Since protests began in Cameroon against the marginalization of the minority Anglophone community—about 20 percent of the population—in the Northwest and Southwest regions in 2016, several armed separatist groups have emerged.
The first bloodshed occurred when at least six people were killed in December 2016 in Bamenda during anti-government protests, but the conflict has its origins in the colonial period when the United Kingdom ruled part of the modern state of Cameroon from the end of World War I until 1960. Upon independence, the now English-speaking British Mandate Territory of Southern Cameroons was integrated into the broader Republic of Cameroon.
It is unclear exactly how many armed separatist groups operate in the two Anglophone regions, but in a May 2019 report the International Crisis Group put the figure at seven main rebel militias with an official name, a known leader, and at least 200 members. Between them, they had an estimated 2,000 to 4,000 fighters. Besides these seven militias, the Crisis Group had identified another twenty smaller armed groups.
Their common goal is the creation of a new country called Ambazonia. The name is derived from Ambas Bay, a geographical feature that early Portuguese explorers named after the local people in the fifteenth century, and which some consider as the boundary between Anglophone and Francophone Cameroon.
The militias don’t collaborate and, in some cases, they have fought against each other, but their hit-and-run tactics are similar. Many of them seem to be armed only with basic one-shot hunting rifles, although some modern assault rifles have been obtained during fighting against government forces or by other illicit means. Under a 2016 law, illegal possession of a firearm is punishable by a fine and between five and ten days in jail. The government estimates there are about 30,000 firearms in circulation in Cameroon. Other improvised weapons include traps and what media reports sometimes refer to as cutlasses but are actually machetes.
New Africa Daily has culled information from open sources to develop this primer on rebel militias in Cameroon.
Ambazonia Defence Forces (ADF)
This group, led by Benedict Kuah, is by far the best known and likely the largest of the militant groups fighting for independence. Its clear and observable ties to diaspora groups also mean it is likely the best funded. It wa founded as the armed wing of the Ambazonia Governing Council (AGC), whose leader, Dr. Cho Ayaba, is based in Norway.
Ayaba says the ADF’s fighters number about 1,500 who are spread among twenty camps. In 2018, French journalist Emmanuel Freudenthal spent a week embedded with some of the ADF militants, the first journalist to do so. He could not confirm Ayaba’s claim, as he saw only about 100 fighters during this time though he did not visit every camp the group claims to operate.
According to the monitoring group Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED), the ADF significantly expanded its reach in the Northwest and Southwest regions in 2018. The ADF apparently launched operations in Manyu, Southwest, and in Mezam, Northwest, in 2017 before shifting its focus to six other administrative divisions.
Southern Cameroons Defense Forces (also known as SOCADEF)
Along with the ADF, SOCADEF is one of the more active militant groups. It is headed by Ebenezer Akwanga, who, like Ayaba of the ADF, is a former student trade unionist. According to Agence France-Presse, Akwanga and Ayaba were students in the 1990s at the University of Buea in the Southwest Region, and they challenged the moderate strand of separatism at the time, taking their slogan about “the force of argument” and reversing it to “the argument of force.”
In January 2019, a commander of SOCADEF’s ground forces in Matoh, Southwest, “General” Andrew Ngoe, was killed during a raid by Cameroonian soldiers. It remains to be seen if the strike will be crippling for the group or if it will be able to revive its fortunes.
Southern Cameroons Restoration Forces
This rebel militia, which is also known as the Southern Cameroons Defence Forces (similar to SOCADEF’S name), is mainly active in the Boyo administrative division in the Northwest Region. Led by Nso Foncha Nkem, the group had an estimated 100 fighters in 2019. In January 2020, the group was involved in clashes with the ADF, which led to the abduction of some forty ADF fighters, six of whom were later murdered.
The Red Dragons, a group based predominantly in Lebialem in the Southwest Region, is led by “Field Marshal” Lekeaka Oliver. Oliver started his career in the Cameroonian Army but, after witnessing massacres perpetrated by his colleagues, he defected and joined the separatists. As a former soldier, Oliver is a priority target of the Cameroonian government. Yet, thus far his group has taken advantage of the rugged terrain and dense forest of the region to build a series of camps where the group also manufactures improvised weapons. The group, which had an estimated 200 fighters in May 2019 and has proven effective in clashes with the government -- perhaps because Oliver understands his opponents’ tactics.
The Red Dragons is also adept atuse of social media to advance their cause, often posting videos on YouTube. The group pays allegiance to the Southern Cameroons Liberation Council, one of the splinter groups of a group known as Interim Government of the Federal Republic of Ambazonia (IG).
Tigers of Ambazonia
This militia is mainly based in the Manyu administrative division in the Southwest Region. Along with other rebel groups, it is reported to have started operations in the fall of 2017 with just ten to thirty fighters. In September 2018, the Tigers’ leader, Nchia Martin Achuo, claimed the group had some 2,000 fighters. He confirmed to Reuters that members of the Tigers had attacked a prison in the town of Wum and freed about 106 “innocent people." The Tigers reportedly collaborate with other militias, notably the ADF and SOCADEF.
This militia, which has an estimated thirty members, tends to cooperate with larger groups such as the ADF. The group has claimed responsibility for burning down government buildings. In May 2018, Vipers were blamed for setting fire to an examination center in Bamenda and some police stations in the area.
First Peace Talks
Attacks by these militias have led to the death of more than 3,000 civilians and the displacement of an estimated 730,000 people.
Following calls by the United Nations for a ceasefire, representatives of President Paul Biya’s government and nine separatist leaders—all currently in jail in the capital Yaoundé on terrorism charges—held talks on July 2. The nine separatists are members of the Interim Government of the Federal Republic of Ambazonia (IG), which claims to be the legitimate government, as dose Ambazonia Governing Council (AGC). Unfortunately, the Ambazonia Defence Forces (ADF) at present has split from the IG and it is unclear if it is willing to hold talks with the government.
Hans Ngala is a freelance journalist who focuses on Christianity in Africa, politics, and health.