Anglophone lawyers protesting in Bamenda. PHOTO/ARISON TAMFU
Unknown to the world is a fierce group of young people demanding the independence of Anglophone Cameroon. ARISON TAMFU narrates a rare encounter he had with the group.
By ARISON TAMFU in Bamenda
Somewhere in Bamenda, Cameroon Anglophone’s largest city, I am about to interview an underground group fighting for the independence of Anglophone regions of Cameroon.
I have been told that a taxi will come to take me to an anonymous location where the interview would be conducted. The interview must take place at night, they insist. It’s past 8pm and I am still expecting the taxi. No one knows their identity and that is how they want it to remain.
Five months ago, Cameroonian police shot and killed six Anglophone protesters and jailed hundreds others who were demanding equal rights with Francophone Cameroonians.
That incident saddened a great deal, English-speaking Cameroonians who make up 20per cent of Cameroon’s population. The two Anglophone regions are now heavily militarised.
Taking law in their own hands
Aggrieved at government’s hard-handedness in addressing a conflict that began with a simple protest by lawyers and teachers demanding an end to marginalisation of Anglophones in Cameroon, some Anglophones decided to take the law into their hands.
In what appeared to be a direct retaliation to police brutality, four months ago unidentified young men kidnapped and battered a policeman while filming. The disturbing video went viral in Cameroon.
Police made more arrests but weeks later, one of the biggest markets in Bamenda was set ablaze by unknown persons. Property worth millions of XAF was consumed by the fire.
Since then a psychological and physical warfare between the government of Cameroon and some ‘mysterious’ English-speaking citizens of the country has been going on.
I am about to meet some of the ‘mysterious boys’ for the very first time. It’s a scary venture.
“Hey, get in” finally the taxi driver is here! He offers me a ‘good-evening’ with a broad smile as I enter the taxi. I seek to know where we are going and he tells me calmly that he is not allowed to talk.
We drive in silence for approximately 15 minutes to the outskirts of Bamenda passing one police checkpoint after another.
These are perilous days in Cameroon and it’s too risky to drive at night in Anglophone Cameroon, let alone as a journalist investigating the Anglophone crisis: you can just be arrested and charged with secession and terrorism but thank goodness, we have succeeded to pass all the checkpoints.
“We stop here” says the taxi driver after 25 minutes of drive. We loiter for a while in the taxi and three disguised men finally emerge from the bush and demand that I follow them but not without blindfolding me first.
Police station set on fire by unidentified persons. PHOTO/ARISON TAMFU
They lead me to a concealed location surrounded by bush and take off the blindfold.
Instantly, I notice that I am surrounded by 20 or 30 masked men.
“Welcome to Ambazonian Foot soldiers” a deep confident voice says and approaches me.
“Please sit down, I am Spider, the leader of this unit” he introduces himself with a handshake. I obey his request. A trim young man with an intense look in his early twenties, Spider is a sobriquet he obtained after joining the ‘Foot Soldiers’.
His head is wrapped in a flag that has a white dove in its top left quadrant and white and blue stripes. I immediately recognise the flag: it’s that of Ambazonia or Southern Cameroons.
In December 2016, hundreds of Anglophone protesters pulled down the Cameroonian flag on administrative buildings and hoisted the secessionist southern Cameroons flag demanding for a new nation called Southern Cameroons or Ambazonia.
Southern Cameroons is not any country recognised by the United Nations but some Anglophone secessionists fed up with injustice done on Anglophones in Cameroon want their own country.
“They have treated us Anglophones in this country like second-class citizens, like slaves for over 50 years and now the time has come for us to take back our pride and dignity” says Spider.
The ‘they’ he is referring to is the Cameroonian government consisting predominantly of Francophone Cameroonians and headed by 85 year-old President Paul Biya who has ruled the country for 34 years and will seek another seven year mandate next year during the presidential election.
La Republique du Cameroun (Francophone) and Southern Cameroons (Anglophone) were two separate nations and Southern Cameroons decided to vote in a plebiscite organised by UN in 1961 to join La Republique du Cameroon to form one country.
But less than a decade into the Union, Anglophones expressed discontent with the way they were being treated by the Francophone-majority-government.
They complained that the Anglo-Saxon culture they inherited from their colonial master Britain was gradually been eradicated and their place in the Union was no longer valued.
Government gave a deaf ear. It’s been 56 years now since the two peoples unified but the Cameroonian government has remained adamant to the plight of Anglophones.
“We undertook a simple protest in December 2016 in Bamenda and other parts of Anglophone Cameroon to demand a federal system of government in which our rights and ways of life will be respected and secured,” says Spider.
He adds that instead the government sent soldiers to the region that killed many people and imprisoned several others.
“Our stand has changed; we no longer want federation, we want the restoration of our statehood Southern Cameroons” Spider adds boiling with anger.
Protesters parade with the corpse of one of the protesters that was shot by the police. PHOTO/ARISON TAMFU
The night breeze carries the sound of insects in the cold dark night. Spider is pensive. I ask him how they intend to fight to achieve their goal with an inexperienced tiny group of disguised people.
“We were just 15 when we nursed the idea of a resistance movement, now we are over 5000 of us spread all over Southern Cameroons and we welcome newcomers every day” he says.
“This is just one Unit, there are other units spread all over Southern Cameroons. For this struggle, all Southern Cameroonians feel the pain deep in them and that makes them potential soldiers” he adds
Spider was not always like this. He was a student in one of the schools in Bamenda and became radicalised after witnessing government brutality on Anglophone protesters.
For over seven months now, over a million school children in Anglophone regions of Cameroon have not been going to school as a measure to demand justice and fair treatment of Anglophones in Cameroon.
“The government has turned me into this. We are not going to School and it does not mean anything to them. They don’t care about our future” he says.
What do you intend to fight with? I ask.
“Anything and everywhere” answers someone standing behind Spider.
“We stop any movement and activity that is against our goal. Our activities can be violent and bloody if need arises” he continues.
And these are not just empty threats. Police have reported arson committed on several school buildings, markets, vehicles and police stations in Anglophone regions.
A police source that preferred to remain unknown told me, it has been difficult to lay hands on the arsonists because they act independently.
“People (Anglophones) are so angry and frustrated that they just decide to fight for the so-called federation or independence on their own and anybody can cause harm at anytime and anywhere. We are trying to bring order” the source said.
Protesters brandish Southern Cameroons flag in Bamenda. PHOTO/ARISON TAMFU
“We will attack block by block if anyone disobeys our instructions” says Spider.
A divided people
The Anglophone struggle has not enjoyed much sympathy from their francophone brothers and sisters who seem to be comfortable with the status quo in the country. Instead, some have expressed outright disapproval of the struggle.
In January 2016, a well-known francophone journalist, Jean Jacque Ze and a respected Francophone University professor, Mathias Owona Ngini described the Anglophone protesters as “rats” and recommended in a Facebook post that “all the protesters should be wiped out on pretext that they are secessionists. And all teachers who have refused to teach should be severely punished”
Recommendations that received widespread condemnations even from some Francophones but the secessionists took the threats seriously.
“We are avoiding a Rwanda-like genocide with the Francophones at all cost but if it comes to that, we are ready” says Spider.
I don’t think attacking Francophones is wise because they are your brothers and sisters, I tell him. But they are provoking us every day, he says furiously
“Let them stop the provocation. Government is manipulating some of them to lure us into a bloody confrontation. That is not happening for now” he adds.
But what is happening now is what Spider calls “nonchalant attitude of the international community” towards the crisis.
“The United Nations and rest of the world are doing very little to resolve the crisis. By the time we start killing each other, they will come but it will be too late. Like all my friends, we want to go back to our normal lives and back to school but in an independent southern Cameroons. We don’t care how long it takes and what it takes, we just know we are ready to fight”
And with that message, I separate with them and leave just like I came. It is almost midnight.
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