Cameroon: I spent a week embedded with Anglophone armed separatists

Demonstrators march during a protest against perceived discrimination in favour of the country's francophone majority, 22 September 2017 in Bamenda.
Demonstrators march during a protest against perceived discrimination in favour of the country's francophone majority, 22 September 2017 in Bamenda. Photo: AFP/Stringer

Ex-farmers, armed with basic weapons and little training, are taking on the might of the Cameroonian army in the country’s Anglophone regions, according to an exclusive series of reports published by the IRIN news agency. Journalist Emmanuel Freudenthal spent a week embedded with rebels from the Ambazonia Defence Forces who have been fighting against security forces sent by Yaoundé to quell unrest. His two-part series documents alleged abuses by the security forces and the stark choice some Anglophones felt they were left with – either flee across the border to Nigeria and become a refugee, or take up arms and fight the Cameroonian military. The crisis in Anglophone Cameroon has escalated since the end of last year when the separatists declared independence for so-called Ambazonia. Grievances among Anglophones over the lack of English in courts and classrooms originally took the form of protests and demonstrations. However, the situation has escalated with a crackdown by security forces and the arrest of several Anglophone leaders. There have been a number of clashes between the Cameroonian army and armed separatists as well as attacks on schools and villages, kidnappings and targeted killings. RFI spoke to Emmanuel Freudenthal…


Q&A: Emmanuel Freudenthal

What was it like spending a week with the Ambazonia Defence Forces?

What I’ve seen when I was there was perhaps 50 men in one camp and most of those used to be farmers who have been driven to attack the Cameroonian army in order to defend themselves. And to reclaim independence for the country they call Ambazonia.

How many people would you say are in the Ambazonia Defence Forces?

Cho Ayaba, who is the leader of the Governing Council that is linked to the Ambazonia Defence Forces, says there are about 1,500 people spread around 20 camps in Anglophone Cameroon. I’ve personally witnessed around 50 people in one camp and in total probably 100 fighters – adding up everyone I saw. Obviously, I haven’t been to the 20 camps. So 1,500 does sound quite possible, but it’s hard to establish exactly how many.

They say 20 bases or camps. Did you get any idea of their geographical reach?

I think they’re operating throughout the Anglophone regions. I stayed in one specific area in the south west, so I haven’t visited the 20 camps, I think that would probably take a very long time. But in that specific area they actually controlled a surprisingly large amount of land. That’s partly to do with the fact that the state hasn’t developed roads or means of access to many of the areas which means that the army can’t go there either. Ironically that’s also part of why many of these fighters are fighting and part of why many of the Anglophones are quite annoyed with the Cameroonian state. This lack of infrastructure, lack of roads – which is now biting back against the state when they would like to access a lot more of these areas.

How sophisticated is their weaponry? Are we talking about automatic weapons?

No. The weapons I’ve seen were mostly hunting rifles that are made in Nigeria. People for years have been hunting with them in the bush. Basically, to fire them you have to first unscrew it at the bottom of the rifle, then open the rifle, push a cartridge in, then close the rifle, then screw it back so that locks it in place. So it takes – even just to explain it, as you can see – it takes quite a while. They’re facing an army that has automatic assault rifles which might fire 600 bullets every minute. So you can see that it’s not quite the same weaponry. I’ve seen a few assault rifles within the ADF forces. And I’ve seen photos of a few more, but the majority of the troops don’t have them, they have these very basic hunting rifles.

Did you get a feeling for how frequently they’re clashing or fighting with the Cameroonian security forces?

That’s quite difficult to assess. I’ve seen some videos where they are clashing and they have carried out targeted killings. Amnesty International just published a report that says that the separatists have killed 44 members of the security forces. Not all of those would be part of the Ambazonia Defence Forces, but that’s the number they are giving. While I was there they were planning an attack, but that attack didn’t work out because of logistical issues. They were waiting for some ammunition, which never came.

Did you get a sense of how well-trained these fighters are?

Many of these fighters are people who were pushed out of their villages because those villages were attacked by the army. Many of those, a few months ago, before October, used to be just farmers. So that’s also why they have these hunting rifles, just because they used to hunt with them. They had to leave their village and become fighters or become refugees – that’s basically the two options they had. So they’re not well-trained fighters at all. And they’re facing an army that has been trained by France, the US and other countries because of the fight against Boko Haram.

The ADF isn’t the only armed separatist group in these Anglophone regions. Does the ADF have links with other armed separatist groups do you think?

I think they do have links with them. Exactly the nature and the extent of those links – it’s quite difficult to say. Sometimes the ADF will take a local armed group under its wing and that armed group becomes federated under the ADF. There are also other groups acting on their own, there are some people that might claim that they’re part of the wider movement that don’t necessarily have connections to the ADF. Another thing that I found that was quite interesting and that surprised or intrigued me was that the hierarchical structure of the ADF is actually pretty well established. So the troops on the ground are listening to orders coming from above. The main limitation to that, apart from the fact that it’s not a professional army, is that those orders are difficult to deliver because there’s no [telephone] network in much of the area.

You say there are orders coming down in some sort of command structure - what about accusations that the ADF were responsible for attacks on schools and also for a number of kidnappings? Did you hear anything about that?

So in the recent Amnesty report they say that separatist groups have targeted around 40 schools and some of them were burnt. I asked the ADF whether they were responsible for that and they said they had nothing to do with it. And that anybody who was upset with the schools could go and burn them. In terms of the kidnapping – the ADF has claimed a number of kidnappings. They would not actually call them kidnappings, they would call them arrests. There’s basically two ways to see their actions. One way to see their actions is a unilateral action by an armed group that violates human rights. They see it that they’re trying to establish an independent state and that the ADF is their police and army. So when they’re putting in place laws or rules, that armed group is tasked with enforcing those. When one is talking about kidnapping, they will see it as an arrest.

Just tell us a little bit more about their endgame - because in your story the fighters talk about defending communities against alleged abuses by Cameroonian soldiers. What do they want? What’s their endgame?

Their endgame is very clear. Its separation of the country they call Ambazonia from Cameroon. That’s very clearly what they’re fighting for.

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