Immigration officers walk on a bridge built in 1948 that connects Nigeria with Cameroon at Mfum border station in Cross Rivers State, southeast Nigeria on February 1, 2018. PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

Separatist Movements in Nigeria and Cameroon Are Joining Forces

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.

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13 comments

  1. We surely need a very organized union, and blow up the whole region. Instead
    of allowing our peoples to die for very little, let the big war happen, killing this
    number plus a few more, and we succeed. We have cried, sang, protested etc
    etc for good governance and justice, but the leadership in both countries, remain
    arrogant. We must therefore, reinforce and get the bull by the horn.
    When the going gets tough, the tough should get going. No dragging of feet can
    solve this.

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  2. joshua…..according to your reasoning the more people die ,the closer you get to your objective? let us look at things as they stand.on what grounds do you think that complete war will give you independence?looking at the geography of this area completely landlocked by nigeria and equitorial guinea who are antagonistic to your desire.one does not see how your desire can be achieved in even the next twenty years.your capabilities are too limited to sustain outright war for say one month.contrary to this,younde and abuja have the necessary resources to sustain outright war for years and years.if we are calm sober and rational.we can conclude without possibility of doubt that you are fighting a lost cause ,just like your biafran counterparts whoes leader is now in prison like sisiku.

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    • I have always, tried to see if i could give you Bah Acho, a benefit of doubt
      in how you respond or look at issues in this forum. Without insulting you,
      i think for the most part, you are a dreamer. Have you just returned from
      space, to know how thinks are here? 5 years and lrc/france, can not defeat
      boyses. 5 or 6 countries, and Boko Haram, is still waxing on. Or, have mere
      words like `rational` etc that you keep using, mean something else from the
      ordinary to you?
      If the free guns etc living in the subregion, go into business, will your Biya /
      Buhari, still be in Africa? As you continue dreaming, don`t fail to get up and
      remember, that the Taliban, has beaten the `might policeman` of the world.

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      • JOSUA…..this is not a question of believe or ideology but being rational.the taliban were supported in afghanistan by its neighbours.if we allow evidence to speak in your situation,we can say with absolute certainty that you are bound to fail because you are not guided by calm logical thinking but ideology.whether the conflict last 50 years does not matter.what matter is who come out victorious.it is clear from all evidence you will fail.

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        • It will not fail, but it will prolong and some day, God will intervene divinely. Believe like Unstoppable and a few others here, that
          miracles still exist? Read the bible to see it there, boy. i understad
          where you are coming from, but truth, simple truth, is very important.

    • @BAH:- u ate too much..
      your brain stopped functioning….
      You think like a hungry CPDM Dude..
      Have you ever thought of the reason why there is war?..
      Do you know southern Cameroonians are suffering for over 50 years?..
      Do you know that when people are frustrated, the only alternative is war?

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  3. JOSHUA,,,,the idea of a divine intervention is clear evidence that you are not guided by simple,calculated, mathematical thinking guided by logic,evidence base.in all competitions those with an ideological mindset driven by emotions lose to rationallist whoes actions are carefully thought out,meditated ,checked modefied and implemented base on a realistic assement of thier force and weaknesses.
    miracles have never existed before,do not exist today,and will never exist.all accomplishments are achieved by the implementation of careful strategic modefiable evidence base thinking.this is the principle that guide champion nations to win great strategic battles,not believing empty words written in a dogmatic book that tell stories of humans flying to heaven which does not exist.

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  4. BAH:- with your sardine, you stopped to reason. You are one of those fake African who thinks only with the stomach…One thing is just clear:;- If you want equal rights and freedom and cant get, there is just one alternative- WAR…
    Have you ever got up and asked yourself honestly why there is war in the NOSO?..
    You come out with your Sardine fucked brain and only complain .
    Southern Cameroonians have been suffering for over 50 years..
    Your Franch language and culture have frustrated these people..
    There is no equal distribution of resources ..SOuthern Cameroon despite the riches dont even have basic neccecities..Do you know that it is shorter to go to Akwaya but through Nigeria?..Do you know that Bamenda -Mbouda is faster with a horse than a car?..
    You are a disgrace to the black race.

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    • BIKO….calling me a sardine eater because i refuse to allow emotions to override my thinking is not a counter argument demonstrating mathematically what you are going to do to achieve the so called independence.when i say that the geography of the bamenda and the south west area are landlocked by nigeria and equitorial guinea,making it impossible for you to win a military battle because they are antagonistic to your course and will not allow you use thier territory.this is not thinking with the stomach,but evidence base thinking.the cause of this war is clear and evident for all to see.the goverment of younde has proved its incompetency.but taking arms against them was a strategic mistake with very bad consequences.if we were sober,calm,thoughtful and rational.things would be different.

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  5. many people come out and complain about the war..
    Francophones come out and say we gave the anglophones special statues..
    we gave them house of chief…
    How can 2 states come together to form a fedaral republic , you change to United Republic of Cameroon and later to LRC…Before the union the francophones came in as LA republic and just swallowed southern cameroon.
    Lets be honest and go back to history..Lets talk honestly..
    Southern Cameroonians cannot live with such Feeh men..Such Thugs and thieves…
    A country where L,Etat cest BIYA and his gang of thieves..

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    • Biko, you nailed it. See the infighting that has charactirized the cpdm
      reorganization lately. If anyone followed presshour crtv this sunday and
      listened to Biya incarnate{ Elvis Ngole Ngole}, you will see he was lacking
      in words to defend the cpdm. Black magic and money influences.
      Yes, we are gone. This is the everlasting peace solution ever. It has happened
      in other countries and this is no exception. Only a matter of time and the
      continuous support of the boyses in the bushes.

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      • how do normal thinking people come to the conclution that taking up arms against a system that has been in place for over sixty years will enable them win independence and cut the systems from its source of income?by simply asking the following question it was possible to anticipate what their reaction will be.can younde allow the oil in limbe and bakasi to escape total their control without putting on a brutal fight?the awnser is no.so before taking up arms against them,they first had to be in a supirior military position to then impose their aspiration on the ground through force.this is what rationality is about not the emotivity displayed above by BIKO and JOSHUA all creationist with a dogmatic mindset.kikikiki

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  6. When A is always in argument with B, C, D….., Z then its ok to say : A is the fundamental problem. I had many yrs ago discovered that its best to ignore A no matter his write up. In my opinion, he has an issue with his brain cells.

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