From Plebiscite to Youth Day: Origins of the National Youth Day in Cameroon

Drawing on archival research conducted at the Bamenda archives in 2006, this article provides a brief but lucid account of the specific origins of the Youth Day, which I argue constitutes one of West Cameroon’s contributions to national political ritual. This account reveals that the National Youth Day constitutes one of the ways in which the nation in Cameroon is imagined and where the salience of youth is celebrated, its ambiguities notwithstanding. The Youth Day can be understood as a national ritual that seeks to align young citizens with ideologies of nation-building, national unity and responsible citizenship.Parades, folklore dance, singing and sports competitions by youths have become staple activities that mark Cameroon’s annual Youth Day. Yet, few young Cameroonians have a clear grasp of the origins of Youth Day, a national festival that celebrates the unique significance of ‘youth’ in the nation-building process. Indeed, many Cameroonians do not understand why the Youth Day is celebrated on 11 February, the date on which a plebiscite was held in the former British Cameroons, aimed at deciding its fate. It is widely known that the British Cameroons was given two choices only – to gain its independence by integrating with the Federal Republic of Nigeria or the already independent French Cameroon –this, despite strong support for a third option. On 11 February 1961 the Southern British Cameroons opted to join French Cameroon while their counterparts in the North voted in favour of joining Nigeria. Many contemporary Anglophone activists regret this decision. Indeed, few Anglophone Cameroonians contest the validity of the claim that the former British Southern Cameroons (known after 1961 as the state of West Cameroon) has suffered a raw deal from its unification with French Cameroon since 1961. However, resentment against Francophone domination has led to false charges in certain quarters about the origins of Cameroon’s National Youth Day. At issue, some of them have argued, is the claim that the replacement of the Plebiscite Day with the Youth Day was masterminded by Francophone leaders with the specific intention of eroding Anglophone Cameroon’s historical legacy. This charge is ill-founded and belied by archival evidence.

From “National Day” to Youth Day

Prime Minister John Foncha
Prime Minister John Foncha

Youth Day was an initiative of the West Cameroon government, introduced initially to replace its ‘national day’ which prior to reunification was celebrated every 26 October. It is not evident from archival sources why 26 October was considered a national day, but it is probable that it was the local date on which Empire Day was celebrated in the British trust-territory. In 1962, less than a year after gaining its independence by joining French Cameroon, John Ngu Foncha, West Cameroon’s Prime Minister at the time, recommended that it was befitting to dedicate West Cameroon’s national day to its youth on whom the future state depended. It is not clear if this recommendation was debated in the assembly but it was enforced that same year. On 26 October 1962, the first “Youth and Sport” day was organised in West Cameroon. At its inception, West Cameroonian politicians, traditional leaders, civil servants and the public, attributed enormous importance to the youth day. In a letter addressed to all the Senior District Officers (SDO) of the administrative divisions (counties) in West Cameroon, the Ministry of Education reaffirmed the government’s transformation of the national day to the Youth and Sport day to be celebrated on October 26. Government authorities stipulated that the manner in which the event would be celebrated would differ slightly from the usual national day. This is evident from the Bamenda SDO’s missive to the organisers of the event in Santa:

Signed, George Kisob

Senior District Officer, Bamenda Division.

The Ministry of Education also had directives on how this day should be celebrated throughout the state of West Cameroon:

Concerning the reading of the Prime Minister’s message, the usual custom of asking the Member of the House of Assembly for the constituency concerned, to read the message, should be adopted. Failing this, a prominent personality of the Government party should be asked. If none is available, a prominent personality such as a civil servant be called upon.[2]

The letter further provided an itemised outline recommending that for the sake of uniformity, the youth day should run from 8:30a.m. to 6p.m. It is unlikely that this schedule was followed to the letter. However, activities consisted of hoisting the flag, reading of the Prime Minister’s speech, a march past by school children, athletic competitions, folklore dances etc. The day was crowned by the award of prizes to deserving schools and pupils. These activities were by no means foreign to the bulk of its participants, granting that a similar schedule had been employed during previous celebrations of the National Day. The Youth Day was a consuming affair and engaged both the young and elders alike, civil servants as well as traditional rulers, politicians and religious ministers.

From Plebiscite to Youth Day

By the end of 1963, the Foncha-led government made public its plan to dedicate the plebiscite day to its youth. This implied that October 26 will become obsolete, and that the Youth Day would henceforth be on 11 February. The following missive from the Prime Minister’s secretary revealed the amendment:

Office of the Prime Minister, Buea, West Cameroon

16th December, 1963

Celebration of Youth Day

The West Cameroon Executive Council, at its 31st Meeting this year, agreed that 11th February, 1964 should be celebrated as Youth Day and the occasion made to be as important as financial possibilities can allow.

You will accordingly arrange for schools and all sporting organisations to take part in the events of that day.

F N Ndang, Secretary to the Prime Minister[3]

The department of Education and Social Welfare which was charged with organising youth day events in collaboration with civil authorities in various divisions reaffirmed ‘the intention of West Cameroon Government to make the Youth Day celebrations of this year [1964] unique, in commemoration of the Plebiscite Day which brought Independence to this state’ and called on all forces ‘to give the occasion the dignity and popularity it deserves.’[4]

By every intent and purpose the event sought to be unique. The West Cameroon government invited over 200 dignitaries from East (French) Cameroon including the Federal President, Ahmadou Ahidjo, the mayors of Douala, Nkongsamba, Kribi, Yaounde, traditional rulers such as King Manga Bell of Douala and the Sultan of Foumban to Buea and Bamenda. It was intended that this first Youth and Sport day held on the Plebiscite day will take place on February 11 and 12. To this end, and to ensure massive attendance, the previous centres of Tiko, Victoria and Muyuka were merged into the Buea Centre, while the centres of Ndop, Santa, Bafut, Bali, and Mbengwi were amalgamated with the Bamenda centre. Due to the poor road infrastructure and the scarcity of vehicles, senior pupils from rural areas trekked to Bamenda while various local councils provided transportation to children. All roads led to Buea and Bamenda for the grand occasion.

Although Ahidjo did not honour his invitation, the event was most significant for West Cameroonians.[5] Prime Minister Foncha attended both events in Buea and Bamenda, thus contributing to the pomp and festivities. In Bamenda, music for the parade was played by the Bambui Teachers’ Training College band and the activities spanned two days. In Buea, celebrations began on Sunday 9 February with government-organised VIP parties culminating on 11 February 1964. In all the centres, the event was celebrated with a parade by primary and secondary school students, dance performances, sport activities (notably, football for boys and handball for girls). The day was crowned with various parties by teenagers and young people in the evening.

By 1966, the Cameroon federal government had adopted the West Cameroonian event and raised it to a national public holiday. Since then Cameroon’s national Youth Day is celebrated every 11 February. Many Cameroonians remember with tremendous nostalgia, the events of their Youth Day festivities. Few of them know that this major date on Cameroon’s national calendar emerged from West Cameroon. Clearly, the Foncha-led government had the best intentions in dedicating the Plebiscite day to its youth – at a time when youth enjoyed exceptional “cultural prestige” on account of the fact that they were perceived as chief agents of transformation in freshly decolonised nations. Decades later, the youth in “Youth Day” is little more than an empty symbol of disillusionment and uncertainty as growing numbers of young people confront the stark reality that old predictabilities have disappeared and few or no economic opportunities would be available for them within the borders of Cameroon.


Following decades of political and economic marginalization, Anglophone activists have called for a reconfiguration of the state in Cameroon – conscious of the fact that Southern Cameroons joined the federation as a political entity. Undeniably, the aspirations of those who advocated and gained unification with French Cameroon has turned into disillusionment and regret, epitomised by Foncha’s personal withdrawal from the Cameroon government in 1990. Some Anglophone activists have also accused successive Francophone-dominated governments of deliberately eroding the importance of the “Plebiscite” in favour of the Youth Day. Today, many young Cameroonians acknowledge their ignorance of the historical basis of the Youth Day, a trend that rightly informs activists’ concerns. Clearly, there would be no Cameroon as we know it today without the plebiscite of 1961. However, it needs to be underscored that successive Francophone-dominated regimes are not responsible for converting the plebiscite day to the Youth Day; the Foncha-led government of West Cameroon should claim that credit.

Whilst the Youth Day continues to occupy a privileged position in the order of national holidays – traditionally initiated by the president of the republic with a radio-televised ritual speech, none of these speeches (throughout Biya’s  27 years in office) has ever been delivered in English.  In fact, since its elevation to a national holiday, even pre-dating the Biya-era, a Youth Day address has never been delivered in English. For a nation that celebrates its French and British colonial legacies, the example of the national Youth Day clearly demonstrates the farcical proportion of such claims.

Published August 5, 2016

By Jude Fokwang Anthropologist

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