Escalating pro-independence movements by Anglophone Cameroonians and Biafrans are igniting ethnic tensions and could threaten regional stability.
BUEA, Cameroon Foreign Policy | For the past five years, factions of a secessionist movement in southeastern Nigeria and a pro-independence movement in western Cameroon have been gathering momentum, mobilizing supporters through social media, and clashing with government security forces in both countries.
Last month, leaders from both movements announced a formal alliance, which could ignite violence and instability in the two countries and across the West and Central African regions where violent extremist organizations affiliated with the Islamic State and al Qaeda are establishing a strong foothold.
In Nigeria, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) is a secessionist group that advocates for the creation of the independent country of Biafra. The pro-Biafran movement, led by Nigeria’s minority ethnic Igbo community, has deep historical roots. In 1967, following two failed military coups and targeted ethnic violence and persecution, the Igbo people came together to form the secessionist state of Biafra, triggering a brutal two-year civil war during which the Nigerian military imposed a blockade of the state, which caused between 500,000 to 2 million civilians to die from starvation. Ultimately, Biafra surrendered to the federal government, but pro-Biafran and anti-government sentiment remained and has hardened in recent years.
Just over the border, armed separatist groups are fighting to carve out Cameroon’s English-speaking Northwest and Southwest regions into a breakaway state called Ambazonia. Grievances of Anglophone Cameroonians date back to 1961, when the region was granted independence from Britain.
In 2016, the Ambazonia movement turned violent when government security forces cracked down on teachers and lawyers protesting the marginalization of Anglophone Cameroonians in a majority Francophone country.
In response, armed separatist groups—with substantial funding from Anglophone Cameroonians living abroad, according to a local aid worker who asked to remain anonymous—rapidly mobilized against government security forces. Violence in the regions has since displaced over 700,000 people and resulted in at least 4,000 civilian deaths, according to the United Nations and the International Crisis Group.
In early April, Cho Ayaba, the leader of the Ambazonia Governing Council, one of two major Anglophone separatist groups, and the well-known Biafran leader Nnamdi Kanu appeared in a press conference, livestreamed on social media, to announce a strategic and military alliance.
“We have assembled here today in front of our two peoples to declare our intentions to walk together to ensure collective survival from the brutal annexation that have occurred in our home nations,” Ayaba said. “The Ambazonia and Biafra Alliance is critical in an area where Nigeria and Cameroon have established two autocracies that have used violence as political tools to suppress our own peoples.”
The scope of the alliance will include joint operations and training bases, Capo Daniel, the deputy defense chief of the Ambazonia Defense Forces, the military wing of the Ambazonia Governing Council, told Foreign Policy. The groups will work to secure their shared border and ensure an open exchange of weapons and personnel, representatives of both the Ambazonia and IPOB movements said.
The Biafran and Ambazonian movements have individually grown increasingly violent in recent months and years. According to John Campbell of the Council on Foreign Relations, “separatist sentiment has been growing” in Nigeria since Muhammadu Buhari’s 2015 presidential election. Nigerian authorities have used lethal force against peaceful pro-Biafra protesters, which has left at least 150 civilians dead, according to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. IPOB was designated a terrorist group in Nigeria in September 2017.
In December 2020, Kanu announced the creation of the Eastern Security Network, a pro-Biafra paramilitary wing, which Nigerian authorities have accused of carrying out a spate of attacks this year. Most recently, in early April, armed gunmen attacked a prison in Imo state, situated in the Biafra region, and aided in the escape of nearly 2,000 prisoners. The next day, armed gunmen attacked a police station in the same area. On April 26, five government security forces were killed in Port Harcourt. In Cameroon, Anglophone separatists have stepped up attacks against government security forces, using improvised explosive devices to target military convoys in at least 30 different attacks in 2021, according to reports from the U.N., the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project (ACLED), and a spokesperson from the Cameroonian military.
Despite the violence, both governments and the international community have failed to address long-standing grievances. “The lesson I take from this is … that domestic grievances, when allowed to fester, can ultimately convulse into broader conflicts and brother crises and armed conflicts, which could have devastating consequences on a transnational basis,” said Christopher Fomunyoh of the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute.
A Biafra-Ambazonia weapons exchange will bolster the Anglophone separatist movement.
Moreover, Nigerian and Cameroonian security forces have repeatedly violated human rights to quell the protests. Consequently, Biafra and Ambazonia loyalists have found common ground in each other’s movements.
Daniel, the Ambazonian deputy defense chief, acknowledged the potential regional impact of the alliance but said that after almost five years of low-level armed conflict in Cameroon, there was no other choice. “We have been very careful in our association with the Biafra movement, because we didn’t want to destabilize the region, but we have been cornered,” he said from his base in Hong Kong. “The Nigerians have failed to act, the international community has failed to act, so we have no other choice but to get into an alliance that can better our chances to defend ourselves.”
The Biafra movement is well equipped with weaponry and other defense technology from Nigeria’s large black market. A Biafra-Ambazonia weapons exchange will bolster the Anglophone separatist movement, which has suffered in recent months from a severe lack of financial support from the diaspora, perhaps due to waning interest, pervasive human rights abuses carried out by separatist groups against civilians, or major divisions in the diaspora leadership. (Various separatist leaders deny that financial support has waned; however, fighters and aid workers on the ground confirm that extortion of “war taxes” and kidnap-for-ransom schemes are now the main income source to support ongoing fighting.) For its part, the Ambazonia movement says it will share lessons in making the Northwest and Southwest regions of Cameroon “ungovernable,” a tactic that has largely been achieved.
The successful joining of the two increasingly violent groups is likely to trigger a heightened response from both Cameroonian and Nigerian armed forces, which already work together to counter a Boko Haram insurgency in the northern regions of both countries. Nigeria has also aided the Cameroonian government in attempts to suppress the Anglophone uprising. In 2018, Nigerian security forces located, arrested, and extradited 10 Cameroonian separatist leaders residing in the country. The previous year, Nigerian security forces arrested more than 30 other Anglophone activists.
The Nigerian and Cameroonian militaries are well equipped and well trained, as both countries receive military support and training from foreign governments including the United States, France, and the United Kingdom for anti-terrorism efforts. In an open letter to U.S. President Joe Biden, published in local media outlets, the Biafran leader Kanu requested that the U.S. government suspend arms sales to Nigeria, citing human rights abuses and “Buhari’s draconian measures” to put down peaceful pro-Biafran protests.
Observers have previously suggested that the Cameroonian government has rerouted U.S.-origin military equipment and U.S.-trained military personnel from the fight against Boko Haram in Cameroon’s Far North region to the Anglophone conflict in the Northwest and Southwest regions—and in 2019, the U.S. government reduced military spending to Cameroon over human rights abuses.
There is another risk: that the alliance will ignite cross-border ethnic violence that may have regional consequences. Biafrans and Anglophone Cameroonians share a common enemy: Fulani herders, a nomadic ethnic group present across West and Central Africa. Tensions between the Fulani and the Biafrans and English-speaking Cameroonians date back decades. Biafrans and Ambazonians are predominantly Christians, while the Fulani are mostly Muslim.
Even before the Anglophone crisis, nomadic cattle-grazing Fulanis, known locally as Mbororos, clashed with locals, who are sedentary farmers, over land use in Cameroon’s Northwest region. In 2016, armed separatist groups carried out violent attacks against the Mbororo community over its lack of support for the Anglophone cause, and these attacks have only escalated in recent years. Since 2019, various separatist groups have stolen hundreds of cattle, abducted at least 20 Mbororos and extorted an estimated 10 million Central African Francs ($18,600) in ransom payments, killed an estimated 50 herdsmen, and displaced over 2,500 more Fulani civilians, according to the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa (CHRDA).
Meanwhile, Cameroonian security forces have funneled weapons to the Mbororo communities that have gone on to attack English-speaking farmers, a CHRDA report notes.
Biafrans and Anglophone Cameroonians share a common enemy: Fulani herders, a nomadic ethnic group present across West and Central Africa. Tensions between the groups date back decades.
Fulani fighters, including some who have crossed the border from Nigeria to Cameroon, have been implicated in some of the conflict’s deadliest incidents. In February 2020, armed Fulani men alongside Cameroonian military personnel attacked Ngarbuh village in the Northwest region and killed 21 civilians, including 13 children. This February, in an unprecedented surge of attacks, armed Fulani raided 18 villages in Nwa subdivision, killing at least 17 people and displacing 4,200 local residents.
In Nigeria, Biafrans battle with the Fulani for ethnic and political supremacy. Targeted ethnic violence against the Igbos by Fulani and other northern Nigerian ethnic groups was one of several factors that led to the civil war in the 1960s. Today, pro-Biafra activists use incendiary language, referring to the Fulani as “terrorists,” to incite violence. Across the country, Fulani have been accused of killing thousands of Nigerians amounting to “crimes against humanity and genocidal massacres against Christians,” according to Gregory Stanton of Genocide Watch.
Similar communal violence—often following farmer-grazer and ethnic lines—has flared across Mali, Niger, Chad, and Burkina Faso. In recent years, the death toll from ethnic and intercommunal violence has reached unprecedented levels, even exceeding that of violent extremism and terrorism in Mali, according to ACLED. Boko Haram, the Islamic State West Africa Province, and other violent extremist groups also exploit these ethnic tensions for their own gain.
The Ambazonia Defense Forces see the Biafra-Ambazonia alliance as a critical outlet to end rising Fulani-led attacks. “This is going to be a very good opportunity for us, because what we see on the field is there have been some alliances between the Cameroon government and Fulani,” Daniel, the Ambazonian deputy military leader, said. “So this is very big for our cause, in our fight against these Fulani, particularly those who are coming in from Nigeria.”
Despite a shared religion, the increasing involvement of Fulani in Cameroon’s Anglophone conflict is unlikely to fuse with the Boko Haram insurgency in the Far North region, and there is no evidence to suggest there has been a merging of the conflicts thus far, according to Akem Kelvin Nkwain, a human rights officer at CHRDA.
Even so, a further exacerbation of ethnic tensions involving the Fulani in Cameroon is likely to have a ripple effect across the region. “A development in which Fulanis become major actors, for better or for worse, in a country like Cameroon then gets exacerbated in Nigeria because of its own demographics and population categorizations,” said Fomunyoh, of the National Democratic Institute. This “then spreads to other parts of West Africa where you have populations that identify with the Fulani or with Peul [another name for ethnic Fulani], and then they may either feel victimized or pinpointed or isolated or targeted.”
The Biafran and Ambazonian movements are both fractured, and not all factions support the alliance and rising violence. Spokespeople from the self-proclaimed Interim Government of Ambazonia, the other major Anglophone separatist group, and the Customary Government of IPOB have denounced the alliance and proclaimed that the leaders involved are “impostors.”
Still, escalating violence in southeastern Nigeria and western Cameroon will only add to national and regional security challenges at a time when the region is already struggling with plummeting economies, democratic backsliding, and a resurgence of violent extremism and terrorism. Nigeria and Cameroon, both critical international partners in U.S. anti-terrorism campaigns and once beacons of economic stability in the region, may be on track to becoming failed states, which would have a devastating regional and global impact.