Cameroon's Secessionists by Max Bone
A vicious war of secession has ravaged the two Anglophone regions of Cameroon since January 2018. Non-state militias warring with the government aim to create an independent Ambazonian state. While central Africa has seen its share of wars of secession (the majority of which culminate in an agreement between the parties), aspects of Cameroon’s secessionists distinguish them, and this war, from others.
To refer to the group in public by the wrong name amidst the wrong strangers could invite a beating or even one’s murder. Therefore, in public civilians refer to secessionists as the Amba, or the Amba Boys. Privately, those who support the secessionists refer to them as freedom fighters, restoration forces, or, the army. Those who oppose them refer to them as the boys, the Ambazonians, and the terrorists.
But Anglophone Cameroonians overwhelmingly view secessionists positively. This is so even when they object to their tactics. For instance, secessionists call for Ghost Towns, or city-wide strikes every Monday. They call, too, for boycotting all primary and secondary schools. A secondary school teacher in the Southwest Anglophone capital region of Buea noted, “I don’t agree with preventing children from going to school, but I support the secessionists’ aims. Therefore, I tolerate it.” Others, like this 35-year-old entrepreneur in Buea, say, “I completely support all actions the freedom fighters take, and I am honored to keep my daughter from school. Students are just pawns of the Cameroonian president.” When asked whether targeting children and teachers was legitimate he added, “Yes, they are supporting the Biya regime.”
This perspective is not limited to the Anglophone regions. Anglophones in Francophone Cameroon like this cab driver in the country’s largest city, Douala, say, “Francophone Cameroonians do not understand the Anglophones’ plight. They assume everything the freedom fighters do is bad. They never listen to us, and cannot be trusted, so, independence is our only option.”
During the first few months of the conflict, the secessionists generally targeted only those who disobeyed their orders, or who they suspected had government affiliations. This has changed drastically in recent months. In villages and cities spanning both Anglophone regions, the secessionists extort, kidnap, and rape civilians. Public opinion seems increasingly impervious to such offenses. The secessionists lack a central command, and so when rape or extortion occurs people are quick to pin it on imposters, not the real secessionists.
Such deflections are not entirely without merit. There are more than 20 secessionist groups fighting in the two Anglophone regions at the time of this writing in September of 2018. The majority of these arose during the summer, correlating directly with the violence spike against civilians. Additionally, the so-called interim Ambazonian government has condemned all attacks and denied all responsibility. Such refutations are near impossible to verify given the informal secessionist structure which often as not is controlled from outside Cameroon.
Interestingly, purported, legitimate secessionists have punished others for abusing civilians. In August, secessionist leaders in Buea apprehended, publicly beat, and disposed of four people. The four were extorting locals supposedly on behalf of the secessionists. At the same time, however, individuals claiming separatist affiliations continue extorting civilians without punishment.
Which brings us to this tale’s central oddity: Anglophone Cameroonians attribute magical powers, or juju, to those who they believe to be legitimate secessionist fighters. They believe secessionist fighters adhere to strict codes of conduct that abhor rape, murder, and extortion. They believe in return for abiding by these rules the secessionists can shapeshift and are impervious to bullets and knives. The Cameroonian military has repeatedly turned its weapons over to secessionist fighters without a fight. Secessionist fighter deaths fail to dispel the illusion. They are proof that the fighters broke the conduct code or were illegitimate secessionists in the first place. As Cameroon’s crisis worsens, understanding the socio-cultural underpinnings of the conflict remains critical.
Max Bone is a political analyst at Rise to Peace in Washington, D.C. where he is a student at the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University. He has traveled extensively in sub-Saharan Africa, recently spending several months in Cameroon. His twitter is @maxbone55.