A fighter is rolling around on the ground, screaming, and muddying his bright-red basketball jersey. His colleagues take turns hitting him with a stick.
This punishment, 50 lashes, was ordered by *Omega, the field commander of this Ambazonia Defense Forces (ADF) camp. The man had been “brutalising some people”, so “when the complaint got to me, I had to punish him severely,” Omega explains. “We don’t want the Ambaz’ name to be stained.”
Cameroon’s anglophone minority has felt marginalised for decades. During protests last October security forces killed and jailed demonstrators, spurring the birth of several separatist armed groups, including the ADF. The intensifying conflict has displaced more than 180,000 people, including tens of thousands who have fled into neighbouring Nigeria.
With their leaders in exile and a huge territory to control, the separatist leaders are under pressure to deliver military results while keeping their troops motivated and a spotless image. To achieve this, they resort to WhatsApp, social media, and magic.
With a battle planned for the next day, Omega’s boss, *Atem, sorts out his equipment on a bed: a handgun, a couple dozen bullets, but also several necklaces and other amulets. His arsenal is as much spiritual as military. They call this magic “Odeshi”, and fighters believe it’s their only protection in their unequal fight against Cameroon’s US-trained army.
Cameroon’s anglophone minority has been requesting greater autonomy since 1961, when former territories held by the British and French were federated into one bilingual central African nation. These demands have become steadily more vocal since the 1980s.
In October 2016, peaceful protests calling for the use of English in courts and classrooms resulted in more than 100 arrests. A year later, in October 2017, when demonstrators called for independence, security forces killed dozens of them and jailed hundreds more.
That violence led to the birth of several separatist armed groups – including the ADF – which have since been responsible for a string of attacks against army and police personnel that have left close to 150 dead, according to the ADF.
Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the BBC have documented the targeted burnings by government forces of at least 20 villages and the torture of dozens of civilians. The government has denied all the allegations of human rights violations by its security forces.
More than 180,000 people have been displaced by the conflict, fleeing to Nigeria or within Cameroon.
Amnesty and HRW have also documented abuses against civilians by the separatist groups. After separatists began calling for an education boycott in 2017, some teachers and principals who refused to shut down schools were assaulted, shot, or kidnapped. A total of 42 schools have been attacked, according to Amnesty.
The hazy command structure of the half-dozen armed groups operating in the anglophone regions makes it difficult to establish if attacks are carried out by individuals or on the behalf of a particular group. The ADF’s leadership has denied involvement in attacks against schools.
Over the past several months, the conflict has intensified. Three weeks ago, seven traditional rulers, who are usually appointed by the government, were reportedly kidnapped by separatist groups (not the ADF). Further violence may be on the way during the next presidential elections to be held on 7 October.
Atem is one of the most senior ADF commanders. He is well respected and known throughout the region as “Commando”, yet his crew still pokes at his portly belly when he takes his shirt off. The group’s hierarchy isn’t well established and Atem derives his authority less from his official rank than from his way with words: he knows when to listen, and when to tell someone off. Like many of the 1,500 other fighters the ADF claims to have, Atem was a farmer before the war.
Having gathered all his gear on the bed, he picks up his “battle shirt” – a sleeveless black top with amulets sewn onto the front – and puts it on. Around his neck, he hangs pendants of tightly stitched red leather, from which white feather quills stick out. Next, he puts bracelets around his biceps and on his wrists.
Each of these amulets, known collectively as Odeshi, has a specific task: a bracelet makes one invisible, a necklace jams the enemy’s gun, a goat’s tail waves off bullets etc. They each come with rules, such as fighting for a rightful cause, or avoiding specific foods.
Atem’s skin carries thin scars born of previous rituals. The previous day, he paid a traditional healer, a “baba”, to perform such a ceremony to protect him from bullets. The baba sacrificed a chicken and cut Atem’s skin with a razor before rubbing a grey paste into the wounds.
Once he is satisfied he has everything he needs, Atem carefully packs his equipment into the small bag he will take with him to battle.
The night before battle
After a long trek to the site of the battle, night comes. Atem lies on a filthy mattress next to another commander – they picked the best spot in the house. The other separatist fighters are stretched out on the bare ground, resting before the attack.
At dawn, about 40 fighters plan to take on heavily armed government soldiers, but if the army is tipped off then the ADF might be attacked first – the government forces would probably kill all of them, as they did a few days earlier with about 30 separatists from another group, spilling so much blood it gathered in shiny pools on the floor.
In the yard, a battalion of goats trots past wildly, perhaps aroused by the bright grey light of the full moon. Doors bang in the wind.
Near the entrance, two young boys are on sentinel duty, sharing an old rifle between them. They ward off sleep by smoking cigarettes and quietly exchanging stories. Once in a while, one of them gently pokes the other awake. The commander has warned that if he catches anyone sleeping on their watch, he’ll shoot them in the leg.
The group’s only other defence to ward off a surprise attack is in a dark corner of the house: a small shrine with mysterious vials, bits of cloth, and amulets dusted with white talcum powder. The air smells of the perfume used to activate their magical powers.
When the sun finally rises, the fighters are loitering around the yard, waiting. A large bag of bullets has gone missing. The person entrusted to bring it apparently decided it would be more profitable to pocket the ammunition than fire it, and disappeared. This mission is cancelled. On this occasion, the Odeshi will not be called upon.
All of the fighters use Odeshi, but it does not vanquish all fears.
“Some fighters use drugs that motivate them to go to the field,” says Omega, who allows his men to take tramadol, a powerful opioid painkiller, although he doesn’t use it himself. “You don’t have fears in you again,” he says.
The trouble, Omega explains, is when combatants keep on taking the drugs when they’re back at the camp. It’s not very common, but then it’s harder to keep them disciplined.
Some armed men harass civilians for food, while claiming to be part of the ADF, Omega says. Then, he explains, he sends his men to keep them in check: “Any group that is out for terrorism, we are going to finish the group so that the country should be in peace, rather than in pieces.”
The separatists have been appealing to the international community to force the government to give them independence, so keeping a clean image is crucial.
The ADF has a Code of Conduct stating that “no fighter of the ADF shall engage in rape, extortion, theft of property, torture, or killing of innocent civilians.” And Cho Ayaba, the leader of the political wing of the ADF, says he issued orders banning the use of drugs.
But he is very far away, in Europe.
In 1998, Ayaba fled Cameroon aboard a timber ship, after narrowly escaping arrest for his political activism.
Like him, most of the political leaders of the half dozen or so anglophone separatist armed groups live abroad – a necessary measure in a country like Cameroon. In early 2018, 47 anglophone leaders were arrested in Nigeria and deported to a jail in Cameroon. They were held incommunicado for six months and only recently allowed see their lawyers.
So WhatsApp is the only way Omega, Atem and other commanders can get orders from their leaders. They know every patch of dirt where the phone network can be reached by clambering on big rocks, hiking to the top of hills, or sheltering beneath a tree’s branches. Much of the time, though, they are off-grid.
Recently, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have accused the separatists of violently enforcing the boycott of government schools by destroying over 40 schools and assaulting teachers who refused to comply. They’ve also been accused of kidnapping civilians suspected of working with the government.
The ADF has denied abuses against schools and civilians, apart from “arrests” of government allies. Ayaba says he takes “responsibility for whatever the ADF does”, but insists he is not “micromanaging” the actions of the group. “I provide political leadership, an inspiration, the roadmap.”
Yet, he warns that the ADF and other separatist groups may not be able to stick to their rules of engagement forever.
“If you let the conflict fester for too long and the regime continues with this level of brutality, it will be completely impossible to control everybody. And some of these abuses might just increase,” he said, referring to some attacks against francophones.
Cameroon’s presidential elections will be held on 7 October, and with them comes the threat of a new spike in violence. The ADF spokesman warned there “shall be no elections of the President of Cameroon in Ambazonia territory”, and one of their prominent “generals” has already announced that he’ll kill anyone who gets near a voting station.
(*The names of the separatist fighters have been changed for their protection)