30 Years After Their Assassination, a Tribute to Indigenous Kanak Leaders Jean-Marie Tjibaou and Yeiwéné Yeiwéné


Léopold Lambert – Paris on May 3, 2019
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Tomorrow, May 4, 2019 is the 30th anniversary of the assassination of the President and Vice-President of the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS), Jean-Marie Tjibaou and Yeiwéné Yeiwéné. It is an understatement to say that at an international scale, they are not the most well-known anti-colonial leaders. Whether or not this lack of visibility is detrimental to the Kanak struggle towards self-determination (Kanaky-New-Caledonia still being under French sovereignty) is not an assessment that is mine to make, but this lack of knowledge of their struggle is detrimental to all who are fighting against settler colonialism in the world. Nothing worse than the moralization of knowledge and ignorance however — I’m thinking of clickbait article titles in the form of “that thing no one [who is this “no one?”] is talking about and that should outrage you” here — this is not the point of this short text. Its goal consists in giving a more precise contextualization of their assassination, which is usually characterized as having been committed by an unknown more radical Kanak activist who feel betrayed by the signature of the Matignon-Oudinot Agreements a bit less than a year earlier. This characterization constitutes one more obfuscation of the Kanak self-determination history. Although writing more precisely about this particular event that ended the Kanak insurrection of the 1980s (1984-1989) would require that just as much precision be used to describe the four first years of this anti-colonial insurrection, I’m hoping that my forthcoming book about the history of the French state of emergency (in which Kanaky takes a third of the contents) will do just that in a relatively near future.

Ouvea Memorial
Memorial to the 19 Kanak militants killed by the French army in Ouvéa. / Photo by Theo Rouby.

On May 4, 1989, the three main personalities of the Provisional Government of Kanaky (a provisional government that has been criminalized by the French right wing in power, notably by French Ministry of Interior, the infamous Charles Pasqua), Jean-Marie Tjibaou, Yeiwéné Yeiwéné, and Léopold Jorédié travel from the Grande Terre (the largest island of the Kanak archipelago) to the atoll Ouvéa, where, exactly a year earlier, 19 Kanak militants were slaughtered by the French army — although principles of citizenship constitute an illusion in the colonial context, we still ought to state that these militants were French citizens — after they took 22 police officers in hostage two weeks earlier following the occupation of a police station (a common activist practice during the 1980s insurrection) that turned ugly when a young police officer started shooting at the militants. As many testimonies attest, the take could have been solved through negotiation, but it happened between the two rounds of France’s 1988 Presidential election where sitting socialist President Francois Mitterrand was facing his right-wing Prime Minister, Jacques Chirac. The latter wanting to show implacable strength and the former not wanting to take any risk that could cost him his reelection, the assault by the army was given a go and on May 5, 1988, the Kanak militants were killed; at least three of them, including the group leader, Alphonse Dianou, were coldly executed (see the detailed investigation by Jean-Guy Gourson). The 18 other militants were Wenceslas Lavelloi, Edouard Lavelloi, Jean Lavelloi, Bouama Dao, Samuel Dao, Philippo Nine, Nicolas Nine, Michel Wadjeno, Donatien Wadjeno, Nicodeme Teinboueone, Jean-Luc Madjele, Séraphin Ouckewen, Zéphirin Kella, Martin Haiwe, Patrick Amossa Wiana, Vincent Daoume and Samuel Wamo. 

Bwenando 1988 N°109 110 7
Wea interviewed by the Kanak journal Bwenando after the 1988 massacre in Ouvéa.

This historical episode is, sadly, the most well-known fact about Kanaky by French society; what is less known is how the link between the assassination of Tjibaou and Yeiwéné and the colonial violence of the French army goes much beyond the fact that it happened during the ceremony that ends the mourning of those who were killed. In fact, the Kanak activist who killed the two leaders and was then himself killed by a body guard — one must realize the extraordinary upset of a violent death in a Kanak tribe to understand how this third killing should never be minimized — is Djubelly Wea, former pastor who found his political ideology in the Liberation Theology, elected-member of the regional council (sitting immediately to the right of Tjibaou), activist for the United Front of the Kanak Liberation (FULK), and member of the tribe of Gossanah from where the militants who occupied the police station in April 1988 also were. When the French army invaded the tribe to set their headquarters in the search of the hostages, he was the one who addressed the French officers and when he refused to negotiate before the army left the tribe, French General Vidal (who used to be a paratrooper in the French bloody suppression of the Algerian Revolution between 1954 and 1962) is said to have declared that “France declares war against the Kanak people.” Wea was arrested and several men of the tribe were tortured by the French army to obtain the location of the hostage takers. During the first day of his arrest, Wea was also subjected to a humiliating and violent treatment. He and the group of other militants arrested were then deported to France and jailed there — this deportation is rendered even less historically neutral when one knows that New Caledonia had served as a penal colony for French and Algerian prisoners during the second half of the 19th century.

Tjibaou Yeiwene
Tjibaou & Yeiwéné a few months before their assassination. Behind them, the Kanaky flag and a poster of Machoro with the caption “Assassinated by the French Colonial Order” (1988).

The leaders of the FLNKS are often blamed for not having done enough during the hostage take and that they share a certain responsibility in the massacre. Presented by French right-wing leaders as “terrorists,” it is however not obvious what they could possibly have done to deescalate the situation. But the historical episode that will create a real chasm between Kanak activists intervened a month and half later, on June 26, 1988, when Tjibaou and Yeiwéné (despite his initial disagreement) formerly signed the Matignon Agreement (and on August 20, 1988 the Oudinot Agreement) between the French government (that recently came back under the control of Mitterrand), the RPCR (the main “caldoche” i.e. settler Caledonian political party), and the FLNKS. The Agreements incorporate an amnesty law that allows the arrested Kanak militants including Wea to be freed, but that also prevents any official investigation on the Ouvéa massacre and tortures. They also imposed a referendum about the independence of Kanaky-New-Caledonia before 1998 (it however won’t happen before 2018) and establish three new regions, two of which where Kanak leaders wouldn’t have much trouble being elected (the North Province and the Islands Province). Tjibaou, who had fought tirelessly (or rather, as if he was not tired when archives show the toll that the struggle had on his body) and continuously for the last decade, saw in these agreements the possibility of regrouping towards the independence in a middle-term future (a few years earlier, it had seemed achievable at a much shorter term), but probably more importantly, of stopping the killings — in December 1984, it was ten members of his own tribe, including two of his brothers, who had been slaughtered by settlers, and in January 1985, the French military had assassinated the very charismatic Minister of Security of the Provisional Government of Kanaky, Eloi Machoro.

The FLNKS is fundamentally divided by the signature of these agreements, as well as by the well-known picture of Tjibaou shaking hands with Jacques Lafleur, the president of the RPCR — a photo on which the French government, although a signatory of these agreements, is absent as one more manifestations of them wanting to appear as a fair referee between the Indigenous activists and the French settlers, when in fact, it is the responsible entity for the settler colonial structures that operate in Kanaky-New-Caledonia. A particularly infuriating dimension of this responsibility is the complete lack of care the French society demonstrates regarding its overseas colonies as proven by the referendum organized in France to ratify the agreements: 80% voted yes but only 37% of the electors went to vote on November 6, 1988.

Enterrement Tjibaou The Funambulist
Funerals of Tjibaou and Yeiwéné in Nouméa. / Still from Tjibaou Le Pardon by Walles Kotra & Gilles Dagneau (2006).

Several French settlers and police officers were killed during the 1980s Kanak insurrection; however, the assassination of its two leaders constitutes the only occurrence of a premeditated killing by a Kanak. Some stories even state that the premeditation was shared by Tjibaou, Yeiwéné and Jorédié themselves who knew what was waiting for them in Ouvéa.

The deadly encounter of May 4, 1989 has therefore a lot to teach us about the political history that preceded it, but also about the one that followed, in particular the reconciliation process between the three tribes that led to a coutume du pardon (forgiveness custom) in 2004. I am nowhere close to be the right person to describe what is and how important is the Kanak coutume, and thus won’t define it any more precisely than the ensemble of gestures that ritualize and enact meaning in the relationship between two people or groups of people. The 2004 forgiveness custom saw most of the members of the Gossanah tribe leaving Ouvéa to Maré (where Yeiwéné’s tribe of Tadine is located) and to Tiendanite on the Grande Terre (Tjibaou’s tribe) to procedurally ask and receive forgiveness in an extremely strong moment of collective emotions. Although there is something profoundly reductive in trying to extend the meaning of such an event to radically different contexts, but I cannot not see in this coutume the perfect example of restorative justice, far from the materialization of punitive justice, its sentences, its jails, and its violence.

Tiendanite Photo By Leopold Lambert
Commemorating plate of the forgiveness custom a few meters away from Jean-Marie Tjibaou’s grave in Tiendanite. / Photo by Léopold Lambert (2018).

Even though Jean-Marie Tjibaou and Yeiwéné Yeiwéné were assassinated by a fellow Kanak leader, their death is the French government’s responsibility, since colonialism tainted the entire nature of this deadly encounter (all the way to the gun used for it, which was taken from the occupied police station the year earlier). This is also why the reconcialition process that followed, much more than the subsequent agreements — the Nouméa Agreement that still defines the conditions of French sovereignty in Kanaky-New-Caledonia today was signed in 1998 — should be seen as an anti-colonial practice insofar that it dismantles the grief, anger, and division directly produced by colonial violence. May we live to witness such a custom enacted between white settlers and Kanak tribes in an independent Kanaky-New-Caledonia.