Herman Jay "Hank" Cohen served as United States Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs from 1989 to 1993. He brokered an end to the Eritrean-Ethiopian War in 1991, and conflicts in Angola and Mozambique.

By Monica C. Nkenganyi AmbaNews24 Correspondent – New York, USA

Ambassador Herman J. Cohen, a former USA Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs has claimed in an interview to the BBC on October 2, 2019 that the root cause of the Ambazonia liberation struggle is a referendum that Ahmadou Ahidjo, then President of the Republic of Cameroon conducted in 1972.

Cohen explained that in 1961, the UN Trust Territory of the Southern Cameroons voted in to achieve independence from Britain by joining the then independent “Republic of Cameroon,” under a federal form of state. Cohen claims that this vote was the “choice” of the people of Southern Cameroons. In this federation, the French speaking people that made up the “Republic of Cameroon” then became “East Cameroon” federated state, and the English speaking people of the Southern Cameroons became the “West Cameroon” federated state.  In 1972, Ahidjo conducted a referendum, which Cohen described in the interview as “illegal.” In this referendum, a majority French speaking “East Cameroun” population voted, and thus overshadowed the minority English Speaking “West Cameroon” population. This referendum abolished the federal system, which the people of Southern Cameroons (now Ambazonia) had voted in the 1961 plesbiscite to achieve independence from Britain by joining the Republic of Cameroon under. This, to Cohen, is the root cause of the ongoing Ambazonia conflict, and restoring this federation is the solution to the conflict.

While Cohen’s narration of historical events is generally correct, his claim that the events he narrated, precisely the Ahidjo 1972 referendum constitute the root cause of the current Ambazonia independence revolution is FALSE and must be corrected in the service of justice and truth to the people of Ambazonia and the world at large.

First, the United Nation’s organized plebiscite of February 11, 1961 was unnecessary and based on falsehood from Britain. The UN Trust territory of the Southern Cameroons (now Ambazonia) under British administration was a Class B Mandate territory just as the French Cameroon territory under France administration was. This French Cameroon did not go through a plebiscite to become independent and sovereign from France. As a UN Class B Mandate territory, French Cameroon deserved to be independent and sovereign, and so became. It would be appropriate for Amb. Cohen to ask himself why the same did not apply to the Southern Cameroons (now Ambazonia) that was also a UN Class B Mandate Trust Territory. In the case of the Southern Cameroons, Britain was untruthful to the United Nations that the Southern Cameroons was economically unviable to become sovereign, and masterminded a grand fraudulent scheme in the UN system, in connivance with France to deny the Ambazonian people their attainment of independence from Britain as a sovereign country.

Second, the UN organized 1961 plebiscite was not a “choice” of the people of the Southern Cameroons (now Ambazonia). Rather, it was imposed by the United Nations following the above-mentioned British falsehood, and Britain’s abdication of its responsibility to ensure that the Trust Territory of the Southern Cameroons (now Ambazonia) became independent and sovereign. If it were a matter of choice that fully respected the self-determination right of the Ambazonian people, then the option of achieving independence from Britain as a sovereign country would have been included on the ballot box as the people demanded. Such was not the case! The only options that were imposed by the United Nations in this unnecessary plebiscite was a moronic concept of “independence by joining” French Cameroon or Nigeria. Thus, the people of the Southern Cameroons (now Ambazonia) were forced by the binary option in the plebiscite “to achieve independence by joining” either Cameroon or Nigeria; they had no free choice to become a sovereign country!

Lastly, and this is the most important point, this imposed binary option plebiscite of 11 February 1961 was illegal because it violated the UN General Assembly Resolution 1514 (XV) of 14 December 1960 on the “Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples.”  This Resolution states: “all peoples have an inalienable right to complete freedom, the exercise of their sovereignty and the integrity of their national territory.” By this Resolution, the people of Southern Cameroons (now Ambazonia) had and still have the right “to complete freedom,” which implies it was illegal to force them through a dubious plebiscite to be subjugated under Cameroon or Nigeria. It further implies that the people of Southern Cameroons (now Ambazonia) had and still have the “inalienable right” to “the exercise of their sovereignty” – in other words, to be sovereign, and not be forced to be associated with, or “join” Cameroon or Nigeria in any form of a state, whether federation, regional autonomy, or whatsoever. It also implies that the people of Southern Cameroons (now Ambazonia) had and still have the inalienable right to the integrity of their territory – in this regard, their territory could not be and cannot be swallowed up into or under some form of “pan-Cameroon” as projected by the Cameroon government today.

This violation of the inalienable right of the people of Southern Cameroons (now Ambazonia) to sovereignty and their territorial integrity by imposing on them a binary choice that forced them to either be subjugated under Cameroon or Nigeria is the root cause of the current Ambazonia conflict and liberation struggle. In this regard, the Ahidjo’s referendum of 1972 was only a consequence of a root cause. In other words, this Ahidjo’s referendum itself was even possible only because UN General Assembly Resolution 1514 (XV) of 14 December 1960 had been violated.

As US Undersecretary for African Affairs, Cohen was very involved in the Eritrean liberation struggle. Eritrea was made a British Protectorate from the end of World War II until 1951. The British wanted Eritrea divided along religious lines with the Christians to Ethiopia and the Muslims to Sudan. This caused great controversy. Then, in 1952, the UN in committing the same error it later committed with the people of Southern Cameroons (now Ambazonia) decided to federate Eritrea to Ethiopia, hoping to reconcile Ethiopian claims of sovereignty and Eritrean aspirations for independence. About nine years later, in 1960, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie dissolved the federation and annexed Eritrea, triggering a thirty-year armed liberation struggle in Eritrea.

Amb. Herman J. Cohen pictured with Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia and Isayas Afwerki of Eritrea brokering peace. (Herman J. Cohen)

Ambassador Cohen will certainly admit that insistence throughout this war that Eritrea simply return to a federation with Ethiopia was part of the reasons Haile Selassie continued with the war, believing he had both Russian and American support. This led to the death of over 200,000 people on both sides – these deaths being unnecessary as Eritrea still ended up sovereign. The USA changed its position when Russia sought USA assistance to end the conflict, having realized how much resources it had wasted supporting Ethiopia, and when Amb. Cohen asked Isaias Afewerki of the Eritrean People Liberation Front (EPLF) in his office at the State Department in Washington DC whether the EPLF had the capacity and planned to attack Ethiopia inside Addis Ababa. When Afewerki told Cohen that the EPLF had such capacity and had only been delaying taking such action, Cohen’s position changed. It became necessary to recognize the sovereignty of Eritrea in order to prevent the EPLF from attacking Ethiopia if the war continued for many more years.

Today, more than 3,000 people on both sides have already died in the Ambazonia liberation armed conflict that is affecting more than half a million people, and per United Nation’s records has displaced over 350,000 people and caused about 30,000 to become refugees. As one who was also involved in the independence and transitions of power in South Africa and Namibia, and helped end the conflicts in Angola and Mozambique, Amb. Cohen will know that it is unnecessary absolutely to maintain the call for a return to a federation that was illegal and imposed on the Ambazonian people. It is time to recognize that the people of Ambazonia are determined absolutely to defend their inalienable right to complete freedom, sovereignty and their territorial integrity as provided in UN General Assembly Resolution 1514 (XV) of 14. Dec. 1960. International recognition of this right and of the sovereignty of the Ambazonian people is the only solution that shall quicken an end to the conflict, bring peace and stability, promote respect for human rights, foster economic development, and terminate the unnecessary waste of more human lives on both sides.