Northwestern and southwestern Cameroon have seen relentless bloodshed over the past few weeks. Something akin to civil war has broken out since factions of a separatist movement in English-speaking areas adopted violent tactics — including abductions and guerilla-style attacks — following years of nonviolent struggle against the Francophone government headed by despot Paul Biya.
Anglophone Cameroon — which is affectionately known to its inhabitants as Ambazonia — declared independence from Cameroon on October 1, following industrial strikes against government marginalization of Anglophone citizens. Biya’s government, as in the past, cracked down swiftly. Since declaring independence, Ambazonia has seen periodic waves of arsons, killings and pillaging of villages. The displaced likely amount to more than 100,000.
After a May 25 attack by Biya’s forces in the small town of Menka in the Anglophone Northwest Region — during which about 30 civilians were killed — politicians, leaders and local residents gathered to express disgust at the killings carried out by the military. During this open dialogue, 76-year-old Ni John Fru Ndi — a celebrated politician among Anglophones and the founder of the Social Democratic Front opposition party — told representatives of Biya’s government, “If I were 50 years old, I would be fighting in the bush.”
While the Anglophone minority is enraged by Biya’s refusal to grant Ambazonia autonomy, the Francophone majority isn’t particularly enthralled with him either, particularly after 35 years in power. “Bad governance is the common grievance Anglophones and Francophones share,” said Bergeline Domou, a French-speaking activist and politician with the Cameroon People’s Party. “Cameroonians face over 30 years of governance without goals. Our health system is a catastrophe. Our education system only produces more unemployed. To that you add harassment, embezzlement, violence and control of people’s freedoms.”
Ambazonians form a nation
Although interim president Sisiku Ayuk Tabe formed his cabinet in exile, Ambazonia is not without its own symbols. Passports, currency, a flag and a national anthem have all been created.
Meanwhile, the Southern Cameroons Broadcasting Corporation, or Ambazonia TV, has been popularizing the secession struggle since early 2017. The station launched in defiance of a ban by the Ministry of Communications. This helped bring tens of thousands to the streets in support of independence a week prior to the declaration.
“[Ambazonia TV] has been a major source of information to the population about the calling of ghost towns, boycotts and tax resistance,” said Dzebam Godlove Ayaba, an organizer with the youth movement Draufsicht in the Bamenda area of Ambazonia. “The channel also shows images of military violence, sensitizing the Anglophone people.”
While such high-level tech resistance is not common among African political movements, Ambazonia has a special asset working to its advantage. The southwestern area of Ambazonia called Buea is home to a number of universities and functions as a convergence point for developers, hackers, coders, entrepreneurs and creatives. At least 30 high-tech startups are headquartered in the area — which is also known as Silicon Mountain — and an annual conference attracts hundreds from Ambazonia and other parts of Africa.
As a likely result of its success, Biya’s regime has shut down internet access in Buea for months at a time on several occasions since early 2017. Members of the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium — a coalition with many members pushing for succession — fought one of the earlier internet blackouts (as well as the arrests and crackdowns by the state that took place during it) by mobilizing “ghost town” actions. People stayed at home and businesses remained closed. Some blocked trucks exporting timber and petroleum to Francophone Cameroon.
The government then banned the consortium and arrested President Felix Agbor Nkongho and Secretary General Fontem Neba. As the consortium was squelched, a communiqué was hastily issued, designating members of the diaspora with sufficient internet access to preside over the campaign. These new leaders in the United States and Belgium were briefed on the nonviolent nature of the Anglophone struggle.
“The diaspora funds the struggle and provides enormous coordination and social media presence,” said Emmanuel Abeng, a diaspora activist originally from Bamenda. “More impactful decisions can’t be made [by diaspora leaders] because their boots are not feeling the actual heat on the ground.”
Ambazonia’s citizens aren’t waiting for outside leadership, even if it has played a crucial role. On September 22, just before Biya was about to address the United Nations, tens of thousands flocked to Bamenda’s streets with plants symbolizing peace. They converged at the palaces of traditional leaders, recognizing them as authoritative rulers, instead of Biya’s government.
Repression intensified after violent tactics
The patience of some Ambazonians has worn thin over the past several months, as government repression continues to escalate. While the majority have stuck with nonviolent resistance, a violent flank of separatists have armed themselves, using guerrilla tactics to abduct and kill agents of Biya’s government. This has enabled Biya to brand the military occupation of Ambazonia as a struggle against terrorism. And scorched-earth tactics have increased since late 2017 as a result.
Reliance on violent tactics has also enabled prosecution of nonviolent leaders as terrorists. In one instance just after the massacre in Menka, radio journalist Mancho Bibixy was sentenced to 15 years in prison for terrorism, hostility, secession, revolution and insurrection.
“Supporters of the accused have attended every session at the military court in Yaounde,” said activist Edna Njilin. Meanwhile, Francophone allies are stepping up their game at this time of crisis, offering pro bono legal support to those sentenced, spearheading hashtag campaigns like #FreeAllArrested and #BringBackOurInternet.
Shortly after the May 25 massacre, French-speaking activist and politician Bergeline Domou joined 30 Francophone women in a visit to the northwest to stand in solidarity with victims. “We were there to let them know that we too are facing difficulties under this government,” he said. “Acting together is a necessity. We used to have many moderates, but today more and more are giving their support to the secessionists.”