Even before the army drove them out of their homes, many of the ADF soldiers were angry. For decades, anglophones have felt marginalised by the centralised francophone government in a country that began as a federation. On 1 October 1961, the southern part of British Cameroons joined the francophone Federal Republic of Cameroon.
Today, Cameroon is officially bilingual, but French is often favoured. The two anglophone regions make up a sixth of the total population, according to the national statistics office. But competitive exams for the most prestigious public universities and colleges are given only in French, and those are the gateways to the sought-after public administration posts.
In the 1980s, anglophone protests against what many saw as a forced assimilation into the francophone educational system were violently quashed. In 1985, an anglophone lawyer, Fon Gorji Dinka, distributed a pamphlet calling for an independent anglophone republic, which he named “Ambazonia”. He was promptly arrested. Three years later, he escaped to Nigeria.
Fast-forward to September 2016, when street demonstrations began against the creeping use of French in the region’s schools and courtrooms.
The protests culminated in activists declaring the independence of Ambazonia in 2017 on the symbolic date of 1st October. Cameroonian security forces killed over 20 protesters and jailed more than 500 people, according to Amnesty International. Videos shared on social media showed police officers humiliating protesters by forcing them to roll in the mud.
The violence sparked the birth of several armed groups, including the Ambazonia Defense Forces. Their members kidnapped state officials, killed security forces, and sought to make the anglophone areas “ungovernable”. They have also closed schools, seen as symbols of the francophone Cameroon state.
Security forces have retaliated by killing dozens of civilians, most likely more than 100, and by burning down several villages in the anglophone regions. Despite allegations of widespread human rights violations and recent reports of the army killing 32 self-identified separatists surrounded in one village, the Cameroonian government insists that all military operations have been in “strict compliance” with their rules of engagement.
"We spent one week on water before reaching Nigeria."
Back at camp, listening to the ADF fighters, it is difficult sometimes to distinguish between systemic discrimination by the Cameroonian state and personal setbacks.
All have stories of unfair treatment, as do many civilian anglophones. One says he should have been hired for a government job but was passed over because he is an English speaker. Another says he and his classmates studied in English, and that because state exams are given only in French this prevented him and others from attending university.
Discrimination against the use of the English language ignited the armed rebellion, but IRIN’s interviews with the ADF fighters also point to long-held grievances over the lack of basic state services and economic stagnation in the anglophone regions.
Abang says he joined the ADF because the state took resources from his region, but he also accuses francophones of “deceiving” anglophones more generally. “I was working in Douala as an electrician,” he explains. “They only paid me 3,000 CFA ($5.40) when I had worked for more than 200,000 CFA ($360).”
The odds may be stacked against the fighters, but they seem undaunted, driven by their anger against the state.
“Until they kill me, I’ll do my best to fight, until I get my independence,” says Abang. “I’m not alone, we are many.”
In Part 2: The mystical weapons of the fighters, the potential impact of the conflict on civilians, and the future of the anglophone independence struggle.