Fighting for a new nation
In a peaceful Norwegian settlement, Cho Lucas Ayaba (46) sits and leads an uprising with the goal of secession from Cameroon and the establishment of a separate state: Ambazonia. Right now, a bloody conflict, which few in Norway have heard of, is more than 8,000 kilometers away. But in the home office of an anonymous residence somewhere in Norway, one of the main players is sitting in what could turn into a new civil war in the West African country of Cameroon.
– More than five million people are affected by the conflict. There are as many inhabitants as in the whole of Norway. Thousands have been killed and over 500,000 people have been displaced from their homes, Cho Lucas Ayaba told VG.
He is the leader of the separatist movement Ambazonia Governing Council and commander-in-chief of Ambazonia Defense Forces – the largest of the at least 20 armed groups fighting for independence for Ambazonia, also called Ambaland.
This is a self-proclaimed state consisting of the English-speaking parts of Cameroon – a land strip along the border with Nigeria, which formerly constituted Southern Cameroon and was under British administration until 1961.
VG is welcomed in the home office, which consists of a desk, a couple of chairs and a bookshelf. One wall is covered with a solid banner with a map and photos from Ambazonia. A small Amazonian flag adorns the desk.
Cho Lucas Ayaba folds his hands, leans forward and talks seriously about the situation in his home country.
The English-speaking minority in Cameroon claim to be politically and economically discriminated against and marginalized by the French-speaking majority, and in recent decades have protested against the authorities and pushed for reforms in the education system and the judiciary – without success.
– The situation in Cameroon is extremely bad. We are forced into a French system that does not work. We want to make our own laws and be able to take education in English, but it is not possible as long as the French speakers are in the majority. That is why we want our own state, says Ayaba.
When the English speakers took to the streets of Cameroon in 2016, there was not much talk of independence and detachment. The protesters were driven by a number of problems they encounter in everyday life, such as a rigid educational system that favors the French-speaking majority and is disadvantageous to the English-speakers, and a judiciary dominated by the French-speaking, making it difficult for the English-speakers to reach with their requirements.
In 2017, President Paul Biya’s government hard-fought protesters, demanding that English language be used in classrooms and courtrooms in the English-speaking regions. Security forces fired sharp ammunition from low-flying helicopters into crowds, and videos of unarmed protesters knocking began circulating online.
The signal was clear that the government did not intend to give in to the demands of the English-speaking minority. An armed conflict flared up.
According to independent observers, such as the International Crisis Group, the government bears much of the responsibility for the conflict. It has failed to recognize the displeasure of the English-speaking population, and the security forces have carried out extensive assaults and imprisoned many peaceful activists, according to the organization.
– We urged the UN to provide protection for the civilian population, but no international efforts were made to help. We do not want to undergo the same thing as the Tutsis in Rwanda, which is why we want to protect ourselves and fight for our existence, says Ayaba.
He himself has been an activist for a number of years, which led to him having to flee. In 1998 he was granted asylum in Germany. Later he also became a German citizen.
In Norway he has taken a master’s degree in international politics, and in England he has recently completed a doctorate in international human rights.
Although he is thousands of miles from the conflict zones in Cameroon, he keeps in touch with his followers through social media. Regularly answers caller questions and holds calls, which are posted directly on Facebook and viewed by thousands of viewers. The goal is to mobilize the people on the ground, but also the more powerful Cameroonian diaspora around the world.
He says he has been attacked several times in Europe.
– I’ve been on the death list for a long time. The regime knows that I am in Norway. I am constantly getting information about people who are on their way to the country, and I know that they have sent agents here. The threats are on many levels, but there is not much I can do but be careful, says Ayaba, presenting threat messages from social media on mobile.
Ayaba claims that friends and acquaintances have been contacted by French-speaking Africans on the street, who have asked for him. Ayaba is convinced that these are agents sent to Norway by the Cameroonian government. He has many enemies – both among Cameroonian authorities and among rival separatist groups. According to himself, PST is informed of his situation.
– I am a threat to the regime in Cameroon because of the way I articulate how my people are treated. We can’t stand it anymore. The only way the regime can stop me is to “take me out”.
The area where the state of Cameroon is today consisted of several smaller kingdoms before the colonial era. The Portuguese noticed that the Wouri River, which flows through the area, had large deposits of lobster, and called it “Rio dos camarões”. The Germans, who created a colony here in 1884, called the area Cameroon. After World War I, the victorious powers of Britain and France divided the colony as a mandate, sowing the seeds of today’s conflict.
The British ruled their territory from the colony of Nigeria, while the French integrated the economy into their mandate in the country’s economy, improving infrastructure through investment and skilled workers.
The issue of independence became increasingly urgent after World War II, and in 1960 and 1961 respectively, French and British Cameroon gained their independence. At first, the state was a federation, but after a referendum in 1972, French and British Cameroon joined forces in a united republic.
Today’s President Paul Biya quickly rose to the rank of a bureaucrat in the 1960s, and in 1975 he became the country’s prime minister. After Biya joined the presidency in 1982, he has continued to consolidate the dominance of French speakers in the country. In the fall of 2018, he won his seventh presidential election, becoming the world’s longest-serving non-royal leader, and the oldest president in sub-Saharan Africa.
According to Francis Nyamnjoh, professor of anthropology at the University of Cape Town, the Anglophone movement is not only a protest against the marginalization of the English-speaking population but also a protest against the president, who has held power in Cameroon for 37 years.
– The fact that the English speakers oppose the government does not necessarily make it a specific problem for the English speakers. In fact, it is a very Cameroonian problem: a state that does not deliver, a state that has nothing to do there, because there are no results, says the professor in an interview with the Nordiska Afrikainstitutet in Uppsala.
Already in 1999, Nyamnjoh wrote a scientific article describing how the state’s “divide and rule” system causes Cameroon’s regional and ethnic groups to turn against each other.
– Unfortunately, this is what we see today, says the professor, who himself is Cameroonian.
Moderate voters, which have called for a return to a federal state rather than independence for the English-speaking regions, have been imprisoned or forced into exile in recent years. Separatist groups now believe that the time window for entering negotiations is closed and that the only possibility now is total detachment.
Human Rights Watch characterizes the Ambazonia Governing Council as an extremist group and criticizes it for committing abuses, as well as using hateful rhetoric against the French-speaking population and the security forces of the government. Ayaba refutes the charges.
– Our forces have not committed crimes against humanity. We have disciplined forces that have standing orders on how to act: They must follow the Geneva Convention in the fight against the regime, he states.
During the interview with VG, he is even called by a person who is alleged to be a local commander. Ayaba puts him on speaker. They ask what to do with a group of government soldiers they have captured. They can’t afford to feed them – can they be shot?
– No no no! You must follow the rules of war. If you cannot take care of the prisoners of war you take, you must release them. I’ll make sure you get the money to feed them, says Ayaba.
The International Crisis Group estimates that around seven armed rebel groups fighting for the independence of Ambazonia consist of between 2,000 and 4,000 armed insurgents, some security guards, as well as dozens of Nigerian mercenaries and pure criminals who have fled the Niger Delta.
However, Cho Lucas Ayaba claims that there are tens of thousands of English speakers who have taken up arms, in what he refers to as self-defense and armed resistance to the oppressive regime.
According to Human Rights Watch, it is unclear how the various groups are organized and to what extent they coordinate with each other. According to a report released last year, some groups have a local-level structure, with village commanders reporting to regional leaders.
“It is structured to have a general or a leader for each village,” said a civil society activist who traveled in areas controlled by armed separatists in March 2018 to Human Rights Watch.
– We were stopped at a roadside checkpoint by Amazonian boys. When I said that I work for an organization, they pulled me aside. I was questioned and eventually the manager let me go after getting phone instructions from someone else, she says according to the report.
Ambazonia Defense Forces have also been accused of being behind kidnappings – something Ayaba rejects.
“These actions have been carried out by people pretending to be separatists, who want to spread an impression of chaos in our war of independence,” said Ayaba – statements he also made in an interview with Sky News.
He is partially supported in the report by the International Crisis Group, which points out that the armed groups last year carried out numerous kidnapping for ransom, blackmailing shop owners and “taxing” businesses. This relative economic independence allows the local rebel groups to disengage from political organizations in the exile communities, ignoring orders to respect the rights of civilians and carry out abuses.
Amnesty International has documented violence and abuse perpetrated by individuals and groups who have acted on their own initiative but have expressed support or are known to act in sympathy with self-proclaimed armed groups or the armed detachment. Amnesty International emphasizes that it is often difficult, if not impossible, to verify claims about the various attacks.
In English-speaking areas where the government is still present, the population is largely forced to live under emergency conditions, and President Biya’s security forces have, according to Foreign Policy magazine, made it a habit to arrest and torture random people of conflicting age. The government forces have also been guilty of burning down dozens of villages.
This is a situation that encourages the population to either flee the region or join the fight. There is no indication that the rebel groups will run out of new recruits in the near future.
Refugee Aid Secretary-General Jan Egeland visited the affected areas in Cameroon earlier this year. According to his organization, 530,000 people are internally displaced in these regions, while more than 35,000 people have fled to Nigeria. In a speech to the UN Security Council, he stated:
– In my 40 years as a humanitarian worker, I have often seen how the lack of early intervention has led to less conflict developing into cruel and endless wars. It is still time to prevent the conflict in Cameroon from escalating further, with unspeakable suffering as a consequence.
Ayaba’s family is unfamiliar with war and suffering. His father was one of the 600,000 African soldiers who fought for Britain against the Axis during World War II.
– My father fought for Europe’s freedom. He received three medals and a broken back. He died already when I was 11 years old, and his mother received a hundred dollars in pension for his efforts during the war, says Ayaba.
He now hopes that the United Kingdom and other Western countries will be on the path to put pressure on the Cameroonian government, and most preferably to recognize the independence of Amazon.
Earlier this year, the United States cut $ 17 million in military support for Cameroon’s fight against the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram on suspicion that the funds may have been used to commit human rights violations against the English-speaking population. Ayaba interprets it as a sign that Americans are sympathetic to their cause.
– There have been hearings about Cameroon in the US Congress, and now much is being discussed in the UK. The situation in Cameroon is also being discussed in the EU. The world has begun to see what is happening, he believes.
Ayaba wants his children, born and raised in Norway, to be able to travel to an independent and free Ambazonia.
– I’m not going to push them to go back to Ambazonia – but I want them someday to have the opportunity.