Good Amba, Bad Amba
(From BAYEN WARZONE REPORTING, a part of my regular Op-Ed column “outside the presidency” in The Sun newspaper of June 3, 2019, always on page 4)
All Amba Boys are not good guys. They are not all bad boys either. Judge for yourself whether their existence is justified or not and take responsibility now and in the hereafter for your conclusion. I have been on the road most of these past two weeks. I broke from routine to attend to crucial family matters and other professional engagements. Most of my travels have been in Ground Zero. I have been seeing a bit of the pregnancy Ground Zero carries. When shall it be delivered? Find the answer elsewhere. In varied opinions, the Amba Boys are reining love, fear, discord, greed, generosity. They are taking charge of their space. They make their bed. They are lying on it. Some lie on their bed of roses, others on their bed of thorns. I have heard about the bad. I have seen some of the ungood. I have seen some good. Twice, a group blocked road transport through Bali along the Mamfe-Bamenda highway, from Bali to its outskirt villages, heading towards Batibo. For reasons yet to be made clear, they barricaded the road at several locations felling trees, dumping stones and furniture from houses and bars, other objects and divers types of debris; just any form of nuisance that could obstruct traffic. First, May 18-24 and next on June 1.
Friday, May 24, along the Mamfe-Bamenda road:
Our commuter vehicle runs into four groups of Amba Boys at different locations. Our driver who plies the road regularly, recognizes the leader of one of the group and asks him, “Na here you dey now?” (Is this where you are now?) To which the good-looking young leader of the armed group replies: “You noba hear say some new general don comot for here? Na me be new general for here.” (Haven’t you heard of the new general who has emerged here? It’s me the new general here.) He tells our driver how he survived military gunshots that hit his wrist. “Na only one catch ma foot” (Just one bullet wounded me on my foot.) Next, he counts four of us grownups in the vehicle and levies each of us 2000FCFA. “Wuna fours so, if wuna giih we two-two towin, we fiih take’am buy groundnut.” (If each of you gives us two thousand francs, that would enable us to buy some groundnuts.) Whatever “groundnuts” stand for. But as passengers obediently comply and the collection is in progress, a lieutenant of the “general” mounting guard about 60 metres away, fires a shot for reasons unknown to us and apparently, even to his general. All vehicles lined up for the same exercise take off in apparent fright. The general retreats from our vehicle, hopping a few steps backwards, looking in the direction of the shot as if to ascertain what would have provoked it. Our driver does like the others. He speeds off and returns the cash he had collected from passengers. Elsewhere, other groups did not impose a levy. Some simply asked for “any contribution”. Others asked for nothing, simply inspecting our vehicle to identify any “enemies” among passengers. Prime enemies are state defence and security officers. At a previous Amba checkpoint, one of them looked so intently at my older brother, the driver asked him jokingly, “Why are you looking at him like that? You think he is… (some word I guess suggested military or police).” To which the Amba “officer” replied, “You think he would tell you he is if he was?” But they let us go.
Friday, May 31, Bamenda-Mamfe road:
Rumours have flooded Bamenda that Amba Boys would barricade the Bamenda-Mamfe road again on Saturday, June 1. Reason: the Bali County Amba would be burying their “general” killed the previous Saturday. The circumstances surrounding his death remain obscure, but most claims hold he was not felled by a Government bullet. Varied versions say he was killed in a mutiny within his County unit. On this day, I am travelling that road, headed to Manyemen. On a bend at an uninhabited part of Bali, a bow-legged fellow in the middle of the road, points his Dane gun menacingly at a vehicle just ahead of ours. Ours and the other screech to a sudden halt. Another older-looking man emerging from the remote junction, shouts an order, “Don’t give any money. No one should give any money.” Few of the dozen members of the group have guns. Most of them have hammers and peak axes. Our driver enquires from them about rumours of a lockdown the next day. They all grow wild. Those with guns point them at our vehicles menacingly. The bow-legged man said to our driver, pointing his gun at him, “Why are you asking? Just let me see you along this road tomorrow!” Our driver, raising his hands, pleads for forgiveness. They order us to drive off. After delays from breakdowns, we arrive at Kendem Gendarmerie Brigade checkpoint, about 40 km to Mamfe at about 8.30pm, well after the 6pm curfew hour. We are bound to stay the night there, a flashlight from the unmanned roadside sentinel lighting the place, but no one there to attend to us, as the officers had retreated to their “barracks” for the night. However, at intervals throughout the long night, a torchlight flashes at us from another sentinel behind the barracks. Routine torchlight checks do not come from the Gendarmerie alone, though. We are apparently being watched by both sides. Occasionally, a torchlight flashes from the Bamenda road end of Kendem behind our vehicle. We can guess they are Amba Boys. Neither the Gendarmerie nor the Amba Boys approach us.
Saturday, June 1, Kendem:
At dawn, the Gendarme officers criss-cross their barracks, taking turns to bathe within our view and change into their uniforms in their rooms. At 7 pm, three of them walk towards the checkpoint, one activating his AK47. Paying no attention to us, they walk in bold military steps to the back of a house in the direction they often point during gun battles and routine alerts. He fires three shots. About 30 minutes earlier, shots from unknown persons had been heard from that direction at a distance in the bush. Were they exchanging morning greetings? After the shots, the officers remove their barricades and beckoned on us to approach. We walk towards them in a file, present our ID cards, board our vehicle and drive off headed towards Bachuo-Akagbe, the junction town to Mamfe (right turn) and Kumba (left turn). Along the way, we meet two groups of Amba Boys. The first group simply inspects our vehicle and asks for “anything”. A passenger offers 500 FCFA which our driver drops on the ground (their prescribed way of being given money) and they flag us to drive on. At the next Amba control, one of them notices a cob of maize protruding from a bag on the carriage of our vehicle. He asks for permission to take it. The owner in our vehicle gives her consent. The Amba Boy pulls just that cob of maize from the bag. They all smile and flag us to go.
Sunday, June 2, Mamfe-Kumba road:
In a different vehicle on this new trajectory, we run into an Amba checkpoint of about 15 armed combatants. A passenger we had picked up along the way, alighted at that checkpoint and to our amazement, he was greeted with camaraderie. “Na we officer” (He is our colleague), said one of them. My fellow passengers are bemused. “So dis boy too na Amba?” (So, this guy is also an Amba Boy?), one passenger asks. The astonishment could be understood. The young man in question wore neither of the famous Amba amulets. He wore a rosary with a crucifix. We drive off. A few paces away, possibly less than 300 metres, we drive into a Gendarmerie checkpoint.
Several Ambazonia units are in discord over sharing of the spoils of war. Revenue from free-will donations, ransoms, GoFundMe remittances disbursed by Diaspora warlords and levies are tearing some units apart. Occasionally, there are mutinies and inter-Amba gun battles. Sometimes commanders or generals are “neutralized” or disarmed and kept in captivity or overthrown or expelled. Some versions of the Bali County general’s death suggest he was killed because he disciplined some of his greedy lieutenants for indulging in different forms of extortion. At some Amba units, commanders or those in whom they entrust funds for safe keeping have reportedly fled with the said funds, some to the tune of millions. Some of such funds are raised through levies which villagers view as disguised forms of extortion. In one unit, the “ingenious” finance officer has obliged all cash crop farmers to surrender two-thirds of all their yields to the Amba treasury. Not only are some unscrupulous Amba units reaping from suffering masses, they are now executors of justice and “keepers of the seals”. They discipline “defaulting” villagers and have had to flog elderly men and women, especially over land disputes. Sometimes, some villagers acknowledge the wisdom in some of the actions of the Amba law enforcers, but on the whole, such actions have created an atmosphere of fear, left the impression of a reign of terror and made some people wish for protection from elsewhere.