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Review: Kum’a Ndumbe III and German Neocolonialism

Sara Lennox examines Prince Kum’ a Ndumbe III analysis of the relationship of formerly colonizing powers to post-independence Africa. She first sketches the outline of his scholarly approach to that topic in his 1992 Habilitationsschrift, Was will Bonn in Afrika? and then explores how he makes his message accessible to a popular audience.

Was will Bonn in Africa?
Prince Kum’a Ndumbe III of Cameroon and German Neocolonialism
Sara Lennox

In October 2006 Prince Kum’ a Ndumbe III of Cameroon told a conference in Vienna: “[F]or . . . [the] European metropoles, Africa is only a marginal, peripheral continent, very much of secondary concern in the global strategy of power sharing in the world. According to this strategy, Africa must be severely contained, marginalised, controlled, weakened and dominated in order that the winners of globalisation may continue to draw from it what they need to nail their power and globalised supremacy” (“Language” ). In the November 2006 he declared to the German radio station Südwestfunk: “We inherited a deeply corrupt system, namely, a colonial system. How could they control a country, whether they were English, French, or Dutch, how could they colonize a country without corrupting people so that they went along? That is to say, the colonial system only functioned because of corruption and violence. After colonialism it just went on that that way, with the difference that Blacks were in power but just kept on doing the same thing . . . so that they stayed in power” (Morgenrath).

In scholarly, creative, and journalistic texts written in German, French, English, and Douala, this has been the fundamental message of Prince Kum’ a Ndumbe III for the past almost forty years. After briefly detailing his own background as a member of the postcolonial elites he has consistently called to task, I want here to examine the analysis Kum’ a Ndumbe III advances of the relationship of formerly colonizing powers to post-independence Africa. I’ll first sketch the outline of this scholarly approach to that topic in his 1992 Habilitationsschrift, Was will Bonn in Afrika? Zur Afrikapolitik der Bundesrepublik Deutschland. Then I’ll explore how he makes his message accessible to a popular audience in his still-provocative play of 1970, Kafra-Biatanga – Tragödie Afrikas.

If a postcolonial author is defined as one who writes in the language of his or her country’s former colonizers, Prince Kum’ a Ndumbe III may be Germany’s only postcolonial author. Hereditary ruler of the Bonamanga or Bell family in Douala, Cameroon, Kum’a Ndume III was sent to school in Germany like other members of his eminent family (including Rudolf Duala Manga Bell, executed by German colonial administrators in 1914) He completed his Abitur in Munich and continued his studies at the University of Lyon, where his master’s degree addressed Imperial German colonial policies in Cameroon and his 1975 dissertation was entitled Hitler voulait l’Afrique, les plans secrets pour une Afrique fasciste 1944 – 1945 (published in German in 1993 as Was wollte Hitler in Afrika? NS-Planungen für eine faschistische Neugestaltung Afrikas). From 1968 to 1970, while studying in Lyons, he also wrote four German-language plays, including Kafra-Biatanga, focused on colonialism and neocolonialism. From 1980 to 1987 he held a chair in German Studies at the University of Yaoundé, then, on leave from his university post, completed his Habilitation, the text I will consider here, at the Otto Suhr Institut of the Free University of Berlin in 1989. He taught at the Otto Suhr Institute from 1990 to 2001, when, despite extensive student protest, the Free University of Berlin abolished his position. The organization he founded in 1990, AfricAvenir, sited in Douala and Berlin, continues to promote development in Africa and, via its website www.africavenir.org, education about African issues in Germany.

The analysis elaborated in Was will Bonn in Afrika? reveals why Kum’ a Ndumbe III may well have been regarded as an inconvenient presence in the German academy. Though the Federal Republic pursued some independent issues of its own vis-? -vis Africa, particularly regarding the GDR and the Hallstein Doctrine, in the main the policies of the Bonn government remained entirely congruent with those of the other Western industrialized countries, an official line from 1949 to 1989 that did not vary regardless of the political party in power.

In this elaborately documented study, Kum’ a Ndumbe III shows that the Western policy makers attempted to create and sustain African dependency on the West, integrate African into Western political and economic systems, and throughout the course of the Cold War to prevent Africa from falling under the influence of the West’s communist antagonists. As his study shows, a broad range of groups in the Federal Republic employed a wide variety of measures in the arenas of politics, defense, economics, and culture to achieve these ends. Before African countries achieved independence, the West German government allied itself with the colonizing powers, apartheid South Africa, and Israel against African liberation movements and after independence supported those movements most obviously oriented towards the West.

As Africa was regarded as NATO’s “natural” sphere of interest, the FRG in cooperation with other NATO powers supplied friendly African powers with weapons, military equipment, and technical military assistance of all sorts. After the independence of many African countries about 1960, West German bilateral and multilateral economic “cooperation” increased substantially, though African continued to deliver raw materials and the industrialized countries supplied finished products. Over eighty-five per cent of development aid to Africa was paid to firms in the FRG, which then sent goods to Africa. Government and bank credit extended to African country was bound to the purchase of goods and services in Germany and was to be paid back with interest (comprising about 500 million marks from 1960-1987 [Was 291]). With South Africa excluded, African countries owed 26.6% of total debt obligations to the Federal Republic in 1975 (Was 287). When in 1974 UN members passed resolutions calling for a “new economic order” and a “Charter of Economic Rights and Duties of States,” the Federal Republic voted against them (Was 282-83). When African countries were reluctant to enter into military agreements with their former colonizers, West Germans were happy to act as middlemen to assure that those countries remained generally aligned with the West. Kum’ a Ndumbe III writes: “In this context the Federal Republic represented a state not implicated in colonialism. Everything was done to consign the memory of Germany’s colonial past to oblivion or to relativize it” (Was 162).

His observation suggests one explanation for the absence of scholarly and popular interest in German colonialism during the Cold War: it was not in the Federal Republic’s economic or political interest to remind Africans or others of Germany’s colonial involvement.

This book’s treatment of German policy in Katanga and Biafra illustrates Kum ‘a Ndume’s analysis of German policy in Africa with greater specificity than I have otherwise been able to offer here and also provides a framework useful for understanding the play Kafra-Biatanga. Supported by Belgian mining interests and Belgian troops, Katanga, the richest and southern-most province of Congo, declared its independence from the Congo in 1960, a month after Congo, under the leadership of Patrice Lumumba, had achieved independence from Belgium. Two months later Lumumba was overthrown in a coup and sent to Katanga, where he was tortured and executed as Belgian officers looked on. (Another play by Kum’ a Ndume III written in 1970 and addressing the postcolonial African situation is entitled Lumumba II.)

After UN intervention, the country was reunited in 1963. Was will Bonn in Afrika? can document that German mercenaries served with the Belgian army in Congo, that the German firm Dornier sold fighter planes to the Belgian mining firm in Congo, that Belgian paratroopers were withdrawn from West Germany to be sent to Congo, and that Belgian planes were dispatched from Rhein-Main Airport. But though Bundespresident Gerstenmaier expressed his alarm about events in Congo, comparing them to the Bolshevization of China (Was 131), Bonn vehemently denied the extensive involvement on which the East German press gleefully reported, including secret military assistance, weapons, and Lumumba’s allegation that the Federal Republic had signed a secret agreement with Belgium to exploit Congolese uranium deposits (Was 133).

The case of Biafra was complicated for Bonn. After a 1966 coup against the Nigerian government led mostly by military officers of Igbo ethnicity, Igbo migrants living in northern Nigeria were killed in retaliation. The province of Biafra, where most of Nigeria’s then seven million Igbo were concentrated, declared its independence from Nigeria in May 1967. To secure their traditional interests in Nigeria, the British government supported the central Nigerian government, supplying it with weapons, the French, along with Rhodesia, South Africa, and Portugal, supported Biafra. Allied with both countries, the Federal Republic was left with little freedom of motion, though German public opinion supported the Biafrans. Declaring that German weapons found in Biafra had been supplied by third parties, the West German government repeatedly denied providing clandestine military aid to Biafra, though it supplied lavish humanitarian assistance during und after the war, contributing , a government spokesman declared in 1969, than any other country Was 144.) But Kum’ a Ndumbe III claims: “The Biafra War in Nigeria illustrates how cynically the aims of the arms industry can be pursued.

Though the Federal Republic was officially neutral in the conflict, the Bundesnachrichtendienst supplied both the central government and the Biafra rebels with G-3 rifles, used by the Bundeswehr. The German secret service even used the Catholic Caritas Internationalis to deliver weapons to Biafra rebels via their West German general secretary in Rome, Carlo Bayer. Whichever party won the war, the business world of the Federal Republic wouldn’t lose” (Was 166-67). Kum’ a Ndumbe III concludes in general of interventions into post-independence Africa: “The Federal Republic always proclaimed its neutrality and its wish to solve conflict peacefully. Nonetheless it stood both diplomatically and financially and sometimes also logistically behind the intervening states of France, Belgium, and America to save or to strengthen the positions of the West in Africa” (Was 145).

Kum ‘a Ndumbe III himself has asserted that he wrote his play Kafra-Biatanga as a reaction to Germans’ attitude towards the Biafra War (Ich 117). This play shows why arrangements such as those described in Was will Bonn in Afrika? lead to the tragedy of Africa, the play’s subtitle. Though, like the book, the play is clearly written from an African perspective, its target audience is equally Westerners, Africans, and all others willing to entertain a critique of industrialized powers’ machinations in the developing world. Like Kum’ a Ndumbe III himself, this play is a hybrid. On the one hand, in its use of generic types it betrays the impact of expressionist theater and in its ing of dramatic illusion the influence of Brecht, while in its treatment of contemporary events it aligns itself with the engaged documentary drama popular in 1970 when it was written. On the other hand, Kum’ a Ndumbe III has integrated many elements from Cameroonian drama.

As Richard Bjornson has observed, traditional Cameroonian theatrical practices assumed the participation of the audience, and, as European-influenced Cameroonian drama appeared from the 1930’s onward, “considerable interaction between actors and spectators” still occurred. Bjornson thus notes, “This lack of distance between the audience and the action on the stage diminished the illusion that plays constitute a separate reality with their own laws of organization” (Bjornson 238)—an effect not unlike that at which Brecht’s epic theater or even his Lehrstücke aims. Indeed, Kafra-Biatanga ends with an invitation to the spectators to join a discussion about the issues they’ve just seem dramatized. Because dramatic illusion has been broken, Cameroonian audiences are likely to find stage action humorous, perhaps a reason for the many slapstick elements of the plays of Kum’ a Ndumbe III. However, it’s significant that, in the explosion of play-writing activity in Cameroon in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, the majority of plays written there were social comedies with happy endings, while this text, written at a distance from Cameroon in Lyon, is explicitly designated a tragedy.

Like his other German plays, Kafra-Biatanga also definitively announces itself as modern, taking place in an economy based on money exchange, and the actors declare that they dare not end the play preemptively, since the audience has paid for admission and must receive its money’s worth. As Kum’a Ndumbe III laments, none of his German-language plays were published at the time of their composition, unlike his five French plays published in Paris, and they are only appearing in print now as part of AfricAvenir’s eleven-volume edition of his works.

Though the Federal Republic is never explicitly designated as the setting of Kafra-Biatanga, which is merely described as taking place “somewhere in an industrialized nation” (Kafra 12), the first scene both establishes the framework for this African tragedy and gestures in the direction of (southern) West Germany with a father and mother named Herr and Frau Huber and a child named Max or Maxle. As the German family interacts with a visitor, the “Neger” Herr X, the terms of the conflict are established. The African figure’s name clearly alludes to Malcolm X, the militant Black American leader assassinated five years earlier, and the word “Neger” is already identified as a derogatory term—“One doesn’t say that,” Frau Huber tells Maxle—providing an implicit commentary on white figures’ consistent use of the designator later in the play. Maxle reveals in the play’s first lines that even he, a child, has so internalized European racist stereotypes that the sight of Herr X frightens him: “I’m so afraid of the devil. He could take me away” (Kafra 7). Father and Mother Huber declare that Herr X, whom they immediately transform into a representative of all Biatangans, has according to news reports “raped their sister in Africa” and “eaten their uncle” (Kafra 8-9). Herr X in turn proclaims: “You always want to exploit us Blacks. . . . You’re a really terrible race” (Kafra 10). But Herr X is also not present as a figure with whose positions the audience should sympathize, on the contrary, as events of the play will subsequently show, forces far beyond the control of these ordinary people are to blame for the opinions they hold. From their antagonistic perspectives, they together announce at the end of the scene: “We have to perform in such a way that the Biatanga question becomes clear to every spectator” (Kafra 11).

The chicanery depicted in the second through eleventh scenes of Kafra-Biatanga makes clear that Kum’ a Ndumbe III gives no credence to the Federal Republic’s or other Western countries’ claims of noninvolvement in the African calamities from which the West profits. Events leading to the Biatangan catastrophe are set in motion by a petroleum agent, a uranium agent, and a president who, after some Marx-brothers-like sparring, determine that all their interests are served if their own country, with no former colonial history in newly-independent Kafra, displaces the former colonial power to gain access to the petroleum and uranium reserves of the rich Biatanga region. Since the current Kafran government is under the control of the former colonial power, cabinet members of the industrialized nation determine after much contentious debate to found a new “Democratic Party of Kafra” controlled by the Biatanga tribe, whose leadership, cabinet member number one declares, “will be assumed by Biatangan intellectuals, preferably those who could study here. Or at least Neger who dream of a grand career and wouldn’t make it any other way” (Kafra 24). When, forewarned, the Kafran government outlaws all opposition parties, a sociologist and a historian advise the president of the industrialized nation to urge his agents to incite tribal contention and to manufacture highly-publicized “incidents” in Biatanga: “Big Headlines. Injustices toward Biatanga Neger, Or: Rapes of Biatanga Women in the Marketplace” (Kafra 30). Meanwhile, the industrialized country founds a committee for human rights, alarms the UN, and buys the allegiance of Biatangan leaders with weapons, money, and moral support. “Long live the Biafran War of Liberation!” the sociologist, historian, and president proclaim. “Long Live the Independent Republic of Biatanga” (Kafra 31)!

The play’s scenes six and eight scenes clarify the consequences of such economic and political manipulation for ordinary people in both African and Europe. In scene six, the president, petroleum agent, and uranium agent don African masks to act out a street scene featuring the conflict between Kafran ethnic groups that their machinations have produced, culminating in the Kafran central government’s declaration that it will invade Biatanga to restore order. In the industrialized country the journalist, in league with the politician, sells the Biatangan cause using photos with captions like: “Starving Biatanga child, whose mother was raped and murdered yesterday. Can we keep silent any longer?” (41) and radio reports declaring: “According to unconfirmed eyewitness reports nuns from the mission were raped by wild Kafra Neger. Three travelers, barely able to escape the beleaguered capital, reported they had seen a white man and his child killed, then carved up, cooked and eaten” (60). Thus in scene eight earnest church-goers in the industrialized nation do their Christian duty by sending humanitarian aid and collecting old clothes for “the poor but noble people of Biatanga” (Kafra 47).

With ethnic unrest in Kafra and popular support at home, the industrialized country advances its plans to gain control of Biatangan resources. While proclaiming its neutrality, it clandestinely arms the Biatangans, sixty percent of the weapons’ costs borne by the uranium and petroleum firms. A cabinet meeting to determine further strategy is interrupted by the report that the industrialized nation’s ambassador has been roughed up by Kafran officers. Relieved that there is now reason for military intervention, the cabinet agrees to send paratroopers to invade Kafra. Clearly a military regime will now be necessary to protect the industrialized country’s interests in Kafra, indeed, in his last speech the president reveals that a military putsch has already been arranged and that that a sympathetic military regime, comprised of “those young gentlemen planning to make their careers” (Kafra 68) will be installed the next afternoon. In the play’s last scene, all actors appear dancing on stage, “gaily as at a Fasching ball,” to recite the play’s Brechtian moral: “We’ve learned one thing/A lesson no one forgets/We’ve learned one thing/The poor get poor/ The rich get rich/That’s what we’ve learned” (Kafra 71).

Was will Bonn in Afrika? is a dispassionate product of scholarly research in multiple archives, meticulously documented with citations from published and unpublished sources, charts, and tables, as befits a Habilitationsschrift. Nonetheless, at the end of his study Kum’a Ndumbe gives expression to the indignation about African-German relations that fueled his study: “In spite of independence the African is not taken seriously at the international level, but rather continues to be considered an object of domination of the great powers’ political interests. His international relations are to be confined to a relationship of domination, he only has as much weight as is necessary to deploy him for specific purposes and at particular times by the one or the other power” (Was? 370) Though informed by a very similar analysis, Kafra-Biatanga speaks at simultaneously higher and lower levels of abstraction: through the use of and generic African and industrialized countries, typified members of the ruling class and their accomplices, and appeals to the audience to understand, Kum’ a Ndumbe III can lay bare the structures of recurring neocolonial interventions into Africa. Kum’ a Ndumbe III forces his spectators to confront and think about how neocolonialism functions—his explicit purpose in the play—in ways that a scholarly text could never achieve. Though the events of Katanga and Biafra lie far in the past, the issues remain of enormous contemporary relevance—the cases of Iraq and Yugoslavia spring most immediately to mind. Written almost forty years ago, the play was never performed or, until 2006, published in Germany. As in his scholarly career, Kum’a Ndumbe III deserves better.


  • Bjornson, Richard. The African Quest for Freedom and Identity: Cameroonian Writing and the National Experience. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.
  • Kum’ a Ndumbe III. Ich klopfte an deiner Tür . . .: Zeitzeugnisse in Briefen, Gedichten & Erzählungen. Douala/Berlin: AfricAvenir.Exchange & Dialogue, 2005.
  • -----. Kafra-Biatanga: Tragödie Afrikas: Ein Stück in elf Szenen. Douala/Berlin: AfricAvenir/Exchange & Dialogue, 2006.
  • -----. „Language, Liberation, and Development.” Trans. Stephanie Kitchen.
  • africavenir.org/news/2007/07/1449/language-liberation-and-development-approach-methodologies-for-a-postcolonial-africa.
  • -----. Lumumba II: Ein Stück in neun Szenen. Douala/Berlin: AfricAvenir/Exchange & Dialogue, 2006.
  • -----. Was will Bonn in Afrika? Zur Afrikapolitik der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Pfaffenweiler: Centaurus-Verlagsgesellschaft, 1992.
  • Morgenrath, Birgit. “Afrikanische Wiedergeburt – Eine Spurensuche.“ Südwestrundrunk. SWR2 Wissen – Manuskriptdienst. db.swr.de/upload/manuskriptdienst/wissen/wi20061108_3968.rtf


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