On 5​ January this year, Nigerian security operatives abducted 12 men from a hotel in Abuja, the federal capital. All were members of the self-styled government of the Republic of Ambazonia, Africa’s latest secessionist movement in neighbouring Cameroon, and all were refugees in Nigeria, some of long standing, among them Sisiku Julius Ayuk Tabe, the would-be president of the aspiring Ambazonia: population, were it ever to happen, roughly five million. At first the Nigerian press made much of the abductions but for the past eight months it has remained silent. A senior executive on a leading Nigerian daily paper told me he wasn’t wary of covering the story: it simply hadn’t occurred to him to do so.

Overshadowing the secession is the inevitable question: are African states that owe their boundaries to the colonial era still viable as the entities that European imperialism created? The idea that maps in Africa can be redrawn has been deplored by African heads of state, the African Union and its predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity. The old colonial boundaries, however unsatisfactory, should remain as they are, it’s argued. Reconfiguring modern states along the lines of the pre-colonial arrangements between religious groups and nations (or ‘tribes’, as we were known) would be still more chaotic. The disastrous creation of South Sudan in 2011 seems to prove the case. Resources are also a factor: the putative new state of Ambazonia would have the benefit of almost all of the oil and gas reserves lying off the Cameroonian coast, as well as valuable timber forests inland.

The emergence of a secessionist movement in Cameroon reminds me, a Nigerian, that the continent’s boundary problems have more to do with limits to government in vast territories than with border disputes over contested land. As it happens, Cameroon and Nigeria have had a long and costly border dispute, but much more significant now is the fact that they have both joined the list of African states – which includes Central African Republic, Chad, Niger, Sudan and Somalia – in which the sway of regimes falls well short of their peripheries. Boko Haram took advantage of this situation in Nigeria and compounded it; in Cameroon the wish for an independent English-speaking Ambazonia took root far from the Francophone capital, Yaoundé, after years of neglect by central government, punctuated by intermittent campaigns of repression.

The conflict pits marginalised English-speaking Cameroonians whose parents lived under British rule against a Francophone regime that looks after a population of roughly twenty million whose official language is French, even if many don’t speak it. The conflict is escalating rapidly, with several ‘Ambazonian’ secessionist insurgencies and tens of thousands of displaced people, many seeking refuge in Nigeria. If Africa’s leaders have anything to do with it, Ambazonia – named after the English Baptist Missionary Society’s colony for freed slaves in Ambas Bay – will never see the light of day. To them it would be an ominous signal that the sovereign boundaries of states in West and Central Africa were up for negotiation. Nigeria’s ruling elite, whose predecessors lived through a failed Igbo secession in the 1960s and a terrible civil war, have no enthusiasm for an independence movement on their doorstep. The kidnappings in January couldn’t have made that more clear. But neutralising the ‘Ambazonian government in exile’ won’t put an end to the turbulence in Cameroon.

I looked on with concern from Lagos as the authorities in Abuja refused to confirm or deny the kidnappings, or to tell us which of our many security forces were responsible. It took nearly three weeks for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to be allowed to see the prisoners. The Commission had earlier warned the government that forcibly returning them to Cameroon would violate ‘international refugee law’. Two days later, they were put on a plane to Cameroon. Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, wanted to be sure that Nigeria’s ‘territory is not used as a staging area to destabilise another friendly sovereign country’. The Cameroonian authorities were instructed to go easy on the detainees. Across the border, the Cameroonian minister of communications denounced them as ‘terrorists’ and made it clear that they would have to ‘face Cameroonian justice for their crimes’. The courts can impose the death penalty under the 2014 anti-terrorism law.

Not much love is lost between Nigerians and Cameroonians. At the height of the Boko Haram threat, between 2009 and 2015, Nigerians who fled across the border were ill-treated by Cameroonian security forces. There’s also a simmering grievance over Bakassi, a network of low-lying islands in an oil-rich peninsula about 500 km off our common coastline. The archipelago was originally considered part of Nigeria but, from 1981, Cameroon regularly invaded its fishing communities to extort ‘tax’, killing many Nigerian citizens in the process. The dispute was finally settled in Cameroon’s favour in 2002 at the International Court of Justice at The Hague. The court’s ruling was based on agreements signed between the European powers in their scramble for African real estate from 1884 onwards, although this wasn’t the way the inhabitants – between 150,000 and 300,000 people – saw it. Before the European invasion, the area had been under the suzerainty of the obong or king of Calabar, nowadays part of Cross River State in southern Nigeria, and so Bakassians were surprised to discover that they were ‘Cameroonian’.

With the exception of Ethiopia, all African states are plagued by the colonial legacy, but the difficulties of Cameroon are among the most byzantine. It began life as a German colony. After Germany’s defeat in 1918, it was partitioned between France and Britain. Britain’s mandate consisted of two thin slivers along the western border with Nigeria, the ‘Northern Cameroons’ and the ‘Southern Cameroons’ – roughly 20 per cent of the territory. In due course the British would administer it from Nigeria. France took trusteeship of the lion’s share, with borders adjoining five of its other possessions. The French ran their League of Nations mandate in much the same way as they ran their imperial acquisitions, and when the stirrings of independence were felt after the Second World War, Paris took the view that postcolonial Africa should resemble colonial Africa as closely as possible. Cameroon’s destiny would be tied to the metropole as part of the ‘Communauté française’ in Africa. It would subscribe to a common currency whose value was pegged to the French franc (business as usual), and sign secretive military pacts in case French hegemony was called into question. This would be the template for 14 other French possessions in Africa. But in 1958 Ahmed Sékou Touré, the rising anticolonial star in Guinea, advocated outright independence with no binding ties to France (‘we have one prime and essential need: our dignity’). De Gaulle warned Guineans that a strike of this kind against French influence would be a Pyrrhic victory and when Sékou Touré’s cause prevailed, France was as good as its word. On the eve of independence, as an estimated three thousand French nationals prepared to leave, the administrative files were trashed, the phone lines and other communication links cut and the power sockets ripped out of the walls. Independent Guinea had to start from scratch.

A well-organised independence movement already existed in French Cameroon. Its leader, Ruben Um Nyobé, shared Sékou Touré’s view that a postcolonial future dominated by Paris would be no better than colonialism itself. ‘La colonisation,’ Um Nyobé argued, ‘c’est l’esclavage.’ The inhabitants of the British Cameroons looked on as Um Nyobé’s movement gained ground among their Francophone neighbours. Um Nyobé, born in 1913, is sometimes called the ‘forgotten founding father’ of the modern Republic of Cameroon. In 1948, he became secretary general of the Union des Populations du Cameroun. In 1952 and again in 1954, he spelled out the UPC’s goals at the UN: ‘1. The suppression of the boundaries created in 1916 between the two Cameroons; 2. abandonment by France of the policy of assimilation; 3. fixing of a time limit for trusteeship, after which Cameroon would achieve independence.’ In 1955, when the UPC embellished its demands in a Common Proclamation, the French authorities interpreted it as a unilateral declaration of independence by communists and bore down on the leadership. Um Nyobé and his colleagues retrenched and formed an armed wing, the Kamerunian National Liberation Army (he was now called ‘the black Ho Chi Minh’). A veteran of Indochina was drafted in to restore order.

Um Nyobé was captured and killed by a French reconnaissance team in 1958. It is said that his body was tied to a vehicle, dragged to his village and put on display. Photographs of Um Nyobé were destroyed, along with his writings and audio recordings of his speeches; his family, friends and sympathisers were persecuted; people were forbidden to mention his name. With the rebellion apparently subdued, it was time to end France’s trusteeship and reward the ‘moderates’. Cameroon gained its French-style independence, with many strings attached, on 1 January 1960. As Pierre Messmer, the former French high commissioner, explained, independence was given ‘to those who claimed the least’, after the elimination, ‘politically and militarily, of those who demanded it with the most intransigence’. Ahmadou Ahidjo, the first president, was an altogether more conciliatory figure than Um Nyobé. ‘The past is what it is,’ Ahidjo proclaimed. France was the future, and ‘we are for our part determined to look towards the future … Let’s refrain from throwing an armful of wood into a fire which is about to go out … We have forgotten.’

Um Nyobé’s followers still controlled most of the country, and De Gaulle despatched three hundred French officers and five battalions of mostly African troops, some of whom had seen action in the ongoing war in Algeria, to bolster Ahidjo and guarantee the country’s independence on French terms. Cameroon now became a dark sequel to the war in Indochina with an under-reported version of the Algerian conflict raging in the north: aerial bombardment, villagisation (compulsory resettlement), new pro-French militias; harsh interrogations, disappeared prisoners, public executions; and the hounding of exile enemies, one of whom – Félix Moumié, a follower of Um Nyobé – was poisoned in Geneva by the French secret services. The French general in charge of the operations estimated that in 1960 alone there were more than 21,000 dead. Almost nothing of what was going on reached the outside world. Journalists were mollycoddled by their French hosts, who took them on aerial reconnaissance trips to observe burning villages, a result, they were assured, of long-standing ‘tribal wars’ between the myriad ethnicities – about 250 – that make Cameroon a ‘mini-Africa’.

The insurgency dragged on until 1971 when the last of the leaders, Ernest Ouandié, was publicly executed. It seems that Ouandié had been on the run for days, hiding in banana plantations and under bridges. Exhausted and disoriented, he asked a passerby for help. The man recognised him and led him towards a nearby gendarmerie. The final picture taken of Ouandié shows him smiling on the way to the execution ground, where he refused the blindfold. The following year, a book by the Cameroonian novelist Mongo Beti, Main basse sur le Cameroun, which detailed what became known as ‘the hidden war’, was banned in France. In 2015 François Hollande acknowledged the repression that had followed independence and agreed to open the archives.

As violence​ raged among their Francophone neighbours, the UN decided that the fate of the British Cameroons should be settled by plebiscite: the inhabitants would say whether they wished to be part of the new Republic of Cameroon, or the new Nigeria. In early 1961, the Northern Cameroons opted to go with Nigeria and the Southern Cameroons voted to join the Republic of Cameroon under a two-state structure, each with its own parliament, courts and security forces, along with the right to elect the vice president. According to an American diplomat, the result ‘astounded the French Cameroonians’.

The Anglophones may have feared being ‘swamped’ by the Francophones, but they were also wary of the Igbo ethnic group across the border in the Eastern Region of Nigeria. This mistrust may well have swung the vote. Then, as now, the Igbos were more numerous than the entire population of Cameroon; then, as now, they were everywhere in Anglophone Cameroon. In the early 1950s, pro-independence groups from the Cameroons had briefly been allowed representation in the Eastern Region of Nigeria, in a kind of parliament of the colonised known as the Regional House of Assembly. The Cameroonian delegates were dismayed by the overbearing nature of Igbo political culture – many neighbouring minorities in Nigeria felt the same – and left after two years. One of their disagreements with the Igbos, ironically enough, was over the merits of secession. The British had ruled this out for their subjects in Cameroon, and so did the Igbo leader, Nnamdi Azikiwe, who later became Nigeria’s only non-executive president.

It didn’t take long for the Southern Cameroons to discover what they had voted for in the referendum. In 1966, Ahidjo outlawed all parties but his own; six years later, he called another referendum on whether or not to move from the federal arrangement to a unitary state. Given the numbers, a referendum could only favour the Francophones and the country was promptly renamed the United Republic of Cameroon. Francophone dominance was underscored in 1984, when Ahidjo’s successor, Paul Biya, dropped the word ‘United’ by decree (no need for a referendum). Ten years earlier, in a hugely symbolic gesture, Ahidjo had removed one of the two stars on the national flag. The following year, a distinguished Anglophone lawyer, Fon Gorji-Dinka, called for the former Southern Cameroons to secede, as a separate ‘Republic of Ambazonia’. He argued that the unification agreement had never been ratified by the Anglophone parliament: the Southern Cameroons were still a UN trust territory, a view recently endorsed by a former US under-secretary of state for African affairs, Herman Cohen, who used the controversial status of Bakassi to bolster his argument: the 1961 plebiscite ‘would certainly have been invalidated’ by the International Court of Justice, had it been consulted at the time, for the simple reason that Bakassi should have taken part in the vote but could not, because it was then part of Nigeria. You begin to see my point about the complexities which colonialism left us to sort out.

As Biya consolidated his power, demands to ‘restore the stolen independence of the British Southern Cameroons by La République du Cameroun’ were met with lengthy prison sentences. Anglophones were excluded from all senior appointments, even in their own territory, where most of the administrators were and are Francophones. The latest – and most serious – call for secession was spearheaded by the two institutions most affected: courts and schools. The trigger was the appointment in early 2016 of judges with no English and no knowledge of common law. Lawyers went on strike demanding they be removed. A few months later, teachers came out against the appointment of French-language staff who didn’t speak English, the government having earlier tweaked the General Certificate of Education to resemble the French Baccalauréat. University students and other activists quickly became involved and the security forces killed four protesters in December. The following month, an umbrella group, the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium (CACSC), was banned and two of its leaders arrested. Tensions rose as courts and schools remained closed and the internet was shut down. CACSC called for a one-day-a-week strike, which was extended to three days in August.

With the approach of the new school year, the government released the protest leaders in the hope that the teachers would call off their strike. They continued, although not entirely by choice. Eight more protesters were reportedly killed in street demonstrations. Then, in October 2017, a united front of separatists came out with a unilateral declaration of independence. Mass demonstrations were met with force: Amnesty International reckoned at least 17 deaths. A group calling itself the Ambazonia Defence Force emerged from the bush and claimed responsibility for eight separate attacks against the security forces, which had killed ten. A second group, the Tigers of Ambazonia, claimed responsibility for further attacks. By the end of the year, 17 security personnel had been killed. The number of civilian deaths is unknown but generally put ‘in the dozens’. In his New Year speech, Biya – now in his mid-eighties – appointed several new Anglophone ministers to his cabinet, but that was all. By the end of January, with the Ambazonian government-in-exile detained by the Nigerian authorities, two more armed separatist groups announced themselves. Violence continued; the security forces burned down villages and drove people into the bush. Inexorably, the number of displaced people began to rise. By the time I travelled to the region a few months ago, the UN estimated that about 160,000 people had been displaced within Cameroon itself, and another 20,000 to 50,000 (nobody is sure) had fled to Nigeria.

I was headed for Buea (pronounced ‘Boya’), 280 km from the Nigerian border and once the capital of the short-lived Anglophone entity that federated with Cameroon after the plebiscite. What should have been a five-hour journey took eight because of the checkpoints along the way, mostly manned by Francophone soldiers, some of whom affected not to speak English. At each checkpoint, we got out and showed our IDs. Not having any ID is a criminal offence and a pretext for detaining young men suspected of being terrorists. I was singled out at every checkpoint because of my Nigerian passport, which attracted a non-negotiable fee each time. I tried refusing once and was told to stand in the sun until I became ‘humble’.

When I tried to return by the same route two weeks later, I was stopped by soldiers at the first town along the way and held for eight hours at their headquarters. So what did you say you had come to do? So who did you say you contacted while you were here? I spent the time between our Q&A sessions strolling around the military compound until I was told I would have to sleep there.

Back on the road, I discovered that there had been an offensive by the security forces a few days earlier. I should have guessed from the truckloads of soldiers I’d seen heading in that direction while I’d chatted with Anglophone ‘terrorists’ – lawyers, journalists, human rights activists – in the forecourt of my hotel in Buea. As we spoke, I began to see that in a perfect world they would like a secession, but the price – exacted by Biya’s soldiers, on the one hand and armed secessionists, on the other – is high. They were clinging by their fingertips to hopes of a peaceful resolution, with or without an ‘Ambazonia’. Biya’s crackdown on strikes in the schools and the courts had opened up the game for the armed factions. The teachers’ strike, for instance, was only meant to last a few days, but the armed groups decided to use it as leverage against Biya and ordered the indefinite closure of all schools. Those that reopened were attacked by the armed groups and at least three head teachers were abducted – two of them while I was in the country – although all were eventually released. One rebel grouping, the Ambazonia Freedom Fighters, even posted photos on Facebook of five clearly identifiable children at their desks and urged its online followers to ‘stone them’. If this is the social media profile of Ambazonia in the making, citizens will be queuing for their exit visas before the new flag is hoisted.

Anything between five and twenty secessionist groups now operate in the region. Some are undoubtedly criminal enterprises, but crime is common, too, in Biya’s army. The Ambazonia Defence Force, which is the largest with around two thousand bearing arms, has a code of conduct which states that ‘no fighter … shall engage in rape, extortion, theft of property, torture, or killing of innocent civilians.’ No doubt Biya’s army subscribes to the same principles. Emmanuel Freudenthal, a French journalist who spent a week embedded in an ADF camp, found that the fighters were mostly farmers ‘pushed out of their villages’ by the army. They’re equipped with primitive, single-shot hunting rifles made in Nigeria. Biya’s army is supplied by the French with modern assault rifles (firing roughly 600 rounds a minute). To the extent that the ADF have held their ground – ‘a surprising amount’, according to Freudenthal – it’s largely because ‘the state hasn’t developed roads or means of access to many of the areas.’ This lack of interest in building infrastructure is one of the causes of the uprising. Cho Ayaba, the ADF figurehead in what seems to be a classic top-down structure, left the country in 1998. He communicates with his followers via YouTube. In August he called for ‘outright war’. It was a response to an earlier announcement by Biya – the longest-serving African head of state after Equatorial Guinea’s Teodora Nguemo Mbasogo – that he would run for another seven-year term in October. Anyone found near a polling booth, the ADF warned, would be killed.

Buea​ was considered safe when I visited. By 7 October, when the country went to the polls, there were reports of gunfire. Only a handful of voters cast ballots in Buea itself, and one analyst put the turnout in the Anglophone region at just 5 per cent. An entire district didn’t vote at all because, according to a police spokesperson, ‘the area is dangerous’, despite the heavily armoured convoy that attempted to deliver ballot papers. Biya and his wife, Chantal, voted in Yaoundé surrounded by soldiers. Biya himself was satisfied that the ‘election campaign was conducted peacefully’. The next day, Maurice Kamto of the opposition Movement for the Rebirth of Cameroon claimed victory and invited Biya to ‘organise a peaceful way to transfer power’. The government, which had said it would ‘not tolerate any disorder before, during or after the presidential vote’, quickly warned that ‘only the Constitutional Council would be allowed to announce results’ and that any form of challenge to the verdict would ‘not be tolerated’.

Kamto’s possible victory points to problems within Francophone Cameroon itself. During my trip through the country I met many Francophones sympathetic to the Anglophone plight. In the port city of Douala, ordinary French-speakers had marched in solidarity with their Anglophone compatriots during the strikes, but this shouldn’t have been surprising. I’ve been using the word ‘Francophone’ as though it were an existential condition, and a sign of allegiance to the former colonial power, but this is really only the case for the elites that took over in the wake of colonialism. As in Nigeria (and elsewhere in Africa), the challenge is to wrest power from two generations of colonial appointees and to share the remains of ‘the fruits of independence’.

Increasingly this challenge is expressed in separatist terms, with old fissures reopening and new ones becoming visible. Events in Cameroon coincide with calls among the Igbos of south-east Nigeria to revisit the Biafran secession. As in Cameroon, the government’s response has been harsh. Muhammadu Buhari has promised to ‘kill more Igbos’ if there is ‘a repeat of the civil war’: in 2016 he sent in the military to disrupt a Biafra Remembrance Day rally, resulting in an estimated 150 deaths; during the operation, Nnamdi Kanu, the leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra, the most vocal of these separatist groups, was abducted (whereabouts still unknown). Another group, the Biafra Nations Youth League, now has its headquarters in Bakassi peninsula, where it has teamed up with the Bakassi Movement for Self-Determination, whose interim head has declared a democratic republic.

For the inhabitants of Bakassi, nothing has changed since it switched hands. The Nigerian government barely acknowledged their existence in the old days, unless the Cameroonian authorities were on a tax-gathering spree, and today it has no jurisdiction in the territory. Bakassians who left for other parts of Nigeria at the time of the handover were promised resettlement, but 16 years later many are still living in camps. Those who remain in the peninsula – almost all Nigerians – are still subject to punitive taxes imposed by marauding Cameroonian gendarmes, most recently in early 2017 when almost one hundred were killed, as we learned from those who managed to escape, and who have now added to the growing refugee population as Cameroonians, too, continue fleeing into Nigeria. In practical terms the border means little.

About to head back to Nigeria, not knowing that Biya would shortly announce a date for the presidential election, I took advice from the staff at my hotel and went by sea. They escorted me to the waterfront, two hours’ drive from Buea, where I boarded a ‘flying boat’ – a large canoe with an outboard motor – in the company of a Nigerian and an English-speaking Cameroonian, smuggling forty bags of rice. Two and a half hours later, we eased into one of the creeks that used to provide cover for militants in the Niger Delta (here, too, the wish to secede from Nigeria is strong). Waiting for us were men on motorbikes to convey the contraband rice to the market in town. ‘At least you didn’t have to cope with immigration,’ one of my companions remarked as we shared a beer later. He was a university student who regularly made this run to help with his fees, although his chances of employment, with or without a degree, are slim.

The arbitrary colonial frontiers and the ineptitude of our postcolonial regimes, barely able to administer the lands they govern, have not stood us in good stead. But a future of violent change, presaged by the spread of separatisms, is frightening. ‘No back, no front’, as we say. We have to reimagine ourselves and our societies all over again, but the fact that this process ends so often in the secessionist ideal simply confirms what we know already: that our states have been hollowed out. There are two precedents for secession in postcolonial Africa: South Sudan, which required decades of war to achieve, and Eritrea, which was annexed by Ethiopia in the 1960s and fought for thirty years to break free. Ambazonia too has a fight on its hands, not only against the government in Yaoundé but against Europe’s lingering hold, which determined its territorial status and now frames the violence as a contest between two rival legacies. (Sadly none of our own West African languages can serve as a lingua franca now; many are quaint relics, only dimly celebrated.)

The abducted members of the Ambazonian government are still in detention in Cameroon, having been joined by 35 others, also abducted by the Nigerian authorities and forcibly returned to their country. It took six months for the Cameroonian government to admit that they were in detention in Yaoundé and that criminal proceedings had been opened against them. We also heard that they had been allowed to see their lawyers and representatives from the Red Cross. No charges have yet been preferred although they are expected quite soon. The men will be tried by a military court and once the death sentence is handed down – the likeliest outcome – President Biya will have to weigh the situation carefully, heeding the advice of the French – that is, if he’s still president, which is also a matter for the French to decide.

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