This is not a normal war. Though hard to understand and believe, it appears to be a one-sided war in which faceless gunmen proffering allegiance to the separatist Federal Republic of Ambazonia kill government troops but do not get killed even in face-to-face shootouts. It is a war that manifests signs of mysticism, difficult to explain for an urbane reporter without sounding superstitious. But the troops themselves, who face the reality, are no longer in doubt. Locked in battle with gunmen whom they believe do not succumb to bullets, about every government soldier in Mamfe and elsewhere in Manyu division now has a tiny piece of red cloth wrapped on the barrel of their gun. “People familiar with the Odeshi ritual in Nigeria have advised that red pieces of cloth can neutralize the Odeshi charm,” a gendarme told me.
That is so even for the reputably highly efficient and redoubtable Special Forces or Rapid Intervention Brigade (BIR). They too believe the red cloth is a potent antidote to neutralize the mystical bulletproof charm or “Odeshi” said to have been acquired from neighbouring Nigeria by the Ambazonia fighters. I do not want to believe this, but until I find a shrine where the contrary can be proven, the actors on the ground give much to convince the prying observer that I am.
Telling this story, I become the first journalist to physically and independently report from the epicentre of this nascent war pitting defence forces of the Government of Cameroon and separatist fighters, otherwise called Ambazonia Boys or Odeshi Boys.
Over several weeks, I have been receiving calls from people who want to share their experiences, observations and even secrets with me. They say they feel comfortable speaking to me. They say they find me credible and trust I will use the information responsibly. I have been meeting people from the field, most of them volunteering to share their testimonies. These past few weeks, I have been compiling notes from the flashpoints and visited the Gendarmerie in Mamfe located at entrance to Egbekaw village, only metres from the west bank of the navigable River Manyu that links Nigeria and is believed to be the access way of the Ambazonia gunmen from Akwaya subdivision on the east bank.
The Mamfe Gendarmerie appears to be the command centre of the government’s first column of military containment where gendarmes, regular troops and BIR as well as scores of young gendarmes-in-training are all stationed for the assignment. It appears to be the main target of the separatist fighters. They are apparently staking the fortunes of their war on dislodging Yaounde’s hold on Mamfe. In two successive weeks only in December 2017, they carried out as many assaults on the military command. It looks like attacks elsewhere are only distractions before they return to their main target – Mamfe Gendarmerie.
Back to Journalism
Amid the flood of what is perceived as half-truths, exaggerations or outright propaganda from both sides and the apparent resignation or impotency of my journalist-colleagues, most of whom are helplessly printing or broadcasting versions of war tell-tales, I decide to brave it into the war-zone. It is a risky venture but I brave it for the sake of journalism, lest my noble profession should lose its relevance in the swell of government domination of state media and others at its beck and call with its version of the story. On the other hand, fairytales – not all always false, not all always so true – are flooding social media to the point where a major social media actor, arguably doing a formidable job which Ambazonia partisans must applaud, has become the most reliable “war correspondent”. That is an aberration for journalism! (Yet, social reporting remain reliable hints or tip offs for investigation by journalists.) In the middle of government and social media extremism, visibly intimidated private media are quoting UNRELIABLE SOURCES, while others are more preoccupied with personality massaging or supporting instead of reporting.
I am a militant of journalism (I don’t mean militant journalist here). It takes some trouble saving one’s thing. I am an Anglophone; an unapologetic advocate for the rights of Cameroon Anglophones and a voice calling for resolution of this conflict through dialogue. But I am a journalist and journalism is the only profession I practice. It is supposed to be the watchdog and fourth estate in Cameroon today. It also ought to be in any future arrangement that may emerge out of this conflict. Journalism must be kept on its feet. It must not be subdued nor traded for whatsoever prospects.
The present skirmishes are signs of the first inter-Cameroon war in my time. I was not born at the time of the pre- and post-independence UPC/Marquisard war. There may never be another. This is my war. I must report it. Daring into Manyu is not for a reporting picnic. It is like venturing into a community ravaged by a new, unfamiliar, plague. What with the risk and the uncertainty over how to approach the unknown.
Cameroonians are not used to war. Cameroonian journalists have generally not reported war independently nor dared into a war zone to live its realities. A couple of them robbed shoulders with gunmen when sea piracy erupted about a decade ago. A few have been privileged to be embedded with government forces in guided, guarded, tours in the war on Boko Haram in the north of the country. A few were recently airlifted by government forces to some locations in Manyu. But who expects independent reporting from an embedded journalist in Cameroon? Many of them, so naïve, inexperienced and obviously excited, often return from such “privileged” guided tours with such overdose of enthusiasm, they go parroting government propaganda even better than the government and military spokespersons. Some, of another generation, who were in Yaounde during the 24-hour failed coup of April 6, 1984, could have been considered war reporters just for that.
Mamfe is not in Syria. It is not Aleppo. But even Aleppo was covered by foot reporters. I must cover Mamfe and the rest of this war. I am a bona fide journalist and can do regular newsgathering, approaching and duly presenting myself to actors and officials on the field to record testimonies, explanations and possibly rebuttals. But from my previous “war reporting” experiences, fixing and leading foreign journalists embedded with military guides to cover Boko Haram, I am familiar with the likely impediments of administrative bottlenecks. I know the usual silence from field commanders and local administrators until they obtain clearance from their bosses up the ladder, all the way to Yaounde. And I know how much more respect and consideration our authorities give to foreign journalists than to us, locals.
I did not want to be seen to be disobeying an injunction. I did not want to be obliged to obey injunctions. I did not want to be denied a story by administrative foot-dragging or outright silence. So, I decide to go undercover, opting to avoid officials or official briefings and resorting to informal sources or trusted secondary sources. But the risk of face recognition, because of my TV appearances, could “betray” me. Everywhere I go, people approach me, saluting my contributions to the burning national debate after recognizing my face, voice or name, they say. That ruins my wish to go about unrecognized. But my future reporting there won’t be undercover.
But I am not a spy. I do not seek to compromise the fortunes of any side in this conflict, not even because of my own allegiances. I do not wish to expose any side to danger. I won’t risk my life, my honour and my professional independence for that. I am just in quest of the truth. The people and the world have a right to know. It is possible I could be as militant as spokespersons or propagandists for the Government of Cameroon and Ambazonia were I in their shoes. I am also a communicator. But in this context, I am a journalist and noble duty behooves me to place my cherished but beleaguered profession on a pedestal for redemption.
Decision-makers, especially the commander(s)-in-chief, need a true picture of the situation on the ground. This is also a situation report. Amidst endemic corruption, even security and intelligence reports are often distorted and sexed up under the influence of field commanders and their upward networks to suit political or material interests. My findings could help present a true picture of the plight of troops and fighters to decision-makers who may otherwise be deceived by false administrative and skewed media reports. It may help them review the rationale for the war.
Recalling my 2005 Investigative Journalism lessons in the Mashav training on Media Strategies For Social Change in Haifa, Israel, I understand that as government homogeneity is a fallacy, exposure of lapses in the dysfunctional segment of a government, though seeming to embarrass the entire government, could help the functional bench of that government to make amends for the general good.
On the benefit of doubt, I concede it to our decision-makers that some of their suicidal utterances and decisions thus far may have been guided (or misguided) by the lack of a true understanding of the reality on the ground. It is the duty of authentic journalists to go fetch the truth and hold up the mirror that reflects that truth. Neither embedded reporting nor state media cover-up even after field assignments can help decision-makers in this. My reporting can. I am independent, though they are not more patriotic than me.
Investigative journalism is way out of the ordinary. If ordinary war zone reporting is risky, investigative reporting in the war zone is a flirt with death though not necessarily suicidal. Twice I find myself facing the barrel of the gun, finger on the trigger. Faced with this reality, I am repeatedly cautioned against taking the risk of making pictures for my story, even stealthily. I apologize for publishing an incomplete story – one without sufficient befitting illustrations, if any. I take seriously to the warning that even bare streets in Mamfe now have eyes and ears and I could be spotted and suspected of some form of foul play. I am taking no chances. I am not offering myself to be arrested for whatever reason or my chest to be hit by a bullet. I am no Odey Chi; neither am I suicidal. I am not in quest of heroism or martyrdom; I am just in search of a story, and I do not want it killed prematurely. I dock and get out of potential harm’s way once I sense danger. I recall advice from one of my editors at Seattle Post-Intelligencer (USA) where I worked in 2006 as an Alfred Friendly Fellow: “The perfect is enemy of the good.” I reason that my quest for a perfect story could ruin my chances of giving you a good story. At least, thankfully, you can read this story. It is not exhaustive. It does not have to be. It is not a penetration into the secrets of God. Journalists – even investigative journalists – are just men who try to go beyond the ordinary, striving to uncover what is hidden or unavailable to ordinary news reporting, without pretending to land a rocket in Heaven.
Between my Manyemen village traditional obligations on the weekend of December 8-10, 2017 and my teaching duties in Yaounde and across two other regions, often beginning on Wednesdays, I find a window between Sunday, December 10 and Tuesday, December 12 to spend time in Mamfe about two hours’ drive from Manyemen midway along the Kumba-Mamfe road. Like in my military embeds covering Boko Haram, I strangely crave to witness real time combat. But if I cannot, I contend with coming the closest possible to the theatre of war to see, hear, taste, smell and feel the realities of the budding war.
Hopping off a bus heading to Bamenda at the junction village of Bachuo-Akagbe at about 6pm to connect to Mamfe town, local drivers warn it is getting late to enter Mamfe following a 7pm entry “curfew” observed by the military. As we approach the GRA roundabout from Mile 1 a couple of minutes before 7pm, a strong flashlight beams at us from the distance. It is the military checkpoint signalling no further thoroughfair into town. I am lucky. We could have been stopped at the Okoyong checkpoint. Our driver quickly turns back and uses a backstreet road to take us into town. Evidently, the military are avoiding night traffic around the GRA entrance which leads to both their barracks, their installations and the residential quarters of local authorities.
I want to see things for myself. I look around, listen to street conversations, speak to people, sample the views of local politicians, walk around and mingle with the troops, incognito, where they sip liquor at bars opposite the Mamfe Gendarmerie, clutching their guns. I spend nights at places at the same time risky and privileged; places where I could be caught in crossfire but also not miss the reality of a gun battle if there was one. That too is the paradox of war reporting: the more real, the more risky, the bigger the story catch. Staying at such places, I also want to meet the people most involved or affected by the skirmishes.
Sometimes, I get different versions of the same story from sources all inside Mamfe. I begin to realize that simply being in Mamfe does not automatically confer everyone there the status of a “reliable source”. After all, gun battle theatres are not carnivals. People flee from, not rush towards, gunshots. So, in the end, few locals are authentic eyewitnesses. I must pick and choose and scrutinize my sources.
I try to compare what I have read or been told with my own observations on the ground. I take a critical look at what makes sense. Sometimes, nothing seems to make sense but with some sense of probability and plausibility, here I am trying to tell a sensible story all the same, with every professional effort to be truthful, balanced and fair.
Mamfe Market Fire
The pre-dawn fire at the Mamfe market on December 12 upset one rare quiet night’s sleep after turbulent gunshot nights. It razed over a dozen shops in one row at the clothing section of the market. Sleepy-eyed locals jump out of bed as a red ball of fire lights the dark night. Above the fire, a small ball of light easily understood to be a military drone hovers for about an hour, apparently taking pictures of the disaster before descending slowly towards the Gendarmerie premises. Feeling like the fire is one too many calamities for Mamfe, a man repeatedly screams at the top of his voice to be heard several metres away: “What have we done that they are doing this to us? Why can’t they leave us alone?”
Just so I do not go away with the wrong understanding of who “they” stands for, I approach the lamenting man still under the pre-dawn darkness and he says he believes the fire is not an accident, nor is it a criminal act. So, who does he think would have lit the fire to burn the market? He takes a curious look at me as if searching my face, hoping he could recognize me. The darkness not helping matters, he looks away and goes silent. Someone else standing by says, as if on behalf of the first, that he believes the fire is meant to discredit those defending the Anglophone cause. He too stops short of laying the full blame. But I understand the undertone and return to bed with the impression they are both choosing their words carefully and avoiding to open up without being sure who they were speaking to.
December 7-8 Attack
The deputy commander of the Gendarmerie Company receives a tip off from an informant that Ambazonia gunmen are preparing to launch an attack on Mamfe and have pitched tent in Kajifu, one of the first villages in Akwaya subdivision on the left branch after the Satom Bridge over the River Manyu. (The right branch goes through Eshobi.) Acting on the tip off, a squad of gendarmes and soldiers storm the village in the early afternoon of Thursday, December 7. They find no gunmen. The troops also meet the village deserted. The raid on Kajifu leaves a curious outcome. The wife of that Gendarmerie deputy commander hails from Kajifu. The next day, neighbours hear her weeping and wailing for hours, claiming that government troops have massacred her entire village and left her brother dead. It later turns out that is not true. Her brother returns safe from their bush hideout. The curiosity is, if indeed her brother and villagers had been massacred, her own very husband would have been directly or indirectly responsible for it.
The desertion of Kajifu ahead of the military raid suggests the gunmen and the villagers might have had some form of counter-intelligence about the planned government military raid. It also suggested that some undercover informants could be double-dealing. That could be suicidal. My source says the Gendarmerie informant paid the capital price as he was tied to a tree and beaten to death when his betrayal was found out.
The military failing to pre-empt the attack on Mamfe with the raid on Kajifu, the Ambazonia Boys stormed the Gendarmerie that same night. Eyewitnesses, mainly neighbours at Egbekaw where the Mamfe Gendarmerie Brigade, the Manyu Gendarmerie Company and the Motorcycle Highway Traffic Squad or “Routier” are located, heard or saw armed youths arrive at the Gendarmerie premises at about 10pm. Peeping through windows even into the dark night, they could tell some had guns and others machetes. They were masked and dressed casually. No uniforms in particular. They sang Ambazonia “patriotic” songs including lines of the Ambazonia anthem. The shootout that ensued lasted nearly two hours. The most visible signs of the shootout I see are bullet holes on the fence of a logging company, Wizma, less than 100 metres from the Gendarmerie. While the neighbourhood looks deserted as a result, a 10-year-old girl filling water into a drum at a house nearly inside the Gendarmerie yard looks unmoved. I ask her whether she is not frightened by the gun battles around home. She simply chuckles and proceeds with her chore. An adult relative says, as if explaining for her, “In Mamfe today, the sound of gunshots is like the sound of music.”
After the December 7 shootout, the gunmen seize a Gendarmerie pickup and drive off. The vehicle is found at dawn abandoned near the Court premises around Yaounde Quarters. Where the gunmen go to after that remains a mystery. Some of the pupil gendarmes who broke bounds to hang out all night for fun miss the gun attack. When the return to base towards dawn, they remain hidden behind houses in the neighbourhood several hours after dawn, both fearing further shootouts and also waiting for the opportune moment to sneak back to their makeshift camp at the Mamfe Guest House besides the Gendarmerie; a way to avoid punishment from their supervisors.
The exact casualty count is not known but eyewitnesses can tell of at least three gendarmes killed in ambush or in cold blood shortly after the gunmen arrived: a gendarme on guard at the Company Commander’s residence within the Gendarmerie precincts and a Lieutenant who had only reported for duty in Mamfe two days before, are the first victims. The Lieutenant was the one said to have scaled up the ceiling to hide but without much luck. In their final act, the gunmen take a trainee gendarme hostage, drag him to the backyard of the Boy’s Quarters of a building opposite the Brigade, tie him up at and are about to set him on fire when some among the separatist fighters cautioned against lighting a fire. “We may burn someone’s house if we burn him,” said one of them.
Conflicting versions say some gunmen advised that they set him free as a show of good faith. Some locals claim they overheard the assailants say, “Let him go and spread the good news.” Others say it was finally decided that the young gendarme be beaten to death. It is believed there was a fourth military dead when a body was found on Saturday, December 9, two days after the gun battle, behind Donayo primary school in the neighbourhood. Locals conclude the body was that of a fourth military victim because it was taken away in a military ambulance. “They cannot carry the body of Ambazonia Boys or even civilians in their ambulance,” a neighbour tells me. However, counting every dead – an elusive exercise and a futile penchant for detail – is not the focus of this story.
The propaganda war on military death count is teeming. For strategic reasons linked to public and troops morale, the military logically keep their casualties and death count secret. The government spokesman, Issa Tchiroma said only one gendarme was killed in the December 7-8 attack. Social media stories reported scores dead after each shootout. On the other hand, arm-chair “investigative reporters” who sought to debunk claims of military deaths by pointing to the absence of military casualties and bodies at local civilian hospitals and mortuaries, might have totally missed the point. Military casualties won’t be interned at civilian hospitals. Military sources say their doctors are better skilled to treat their kind of casualties. Also, for security reasons, it is unsafe to intern their casualties at several dispersed locations, lest they should expose them to further risks of attack from assailants. “We prefer to treat them at our own health facilities which are often within military barracks and sufficiently secured,” said a military source. They also say because of the need to preserve the perceived invincibility of troops, wounded soldiers cannot be taken to civilian hospitals, which may dampen civilian morale.
Minimizing the death count quarrel, I have been telling myself to perhaps depend on ceremonies to honour the military dead for the reliable count. Would the military honour some and not others? That too would be worth investigating. However, there are dependable hints of more military deaths than are revealed by the military and the government. Neighbours say military helicopters overflying on the night of December 7-8 might have whisked off several military casualties and their dead. Also, two military ambulances accompanied by other military vehicles that stopped over briefly in Manyemen heading towards Kumba at about 5.30pm on Friday, December 8, the day after the first attack, gave curious onlookers a rare chance to look through the ambulance windows and see military casualties. Concordant accounts spoke of several wounded and possibly dead. Only minutes after, a truckload of troops speeded towards Mamfe, followed by two pickups, also with troops. “See, they are going to replace those that have been killed,” said a stopover traveller, watching the military vehicles go back and forth.
Further suggesting military efforts to conceal their casualties, the entire vicinity of the Gendarmerie was locked out after the December 14 attack. Seeing that movement was allowed around there after the first attack with non-military bodies left littered about, a guess that the military were this time hiding their casualties could be plausible. Plus, the Government spokesman reported no casualties on the side of separatist fighters after the December 14 attack. The Government would waste no opportunity to boast if its forces had “neutralized” any “terrorists” (their usual choice of words).
News of more military deaths, an unspecified number, from among the wounded of the December 7 shootout evacuated for treatment, brings sorrow to the Mamfe Gendarmerie. Some of the young pupil gendarmes at the base were seen shedding tears after word came that one of their fellow trainees, who did not immediately succumb to bullet wounds from the December 7 battle, had died. On December 12, an old woman attempting to cross a barricade outside the Gendarmerie Brigade without her ID card pleaded that she rushed out of home without it because she was bereaved. One of the young female pupil gendarmes manning the barricade retorted thus: “You are not the only bereaved person in the world. I’ve also lost my sister here.”
At dawn on December 8, the day after the separatists’ first attack, five bodies were found around the Gendarmerie. The bodies were only taken away Friday evening. Most of the bodies had read armbands, suggesting their appurtenance to the Odey Chi cult. In Yaounde, the Government spokesman said those were bodies of “neutralized assailants”, but locals say they were detainees held in Gendarmerie cells. One version claims they were shot after breaking jail with the help of the assailants, but others say they were dragged out of the detention rooms by gendarmes and executed to display their bodies as fruits of their successful riposte against the assailants. They say the red bands were a ruse by the troops to fool public opinion that the boys were Ambazonia Odey Chi fighters. Locals believe that is why their bodies were left exposed for long for public viewing.
For several days, clothes, slippers and plastic sandals (“Dschang” shoes) continued to litter where some of the bodies were removed. Eyewitnesses say they were torn off some dead bodies before they were taken away. Sandals and slippers leave me wondering: would detainees dragged out to be executed be given the time to wear shoes or even slippers? Likewise, would fighters go to battle in slippers? Could the dead really be Ambazonia fighters? Those familiar with the Mamfe Gendarmerie attempt to clear my doubts, though. They say the regular detention rooms are overflowing with inmates because of the rampant arrests in Manyu, so some are kept in an adjourning white building. Those ones could have been the unfortunate pick that night.
A neighbor says most of those detained now are held in relation to the crisis. “Since most of them are believed to be Odey Chi boys, it is possible the soldiers had no qualms killing them to compensate for their own dead,” he said. But if the victims also had Odey Chi invincibility, how come they were felled by bullets? Or is it that they cannot be shot dead in battle but can succumb otherwise? There are claims that the troops resort to other methods of killing them once they succeed to catch them after gun battles.
Shallow Mass Grave Behind Mamfe Grandstand
The non-military dead of that battle were buried Tuesday, December 12, in a shallow common grave behind the Mamfe Grandstand, on a spot between the Mamfe Municipal Museum (the former Town Hall) and the divisional delegation of the Ministry of Livestock, Fisheries and Animal Husbandry, a rather secluded part of town with limited human movement. In my conversations earlier with the Mamfe Municipal Council man in charge of the grave, he remains adamant that the bodies are those of the Ambazonia fighters. He gives no ear to the claim that they were detainees executed in cold blood. Evidently, most of the boys digging the grave wear red headbands, now believed to protect or empower the user against Odey Chi. I have been wondering whether that is also a way to neutralize their ghosts.
There are tales that some of the mystical fighting is done by ghosts – the ghosts of locals killed during peaceful demonstrations prior to the debut of the armed struggle. Such stories appear plausible in Manyu where ghost apparitions are believed to be commonplace.
Just when the grave-diggers are done and are serving their Fufu and Eru meal on a table at a nearby carpentry workshop, I approach them for explanation of their headbands. One of them sounding like their coordinator, scolds them, “I’ve told you people to remove those headbands. Now, it is attracting attention.” Visibly shaken, the boys quickly tear off the headbands. The group “leader” turns to me and says the headbands are just a fancy. Even faced with his tongue-in-cheek smokescreen, I feel I have had sufficient confirmation from their body language, even if not from his words.
The grave is hardly beyond knee-deep. They say the soil is too hard for them to dig deeper. I am told by the Council man that three other persons who had died in prison earlier would raise the number of bodies to be buried in that shallow grave to eight.
Just after 1pm, heading again to the site to check from the main entrance to the grandstand, I come within metres of a gendarme and BIR officer, all armed to the teeth and wearing bulletproof jackets and helmets. The gendarme points his gun at me menacingly, warning me to step no further. He won’t take any explanation. From an experience the previous day, I can tell I am a finger slide away from death. Looking around, I notice more gendarmes and BIR at several positions towards the gravesite and beyond. I can guess the burial would be soon.
At 1.08pm, a rickety pickup LT 0642 U, so old each piece of its chassis is a different colour, drives up to the back of the grandstand. As it approaches us, the gendarme orders me to walk away towards the opposite direction. Out of good sense, I obey and go farther than he has demanded, trying not to look back despite my curiosity. Once the pickup has passed us, the gendarme orders me to immediately quit the vicinity. Turning to leave, I manage to steal a quick look as I half walk and half run. Behind the pickup still approaching the gravesite, sheets and other cloths covering objects in its carriage without a tailboard, do not completely disguise its cargo. At least one pair of stiff legs protrude beyond the tip of the carriage. They are dead bodies.
I am frightened enough by the gun threat to want to disappear to the farthest safe place, but the urge to see the end of the burial push me to sit briefly at a joint opposite the Total filling station and the Manyu Cultural Hall, near the outlet from behind the grandstand. Less than 15 minutes later, the ‘hearse” pickup drives out, followed shortly by a BIR pickup with troops. I can tell the burial is done. I wait a while for the coast to be clear before returning to view the shallow grave that has just swallowed eight unknown human beings.
As I leave, I am asking myself whether the intimidating military presence during the burial implies it is meant to be secret and therefore something the military is ashamed of. Should I consider this an abusive mass grave hiding a massacre of some sort? I am also asking myself, Why didn’t they bury under the cover of night and why not in some secret location in some forest if they meant to hide it? Or could it be a way of pretending they are not hiding the common or mass grave, else they would not do it in town and in broad daylight?
An Odeshi Confesses After Ritual
At about noon on Tuesday, December 12, someone walking out of the Gendarmerie after running an errand for a gendarme officer tells me and a companion what he witnessed, standing outside, unnoticed by the officers. He narrated how a ritual with chicken egg appeared to have neutralized the spell of silence of a detainee believed to be an Ambazonia fighter and caused him to make confessions considered revealing.
“The gendarmes were with an Odeshi detainee,” said the source. “When they broke chicken egg on his head, he went into something like a trance and began making a confession. He told the gendarmes that where they caught him in the forest, seven of his fellow fighters were nearby and others were at different locations. Unfortunately, I couldn’t hear more because I heard footsteps coming out, so I hid behind the wall and tiptoed away.” The source said as he walked to meet us, troops hopped on to pickups and headed off, possibly to the location revealed by the captured Odeshi. We witnessed the troops leaving and thus easily believe his story. But though we expect reports of a swoop or ambush of the separatist fighters by government troops on the supposed search, the silence that follows suggests a futile move from a false alert.
December 14 Attack
The second attack was not in the dark of night like the first. It happened in broad daylight on Thursday December 14. Some of the separatist fighters were stack naked. An eyewitness tells me, “Those boys are so young. The oldest among them could be at most 25 years old. Most of them are teenagers.” Most of them wear red headbands or armbands, obviously linked to their Odey Chi cult.
While the troops were watching and practically scanning every square metre of the riverside through frequent foot and boat patrols and surveillance cameras, believing the separatist fighters would always come from across the river, neighbours said they saw the Ambazonia Boys coming on foot from inside town at about 8am. They came through the Small Mamfe neighbourhood, passing between houses towards the Gendarmerie at Egbekaw. Following this description and knowing the location of the couple of bars where some of the troops often drink in numbers opposite the depot of Les Brasseries du Cameroun, they would have burst out from behind the bars. It would therefore not be surprising that some troops were taken unawares, bottles of beer in hand, even if their guns too. All those bars have now been shut down. Likewise a snack bar so close to the brigade that it functioned like the Gendarmerie canteen. The Brasseries depot across the road from the bars continues to serve wholesale customers, though.
Locals said after about two hours of shootout on December 14, the separatist gunmen all left. Another round of shooting was heard later that night but it cannot be said whether it was a shootout or routine dissuasive firing by the troops, an occasional practice. Eyewitnesses said the non-military dead were not Ambazonia fighters but civilians caught in crossfire. Further testimonies say several troops were seen fleeing across town. The story of fleeing soldiers sounded to locals like they were cowardly soldiers, though battle of any kind involves taking cover to gain advantage over the enemy, not being foolhardy to expose oneself to the enemy. It is possible, though, that government troops are in fright, especially faced with their fears of a one-sided war with Odey Chi Boys who kill but apparently cannot be killed. Some of the fleeing troops took refuge at the Mamfe bishop’s house.
Red Cloth: How Potent?
A warder at the Mamfe prison, a native of Mamfe, told me he also has the red cloth on the barrel of his gun. Yet, he said, he believes the potency of Odey Chi could no longer be neutralized by the impact of the red cloth. “Odey Chi power has surpassed the capacity of our red cloths,” he said. Yet, he did not explain why they all – armed forces – still hold on to the red cloth “charms” and why they continued to carry them, though they may have realized its limitations.
My source told me he found himself in the posture of a double agent, though he has not been complying and betrayed has no one. Innocent and trusted, he has acquaintances among the troops as well as among the separatist fighters. A resident of Mamfe, he has been running social errands for some officers. On visits to outskirts villages where he does technical jobs, he has made friends with village boys who have recently told him they were fighters for the Ambazonia cause. He has often been in the know when government troops plan operations, as well as the fighters often warned him to get away when they planned attacks on Mamfe. But lately, he said, they told him they would not forewarn him anymore because they have realized their hints got leaked before they executed them. Seeing the war coming and fearful of potential repercussions for those viewed as traitors and especially under his “double agent” posture, my source told me he would flee Mamfe. These past days, he has not been reachable by phone. I hope he is safe.
Sitting at a backstreet bar in Small Mamfe to observe, I notice one of the men cooling off at the same bar walk up to an armed BIR soldier approaching them. The civilian man whispered something into the soldier’s ear before returning to his bottle. I immediately left the place.
Confronted with faceless fighters who appear from nowhere and disappear to nowhere, government forces are now suspicious of everyone and every questionable move and outlook. A young man was chased and arrested inside a brothel where he fled for refuge, simply because he had tattoo on his body. A well known man in Mamfe, Ako Giant was arrested on December 10 because he wears dreadlocks and because of his imposing and intimidating looks, reason for his nickname “Giant”. He was released a couple of days later. Another man released with Ako Giant had been arrested on his way to his farm without his identity card. Upon his release, he was rather taken to Mamfe in the opposite direction from his village. Returning to his village on December 12, he was arrested again and held in custody at the Mamfe Gendarmerie for non-possession of his ID card. “Brother, ID card is just like oxygen now in Mamfe,” a commercial bike rider told me. “When you forget it at home, it is like you are walking without your lungs. You feel terribly insecure because you can be arrested any time and they will take you for an Odey Chi Boy.”
Where Do They Storm From, Where Do They Disappear To?
The Ambazonia fighters have been said to enter Mamfe through the River Manyu but the last three attacks point to a new reality. After the December 7 night attack, the Gendarmerie pickup seized by the separatist gunmen for their getaway was found at dawn, abandoned around the Mamfe Court premises, near Yaounde Quarters, in the heart of town, not anywhere towards the river which would have suggested they fled in that direction.
In the December 14 onslaught, the gunmen who assailed the Gendarmerie were seen coming from Small Mamfe, not from across the river. In other words, while government troops had their guns pointed at the river, the Ambazonia Boys stormed from behind them. Furthermore, Kembong, also in Manyu, where four government defence and security forces were shot dead on December 18, is an inland location, neither a border village nor a Manyu River bank village. Also, fatal gun attacks on defence and security forces in Bamenda, Kumba, Toko, near Mundemba, strongly suggest the separatist gunmen are already installed at different locations within the country.
Twice At Gunpoint
On December 11, walking towards the Gendarmerie from the native part of Egbekaw village, one of the villages cited for evacuation in a disclaimed warning attributed to the local administrative officer, I came within metres of a menacing gun barrel. On a climb about 100 metres before the Gendarmerie, I saw a barricade and guessed it was for vehicles and motorbikes. Seeing a soldier standing sentry under a plantain stem some 50 metres away, I asked him, motioning with my hand, whether I could scale or circumvent the barricade. He returned a similar signal, which I thought meant I could go round the barricade and continue towards the Gendarmerie. It turned out he might have meant I should go round through sidewalks in the village. Misunderstanding him and making to step forward, a fellow soldier emerged from behind the plantain farm and handed him something I later understood was a cartridge magazine when the sentry officer charged his rifle and pointed it at me. I stood frozen for a moment. It must have been only a split second, but it seemed like quite a while. He motioned to me to walk away. I did, winding my way through village houses to find myself at some street away from danger. Knowing their experiences with innocent-looking suicide bombers in the north, I imagine the officer found my persistence to walk towards him suspicious. My other gunpoint experience was at the mass burial narrated earlier.
Next day, a local worker for CDE (the water supply company) had a similar experience. He and a colleague were assigned to check installations at Avato, a settlement near the Satom Bridge over the River Manyu. His colleague, fearful of coming anywhere close to the troops, advised that they take a bush track to arrive at the bridge. My source said he preferred that they go through regular procedure by obtaining clearance from the troops. When he approached a sentry alone hoping to be joined later by his colleague, the officer warned him from afar not to come close. Though the CDE man tried to explain, and though he wore his duty uniform with CDE logo, the sentinel officer began charging his gun, placed his finger on the trigger and ordered the CDE man to back off a safe distance. Finding the posture of the officer armed to the teeth curious, the CDE man attempted to steal a photo shot with his mobile phone. Though he pretended he was making a call, the officer was not deceived. He ordered him to hand over the phone, but the officer found nothing compromising in his photo gallery. My source was lucky. In panic and haste, he had missed the shot and instead snapped the ground.
Gov’t Troops’ Fatal Friendly Fire
I have no notes on reported mortal exchange of “friendly fire” among government troops, so I cannot comment on it yet. I am not in doubt that vengeful “friendly fire” might have spilled blood or even taken lives among them. But I am not rushing to validate just any version from an unreliable source” on the circumstances surrounding the said incident.
This Investigative Report…
This is not yet my investigative story per se. These are only notes on my reconnaissance effort which I hope will be my template when I fully engage the story. Yet, it is a kind of situation report and could serve as a travel guide. As a citizen, I hope we all will have the good sense to silence this nascent war before it silences us. If we let it drag on, as wars ought to be covered, I want my colleagues to know that Mamfe can be covered.
This reporter can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org or (00237 677-897-167 / 693-693-881)
(Random Notes From The Diary of An Investigative Reporter)
Franklin Sone Bayen exclusive for Cameroon Intelligence Report. All rights reserved