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