cameroun Republic, on the other part.
  • 1-3 December 1960: The Southern Cameroons and Cameroun Republic held a final pre-plebiscite meeting which ended with a signed Joint Communiqué confirming the contents of the October Communiqué and Joint Declaration. It is worthy of note that the pre-plebiscite agreement was framed not in facultative terms. It was framed in the phraseology of legal obligations. The rights and the status of the Southern Cameroons thereunder did not depend upon the permission and pleasure of Cameroun Republic. Any suggestion that the Agreement was not legally binding and that therefore Cameroun Republic was not bound to implement the agreement on a federation would, by parity of reasoning, mean that the Southern Cameroons was also not bound to federate with Cameroun Republic. If the Agreement was ineffectual, then it was so as regards each of the parties. A party cannot approbate and reprobate.
  • 24 December 1960: Cameroun Republic sent the following note verbale to the UK Government through its Embassy at Yaoundé, confirming “as an expression of its official views” its “desire for unification” with the Southern Cameroons “on the basis of a federation.” 

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs presents its compliments to the British Embassy to Cameroon at Yaounde and with reference to its note verbale No. F.M. 68 (1041/60) dated 16 December 1960, has the honour to state that, following the conversations which have just taken place in Douala between the President of the Republic of Cameroun and Mr Foncha, the Premier of the Southern Cameroons, it has been decided that, in connection with the plebiscite organised in the Southern Cameroons on the question of whether that country should join the Federal Republic of Nigeria or the Republic of Cameroun, the Government of the Republic of Cameroun has announced that it adheres to the spirit of the attached joint communiqués, which indicates its desire for unification with the Cameroons under British Administration on the basis of a federation. The Government of the Republic of Cameroun requests the British Embassy to consider the attached communiqués as an expression of the official views of the Republic and further requests that they be published for the purposes prescribed by Trusteeship Council resolution 2013 (XXVI), referred to in its note verbale quoted above.” 

Attached to this note verbale were the French texts of the Communiqué, the Joint Declaration, and the Joint Communiqé. The contents of these three documents formed the basis of an expected political association between the Southern Cameroons and Cameroun Republic. The documents provided inter alia for (i) a federation of two states, equal in status; (ii) a post plebiscite conference consisting of representative delegations of equal status from the two countries; (iii) the association of the UN and the UK with the post plebiscite conference; and (iv) the transfer of sovereign powers to an organisation representing the future federation.

The Southern Cameroons and Cameroun Republic thus committed to creating a federal political association. The statement contained in the note verbale and publicised in The Two Alternatives evidenced a clear intention on the part of Cameroun Republic to be bound by the contents of the three instruments attached thereto and to accept binding legal obligations vis-à-vis the Southern Cameroons. At international law, such a note verbale constitutes a unilateral act of a heteronormative character. It gives rise to an international legal obligation. In the Eastern Greenland Case (1933) PCIJ, Ser. A/B, No. 53, p. 71, the Court declared that a statement of that nature, including even a unilateral oral declaration in the nature of a promise, given by a Foreign Minister, in reply to a request by the diplomatic agent of a foreign power in regard to a question falling within his province is binding upon the State to which the Minister belongs. In the Nuclear Test Case (Australia v France), Judgment, ICJ Rep. 1974, 253, the ICJ stated that a declaration may be made by way of a unilateral act by a state concerning a legal or factual situation and under such circumstances as to have the effect of creating a legal obligation on that state. The statements contained in Cameroun’s note verbale were taken by the UN and the UK as constituting the binding undertaken given by that country on the question of ‘joining’ Cameroun Republic.

  • 27 January 1961: The UK Government produced a booklet entitled ‘The Two Alternatives’ for use in the plebiscite enlightenment campaign. The document reproduced Nigeria’s offer to the Southern Cameroons of regional status within the Nigerian Federation. It also reproduced the Communique and Joint Declarations by the Southern Cameroons and Cameroun Republic agreeing on the creation of a federation of two states, equal in status. The production of the booklet marked the official launch of the campaign, a mere two weeks to the plebiscite.
  • 11 February 1961: The plebiscite took place. The vote went in favour of federating with Cameroun Republic. This decision was in reality indicative of a negative flight from Nigeria rather than of a positive desire for political association with French Cameroun.
  • 11 April 1961: Plebiscite Commissioner presented his Report to the General Assembly.

The cloak-and-dagger politics at the UN from 18-20 April 1961

Bad faith characterised the handling of the Southern Cameroons Question at the UN in April 1961. On the 18th April 1961, the Fourth Committee adopted draft resolution A/C.4/L.685 and recommended it for adoption by the General Assembly. In the draft resolution Britain, the Southern Cameroons and French Cameroun were invited to initiate urgent discussions with a view to finalising, before 1 October 1961, “the arrangements by which the agreed and declared policies of the concerned parties for a union of the Southern Cameroons with the Republic of Cameroun into a Federal United Cameroon Republic will be implemented.”

The same recommended draft resolution also provided for the appointment, by the General Assembly, of “a commission of three constitutional and administrative experts”, to be nominated one each by three Member States designated by the General Assembly, to assist, at the request of the parties concerned, in the discussions “on a union of the Southern Cameroons with the Republic of Cameroun into a Federal United Cameroon Republic.” The adoption and implementation of the recommended resolution was to entail a petty financial expenditure (mainly for hiring of the three constitutional and administrative experts) estimated at a mere $46 000.

It was clear the draft resolution had financial implications. The Fourth Committee was fully alive to this fact. In its report on this matter on 20 April 1961, the Committee pointed out that the adoption of the recommended draft resolution “would give rise to additional expenditures of some US$46 000 which would be included in the supplementary estimates for 1961 to be submitted to the General Assembly at its 16th session.” On the same day the UN Secretary General noted that “Should the draft resolution as recommended by the Fourth Committee be adopted by the General Assembly, financial commitments up to $46 000 will have to made for which no budgetary provision is included in the 1961 budget. In that event the Secretary General would propose to meet these requirements as unforeseen expenses for the financial year 1961, and will submit supplementary estimates to the General Assembly in its sixteenth session in this regard.”

Resolution 1608 (XV) of 21 April 1961 that was eventually adopted by the UNGA turned out to be a dangerously watered down version of the resolution recommended by the Fourth Committee. In the adopted resolution no mention is made of the appointment of the three constitutional and administrative experts. No mention is made of “a union of the Southern Cameroons with the Republic of Cameroun into a Federal United Cameroon Republic.” The removal of those matters was highly prejudicial to the interest of the Southern Cameroons. Aided by France and supported by French-speaking African states, Cameroun Republic successfully opposed the inclusion of those words in the final resolution. Republic of Cameroun then went on to vote against adoption of resolution 1608 (XV). In sharp contrast, every initiative in the interest of the Southern Cameroons was vigorously opposed and killed by Britain’s autocratic UN Representative, Sir Andrew Cohen, whose inexplicable demonstrated antipathy towards the Southern Cameroons bothered on the pathological.

The UN pleaded financial constraints for leaving out those matters which it knew, or must be taken to have known, were very critical for safeguarding the status, dignity and self-determination of the people of the Southern Cameroons within the ‘joining’ into which the UN had forced the Southern Cameroons. The UN shamefully refused, for claimed financial reasons, to provide the territory with much-needed constitutional and administrative experts to assist in constitutional talks with Cameroun Republic which already enjoyed the unalloyed assistance of the French in this regard. The provision of such expertise by the UN would have been nothing new. Only ten years earlier it had done so in constitutional talks between Eritrea and Ethiopia leading to the Eritrean/Ethiopian Federation.

Once more, the money factor plagued the Southern Cameroons decolonisation saga. Claimed economic non-viability of the territory was the excuse conveniently invoked in 1959 by the UN for ruling out separate independence for the Southern Cameroons. In April 1961, when it came to the effective implementation of the result of the very plebiscite the UN had imposed on the people of the territory, economic considerations again entered the calculus in working out the future of the territory and its people. The UN considered the paltry sum of $46 000 too large an amount to spend in order to secure and safeguard the Southern Cameroons and the dignity and worth of its people. One wonders what happened to the much vaunted UN principle of human dignity and worth, and the principle of equality of all peoples and nations, small and large. In the eyes of the UN, the Southern Cameroons and its people were not worth spending $46 000 on! And yet when it imposed a plebiscite, unnecessary and costly, on the Southern Cameroons the UN did not apply its mind to the question of cost. 

Had the UN provided the much-needed constitutional and administrative experts the Southern Cameroons would have at least been an internationally guaranteed independent self-governing state within an over-arching federal system and would have applied for and be admitted to membership of the UN. It would today not be the dependent territory it is, under the colonial yoke of Cameroun Republic.

The adoption of Resolution 1608 (XV) of 21 April 1961

On the 21st April 1961, at its 994th plenary meeting on 21 April 1961, the UNGA adopted resolution 1608 (XV) on the future of the Trust Territory of the Cameroons under United Kingdom administration. The four paragraphs of the resolution’s preamble recall a number of matters: the General Assembly’s recommendation for two separate plebiscites to be organised in the northern and southern parts of the trust territory; the questions to be put at the plebiscite; the period within which the plebiscites were to be organised; and the GA’s examination of the Plebiscite Commissioner’s report on the conduct of the two plebiscites, the one in the Southern Cameroons on February 11, 1961 and the other in the Northern Cameroons on February 12 1961. The operative part of the resolution then reads:

“1. Expresses its high appreciation of the work of the United Nations Plebiscite Commissioner for the Cameroons under United Kingdom Administration and his staff;

2. Endorses the results of the plebiscites that:

(a) The people of the Northern Cameroons have, by a substantial majority, decided to achieve independence by joining the independent Federation of Nigeria;

(b) The people of the Southern Cameroons have similarly decided to achieve independence by joining the independent Republic of Cameroun;

3. Considers that, the people of the two parts of the Trust Territory having freely and secretly expressed their wishes with regard to their respective futures in accordance with General Assembly resolutions 1352 (XIV) and 1473 (XIV), the decision made by them through democratic processes under the supervision of the United Nations should be immediately implemented;

4. Decides that, the plebiscites having been taken separately with differing results, the Trusteeship Agreement of 13 December 1946 concerning the Cameroons under United Kingdom administration shall be terminated, in accordance with article 76 b of the Charter of the United Nations and in agreement with the Administering Authority, in the following manner:

(a) With respect to the Northern Cameroons, on 1 June 1961, upon its joining the Federation of Nigeria as a separate province of the Northern Region of Nigeria;

(b) With respect to the Southern Cameroons, on 1 October 1961, upon its joining the Republic of Cameroun;

 5. Invites the Administering Authority, the Government of the Southern Cameroons and the Republic of Cameroun to initiate urgent discussions with a view to finalizing, before 1 October 1961, the arrangements by which the agreed and declared policies of the parties concerned will be implemented.”

This resolution was adopted by an overwhelming majority of 64 votes for and 23 votes against (essentially 16 French-speaking countries rallied by France):

64 states voted in favour:  Afghanistan, Albania, Australia, Austria, Bolivia, Bulgaria, Burma, Byelorussia, Canada, Ceylon, Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba, Cyprus, Czechoslovakia, Demark, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Federation of Malaya, Finland, Ghana, Guinea, Honduras, Hungary, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Ireland, Japan, Jordan, Laos, Lebanon, Liberia, Libya, Mali, Mexico, Morocco, Nepal, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Norway, Pakistan, Philippines, Poland, Romania, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Sudan, Sweden, Thailand, Tunisia, Turkey, Ukraine, USSR, United Arab Republic, United kingdom, USA, Venezuela, Yemen and Yugoslavia.

23 voted against: Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Cambodia, Cameroun, Central African Republic, Chad, China, Congo-Brazzaville, Congo-Leopoldville, Dahomey, France, Gabon, Greece, Israel, Ivory Coast, Luxemburg, Madagascar, Niger, Paraguay, Senegal, Upper Volta, and Uruguay. (16 French-speaking)

10 states abstained: Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Italy, Panama, Peru, Portugal, Spain, and Togo; and

2 states were absent during the voting: Nicaragua and Somalia.

By that resolution the General Assembly: (i) endorsed the decision of the people of the Southern Cameroons to achieve independence by ‘ joining’ French Cameroun; (ii) approved the decision to terminate the Trusteeship Agreement on 1 October 1961, in accordance with Article 76 b of the Charter of the United Nations, upon the Southern Cameroons joining Republic of Cameroun; and (iii) prescribed finalization of the method by which the declared agreement between the Southern Cameroons and Republic of Cameroun on federal political association would be implemented.

Resolution 1608 (XV) states that the people of the Southern Cameroons freely expressed their wishes with regard to their future. This can hardly be true because the only ‘choice’ they had was dependency unwarrantedly imposed on them by the United Nations. Further, the resolution is silent on what was to happen in the event where talks on finalization collapsed or failed to take place. The UN simply assumed, without any basis for doing so, that finalization would take place. But, as it turned out, there was no finalization of the method of implementation of the declared agreement between the Southern Cameroons and Cameroun Republic on federal political association. In October 1960 the UK Government had assured the Southern Cameroons delegation at the London talks that after the plebiscite arrangements for a ‘Federal United Cameroon Republic’ would be worked out by a conference consisting of representative delegations of equal status from Cameroun Republic and the Southern Cameroons, and that the United Nations and the United Kingdom would also be associated with this conference. No arrangement for any such conference was ever worked out. And when the Southern Cameroons and Cameroun Republic met in Foumban in July to discuss a constitution for the would-be federation, neither the UN nor the UK bothered to attend the conference.

Resolution 1608 (XV) approved the decision to terminate the Trusteeship Agreement on 1 October 1961, in accordance with Article 76 b of the Charter of the United Nations. Termination of trusteeship was expressed to be in accordance with Article 76 b of the Charter of the United Nations. And yet the UN could not know for sure that the Southern Cameroons would indeed attain independence. It failed to exercise due diligence in that regard. Termination of trusteeship did not mean that the Southern Cameroons ipso facto became completely decolonised. A non-negligible point of semantics is that termination of trusteeship was to take place upon (i.e., ‘when’ or ‘at the moment of’), and not after, federating with Cameroun Republic.

Furthermore, Resolution 1608 (XV) failed to prescribe due diligence measures aimed at ensuring the effective and complete decolonisation of the Southern Cameroons. There should have been at least three more paragraphs in that resolution. In one additional paragraph the GA should have decided that the UN shall remain seized of the question of the decolonisation of the Southern Cameroons. In a second additional paragraph the GA would have requested the Secretary-General of the UN to prepare for the General Assembly at its next session a report on the implementation of Resolution 1608 (XV). In a third additional paragraph the GA would have requested the Administering Authority to present to the Trusteeship Council at its next session, information on the measures already taken or planned by the Administering Authority to ensure the implementation of Resolution 1608 (XV), including the transfer of powers to the Government of the Southern Cameroons.

Unfortunately, after the adoption of resolution 1608 (XV) on 21 April 1961, the UN in effect declared itself functus officio with regard to the Southern Cameroons decolonisation question even though the trusteeship still had about six months to run. After April 1961 the UN never concerned itself again with the Southern Cameroons, maintaining and promoting the fiction that the territory has been decolonised.

Noteworthy events between July and September 1961

  • 17-21st July 1961: Foumban meeting of both the Southern Cameroons and Cameroun Republic to discuss the constitution of the future federation. The meeting ended inconclusively.
  • 1 September 1961: Cameroun Republic unilaterally framed, passed, signed and promulgated a ‘federal constitution’ and declared it to be binding on the Southern Cameroons as from 1 October 1961.
  • 25th September 1961: The British Queen proclaimed and declared the UK’s agreement to the termination of the Trusteeship Agreement with respect to the Southern Cameroons on the first day of October, 1961, upon its ‘joining’ Republic of Cameroun, and signified that as from that date the UK would cease to be responsible for the administration of the Southern Cameroons.
  • 27th  September 1961: The UK Government sent a diplomatic note through its Ambassador in Yaoundé, CE King, to the Government of Republic of Cameroun recalling that as stipulated in GA Resolution 1608 (XV) of 21 April 1961 UK trusteeship over the Southern Cameroons shall terminate at midnight of 30th September 1961 upon the Southern Cameroons ‘joining’ Cameroun Republic.
  • 30th September 1961: The UK Government invited a foreign Prince, President Ahidjo of Cameroun Republic, to the Southern Cameroons and “transferred the Southern Cameroons” to him, according to the confession of Hugh Fraser, the British Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies.
  • 30th September 1961: Her Britannic Majesty addressed a message “on the occasion of the ending of UK trusteeship in the Southern Cameroons.” The message was addressed not to the Prime Minister of the British territory purportedly being decolonised, but to the President of another country, Cameroun Republic, which was never under British rule. The Queen’s message “express[ed] sincere good wishes for the future of the united territories.” The Prime Minister of the Southern Cameroons, the territory which was for almost half a century under British rule, was completely ignored in this message.

Meaning of the key terms ‘achieving independence’ and ‘joining’

The plebiscite was the chosen procedure for the decolonisation of the Southern Cameroons. The expressions ‘achieve independence’ and ‘by joining’ must therefore be understood in that context. They related to two separate matters that invited a decision thereon in one polling exercise but giving rise to two distinct processes. ‘Achieving independence’ was the basic and foremost matter. ‘Joining’ was a secondary matter which was to take place only upon achievement of independence. ‘Joining’ was not feasible without prior or contemporaneous achievement of independence. In contemplation of law, the                       11 Feb. 1961 Plesbiscite Pooling Station Notice

Southern Cameroons had to

achieve independence, even if just for a matter of minutes, before ‘joining’ Cameroun Republic.

Achieving independence

Ordinarily a territory achieves independence when it is politically free or emancipated. It achieves independence when it is no longer politically dependent on or controlled by some other country. It becomes its own master. It becomes responsible for its own internal and external affairs. It takes its destiny into its own hands. When a country becomes independent it is sometimes described as ‘independent and sovereign’. The word sovereign emphasises supreme authority. It means that the state, subject to the confines laid down by international law, has full liberty to act within its four walls and to act beyond its borders in the intercourse with other states. The word independence signifies that the state is subject to no other earthly authority. Practically, independence and sovereignty mean one and the same thing because both concepts exclude dependence upon any other authority, in particular from the authority of another state.

A colonial territory may choose to unite with another colonial territory to form one country and to achieve independence as one state. For example, the trust territory of Togoland under UK administration united with the Gold Coast also under British rule, in May 1956, and ten months later, in March 1957, the united entity achieved independence under the name Republic of Ghana. New Guinea administered by Australia united with Papua also administered by Australia, and in 1975 the united entity achieved independence as Papua New Guinea. But how does a colonial territory achieved independence by joining an independent sovereign state? Is there any such concept as ‘independence by dependence’? Where a colonial territory opts for integration into its parent state the effect of that option is simply to confirm the status quo followed by constitutional adjustments to accommodate the formal incorporation. That is what happened when the miniscule Cocos-Keeling Island (8 sq. km and about 650 habitants) voted in 1984 for integration with Australia

Arguably, when a colonial territory joins an independent state, it becomes ipso facto independent. Presumably the colonial territory is thereby automatically invested with the quality of independence derived from the independent state it joins. But this argument has only a superficial attraction and is hardly persuasive. When a dependent territory joins an independent state it does so from a position of legal inequality in status, a position of subordination. It retains that dependent status within the independent state. It does not, whether in law or in fact, become independent because all matters in relation to the territory, internal and external, are outside its control. Besides, when a colonial territory joins an independent state without proper self-government safeguards, the territory becomes merely additional territory for that independent state. When that happens, the colonial territory in question could perhaps technically be described, in an abuse of language, as having become ‘independent’ by dint of its absorption by the independent state. Yet, it is beyond doubt that the dependent status of the absorbed territory remains unchanged. In strict legal terms there has simply been succession to territory: the independent state has succeeded to the territory of the dependent entity. In fact, such a situation is indistinguishable from that of transfer of colonial territory. The only difference is that the classic transfer case is a unilateral act of the colonial power whereas here the act has a veneer of ‘consent’ by the inhabitants of the colonial territory. That is why some jurists used to argue, but without conviction or authority, that the plebiscitary formula may be used as a method of transfer of territory. In one situation, however, that of free association, a dependent territory achieving independence by freely associating with an independent state ipso facto becomes an independent sovereign state, and is eligible for UN membership. A classic example is that of the trust territory of Micronesia and of the Marshall Islands which opted in 1990 to become fully self-governing in free association with the USA and were each admitted in 19991 to membership of the UN.

Achieving independence entails at the very minimum self-government and self-identity because self-determination has to do with self-preservation and not self-destruction or extinction. On the good authority of Professor Philips Cadbury of the University of London speaking in November 1960, joining Cameroun Republic “does not connote absorption or loss of identity but … something more like the Ghana-Guinea Union … In the absence of a third option, the second option offered in the plebiscite in February will win a substantial majority. But this will not be a mandate for absorption, but for negotiation of equal terms.” (The Guardian Newspaper, London, 25 November 1960).  The Southern Cameroons could not before and after the plebiscite have negotiated with Cameroun Republic on equal terms and then proceeded to federate with that country as an unequal party. Unequal parties cannot conclude a valid contract.


Trusteeship Council Resolution 2013 (XXXVI) of 31 March 1960 in effect invited Nigeria and Cameroun Republic to each state the constitutional terms and conditions under which each expected the Southern Cameroons to ‘join’ it. What this meant was that the destiny of the people of the Southern Cameroons was not allowed to remain exclusively in the hands of the people of the territory themselves and to be taken by them alone. It was determined in a decisive way by the territory’s two adjacent neighbours, the UN and the administering authority. In the result there was no determination by the self but determination by others. All the international political status options were not put on the table and a free choice made after considering all of them. It follows that the people of the Southern Cameroons did not freely and exclusively determine their own future and the destiny of their territory.

The Southern Cameroons did not vote and could not have voted for the annihilation of its personality, identity and dignity, for the transfer of its territory to Cameroun Republic, and for the treatment of its citizens as stateless, as persons of a lesser order. That would not have been self-determination but self-destruction. There was nothing the Southern Cameroons could possibly have stood to gain by such a tragic vote, which clearly would have been an act of collective political suicide.

Some salient developments following the adoption of Resolution 1608 (XV)

Details of the envisaged Southern Cameroons/Cameroun Republic federation were to be finalised by framing a federal constitution that was to be the fruit of common bargain. The federal constitution so frame was to be submitted before 1 October 1961 for approval by the respective peoples or legislatures of the two countries. This did not happen. Details on the federal political association were never finalised. No constitutional text was adopted or signed by both parties and submitted to their respective peoples or parliaments for ratification. Cameroun Republic simply embarked on the path of lawlessness. In breach of the international law principle of territoriality, it drafted, enacted, signed and promulgated on 1 September 1961 a so-called ‘federal constitution’ and foisted it on the people of the Southern Cameroons. The document in question was in reality an annexation law thinly disguised as an amending constitutional law. In that document Cameroun Republic declared the territory of the Southern Cameroons its territory returned to it. In mid-September 1961 Cameroun Republic ordered into the Southern Cameroons its French-led troops and occupied the territory and started visiting the people with all kinds of cruel abuses, including violent oppression and torture. These happenings, together with the extraterritorial legislation by Cameroun Republic, took place even while the Southern Cameroons was still a UN trust territory under UK administration.

The plebiscite result was in reality a negative vote against Nigeria due to fears of Ibo domination in the Southern Cameroons if the vote went in favour of federating with Nigeria. The result did not evidence a positive vote in favour of federating with Cameroun Republic. Significantly, Cameroun Republic was one of the 23 mainly French-speaking states that voted against Resolution 1608 (XV). Republic of Cameroun’s negative vote had important legal implications. It meant: (i) that Cameroun Republic refused to recognise the independence of the Southern Cameroons voted by the people of the territory and endorsed by the GA; (ii) that Cameroun Republic rejected the decision by the UN that the Southern Cameroons federates as an independent country with Cameroun Republic; (iii) that Cameroun Republic rejected the UN invitation to the UK, the Southern Cameroons and Cameroun Republic for  finalization of the arrangements by which the agreed and published federal political association between the Southern Cameroons and Cameroun Republic were to be implemented; and (iv) that Cameroun Republic continued the international boundary between itself and the Southern Cameroons as unchanged in character, despite appearances to the contrary. Republic of Cameroun’s negative vote credibly explains its subsequent annexation project targeting the Southern Cameroons.

What political status did the Southern Cameroons emerge into as from 1 October 1961? As a matter of law, on 1 October 1961 the Southern Cameroons became an independent half-sovereign state (on account of its internal independence) and a qualified subject of international law. By politically associating with Cameroun Republic in a federal set up, the Southern Cameroons voluntarily limited its sovereignty and submerged its international personality. Its external relations with other states were absorbed entirely by the Federal Government. But being a federated state, it enjoyed internal government status within an overarching two-state federal arrangement. It had legal personality under municipal law. It exercised such measure of territorial competence within the federated state and sovereignty over such matters as conceded by the de facto Federal Constitution. It controlled much of its internal affairs. It had authority over, and the allegiance of, its citizens.

It had a Constitution with provisions on the various facets of government. There was a Head of Government who was the Prime Minister, and an Executive Council or the Cabinet as the principal instrument of policy in the state. There was a bicameral legislature: the House of Assembly as the lower house, and the House of Chiefs as the upper house with powers similar to those of the House of Lords in Britain. Parliament had power to make law for the peace, order and good government of the Southern Cameroons. There was a Police Force with responsibility for maintaining and securing public safety and order. There was furthermore a Judiciary responsible for the administration of justice, and a state prosecuting department headed by the Attorney General; a Public Service Commission; and a vibrant Opposition holding the Government in check.

The substratum of the political association between the Southern Cameroons and Cameroun Republic was destroyed when the Federation was treasonably overthrown by Cameroun Republic in May 1972. The opinion of the people of the Southern Cameroons was never properly sought and was lacking. The people of the Southern Cameroons were not consulted through informed and democratic processes on whether they desired a detrimental change in their political status as a federated state. Even if such opinion were properly sought it would evidently not have been given. No people ever opts for a detrimental change in their political status. With the forcible takeover of the Southern Cameroons the country openly, effectively and officially became an occupied territory and a dependency of Cameroun Republic. The destruction of the federation, the condition sine qua non of political association with Cameroun Republic, removed entirely any obligation to remain in any form of connection with Cameroun Republic. Clausula rebus sic stantibus.

The Southern Cameroons-Republic of Cameroun frontier continues as unchanged in character. The frontier alignment between both countries has always remained, de jure, an international boundary, notwithstanding the de facto federation and the grotesque assumption by Cameroun Republic of a colonial sovereignty over the Southern Cameroons. During the de facto federation, that alignment simply had the appearance of an internal boundary. By voting against UNGA Resolution 1608 (XV) of 21 April 1961 Cameroun Republic thereby continued the international boundary alignment with the Southern Cameroons as unchanged in character. Furthermore, the revival in February 1984 of the hitherto extinct Cameroun Republic ipso facto confirmed the frontier alignment as an international boundary. The confirmation of the international character of that alignment is further evidenced by the fact that Cameroun Republic has always maintained along the frontier its military, police and customs barriers erected since before its independence. These barriers exist to control the movement of persons, goods and services between the two countries. Up to the 1970s any citizen of the Southern Cameroons intending to travel to Cameroun Republic needed a laissez-passer to be able to enter that country.


The result of the plebiscite vote was not a mandate for incorporation or absorption or integration or assimilation of the Southern Cameroons by Cameroun Republic. It was not a mandate for transfer of the territory either. To accept the view that the Southern Cameroons did not achieve independence would mean the plebiscite was a pretended decolonisation exercise and that the Southern Cameroons still remains a classic colonial territory still to be decolonised. It would also mean that there was a big conspiracy at the UN to play a confidence trick on the hapless people of the Southern Cameroons. It would further mean the plebiscite was a gigantic political swindle by the UN. And if the whole plebiscite exercise was a charade and a fraud then the plebiscite poll was a complete nullity.

The more likely thesis is that the Southern Cameroons achieved independence though not as a separate state, since that eventuality was ruled out by the UN and given also its federal political association with Cameroun Republic. The UN itself maintains that the Southern Cameroons achieved independence in accordance with Article 76 b of the Charter of the UN and consistent with its decolonization agenda as evidenced by the valid termination of trusteeship. De jure, the Southern Cameroons-Cameroun Republic federation was a political association of two independent states. De facto, however, Cameroun Republic contrived to annex the Southern Cameroons by adopting measures designed to achieve that objective over time. A number of actions in September 1961 by the administering authority emboldened Cameroun Republic to launch out on this adventure of territorial aggrandisement via annexation.

Prof. Carlson Anyangwe ( Pretoria 2019.05.01)