Cameroon’s Separatist Movement Is Going International
Armed groups are slipping into Nigeria and appealing to the Cameroonian diaspora to fuel their fight for a breakaway state.
MANYU, Cameroon—In Nigeria’s southeast, a convoy of motorcycles carrying fighters from the Ambazonian Military Force disappeared into the darkness. A shout went up from one of the men: “We are searching for a new nation.”
That nation is Ambazonia, and now up to 20 emerging separatist groups, including the Ambazonia Military Forces (AMF), are attempting to carve it out of Cameroon along the country’s Nigerian border.
The conflict in Cameroon’s Anglophone areas—which has pitted Cameroon’s two English-speaking regions, the Northwest and Southwest, against the country’s Francophone-dominated government—has drawn comparatively little international attention. The United Nations Security Council will address the crisis for the first time in an informal meeting on May 13, and yet it has displaced more than half a million people over the past 20 months.
When Anglophones initially took to the streets in 2016, talk of independence for Cameroon’s Anglophone regions was limited. Protesters were driven by a range of everyday grievances. They were frustrated with the inflexible school curriculum that privileged Cameroon’s French-speaking majority and kept English speakers at a disadvantage, and they were tired of a legal system that made justice harder to get for English speakers because it was dominated by Francophones.
That changed in late 2017, when President Paul Biya’s government responded to nonviolent protests with force. Cameroonian security forces fired live ammunition from low-flying helicopters into crowds, and videos circulated of them beating demonstrators on the ground. The signal was clear: the government in Yaounde had no intention of entertaining Anglophone demands.
Now, three years in, Cameroonians in the Northwest and Southwest are caught between a government in Yaounde that has shown little regard for their grievances and armed groups that are vying to lead the country’s secessionist movement, which despite its fragmentation is becoming increasingly resourceful.
Separatists are actively seeking support from the Cameroonian diaspora—and they are often getting it. This growing internationalization of the Anglophone separatist movement and routinely harsh reprisals from the government are combining to drive both radicalization and recruitment for groups like the AMF. It’s a dynamic that is making it harder to address Cameroon’s split with each passing day.
In Anglophone areas where the government maintains a presence, Cameroonians are largely being forced to live under martial law, and government troops have made a habit of arbitrarily detaining and torturing people of fighting age. “They have declared everybody a suspect of what is going on,” said Martin Tambe, a farmer from the village of Bijong. It is a situation that has created huge incentives to either flee the region or join the fight.
In the past year, as the conflict between separatists and the Cameroonian government has deepened, the roads that lead out of the country’s Anglophone regions have been routinely blocked by government troops.
Now, the routes from Cameroon into Nigeria, which weave through the Takamanda National Park, have become vital economic and military arteries for both the separatists and people from the communities they are fighting in. Everyone and everything, including both cocoa and refugees who have been displaced by the emerging conflict, now pass along these tracks.
Cameroon’s Southwest is one of the top cocoa-producing regions in the world. However, while the farmers hauling sacks of it through the national park pass through with little fanfare, the fighters from groups such as the AMF are doing everything they can to grab the attention of audiences in Yaounde and beyond.
In an amorphous conflict, estimates of exactly how many fighters are involved are equally slippery. A recent report from International Crisis Group estimates that are somewhere between 2,000 and 4,000 fighters attempting to take Ambazonia from concept to reality. However, separatist leaders themselves claim there are far more people who have taken up the fight—and an even greater number willing to do so.
The AMF is the product of an attempted merger between several other groups. Its members have fashioned a logo for themselves, built a command structure, and amassed hundreds of fighters, but the composition of the group is constantly changing. Some of the AMF’s ranks even claim multiple allegiances. A soldier might belong to the AMF and claim membership in other groups such as the Red Dragons, or the Southern Cameroons Defense Forces at the same time. Others are ready to be associated with any group fighting the Ambazonian cause.
What the AMF has attempted to offer its ranks is a glimmer of a more cohesive, organized Ambazonian fighting force. However, at this point, the manpower of Ambazonian separatists is still being undercut by their lack of access to weapons.
Fighters in the AMF routinely take on well-equipped and heavily armored soldiers from Cameroon’s military with rusty hunting rifles, or even single-shot pistols. It isn’t unheard of for members of the AMF to share firearms.
For now, this imbalance has allowed the government to largely contain the insurgency to rural areas, but there are indications this may soon change. A particularly active diaspora is increasingly funneling resources into Cameroon’s separatist armed groups and courting foreign states for support.
One of the actors moving into this now crowded field is Marshall Foncha. Based in the United States, Foncha serves as the chairman of the Ambazonia Military Council, the AMF’s political wing. In an interview with Foreign Policy, he said he has attempted to source arms from two foreign powers in a deal that is being mediated by sympathetic officers in the Nigerian Army.
From Foncha’s vantage point in the United States, a steady weapons supply will help bring an end to the fragmentation of Cameroon’s array of Anglophone separatist movements and help to galvanize support from military factions behind the council.
On social media, diaspora activists have been promoting fundraising campaigns for Kalashnikovs and other firearms, and there is an increasing, if uncoordinated, effort to get guns to those willing to fight the Cameroonian government. These resources are already reshaping the realities of the Anglophone separatist movement on the ground, however fragmented it may be.
In an interview with Foreign Policy, off-duty soldiers from the Nigerian Army who had trained with AMF fighters in the country’s Southwest said that rebels frequently crossed into Nigeria to purchase weapons and other supplies for themselves.
As the fighting intensifies, refugees are being pushed into Nigeria by the tens of thousands. And violence from the separatists and the army they are fighting is displacing Anglophone communities—depopulating swathes of the Anglophone regions and bringing the fight closer to urban areas.
With many displaced people lacking documentation and out of the reach of aid organizations, the hardships of life in the bush have made English-speaking Cameroonians increasingly attuned to the separatist movements’ recruiting efforts. With official estimates that 530,000 people are currently internally displaced, armed groups fighting for the creation of a new independent state of Ambazonia are unlikely to run out of new recruits anytime soon.
The Cameroonian military has razed dozens of villages since the end of 2017, and it has forced many of the people who called these places home to flee deep into the bush. Areas north of Mamfe, a major town in Southwest Cameroon, are home to unrecorded numbers of displaced people at present.
In the absence of better options, these Cameroonians have been sustaining themselves on what they can find in the forest, where food is hard to rustle up and where it is not uncommon to encounter gorillas and snakes.
Samuel Agba Ishado, a cocoa farmer from Eshobi, a village just 50 miles from the border with Nigeria, had his house burned down by the Cameroonian military. On Feb. 11, as he stood on its charred foundations and looked up through where the roof used to be, he recalled the day the army came in late October 2018.
“We ran to the farm when we heard the shots. We waited there for 24 hours,” he said.
When he returned, the remains of his home were still smoldering, “We threw water on it,” he added, but it wasn’t enough to make much of a difference.
For now, Ishado stays with his wife and six children in a reed hut an hour’s trek into the bush. They return to the village for a few hours each day. However, they still fear that the Cameroonian military may return to finish what they started and that he and his family could be detained or killed.
Tambe Ingwana, a former plumber who had struggled to find work in the capital before returning to the area to lead a unit of the AMF as a commander, trekked through the bush outside of Eshobi and searched for those too scared to return to the village. Ingwana lamented his current living situation. “We have now become grasscutters,” he said, referring to the oversized rat that can often be heard scurrying across the jungle floor in Southwest Cameroon.
Villagers say the army burned down 26 houses in around three hours that Sunday in October. Two men were killed when they were caught returning to the village before the soldiers had left. Now, almost seven months on, what remains of the population return to the bush every night to sleep.
People interviewed across four other villages—Okoyong, Ochi Mata, Bijong, and Borrere—recounted attacks carried out in a near-identical fashion.
This violence is “occurring in a climate of near-total impunity,” said Ilaria Allegrozzi, a Human Rights Watch researcher focusing on Cameroon. The organization has documented similar acts of destruction in dozens of other villages across the Anglophone regions, as well as a number of human rights violations by the rebels.
Cameroon’s Anglophone crisis did not begin with the current outburst of conflict in the country’s Southwest and Northwest. Instead, its origins go much deeper. They can be traced even further back than 1919, when British and French colonists divided the country’s territory into separate spheres of influence after the two powers removed Cameroon from Germany’s orbit in the aftermath of World War I.
In 1972, the country became the United Republic of Cameroon, a structure that prioritized Francophones and shunted the Northwest and the Southwest to the side. In 1975, the government even cut the second star, representing Anglophone identity, out of the Cameroonian flag. Over decades, an explosive mix of frustration and resentment has produced groups like the AMF. After Biya came to power in 1982, he continued to cement the Francophone domination of the country.
There are foundational divisions between the two Anglophone regions of Cameroon. At independence, the political leaders of the Northwest opted to unify with what was then French Cameroon, while those from the Southwest pushed for unification with a newly independent Nigeria. Traditionally, the ruling party was dominant in the Southwest. But while they have a common adversary in Biya’s government, the separatist movements have united the two regions with a common aim: independence.
While diplomats like the U.N.’s Michelle Bachelet, who visited Cameroon in early May, have urged Biya to engage with Anglophones and emphasized that there is “a clear—if possibly short—window of opportunity to arrest the crises,” many in the Southwest feel the time for dialogue has passed and that window has closed. Attempting to reconcile with a government that is often perceived as being disinterested at best and actively trying to erase Anglophone identity at worst is an unpalatable suggestion.
Over the last three years, moderates who have promoted a federalist solution, and who have aimed to see Anglophone regions better resourced and able to set their own priorities within the context of Cameroon have routinely been imprisoned or forced into exile abroad. Among them is Nkongho Felix Agbor Balla, the barrister who leads the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium, an organization that has repeatedly stressed nonviolence and advocated dialogue with the government.
In the Southwest, connections with Yaounde and its offers of federalism have all but vanished from conversations about the future Anglophones are picturing for themselves. Biya and his government are now framed as an obstacle rather than a target to persuade, and Yaounde is no longer a fixture in the AMF’s future plans.
For the commander of the AMF forces, who goes by the nom de guerre General Amadurah, which translates to “General Thunder” in English, “There is no solution to our situation that involves La République. It’s time for them to leave our land. … We can never stay as one together.”
Cameroon isn’t just fighting its own separatists. In the country’s Far North region, Cameroon’s forces have been locked in a fight against the Boko Haram insurgent group for years, and more recently they have had to deal with its breakaway faction, the Islamic State West Africa Province. Allegations of atrocities against Cameroonian forces have put foreign governments in an increasingly compromising position.
The elite Battalion d’Intervention Rapide (BIR) has formed the core of the country’s contribution to the fight against Boko Haram. The BIR has been a constant partner of the United States as it has looked for ways to check the evolution of the terrorist group, even if a full reckoning with the scope of the Leahy Law, which is designed to prevent the U.S. government from funding military units committing atrocities, complicates this arrangement.
There is no shortage of those allegations against the Cameroonian military, and there is an increasing pile of evidence that some U.S.-supported units may indeed have been diverted by Biya’s government to put down the Anglophone crisis. In February, a general from the BIR was killed in an ambush in the Southwest town of Lebialem.
Later that month, U.S. Africa Command’s leader, Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, captured the push and pull over U.S. policy toward Cameroon in a Senate committee hearing on Feb. 7. “The bottom line is right now, in Cameroon they have been a good partner with us counterterrorism-wise—but you can’t neglect the fact that there are alleged atrocities in what’s going on there,” he said.
The same day, the United States announced that although the U.S. military would continue to support the country’s fight against Islamist insurgents in the country’s Far North, the government would still terminate $17 million worth of military aid to Cameroon amid human rights concerns.
Cameroon’s government attempted to downplay the cuts, framing them as part of a broader strategy from the United States to reduce the U.S. military footprint in Africa, rather than a direct rebuke of how Yaounde has been using its firepower against its own civilians. However, U.S. officials have made it clear that this is wishful thinking.
Short of major international pressure on the Biya government and scrambling to pull together the resources needed to sustain their fight, some Ambazonian fighters such as Ingwana have put their faith in something more proximate. They have placed it in odeshi, a form of psychological armor that draws on elements of local witchcraft, and its signifiers: blessed amulets and bracelets.
As Ingwana stood outside his home in Bombe, his chest was peppered with small scars that telegraphed the traditional magic he invoked and the protection he expected it to provide. With arms tightly bound with assorted charms, he bragged that odeshi could make a man fearless, render him bulletproof, and even prevent him from drowning.
“It is very difficult for them to kill one Ambazonian freedom fighter,” he said. “Even if you tie a bag of cement to me, and throw me into the water, I will still come out. … I am the only person in the whole wide world who can harm myself. If you want to do it intentionally, you won’t succeed—I will survive.”