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Sunday, September 16, 2018

Exclusive on National Times: Killing a soldier, the making of a secessionist

On the 14th of June this year, I received a call from an unknown caller. On the other end, an accommodating and smooth voice entreated, “support our group…I am calling from [name of group redacted]”, the confident voice did not completely betray her anxious feelings of not knowing what kind of person I am. The speaker was calling from Cameroon, and sounded a little tired, but firm.

Anglophone lawyers and teachers scampered on the streets of Buea, Bamenda, and Kumba, in October 2016 asking the Cameroonian government to overturn a decade-long policy that allowed French judges to be appointed to English courts in South West and North West Regions.

The fact is, up to that moment the government had never expected such a revolt from lawyers who one can reliably call the only “middle-class” in Cameroon. The government never dreamt this group of “bourgeoises”, will do what until then had only been done by the destitute and defenceless in the Anglophone regions—students.

Gendarmes and police officers were ready to sabotage the protest—using whatever means they could. Speaking of the lawyers’ revindication, the Minister of Justice had let out the secret feeling among most Cameroonian elites, that feeling of (maybe) arrogance elites cherish and admire, and he could not understand that others should fail to admire it too—that the government had monopoly over policy decisions, and the lawyers just had to “suck it up”.

In responding to the protest, a thought came to the top security officials in Buea, “like a clap of thunder”, one official involved in the decision making described the discussion. “We have to barricade this protest from spilling into University grounds”. A quick, and somewhat spontaneous decision was made to send gendarmes and armies to student hostels to wade off any mass organisation or “resistance” from the student quarters.

That decision led to mass intrusion into student hotels, rape and assaults on students. As I said these words, the official became persistent and irritable, as though he relished them. “We had no choice. We had to protect the city and property” he insisted. “By attacking students”? I insisted too. “I am surprised at your putting the question that way, but we did what we had to do” the official break the call.

But to Nadia, that decision created a period of mourning, then a period of obsessive fevers of shock and anxiety. “It was not a great time for me” she continued with feelings. “I will wake up and hear my sister screaming, get of me, get off me,” she said on our third call. “As if she was stateless”. “And then I started thinking about her life, will she ever get to break from that horrible and disgusting event? Some nights, I will just get up and start crying, what did they do to her?” she fidgeted.

“Then one night, while I was crying I realised I could do something about it. I could join a separatist group and revenge this crime”. So she decided, sitting in a bus to her hometown, that should get back to this guy, even if she can’t remember the guy’s face, “to me all soldiers are this guy”. “And the point is my sister said the guy was really ugly”. Her sister died three months later from the trauma of the rape.

“I know you’ve told this story a dozen times”, I said to her, “but I will be happy to write a story about it”. “No I haven’t” she said rather oddly, “you are the first person I am telling the story to. Most members of our camp don’t know why I joined the force” she slipped in, as if accidentally.

This article draws on hundreds of calls and text messages with ten members of five Anglophone separatist group I spoke to between June and August this year. I focus on their social backgrounds, accusations of kidnaps and rape levied against the group members, and what they believe is the way forward ahead of the October elections. For security reasons, no names used here are the real names of those I spoke to. I have used Pseudonyms.

“I won’t tell you my exact age” Nestor answered vaguely, as though hesitating to talk to someone he has never met, but “I am between the age of 17 to 23”. Actually, he looked over a decade older than that age. But as if he was reading my mind, he interrupted “I look way older because of the hardship I’ve been through”. “I wanted to be a doctor, but my father died, and my mother couldn’t afford my tuition, so I dropped out of school” he continued dodging my question about his highest level of education.

“I’m 29 years old”, Bessingi from the same camp with Nestor chipped in. The disparity between Bessingi’s deep and craggy voice and his boyish face won’t reveal anything about his age, even after five conversations. “I’m a graduate from the University of Buea. [field redacted]. I am a Christian. I still pray everyday, even here in our camp. I think we can only win this war through the acts of God” Bessingi continued effortlessly.

As I showed more interest in their personalities and life history I heard waves of anxiety and hate roaring behind their voices. I also heard desperation and some lazy form of hopelessness, mixed with mountains of courage.

Boris, once a mass servant, aged between 27-32, told me he joined the Ambazonian Defence Force (ADF) to protect his people. “Those guys [the army] were brutal. They came to my quarter, tortured people and molested them”. “They even burnt one house” he spoke with rage, his lips will quiver on and off. “I thought things couldn’t go one like this. Someone had to stand up to them,” he fluttered.

After speaking to over seven “separatists,” my eyes open to other theories as to why some Anglophone youths are joining the fight. I was surprised that none told me that they joined because they were unemployed or coerced by separatists.

But everyone was pushed by something, though not always by horrors of military brutality, as was Nestor and Nadia. Derek had been an advocate of English separation from the French speaking region for over nine years now. He told me “I saw this as the perfect opportunity to correct a historic injustice”. “Look at the sign post?” we were on phone, so I could not exactly see which sign posts he was referring to, “they are all in French” he added. “How can LRC be so indifferent to our existence and right to self-rule?” Quoting Malcom X, he said “If you’re not ready to die for it, put the word ‘freedom’ out of your vocabulary”.

Cameroon was colonised by the Germans in 1884. Thirty years after, the Germans will surrender the territory to British and France after losing in the World War I. France and Britain partitioned the country, introducing their respective languages as “official languages”. More than forty years after the partition, waves of decolonisation swept across the continent leading to the independence of French Cameroon in 1960, and of English speaking British Cameroon in 1961.

A raft of constitutional changes from the Ahidjo’s regime to Biya, have raised fears of French marginalisation of those in the English-speaking zone.  While English is the predominant language in Southwest and Northwest Regions, almost all security agencies in these regions are ruled in French.

I told Derek I was ready to die for several things, like standing for good story, exposing corruption, giving everybody a fair say, but not killing my fellow countrymen. He replied “Don’t be in a hurry to condemn because we don’t do what you do or think as you think. There was a time when you didn’t know what you know today”, he warned me, reflecting from Malcolm X again.

Derek had a surprisingly good grasp of the works of Malxcolm X, Marthin Lurther King, Che Guevara, and Patrice Lumumba. More so than his educational background will force me to accept. He told me, before, all he did was read books, “now that has changed. All I do is think how to kill my enemy”.

Have you ever kidnapped anyone? I asked. “We have kidnap five people…those I am aware of”, Derek said, surprisingly contented with the action. “They were all government officials. We arrested them, we did not kidnap them,” he retorted a lazy line from several secessionist Anglophones. But I didn’t see the words as lazy, because his intense intelligence didn’t even hide under his sense of humour and hate. What about civilians? I asked. He shook his head, “none that I can remember” he said.

He told me he was part of a group that kidnapped a rich cocoa merchant from Kumba. He said “the man had money but won’t support us. We are fighting for everyone. We are fighting for the freedom of those who live here and those who are out there. Everybody has to contribute” he continued, “we will continue to kidnap them, until everyone sees this fight as popular revolt” he remarked quietly and distinctively.

I asked him how many victims they have under their custody. He cleared his throat, as if trying to spite out a fish bone. Then twisted his lips into a smile, and said “over 28”. I asked, are they all in the same place? He said, “No. they are not. That is very risky. We have had cases where we keep them in same places and the government attacks and take them away.” I asked, how many women and children, “None he said. We don’t kidnap women and children, but some bad groups do”. “Look we don’t maltreat this people. We feed them twice a day, they are part of this resistance. They just don’t understand that” he exclaimed with an exaggerated sense of dignity.

I had received my first call from Nadia who wanted me to support their group. But words swirling around of recent has it that most separatist leaders in the US and Europe have mismanaged funds given to them by their officials. I asked Nadia if she was aware of this. “Those guys are thieves. Tapang Ivo said he was sending us money, likewise Aya Cho, but based on what I have heard from my commandants, those guys haven’t sent anything to my group.” I recalled seeing a video on social media where one of the leaders of the Red Dragon accused Tapang Ivo of fraudulently claim that he was the mastermind behind the Red Dragons, just for Red Dragon leaders to come out in another video and said they have never spoken to him.

But the claim about about Aya Cho Lucas, the purported head of the Ambazonian Defence Force was bizarre and new. How sure are you about these claims? I asked without thinking about the question carefully. “I am very sure, because I am close to someone who is close to our leader. They talk about it all day” Nadia replied, a little relax than I would have expected.

But members from other groups like ADF whom I spoke to said they have been receiving some financial support from those in the diaspora, although this is usually in the form of weapons, not meant for food and medical supplies.

During our interviews, there was an “elephant in the house” which I was careful not to bring out recklessly. The Government has insisted that elections will be held in Anglophone regions, what are you going to do about it? I asked, ready to withdraw the question in the face of any resistance. “We are having special training to sabotage the elections,” Nanje a member of a group in the Ndian Division said. “We received new ammunitions for the elections from Nigeria, so we are ready for them. There will be no elections in Ndian”.

Not everyone one I spoke to had such solid confidence of what will happen in October. “I am scared, to be honest with you. There will be mass fighting and carnage on both sides. It will be a bloodbath. The government should postpone this election until this problem is resolved. Many innocent people will die. Some will be maimed for the rest of their lives” Derek surprisingly revealed another side of his bold personality.

Will you be on the forefront on that day? I asked, having jumped the first huddle. “Of course, I will. I am in the special division, so I am sure they will deplore me” Derek continued. Will you kill any civilian who goes out to vote? “I will not answer. But I will warn them to stay in doors” Derek said and dropped the call.

But he called me back and said, “look we are not terrible people. We are just fighting for jobs, education and the right to be heard.” He continued “There was one day we went out to attack this military vehicle in Ekona, one military office shot at me, the bullet missed me, and when I pointed my gun at him, I saw fear in his eyes, he was trembling like a chameleon on dry leaf. I saw tears in his eyes. I could have shoot him. But I didn’t. I know he had no choice. I had the choice to either kill him or let him go back to his family. I let him go”.