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West Cameroon Archives Facilitated Bakassi Verdict – Archivist 

Interviewed By Elvis Tah

The archivist of the National Archives in Buea, Primus Forgwe, has stated that most documents and maps that facilitated the ICJ ruling of Bakassi in favour of Cameroon were gotten from the Buea archives. Forgwe, who is now retired and currently volunteering to keep the Buea archives alive, in this interview, traces the origin and journey which the archives have gone through. Excerpts:

Tell us a bit about yourself and when you started working in this office?

I am Primus Forgwe; I am the archivist of the National Archives, Buea. I worked here before I got transferred to Yaounde and then Bamenda before going on retirement. I was called back to this archive last July because they needed to train other people to continue with the work of preservation.

So, are you currently training budding archivists?

The training has not yet started, but it will soon start. The Honourable Minister of Culture, Ama Tutu Muna, wanted me to first of all refurbish the place since it had been abandoned for quite some time following the death of late Prince Henry Mbain, who worked here. Right now, I have been trying to put things together because the place was really in disorder.

It seems many Cameroonians don’t know what an archive is; what is an archive?

An archive is a research centre and it is made up of government documents and private concerns and documents from other corporations. As archivists, our principal job is to preserve these documents and prepare them for research.

 When was the archives founded?

The founders of the Buea archive were Dr. Edwin Ardener and his wife, Shirley. In 1953, they came to Cameroon to make write-ups on the plantations and some aspects of the Bakweri history. They needed materials and they had to contact the colonial files. When they came, they realised that the files were not in good condition. They were all dumped at the old secretariat building which is now the present Legion Office. So, with the permission of the government they started the archives.

The first Cameroonian who worked with them was Pa Joseph Kima who died last year. They assembled the documents and took them to the present Buea military headquarters. At the time, it was a native authority primary school. In 1969, the things were brought in this building. So, the archives precisely started in 1960. From 1967-1969, the present building was constructed and in mid 1969, the then Prime Minister of West Cameroon, Hon Solomon Tandeng Muna, inaugurated it.

The archives were placed under which ministry at the time?

At the time the archives was in the Secretariat of State for Primary Education and right now it is under the Ministry of Culture. Interesting to note that the ordinance went back in 1970 and Dr. Zachariah M. Njeuma (now Prof. Njeuma) was the first Director of West Cameroon Archives. After him was Mr. Bernard Ayuk, an anthropologist.

How do you ensure the sustainability of the centre; is it funded by government, charity or other donor organisations?

We are a government department so the government plays its part but there are also interested parties like NGOs, especially AFAAC (Association of Friends of Archives and Antiquities). They play a vital part but since we are a government department, we have aids from the government and our directives are from the Ministry of Culture.

Who are those who mostly use the archives?

Students, researchers and elite; when students are writing their dissertation, they must come to get information. Elite who want to know their history or when there is a chieftaincy or boundary problem, they always consult the archives to get more information.

How is the place structured; the documentations in this place dates as far back as which period?

Our earliest document should be at least 1887 and you can find some which are even earlier in the German archives. The German archives here have 2000 books. 

How do you people preserve the books to last for all these years?

Well, the basics may not be much but the government supplies them. We have insecticides, dehumidifying machine and heaters. We also had a micro-file camera where we normally put into micro-file, files which are bristle. Unfortunately, it is bad. These are basically the instruments we use and we find it very useful because the temperature in Buea is very humid.

What are some of the problems you encounter in this centre?

We really lack personnel. Unfortunately, this place is most visited by strangers in and out of the country. The yard is overgrown because we don’t have people to clean it and so on. I am expecting that the Regional Delegate of Culture should be able to do something about it. We also photocopy some documents to preserve them because we have a photocopier which was donated by the German government. Unfortunately, it is also bad.

The dehumidifiers are donations from NGOs. Right now, I am trying to photocopy those documents which are so fragile that can easily get torn when in use. I am in the process but unfortunately there is really lack of materials to carry on. Last time, we spent FCFA 130.000 to buy a part for the photocopier.

Normally, we should use insecticides at the end of every week but if within one budgetary period you are given six of them, and you are supposed to use two every week, it means for the rest of the months the things are at stake. We don’t also have a fire extinguisher or anything that can combat fire in case of any eventualities. The last extinguisher we had was in the 1960s and it is bad now. We don’t even have smoke detectors so if there was going to be a problem of fire, we are doomed.

And what is the government saying about all of these problems?

I have written to the Minister of Culture, Ama Tutu Muna, who personally designated me to this office and I hope something will be done in the days ahead. I must mention one name, late Henry Mbain; he retired in 1994 but worked in the archives for up to 2008 on pro bono services. He was the saviour of these archives because he was the only person who dedicated his life for it. If not of him, there would have not been any archives for West Cameroon.

What does it take for someone to get information from the archives?

When students come to the archives, the first thing they do is to register with a token fee, which is mainly for us to provide the centre with some toiletries. Sometimes we make an appeal to them that we need more insecticides and some bona fides students willingly help us, especially those who are doing their PhD.

So how are you really coping with all these limitations?

We are three of us working here and all of us are volunteers. The two others are Mme Grace Achimbi who is a retired staff but was sent by the delegation of culture as a volunteer. There is also Doreen Mbain, daughter of late Mbain. She felt that as her father died, she could continue with the process and hopefully she may be absorbed.

I am also retired so I may only help to train others and leave them to continue. It is not working as it should be because we don’t have enough personnel and the process of classification cannot go on. We have about 30.000 classified documents here and 6000 to 7000 unclassified. So we have a lot of work to do and our library has not been arranged yet so we need a lot of staff to get the whole thing going. We also hope of computerisation and we believe that with time it will take place.

Where and how do you people get the documentations stock-piled in this place?

We have three main sources of documentations; the government, corporations like CDC, Catholic and Baptist missions and Presbyterian. All closed volumes of government departments are deposited to us. Unfortunately they don’t come. We go for them and sometimes we encounter problems getting some. We also have private archives where in individuals deposit their real documents here for preservation and we may obtain their permission to allow the public use them. We also have newspapers from press organs.

Let me use this opportunity to make an appeal to The Post, which is a very credible newspaper and the sustenance of our history. We need to preserve the papers and the only way to preserve them is to have them deposited here. A copy of every issue will be very helpful to us because 20 years from now, it is the newspapers that will be our only source of history.

I want to appeal to the general public especially the elite to know that we must preserve our source because if we don’t preserve them, one day our progenies may not know our principal source. Secondly there is a lot of written work and which needs to be justified from the archives. People have written so many things which are not true, the archives is the main source.

Maybe you tell us some of your achievements at the archives?

Just having the archives is a great thing. Since then we have had more than 2000 researchers from all parts of the world and Cameroonian researchers have equally enjoyed the privilege here. But one thing is quite remarkable. Land disputes have been solved, thanks to these archives because land maps are here. Fake chiefs have been deposed because we have the genealogies here. The histories of the people are here. Most importantly, we all know how long Cameroon took to finally gain Bakassi.

At one moment they realised that the Buea archives was a corner stone that could bring out some real good information on the disputed peninsular. They came here and we worked for one week. Then I was assistant chief of service.

We had all the information, the maps, letters and when they finally got to Yaounde and to The Hague, the information was used which facilitated the judgement in favour of Cameroon. Suffice to note that the Buea archives is an archives of a one time country, West Cameroon. It covers history from Nkambe through Wum to Momo, down to Mamfe and every part of the territory so it is not a concern of a particular person. We even have documents from Douala and Foumban.

We are also praying that new books be deposited here because researchers research but they don’t furnish us with their research works. We also preserve thesis from students. We want to thank Dr. Kini Yen Kini of the University of Buea who always ensure that his students deposit their works here.

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