In Cameroon a movement is fighting for an independent “Ambazonia”, the government is hitting back hard. A Journey to the sympathizers of the uprise.
SOUTHWEST-CAMEROON taz | “In the fight against terrorism we have to act. The separatists are a terrorist threat to our country”, sounds the hoarse voice of Paul Biya out of the car’s radio. “That’s why we recruit 5000 new soldiers in January, who will bring order into the Anglophone crisis.” The message of the Cameroonian president causes laughter in the car. “The old man”, the driver is joking about the 84 year old president, who is ruling Cameroon since 35 years. “But half of the Cameroonian army is already in the Anglophone zone. This shall solve the problem?”
In the outskirts of city Douala with millions of residents the car is snaking itself around motorbikes, trucks and taxis towards direction smaller land road. The ride goes through fields and palm forests
to Buea, a university town in the Anglophone part of Cameroon – this land part, from which a terrorist threat is originating according to the president, since separatists proclaimed the independence of “Ambazonia” there on Oct. 1st 2017.
Since then the violence increased. There are deaths regularily, thousands of people fleed into Nigeria. “The separatists have killed at least eight soldiers in Mamfe”, one traveler knows. From Mamfe, that’s where the self-proclaimed president of Ambazonia comes from, Sisiku Ayuk Tabe.
Buea: Wish for Change
The university citiy of Buea lies idyllicly at the slopes of the 4000 meter high Mount Cameroon. Nothing to see about the crisis there. The fragrance of popcorn hangs in the air, school children in uniform are walking aside well-dressed students. It is the day of receiving the diplomas. On the wide meadows of the campus the students are posing in green robes and cornered hat with smiles into the cameras.
But under the surface it is boiling. A group of young engineering students is pro separation. “Here at the university you cannot talk about it freely”, says one. “If you would do it anyway, you risk imprisonment.” He analyses: “Parallel to the violence of the government the separatist movement gains advocacy. In the beginning nobody did talk about independence.” But the government takes absurd measurements: the blue-white campus shuttle busses had to be repainted into yellow, because Ambazonia’s flag is blue-white. Students were harassed by security personal, if they wore blue-white clothes, on informatics student tells. “As Anglophone Cameroonian your are always a second class citizen”, she says.
In the francophone part of Cameroon an Anglophone would have no chance, Yanick Fonki confirms, he is chief editor of the Anglophone local newspaper “Green Vision”. “I have worked in the francophone region for five years. They treat you like a nobody, they think, they have more rights than us. When I came back I started to engage for equal treatment.” He holds the government responsible for the increasing violence: “If Biya would have engaged in dialogue with the protesters earlier, then today we would not have losses on the side of the army. The separatists protested without violence. But the army hurt and partly killed them. The violence, which is now used against the police and soldiers, is a mirror.”
Fonki still bets on a federalization of Cameroon, not on separation. “The Cameroonian army has got machine guns. The Ambazonians fight with machetes. There is blood flowing unnecessarily, which will bring no change.”
His demand is also the same of the most important political force in the Anglophone part, the Social Democratic Front (SDF), Cameroon’s biggest opposition party. “I am not pro separation”, says the SDF member Nseta Lackban: An independent state will not remove problems like corruption; most of the problems of Cameroon would comprise the whole society. By the general strike actions called “ghost town”, with which the protests began in 2016, “we only lost on our side in the first place”, he says shaking his head, “the economy here in Buea has endured extreme losses. Our children go to school again though, but in other regions they don’t since almost a year. This cannot be the solution, or can it?”
BAMENDA: Fear and Fleeing
With the night bus it goes further to the north. The bus is vexing itself through pitch dark streets with crater deep milled holes and a mountains landscape, overtaking small buses, which got stuck at a steep hill. Their weak front lights remain in the darkness. Since decades there was nothing done for the infrastructure, the bus driver explains.
Even with better road conditions we could not think about sleep: every two hours there are police controls: lights on, all must get out of the bus. With the torch they check matching of face and ID. And about two hours north of Buea social networks cannot be reach via cellphone anymore.
After seven bumpy hours the bus arrives in the dawning hours in the foggy Bamenda, the biggest city in the region. Everybody who supports Ambazonia here has to be careful. The lawyer and activist, who arrives at the hotel before sunrise, doesn’t let himself call by name or fotographed from the front. He is a demonstrator of the first hour, he had marched 2016 together with hundreds of mates for the return to federalism. Five months he had to go to prison for that. Since then he is hiding.
“The whole thing is an institutional problem”, he explains. We have no problem with our francophone brothers and sisters – they also have problems with the government. But our systems are just two different ones, which cannot be brought together anymore.”
He has studied Law in Nigeria, where he spent the time after his release. “Many heads of the movement are not in Nigeria. We can work there and speak the same language. There are some Nigerians who solidarized with our fight. In an Ambazonian trainings camp for fighters for independence close to Mamfe, which I visited, also Nigerian trainers do work. Like also francophone Cameroonians joint us in our fight.”
The lawyer is concerned about that the Ambazonia movement is not organized: Each would act on his own. There are representatives of the Southern Cameroon National Council (SCNC) in every region though. But only the diaspora would be really organized. Only in the rural areas it would be still possible to organize secret meetings.
Batibo: Hidden in the Forest
For example in Batibo, a small community 42 km southwest of Bamenda. It is market day, sheep and hens exchange the owner. By the words “Welcome to Ambaland” the leader of a small environment organization is greeting. The supporter of Ambazonia is very concerned: “Since the demonstrations there were so many captures and injured ones. Many people fled into the surrounding forests to hide.” One of his coworkers was shot by the police, he himself was picked up several times and could only come free by means of money, he says.
On the motorbike he rides into the forst to the local SCNC reverend. He lives in a red loam house deep in the forest. He is involved in the independence movement since September 2016, before the big protests. “The Ambazonia movement has founded itself in the 80s already”, he tells. “Initially we wanted to reach a referendum. Therefore I went from house to house to collect signatures – 200 of them I have already. When the protest of the lawyers and teachers started and the government became so repressive, the movement gained new dynamics. The people went on the streets and Ambazonia was their demand.” The old reverend doesn’t see a peaceful solution anymore. “I say this to my children: when I die now in the fight, then I die for the right thing.” Ambazonia – this is a free country for him, which is co-formed by the people themselves.
For good-bye he presents his blue-white Ambazonian flag and says: “In January there has to happen something.”
Original article below in German