The Death of Field Marshal

Renowned Ambazonian commander, Oliver Lekeaka, better known as ‘Field Marshal’, was killed this week near Menji in Lebialem, South-West Cameroon. The circumstances remain unclear, but reports strongly suggest that he was not directly killed by the military. Instead, it seems likely that he was killed by a rival separatist, perhaps enticed by a financial arrangement with the military. Rifts between separatist groups and leaders in Lebialem have been noted for some time, and so this isn’t entirely surprising, and given that the BIR were able to raid his camp and recover his body relatively quickly hints quite clearly at collaboration in some form. Rumors abound as to which group or person was directly responsible, and it is possible that we may never know the full truth. What is absolutely true, however, is that Field Marshal is dead.

Field Marshal

The military of Cameroon is celebrating this as a major coup, and in some ways it is. Lekeaka was the most prominent Ambazonian commander remaining from the early days of the conflict. His exploits with the Red Dragons in 2018 and 2019 earned him plaudits across the separatist community, with the nearly impassable topography of Lebialem providing ample refuge to his Red Dragons. His death is therefore undoubtedly a loss to the armed separatist cause.

Yet in truth, I believe this to be more a propaganda coup than a victory that actually has a material effect on the situation on the ground.

Lebialem was an epicenter of the conflict in 2018, with some of the fiercest fighting to date. Lekeaka’s Red Dragons were largely responsible for this. They were better armed than most groups at that early stage of the conflict, and they were able to use the highly inhospitable terrain of Lebialem to their advantage. They took a significant toll on the military. However, the Red Dragons were essentially degraded as a fighting force by two key factors. Firstly, one of the Red Dragon’s stronger commanders, General Ayeke, left with some fighters to form a rival group known as the ‘Gorilla/Guerilla Fighters of Alou’. Together with another group, known as the ‘Ambazonian Liberation Army’ under General Die-Man, they proceeded to contest Lebialem, at times against the Red Dragons themselves. This infighting was seriously detrimental to separatist efforts in the region. The second key factor was increased, effective military operations in late 2020. The death of General Ayeke during one such military operation in October 2020 was a further blow to separatist activity.

The fracturing and infighting of different separatist groups further undermined their hold on the division. Ultimately, by 2021 and 2022, the number of battles with the military and separatist control in Lebialem was significantly reduced. ACLED data supports this, also revealing that as attacks on the military (and separatist strength) declined, attacks on civilians increased. Separatist groups still have a presence in Lebialem, of course, but in truth, it has not been a hotspot of the conflict for some time. Some on the government side perceive Lebialem to be a rare success story of the conflict, as a place where the military had essentially defeated the separatists.

Field Marshal and the Red Dragons had not been heavily involved in fighting for some time, and it so it was with some surprise that the Red Dragons reemerged this month with the alleged attack on Sanchou Market in the West region. The subsequent loss of Field Marshal essentially heralds the extinction of the Red Dragons as a functional, effective fighting force, and given the intense infighting and fracturing in the area, it is difficult to see the Red Dragons recovering in the near future.

Lekeaka was the brother of noted Ambazonian firebrand, Christopher Anu, formerly a powerful figure within Interim Government (Sako). It remains to be seen what impact and influence Lekeaka’s death will have on his work.

All this is to say that whilst this is undoubtedly a significant propaganda coup for the government, unless it has a catastrophic demoralizing effect on other groups, it means relatively little for the state of the conflict on the ground. Developments in Mezam Division and elsewhere are far more consequential.

Lekeaka is buried by the BIR near Kumba, South-West Cameroon

Finally, it is worth noting that the military displayed the decomposing body of Lekeaka in Kumba today, a significant amount of time after his death. This has become common practice by the Cameroonian military. The bodies of dead separatists (or suspected separatists) are left on display in prominent places by the military with increasing regularity, as seen in Bamali, North-West region, in mid-June. Underlining the grim use of bodies for political ends, Lekeaka’s body was rumored to be taken on tour to Alou, Dschang, and elsewhere in Cameroon. However, photos suggest that he was buried near Kumba today.

This concerning practice approaches the threshold of crimes under international law.

Lekeaka displayed by the BIR in Kumba, South-West Cameroon

Cameroon, as a signatory to both the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocol 1, is bound to:

Geneva Convention IV

Article 16, second paragraph, of the 1949 Geneva Convention IV provides: “As far as military considerations allow, each Party to the conflict shall facilitate the steps taken … to protect [the killed] against … ill-treatment.”

Additional Protocol I

Article 34(1) of the 1977 Additional Protocol I provides: “The remains of persons who have died for reasons related to occupation or in detention resulting from occupation or hostilities … shall be respected”.


Has the Anglophone Crisis Diverted Cameroon’s Resources from Fighting Boko Haram?

As the crisis ravaging the Northwest and Southwest regions of Cameroon rages on, the two northernmost regions of Cameroon have seen a resurgence in Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) activity. The fight against these extremists movements in the Far North was previously a major operational focus for Cameroon’s security forces, but the Biya government’s decision to militarize the Anglophone Crisis has strained the capacity of Cameroon to fight effectively on two fronts, reducing security everywhere. This strategy led the Biya regime to redeploy security forces extensively to the two Anglophone regions, and to invest significantly in defence infrastructure there. It is not hard to find evidence of this significant redeployment of personnel, vehicles, and aircraft over the last two years, and the following is a preliminary survey of some of that evidence.  

Bamenda Airport, already home to a BIR (Batallion D’Intervention Rapide) base, has seen major security investment since the crisis began. As shown in the satellite imagery below, a new helicopter facility has been added, complete with two helipads to the south of the airport apron. The buildings of the BIR complex have been reroofed, and some small new buildings added to that facility. Most notable, though, has been the major development of a new security-related facility with blue roofing. Individually, these developments may seem insignificant, but taken together it makes clear Bamenda’s strategic importance – these are expensive investments over a short period of time. It is also known that a DDR (Disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration) center has been under construction near Bamenda for some time. This large facility can be seen under development in this video at 23:09.

Development at Bamenda Airport: Before Image 1/20/2017. After Image 10/19/2020. Google Earth Imagery.

Arguably the Cameroon Air Force’s most important aircraft, the American-made C-130 Hercules, provides its most impressive strategic and tactical airlift capability. The Hercules is a mainstay of logistical support for operations in the Far North, but more sorties appear to be heading west rather than north. Cameroon has only three C-130H aircraft, and keeping them operable is clearly a priority, with a recently-signed maintenance agreement with Marshall Aerospace and Defence providing maintenance for the next five years (https://www.flightglobal.com/fixed-wing/cameroon-picks-marshall-for-c-130-maintenance/138232.article). One C-130 slid off the runway at Maroua-Salak airport in the Far North earlier this year, sustaining light damage. During 2019 and 2020, however, Cameroon’s invaluable C-130s have been photographed at Bamenda airport on multiple occasions, as demonstrated in the images below, another indicator of the operational tempo of security forces involved in the Anglophone Crisis.

The BIR’s main base can be found in the South-West region of Cameroon, at Man O’War Bay in Limbe. Two used Bell 412s were bought for the BIR in 2019, adding to the two already in service. Bell 412 helicopters have been used regularly on operations in the Anglophone regions, and it is known that at least some of Cameroon’s limited fleet are based at the Man O’War Bay base. The images below, taken from a documentary on the BIR , clearly show them in operation at Limbe, and some of the infrastructure that supports them. Various other documentaries on the Anglophone Crisis have featured journalists flying in these same helicopters.

This documentary is also of interest as it clearly shows Mack Defense/ACMAT Bastion APCs, donated to Cameroon by the US Department of Defense for use against Boko Haram, based in the Anglophone regions. Two examples are visible in the video, as shown below, whilst another image shows one on operations in Lebialem in the Anglophone regions. The video also shows a Polaris-type special forces vehicle in use, likely sourced from the United States.

Cameroon has also invested heavily in new armoured vehicles that have been regularly spotted in the Anglophone regions, but no evidence has yet been seen of any deployment to the Far North. UAE-based MSPV have exported a number of Panthera vehicles to Cameroon,  with the police, gendarmerie and army operating them. Photographic evidence also exists of heavy Chinese 07P IFVs being operated in the Anglophone regions, once a mainstay in the battles against Boko Haram in the Far North. In addition, shell casings from its unique 30mm cannon have been found and photographed by local residents after battles in Anglophone regions.

Finally, anecdotal reports from the Far North suggest that the security forces have reduced their strength, leading to a rise in insecurity. A report by Human Rights Watch alleges that civilians have been forced to perform Night Guard duty to protect against Boko Haram attacks. This suggested reduction in numbers in the Far North appears to be backed up by satellite imagery, with the Fotokol BIR base showing a dramatic reduction in the number of military vehicles stationed there in 2019-2020 compared to previous years. This is illustrated in the imagery comparison below.

Decrease in Activities at Fotokol Military Base: Before Image 12/29/2018. After Image 1/8/2020. Google Earth Imagery.

Ultimately, the preceding evidence illustrates that (1) the militarization of the Anglophone Crisis has caused the Cameroonian government to invest heavily in defence facilities and hardware in the Northwest and Southwest of Cameroon, thus (2) stretching resources and capabilities in the Far North, allowing for a resurgence of both Boko Haram and ISWAP, reducing security for civilians there and elsewhere, and increasing the economic strain on an already fiscally weakened Cameroon government. 

Billy Burton and Chris W.J. Roberts


Life After Biya

As Cameroon witnesses the dying embers of the embattled Biya regime, questions abound about what the future holds for the Central African country. Beset by a violent separatist conflict in the Anglophone regions and the omnipresent scourge, Boko Haram, in the North, that Cameroon faces significant challenges ahead is an understatement. Yet slowly and very carefully, the potential for a more democratic future is emerging from conversations between leading Cameroonians.

President Paul Biya has effectively ruled Cameroon since 1982, with questionable elections returning him as President as recently as 2018. Biya, now a sprightly 87, will be a venerable 92 when his seventh term ends, and his health remains a popular topic amongst Cameroonians both at home and in the diaspora. Extended stays in Geneva and regular disappearances from the public eye have only furthered these discussions. Biya’s absence was particularly conspicuous this year at the start of the Coronavirus pandemic- even his reappearance at a meeting with French Ambassador Christophe Guilhou did little to stop them. Biya is apparently back at the helm now, but questions about his health abound. There is now a growing inevitability about the end of the Biya regime. Nobody lives forever, and Cameroonian eyes are starting to turn toward the future. Who will succeed Biya? What does the Cameroon of the future look like? More simply- what comes next?

Whilst Biya’s Cameroon Peoples Democratic Movement (CPDM) party may retain an overwhelming majority (139/180 seats) in the National Assembly, there is a degree of inescapability about the instability and potential power vacuum to come. This is the price any highly centralized country must pay for being ruled by a strongman with an iron fist for so long. Out of this change, however, arises an opportunity never truly granted the people of Cameroon since its formation in 1960, as the only previous president, Ahidjo, was also widely regarded to be dictatorial figure. It is remarkable that since 1960, Cameroon has had just two presidents. After sixty years of the rule of the Strongman and ultimately the cult of Biya, the people of Cameroon are approaching the greatest crossroads since federation in 1972, or perhaps in the country’s history. The people of Cameroon can allow the nation to continue down its current path, settling on a new ‘chosen’ leader in the mold of Biya, but they will also have the chance to effect the lasting political change that many desire. Leader of the Cameroon Renaissance Movement opposition party, Maurice Kamto, is the most prominent proponent of this view, publicly opposing an apparent transfer of power to one of Biya’s acolytes, as if the CPDM party itself had the divine right to rule.

On social media, he stated ‘We will not accept the mutual agreement succession in our country, nor new popular elections without consensual reform of the electoral system. Only the Cameroonian people will have to choose their legitimate leaders, in freedom and democratic transparency’.  Kamto has paid and continues to pay the price for his opposition to the regime. He and his supporters were imprisoned from January to October 2019 in the notorious Kondengui Prison in Yaoundé. A rumored assassination attempt followed, and only this week was his compound attacked and death threats reportedly made against him. He recently also proposed a wide-ranging, representative committee to help resolve the Anglophone Crisis. It is somewhat symptomatic of the Biya regime’s extremities and decline that Kamto’s efforts to fundraise for the Coronavirus response were heavily suppressed- and even outlawed- by the government.

Yet whilst Kamto is indeed a key player, a drive for change is coming from some of Cameroon’s most revered figures. Politician and entrepreneur Kah Walla’s ‘20th of May Dialogues’, livestreamed simultaneously on Twitter [CS1] and Zoom, has brought some of the nation’s brightest minds together to discuss the future of their country. Speakers including journalist Mimi Mefo, once imprisoned by the Biya regime, the indomitable technology entrepreneur Rebecca Enonchong, surgeon Dr. Dennis Foretia and others have all voiced their thoughts on issues including the Anglophone Crisis, Coronavirus and political transitions. The value of these dialogues should not be underestimated, as they are introducing and highlighting new, exciting Cameroonian options for the country’s future, from some of the nation’s finest minds. The reaction to these dialogues on social media illustrates both the richness of Cameroon’s political sphere and the yearning for change- or at the very least, more discussions.

Although the Anglophone Crisis is oft ignored by the international community, it threatens the stability of the entire state of Cameroon and thus must form (and has formed) a key part of these discussions. The dialogues have hinted at how a solution to the Anglophone Crisis could be found, but longer-term thinking is required in order to produce a lasting peace – be it through a true federation or another mechanism. A weakness of previous dialogue efforts has been a lack of unity among Anglophone groups, with views varying widely. With a stronger coalition of Anglophone voices, a meaningful dialogue has more chance of success. The concept of a future Cameroonian state beyond the Biya regime offers a genuine opportunity for change, and for Cameroon to better reflect the demands of the Anglophone population. Of course, this will not satisfy everybody, particularly the most ardent Ambazonian separatists, but it would represent a significant improvement on the current situation. The Anglophone regions remain of vital economic importance to Cameroon, and so they would invariably be a major point of discussion, even if the crisis had never occurred.

Looking across Central and Francophone Africa, change is coming. Even Burundi’s Nkurunziza has handed power over to a successor, and more nations are supportive of Presidential term limits. France’s controversial and neocolonial CFA Franc is being replaced in West Africa by an exciting though arguably imperfect successor, the ECO. Central Africa’s CFA Franc, used in Cameroon, will surely follow, reducing the country’s dependency on its former colonial master. Coronavirus itself has also upset the world order, and what that fully means for Cameroon and Central Africa remains to be fully understood. The end of the Biya regime, then, may coincide with a changing of the guard on multiple fronts.

Whilst the Biya regime will invariably trundle on for a while to come, it feels more finite than ever before. Cameroonians have the rarest of opportunities to reform their state and to mold it to be ready for the next 100 years. That process starts with conversations like the ‘May 20th Dialogues’, led by so many brilliant Cameroonians. This progress will likely be contested fiercely by those in power by way of the Biya regime, and so there are tough political challenges ahead. Somehow though, in the unlikeliest of times amidst a terrible pandemic, there is an indelible source of hope in Cameroon.


Cameroon’s Crisis Falls on Deaf Ears

When American Pastor Charles Wesco was killed in the crossfire of separatist and government forces, people thought that change would come. The American government surely wouldn’t stand to lose one of their own. But that was 2018.

When Baby Martha Neba, with only four months on this earth, was gruesomely killed by state forces, people thought that change would come. A four-month-old child? Horrendous. But that was 2019.

When government forces committed a terrible massacre at Ngarbuh, people thought change would come. At least twenty-two dead women and children, as innocent as could be. An atrocity. And that was 2020.

Yet no change has come.

When Samuel Wazizi, a popular TV anchor and journalist, was arrested in August 2019, people thought it was just another example of the repression of the press in Cameroon. He would surely be released, in time, as Mimi Mefo and others had before him.

Yet Wazizi’s lawyers were never granted access to him. His family never heard from him. When his lawyers finally won the right to have him produced by the government in court, he did not appear.

Then, on June the 5th, the truth came out.

The Government’s Military Spokesman revealed that Wazizi had died in their custody. In August 2019.

For Three Hundred Days, Wazizi’s family, friends, lawyers, colleagues and international press advocates had all been pushing for his release. To see him, to hear him, to feel him again. For Three Hundred Days, the Government of Cameroon maintained a cruel charade that denied justice and tortured his family. The Government stated that Wazizi died of sepsis shortly after his arrest. But after three hundred days of deceit, who would possibly trust that? An independent investigation and autopsy has been demanded by many, and French Ambassador Christophe Guilhou intimated that President Biya has indicated that an investigation will take place. With allegations of torture rife, an independent investigation this is the only way to bring any form of peace to those who cared so deeply about Samuel Wazizi.

Yet Biya’s suggested investigation is nothing to applaud. The Government of Cameroon is a serial suppressor of press freedoms, and still has at least 7 journalists in prison. The gravestone of Wazizi is yet another grim marker of the deterioration of the Biya regime, and yet another indicator of the grave threat posed to journalists in Cameroon.

There is a famous thought experiment that asks:

‘If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound’?

It could be argued that in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon, two other versions of this thought experiment are being tested.

Firstly, with reference to the government of Cameroon,

‘If an incident occurs and all the journalists and witnesses have been arrested or killed, did the incident happen’?

Secondly, with reference to the international community,

‘If incidents happen and nobody cares enough to act, are they really incidents’?

The international community has watched as the Anglophone Problem became the Anglophone Crisis, and now they have watched as the Anglophone Crisis has become the Anglophone War. Through an absence of meaningful enforcement and redress, the government of Cameroon has operated with absolute impunity throughout the crisis. Separatist groups have also committed serious human rights abuses. Incidents like the Ngarbuh Massacre have drawn international attention, even at the level of the United Nations Secretary General, but the lack of subsequent action has facilitated the further deterioration of the crisis. Despite overwhelming evidence of serious human rights abuses, Cameroon remains off the agenda of the UN Human Rights Council. Cameroon is also not on the UN Security Council agenda.

With little pressure on Cameroon and the armed groups involved, there is no end in sight for the Anglophone Crisis.

In the mean time, I at least hope that we will see #JusticeForWazizi.

Image created by Gabriel_TheCode

From Russia With Gas

Russian troops on patrol in Syria 

Cameroon has resisted foreign interference of any form in the Anglophone Crisis, but Russia is prowling in the wings. Here’s why: 

The famous £1.5 billion British New Age gas deal, announced to great fanfare by the then-International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, has slowly been rumbling along in the background. The deal concerned the development of the offshore Etinde gas field, located off the coast of the Southwest region of Cameroon. London-based New Age (African Global Energy) Ltd. has an interesting history, being backed by Och-Ziff, a US hedge fund that has previously paid over $400 million to settle bribery suits following an investigation from the US government- after bribing officials in various African countries to the tune of some $100 million. While there is no evidence to suggest that the same occurred with the Etinde gas deal, it does potentially hint at a pattern of behaviour.

What is forgotten, however, is that whilst New Age has a 37.5% stake, and Bowleven has a 25% stake, Russian firm Lukoil also has a 37.5% stake in the Etinde field.

In the past few years, Russia has extended significant efforts towards increasing its presence and influence in Africa, particularly in Central Africa. Positing itself as an alternative to the West, and particularly to the former colonial powers , Putin’s Russia has almost imperceptibly moved in to a position of power. Far away from the goal-tied investments of the west and their vocal concern for human rights, and differing from the financial might of China, Russia has found success with the export of military muscle and natural resource development. Whilst exporting arms and training military units is part and parcel of trade and diplomacy, Russia has also developed a habit of leaving ‘little green men’ across the region- often mercenaries working for the Russian PMC ‘Wagner Group’, which itself has ties to the Russian regime. Assumedly part of Russia’s hybrid warfare approach, as used to great success in Ukraine, the Wagner Group have been involved in Sudan, the Central African Republic, Madagascar, Libya and Mozambique. Russia’s approach is effectively tailor-made to support the strongmen of Africa.

CAR POster
A Poster Praising Russian/CAR Military Cooperation. (Sebastian Shukla/CNN)

Why is this relevant to the Anglophone Crisis?

Firstly, the Wagner Group’s involvement has been associated with the presence of Russian natural resource companies, including Lukoil. In the CAR, Wagner Group troops were used to guard lucrative mines, and similar has been reported elsewhere.

Secondly, the Russian Ambassador Anatoliy Bashkine met with the Cameroonian government in early March. The Russian ambassador came out strongly against humanitarian intervention in the Anglophone regions, which is significant in and of itself- but it was the fine detail that is the most interesting. It was announced that Russian Lukoil was negotiating the reconstruction of the SONARA refinery in Limbe, which was devastated by fire in mid-2019. Russia will thus likely have people on the ground in the Anglophone regions in the coming months, as they look to bring the SONARA refinery back online.

Thirdly, New Age (African Global Energy) recently signed a Letter of Intent with Victoria Oil & Gas for the supply of gas from the Etinde field. Again, it is the fine print that is interesting here, as Victoria state that:to access Etinde gas, GDC will need to install a 60 km high-pressure gas pipeline from Limbe to Bekoko where it would connect with the existing low-pressure pipeline network which operates throughout Douala‘, before hinting at gas infrastructure towards the towns of Tiko, Muntengene, Buea and others. Whilst there is a major BIR base at Limbe, protecting such linear infrastructure (and its development) is going to pose a serious security challenge for the Cameroonian government. Even Limbe has seen its share of violence during the crisis so far, and a high-profile gas pipeline is an obvious strategic target for non-state armed groups. Events that would likely increase instability – such as the death of the serving president of Cameroon – would raise the risk of this operation even higher. Already involved at SONARA, and with a significant stake in this development too, it is not hard to imagine which country will be ready to protect its investments and support the government.

Early Etinde plans via New Age (African Global Energy) Ltd.

Finally, Russia has been involved in disinformation campaigns in African states, using social media to support the ruling party. Whilst the most detailed instances of these campaigns involved Libya, Mozambique and elsewhere, it is notable that Cameroon was also targeted by a Russian campaign. I have reached out to the author of the study to understand the Cameroon-specific elements of this further.

To conclude, it is evident that Russia has made a major geopolitical shift towards Africa, and Cameroon appears to be the next target in line. Recent developments elsewhere on the continent have shown how Russian investments in unstable areas often come with military muscle attached, relying on the concept of plausible deniability.  Supporting strongmen with military solutions enables Russia to form closer ties with the host nation, whilst reducing the risk to its lucrative investments. In theory, Russia’s approach could increase the profitability of risky conflict zone investments by minimizing disruptions. Thus for Russia, a strongman is their perfect ally, and is one where the West seldom wishes to tread. In Cameroon, it is easy to see exactly why Russia is pushing for closer ties with the Biya regime, and the previously outlined evidence illustrates how this relationship continues to develop.

Ultimately, Lukoil’s Etinde field investment and the repair of the SONARA plant are located in the contested Southwest region, and on the balance of evidence, that is why I would not be surprised if some Russian ‘little green men’ appear around Limbe in the months and years ahead.