Cameroon’s five-year conflict could take a significant new turn with reports that its English-speaking separatist groups are receiving help from an armed group in neighboring Nigeria.
After two attacks by Anglophone militants that cost the lives of 15 Cameroonian soldiers last month, the army issued a statement declaring that “the separatists have used heavy weapons for the first time, in violation of international humanitarian law”.
He then added that “the rise to power of these terrorist groups … is largely due to their cooperation with other terrorist entities operating outside the country”.
Contacted by the BBC, Cameroon defense forces spokesman Col Cyrille Atonfack Nguemo did not specify which foreign groups would work with Anglophone separatists, who claim to suffer discrimination in the French-dominated country.
It is therefore unclear whether the military believes this to be one or more armed groups, or even where they are.
But separatist forces Ambazonia Defense Forces (ADF) have confirmed an alliance with the Indigenous People of Biafra (Ipob), an Igbo ethnic group waging a sometimes violent campaign for autonomy in southeastern Nigeria, some of the which are located just 150 km (90 miles) from the border with the Anglophone regions of Cameroon.
A video posted on the ADF Facebook page earlier this year shows Cho Ayaba, the leader of the Governing Council of the Ambazonia – one of the two main English-speaking separatist groups, and the leader of the Ipob Nnamdi Kanu, who announces a “strategic and military” alliance.
Both separatist leaders explained that the two groups “will work to secure their common border and ensure an open exchange of weapons, intelligence and personnel”.
How big is this deal?
Analysts are divided. “For the moment, the contribution of this alliance on the ground in the English-speaking area is not yet clear,” says Elvis Arrey, senior analyst for Cameroon at the International Crisis Group (ICG) research group.
However, Raoul Sumo Tayo, a historian and security analyst in the region, says it shouldn’t be underestimated, as it offers both groups rear bases where they can retreat, beyond the reach of their respective countries’ armed forces.
This is particularly significant in Cameroon, where he claimed that “the army was practically absent [from the areas hit by conflict] before the insurrection and therefore has an extremely limited knowledge of the area “.
The two countries previously discussed giving each other’s security forces the right to cross the border, especially when pursuing members of the Boko Haram Islamist militant group further north, but an agreement was never reached.
Where do heavy weapons come from?
The Cameroonian authorities have not gone into much detail about the type of weapons they say are used, other than briefly referring to anti-tank missiles and rocket launchers.
Some actually come from attacks on defense and security forces, says Arrey of the ICG.
“Other weapons come from Nigeria,” he adds.
According to Tayo, even “before the crisis in the English-speaking regions, the Niger Delta area was an important hub for arms trafficking in the subregion”.
Weapons destined for the Anglophone region of Cameroon have often been confiscated by the Nigerian authorities.
Over the past three years, dozens of people have been arrested on charges of arms trafficking in Cameroon.
Tayo believes that some weapons may have come from “countries with a large Anglophone diaspora”. Some Cameroonians from the English-speaking regions have been accused in the United States of allegedly trafficking in arms, although no one has yet been convicted.
While Ipob was accused this year of looting police stations and stealing weapons, which could be smuggled across the border.
How easy is it to cross the border?
Even before the latest unrest in the two countries, the border areas were poorly controlled by both sides.
It is partly made up of the Niger Delta, a huge wooded area full of coves and inlets and numerous clandestine ports, which borders both the Anglophone Cameroon and the heart of the Igbo, where most of the Ipob attacks are concentrated.
There are ethnic and cultural ties between some groups on both sides of the border, which could further facilitate connections.
What are the Cameroonian authorities doing?
The Yaoundé government seems concerned about the situation and has announced a strategic change in its military intervention in the area, without giving details.
At the end of August, the two countries agreed to strengthen security along the 2,000 km long border threatened by separatists and Boko Haram.
The two countries also collaborated when Cameroonian separatist leader Julius Sisiku Tabe and eight others were arrested in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, in 2017.
They were sent back to Cameroon where they were sentenced to life in prison for terrorism and other crimes, which they are challenging.
What is it about?
Both the Nigerian Igbo community and English-speaking Cameroonians have long complained of discrimination by their respective governments.
The Igbo declared Biafra’s independence from Nigeria in 1967, sparking a war that ended in 1970 following the deaths of around one million people.
Even though the federal army won, Nnamdi Kanu’s Ipob is the latest group to support the Igbo cause. He was arrested in June and is currently in detention on treason charges, which he denies.
Dozens of people have been killed in riots over the past year.
- Biafra – the war that many prefer to forget
- The stolen weapons that stopped the Nigerian separatists
In Cameroon, protests by lawyers and English-language teachers in 2016 over laws they considered favorable to the French language escalated into a full-blown separatist conflict, with some groups declaring the independence of what they call Ambazonia the year. following.
Amid reports of atrocities from both sides, the conflict has claimed thousands of deaths and forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes, many of whom have arrived in Nigeria.
Why does Cameroon speak both English and French?
- On January 1, 1960, the French colony of Cameroon gained independence and became Cameroon.
- On 1 October 1960 Nigeria gained independence from the United Kingdom.
- The UK also controlled the former German colony of Cameroon. Upon independence, its citizens were given the option of joining Nigeria or Cameroon.
- Southern Cameroon chose to join Cameroon, while Northern Cameroon joined Nigeria.
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