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Welcome to Ambaland

In Cameroon, a movement is fighting for an independent state of Ambazonia. The government is striking back hard. A journey to the sympathizers of the insurgency.

written by Katharina Lipowsky 

Translated by Emal Ghamsharick

http://www.taz.de/!5472403/ (Original auf Deutsch in der taz am 10.01.2018)


"We have to act in the fight against terrorism. The separatists are a terrorist threat to our country." Paul Biya's scratchy voice sounds from the car radio. "That's why we're recruiting 5,000 new soldiers in January to bring order into the anglophone Crisis." The Cameroonian president's message causes the passengers to burst out laughing. "That old man," jokes the driver. The 84-year-old has been ruling Cameroon for 35 years. "Half of the Cameroonian army is already in the anglophone zone. How will that solve the problem?"

Leaving the metropolis of Douala, the car wriggles for the highway past motorcycles, trucks, and taxis. Passing through fields and palm forests, we are headed for Buea, a small university town in the anglophone part of Cameroon. Cameroon's president has been considering this region terrorist threat since separatists proclaimed the independence of "Ambazonia" on October 1, 2017.

The violence is gradually escalating. People are killed regularly. Thousands have fled to Nigeria. "The separatists executed at least eight soldiers in Mamfé," says one traveler. Mamfé is the hometown of the self-proclaimed President of Ambazonia, Sisiku Ayuk Tabe.

Buea: wishing for change

The scenic university town of Buea rests at the foot of Mount Cameroon, which peaks at some 4,000 meters. There's no sign of a crisis. Popcorn scents the air, uniformed schoolchildren are walking next to dressed-up university students. It's the day after graduation. On the sprawling college lawns, smiling students in green gowns with square hats are posing for the cameras.

But it's seething under the surface. A group of young engineering students supports the secession. "You can't talk freely about it here at the university," says one. "If you do, you risk going to jail." His analysis: "The government's violence is helping the separatist movement win support. Nobody was even speaking of independence when it started." The students tell of absurd government measures: The blue-white campus shuttle buses had to be resprayed yellow, because the Ambazonian flag is blue and white. The security guards are buttonholing students wearing blue and white clothing, reports one computer science student. "As an English-speaking Cameroonian, you're always a second-class citizen," she says.

Anglophones don't stand a chance in the Francophone part, confirms Yanick Fonki, editor-in-chief of the local English-language newspaper Green Vision. "I worked in the Francophone region for five years. They treat you like a nobody, they think they have more rights than we do. When I came back, I started campaigning for equal treatment." He blames the government for the increasing violence: "Had Biya agreed to talk to the protesters, the army wouldn't be losing people now. The separatists were not protesting violently. But the army injured them and even killed some. The violence now being used against police and soldiers is just an echo."

Fonki still hopes for a federalization of Cameroon, not for secession. "The Cameroonian army has machine guns. The Ambazonists are fighting with machetes. It's useless bloodshed and will not bring any change."

His demands are shared by the major political force in the anglophone region, the Social Democratic Front (SDF), Cameroon's largest opposition party. "I'm not in favor of secession," says SDF member Nseta Lackban in Buea. "An independent state will not eliminate problems like corruption, and most of Cameroon's problems affect the larger society. He believes the "ghost town" campaign of general strikes which launched the protests in 2016 "were mostly bad for us." Shaking his head, he adds, "the economy here in Buea suffered extreme losses. Our children are going back to school now, but in other regions they haven't gone in over a year. This can't be the solution."

Bamenda: fear and flight

In the evening, we head north on the night bus. It rumbles through the hilly landscape over pitch-dark roads with crater-sized potholes. When climbing particularly steep hills, it overtakes minibuses that lost the struggle. Their feeble headlights fall back in the darkness. The driver explains that the infrastructure has been left untouched for decades.

Even with better roads, there would be little chance to sleep. Every two hours we stop at a police checkpoint: Lights off, everybody out. Flashlights scan our faces and ID cards. About two hours north of Buea, there's no more mobile phone access to social networks.

At dawn, after seven rocky hours, the bus reaches the region's largest town, Bamenda. Supporters of Ambazonia have to be extra careful here. The lawyer/activist who comes to our hotel before sunrise will neither give his name, nor let us take a frontal photo. He's a pioneering activist who marched for a return to federalism in 2016 with hundreds of colleagues. For this he spend five months in jail. He's gone into hiding ever since.

"The whole thing is an institutional problem," he explains. "We have no problem with our French-speaking brothers and sisters – they also have problems with the government. We simply have two different systems today that can no longer work together."

He studied law in Nigeria, where he also spent time after his release. "Many of the movement's leaders are now in Nigeria. We can work there and speak the language. Some Nigerians also show solidarity with our struggle. There are Nigerian trainers working at an Ambazonian training camp for independence fighters near Mamfé, which I've visited. There are also francophone Cameroonians who've joined our fight."

The lawyer is worried about the lack of organization in the Ambazonian movement. He thinks everyone is acting on their own. Although there is a Southern Cameroon National Council (SCNC) with representatives of each region, only the diaspora is properly organized. Today, secret meetings are only possible in rural regions.

Batibo: the forest hideout

One meeting place is Batibo, a small community 42 kilometers south-west of Bamenda. It's market day. Lambs and chickens are changing owners.

The manager of a small environmental organization greets us: "Welcome to Ambaland." The Ambazonia supporter is worried: "There have been so many arrests and so many people were injured since the protests." Many people have gone into hiding in the surrounding woods. One of his co-workers was shot dead by the police, he himself was arrested several times and had to pay to get out.

The manager rides his motorbike into the woods to meet the local SCNC representative, a 60-year-old reverend. He lives in a red clay house hidden deep in the forest. He's been involved in the independence movement since September 2016, before the big protests started. "The Ambazonia movement already started in the eighties," he says. "Initially all we wanted was a referendum. So I went from house to house and collected signatures – I already collected 200. When the lawyers and teachers started protesting and the government got so repressive, the movement entered a new phase. People took to the streets and demanded a separate state of Ambazonia."

The old reverend sees no peaceful solution. "I say to my children: If I die in the struggle, I'll die for the right cause." Ambazonia – to him that's a free country where the people get to participate.

As we leave, he presents his blue-and-white Ambazonian flag and says: "Something's got to happen in January."