October 1 this year will mark the second anniversary since separatists in Cameroon's northwest and southwest regions proclaimed a so-called independent state "Ambazonia." It is a symbolic date: on the very same day in 1961, the East, which was then administered by the French, and the West, administered by the British, were united to form Cameroon. Something, the "Ambazonians" want to reverse. This year, the day will be under close watch: Cameroon's President Paul Biya has announced plans to hold a "national dialogue" with the aim of ending the conflict.
It is a conflict which is scarred by violence and severe human rights violations from both security forces and armed groups, Amnesty International reported. 3,000 people have died and close to half a million have been displaced. Multiple separatists groups have formed in the southwest and northwest of the country.
Who are the 'Amba-boys'?
Agbor Balla, an Anglophone human rights lawyer, tells DW: " I think each county or each community is coming up with its own groups. There are about 10 groups, including the Ambazonia Defense Forces, the Tigers, and groups working for the interim government of Ambazonia." All of these groups serve one purpose: the fight for independence. It is a struggle that has a long history.
In the run-up to their independence, residents of British-administered Southern Cameroon, which included the northwest and southwest regions, held a referendum on 30 September 1961 under the auspices of the United Nation. The question was whether they wanted to belong to the newly Independent Federal Republic of Nigeria or to French-administered Cameroon. Under promises of a federal state and English as the official language, English-speaking Southern Cameroon joined the majority French-speaking East. Despite the agreement, Cameroon became a unitary state in 1972. "Many think that if we had remained faithful to the Federal Republic of Cameroon we would not have had the problems we have now," Cardinal Christian Tumi tells DW.
Marginalizing Cameroon's Anglophone regions
In the 1990s, Anglophone parties issued threats of declaring independence unless the old constitution was re-instated. They felt marginalized by the majority francophone government. Joseph Wirba, self-exiled Cameroonian MP, told DW: "We joined a nation that did not want our freedom and they presumed that they had to eliminate our culture gradually, to reduce us to second class citizens. That neglect pushed people gradually over the years to that extreme to say: no, we can not continue to be treated that way."
On 12 October 2016, lawyers and teachers started demonstrating peacefully. Schools were closed and the ‘ghost town' strikes started – for several days each week, shops and institutions closed their doors. The government responded by shutting down the internet, arresting and intimidating protestors.
Independence of 'Ambazonia'
On 1 October 2017, separatists declared an independent state, which they named Ambazonia. The government sent in forces, and large-scale fighting broke out. Bullets and tear gas were unleashed onto civilian population the cross-hairs. According to Amnesty International, 17 people were killed and hundreds more were wounded.
Reverend Thomas Mokoko Mbue, from the Presbyterian Church in Cameroon, says in a DW interview: "It was the beginning of a radical movement towards armed struggle. The argument was that the government had attacked their people who were unarmed and that they needed to defend them, so armed groups were formed."
No chain of command
Freedom fighters, radicals, or Amba-boys – nowadays, the separatists have many names. Mark Bareta, a Cameroonian activist in the diaspora fighting for Ambazonia, explains: "At the moment we have different groups, different structures: Those who decided to pick up arms and are fighting the republic, those doing diplomacy and those providing support to those in the bushes."
The groups don't have a chain of command. "You cannot really identify how they operate," Balla says. People like Sisiku Ayuk Tabe, one of the imprisoned Cameroon Anglophone separatist leaders, would not be controlling the movement. Tabe and nine of his followers were convicted of charges including terrorism and secession. However, "the ones acting on behalf of Sisiku are very important, some take orders from them," Balla says. "Some leaders of the groups are in contact, they make joint statements."
The lines between good and evil
Some of the armed groups are led and funded by Cameroonians living in the diaspora, Balla says. "The diaspora, these are Cameroonians. Some want to see things changed, some of them want to have an independent state, some of them might have had their issues with the government. Some of them might have been blacklisted and they cannot come back to the country. So some hope to come back to an independent state." However, most groups survive through kidnappings and ransom.
The fights have become increasingly brutal, schools, hospitals and whole villages are burned down, people murdered and intimidated. "At the beginning, abuses were mostly and largely committed by government forces. Now the line between the bad and the good is really blurred and we see these separatist groups attacking and targeting civilians," explains Ilaria Allegrozzi from Human Rights Watch. "Civilians are really being caught in the middle of this crisis and paying the highest price."
A lost generation
Another worrying phenomenon stresses the severity of the conflict. "Armed robbers have re-branded themselves, calling themselves Amba-Groups," Mbue says. They recruit young men and profit out of the situation: "Kidnappings, ransom taking, breaking into homes. They loot whatever they want to loot."
Mbue is worried: If the conflict continues, the young generation of "Ambazonia" will be lost. "There are kids of eight years who have never seen a school. Young men dropped out of secondary school and have become barbarians of their community, they lost their basic sense of civilization and only see the option of carrying guns. A whole generation is going down." Some of the fighters are as young as 15 years, Mbue says. "It is heartbreaking to see those who are to build our community dying because of a senseless war."
Dirke Köpp contributed to this article.