Amba Boys: Transforming Pacifists into Warmongers?

1.0 What’s in a Name?

‘Amba Boys’ is a catch-all term under which a coalition of separatist rebel groups operate in Cameroon. They routinely engage in an armed confrontation with the Cameroonian security services and constitute a serious impediment to peace and development in the northern part of the country. The canopy ‘Amba Boys’ stems from ‘Ambazonia’.

In 1984, Goirji Dinka, a long-time radical activist of the Anglophone movement, unilaterally changed the name of British Southern Cameroon to Ambazonia. To avoid assuming a colonial name, he forged ‘Ambazonia’ out of the geographical name of the Ambas Bay located in the South-West -formerly a settlement of freed slaves [source]. When the separatist cause turned into open conflict in 2016, most armed groups simply copied the naming convention of Nigeria’s ‘Delta Boys’ and subsequently baptised various rebel gangs as ‘Amba Boys’.

‘Amba Boys’ can refer to any armed group operating for the sake of Ambazonian independence. As a result, they are all loosely federated by the idea of gaining independence, but differ in direction of command structures, sponsorship, fighting skills, as well as weaponry and their relationships to the population.

On the ground, Amba Boys in the same chain of command adopt locally relevant names. An example is the Red Dragons. They operate under the Interim Government led by Samuel Sako in the Libialem Division. In Bafut, local communities call them the Seven Karta. They are the Mountain Lions in Fako, and the Vipers in Babanki.

Other broad groups with local representation include the Ambazonia Defence Forces (ADF). Ambazonian Restoration Force (ARF). Southern Cameroon Defence Forces (SOCADEF).

An Amba Boy affliated with the Ambazonia Military Forces (AMF) is photographed with a pump-action rifle.
Fig.1 An Ambazonian Military Force (AMF) rebel, photographed with a pump-action rifle [Credit: Gareth Browne].

2.0 Planting The Seeds: Historical Roots of Amba Boys

Following German colonial rule, the 1919 League of Nations mandate divided Cameroon. It later became a UN Trusteeship in 1946, administered by Britain and France. After the formal decolonisation process and termination of the Trusteeship in 1961 [source], Anglophones participated in an UN-organised constitutional referendum to decide whether British Southern Cameroon would be administered by Nigeria or French Cameroon. With no possibility of secession, Northern Cameroon was ceded to Nigeria and the South was absorbed into French Cameroon [source]. British Cameroonians believed that the federal governing arrangement would afford them sufficient political and cultural autonomy. Instead, they experienced cultural assimilation and increased centralisation.

The Francophone majority, who constitute around 80% of Cameroon’s estimated 20m population, sidelined the Anglophone regions to near-insignificance in the post-colonial state. Since the establishment of a unitary, centralised state named ‘The United Republic of Cameroon’ in 1972, Anglophones continue to resist the perceived erosion of their cultural heritage/ identity [source]. In 1984, current president Paul Biya cemented the marginalisation of Anglophones. He did so by renaming the country ‘La République du Cameroun’, a reference to the French-administered UN trusteeship territory.

2.1 Seeds of Discontent

In response, a school of thought emerged amongst detractors of La République. It claimed that the UN-organised plebiscites were null and that South Cameroon became a state of its own in 1961. These culminated, in the 1990s, into the formation of the Southern Cameroons National Congress. However, the Congress was unable to address the grievances from an emergent radical sect, who sought the restoration of Southern Cameroon independence outright instead of restoring the federal system [source]. It was against this backdrop that Gorgi Dinka, violently opposed to any venture that sought to keep British and French Cameroon as one state, deviated from the already existing name to call the area ‘Ambazonia’. He championed the acerbic claim that French Cameroon usurped Ambazonia’s independence.

Continuous state paralysis, democratic scandals (rigged elections), and state nonchalance pushed South Cameroonians to the fringes of society. Swathes of youths from the North-West and South-West feel increasingly cheated by the government. Youth indictment of Biya’s Government is attributed to the following causative factors:

  • Forceful admission to the public service through training schools like National School of Administration and Magistracy (ENAM)
  • Corruption
  • Electoral irregularities
  • Inept governance
  • Austerity and high unemployment
  • Concessions or compensation schemes based on affiliation to the ruling party. (See: Biya’s 2020 decentralisation scheme [source]. More than three years after the ‘Anglophone Crisis’ erupted, Biya signed a decree authorising indirect regional council elections in the Western regions as part of a 1966 constitutional reform [source]. The action was believed to appease separatists, but its reception was overwhelmingly hostile, particularly amongst those who believed it merely symbolic [source].
  • Failure to follow through on the Reconstruction and Development of the North-West and South-West regions [source] announced in 2020 [source].

2.2 Fertile Ground: Ambazonia’s Conception

There are a growing number of separatist propaganda channels and community mobilisation efforts. In 2017, separatist leaders outside of Cameroon created the Ambazonian Broadcasting Co-operation (ABC) [source]. The ABC became a vector of pro-separatist disinformation, routinely issuing signed fake communiqués from authorities. Not least, it utilised photos from other countries, photo-shopping/ cropping them to seemingly depict the maltreatment of South Cameroonians [source] [source].

By virtue of disinformation campaigns, mass enlistment into the war enterprise was most pronounced amongst unemployed young men from rural areas of South Cameroon, including:

  • Akwaya
  • Fruawa
  • Benahundo
  • Anyajua
  • Mughiji
  • Kwakwa
  • Myemen

[Source].

With only one-fifth of the working population employed [source], the ABC and similar outlets created a vitrine of hope and immediate employment amongst young men, whose prospects on the labour market in French Cameroon were considerably dim.

In addition, it should also be noted that Amba Boys do hold legitimate grievances with Biya’s Government. Amnesty International equally found that Cameroonian security forces commit human rights violations against Amba Boys and civilians. This includes unlawful killings, sexual violence, and the destruction of houses. Of particular significance, Cameroonian security forces also harass and detain those speaking out about the crisis [source], [source].

3.0 Hook, Line, and Sinker: Recruitment of Amba Boys

Amba Boys instrumentalise social media for radicalisation and enlistment schemes. Common platforms include:

  • Facebook
  • WhatsApp
  • Instagram
  • YouTube
  • Blogs and V-Blogs

It is commonplace for Amba Boys (and their sympathisers) to propagate war as a religious struggle. In so doing, they often deploy de-contextualised Biblical and Koranic verses to justify their means of actions. For those who profess belief in the African traditional religion, Amba boys offer incantation and mythical protection (Odeshi charms, fetishes and amulets) as ready gods of protection [source]. This video circulating Facebook shows Field Marshall (FM) Clement Mbashie (better known by his nom de guerre, General No Pity). He is celebrating the alleged death of nine Cameroonian soldiers in Njitapon at his hand. He is further heard saying: “Only God can destroy me; no man can destroy me”. 

This video was posted by ‘Amba Breaking News’ which, as established, is likely to disseminate false or altered information. However, it does bear testament to a shrewdly directed recruitment campaign. Be it Odeshi, Christian or Islamic, religion is not what determines the political means chosen for reaching an end. Instead, Amba Boys routinely compound ambitions of regional domination with their weaponisation of religion in pursuit of their political ends.

An Amba Boy affiliated with the Ambazonia Defence Force (ADF) photographed with a machete and a revolver
Fig.2 An Ambazonia Defence Force rebel, photographed with a machete and a revolver [Credit: Gareth Browne].

4.0 Recruitment and Leadership

Amba boys are forcefully or voluntarily recruited. In 2020, a USDOS report on Human Rights Practices found that Ambazonian separatists used children as fighters in the South-West and North-West regions [source]. Further, UNICEF’s humanitarian report on Lake Chad Basin Crisis noted that children faced a ‘potential recruitment into non-state armed groups (NSAGs) [source]. Of particular significance, OCHA noted that young men and boys are at risk of forced recruitment in the South-West and North-West regions as ground rebels. The same source also recorded cases of girls forcibly recruited by Amba boys to serve as fighters, sex slaves (known as ‘bushwives’) and messengers [source].

Most rebel leaders are based abroad. In contrast, the Amba Boys overwhelmingly constitute the forces on the ground, relying on those abroad for funding, propaganda, and doctrinal leadership. With over 530,000 people internally displaced [source], insurgent recruits are in no short supply. The forces on the ground that owe allegiance to foreign commandeering include the Restoration Forces such as:

  • British Southern Cameroons Restoration Forces (BSCRF)
  • Ambazonian Defence Forces (ADF)
  • Southern Cameroon Defence (SOCADEF)

4.1 A Sustainable Endeavour?

Amba Boys are forcibly enlisted into the Amba forces or they do so voluntarily on very misleading premises. Although motivations for enlisting are variable to each Amba Boy, we identified five key determinants that undergird Amba Boys’ expectations:

  • A belief in the infallibility of Odeshi
  • The war of independence is advertised as short-lived with decisive victories during which anything lost will be compensated.
  • In 2017, the Anglophone case was priority among cases to be handled by the UN. Amba Boys are led to believe that the UN supports their school boycotts. They believe the UN will send troops in support of their war of liberation against the République du Cameroun.
  • Due to ghost town and lockdown schemes, in addition to the blockade of companies (such as the Cameroon Development Corporation and National Oil Refinery), the Cameroon Army is believed weak.
  • They will receive financial recompense from funding schemes led by the Diaspora.

5.0 Use of Odeshi Charms

To retain the Amba Boys’ full engagement into war, they are encouraged, upon recruitment, to indulge themselves in spiritual schemes. For non-Muslim and non-Christian ‘Amba Boys’, these schemes often invoke the efficacy of African ancestors and other mystical paraphernalia to fortify themselves. 

To ensure total submission, the recruitment of Amba Boys follows a series of initiations/incantations during which they regal themselves in Odeshi charms. [See Fig.3] Traditional medicine men and healers typically produce these charms, believing their ability to make combatants’ bodies impenetrable to bullets [source]. Each charm is thought to produce a specific effect, such as invisibility of the wearer or the jamming of the opponent’s gun.

For Odeshi to be effective, adherents follow certain prerequisites, such as avoiding certain foodstuffs (such as palm oil or Okro) or fighting a righteous cause [source]. Of note, Amnesty International’s inquiry found that Odeshi practices forbid Amba Boys from carrying metal objects (keys or coins), believed to attract bullets. Further, Amba Boys tie red pieces of cloth to their arms, weapons, waist and head [See Fig.4], [source].

5.1 Infallibility of Odeshi

During this video, posted by a YouTube channel representing Ambazonia Fighters, an Odeshi ritual is performed. Within the ritual, an Amba Boy strikes another with a machete to test the efficacy of the charm and purportedly leaves him unscathed. Viewed thus, a firm belief in a culmination of supernatural forces, amulets, and fetishes has very high propensities to decide the fortunes of war. 

Coupled with the consumption of drugs, alcohol, and duping pills, religious fervour gives disparate rebels a sense of themselves in a shared political community. Not least, the ‘invincibility’ of each Amba Boy is directly proportional to the number of fetishes/amulets they possess, along with the number of fraternities of which they have membership [source]. As a result, competition for esteemed titles is fierce within the ranks of Amba Boys. Many appropriate themselves with illusory appointments (such as Generals and Commanders) based on the gratification of crimes committed against the military or the people.

An Amba Boy adorned in OdeshI charms
Fig.3 An Amba Boy adorned in Odeshi charms. [Credit: Gareth Browne].

6.0 News Means for the Same Ends?

Groups under the Amba Boys title commit serious abuses and violations, including:

  • Kidnapping for ransom
  • Maiming 
  • Beheading
  • Killing of their own
  • Armed robbery
  • Rape
  • Torture
  • Violence against community projects
  • Attacks on civil and military installations

[Source].

Amba Boys do not distinguish between military combatants and ordinary civil servants. They subsequently perceive ‘black legs’ (ordinary citizens they consider to be associated with the government) as legitimate targets. For their part, government forces often terrorise the population in search of Amba Boys. A common government tactic is ‘bouclage’. Security forces will close a section of a city/village/town, search all houses and arrest those who appear to ‘look suspicious’ [source].

Amba Boys are synonymous with high rates of substance abuse (such as marijuana and tramadol) and the consumption of alcoholic beverages (sachet whiskey) [source]. It renders them vulnerable to military incursions due to poor or slow reflexes.

Yet despite the intensity of violence, destruction to infrastructure, and the expanse of civilian casualties, some Cameroonians hold positive views of Amba Boys and perceive them as less abusive than the security forces [source].

In the forefront, one rebel is wearing a Goat’s tail, with a machete discreetly tucked away. Another is holding a revolver bound in red cloth.
Fig.4 In the forefront, an Amba Boy is wearing a goat’s tail, with a machete tucked away. Another is holding a revolver bound in red cloth [Credit: Gareth Browne].

7.0 Diaspora in Trouble?

The Diaspora refers to those who do not live in Cameroon but remain committed to the war.  The composition of the Diaspora features several disparate Amba factions, each pursuing its own agenda and most often hostile to one another. These hostilities often culminate in bloody massacres amongst their forces on the ground, known as Ground Zero. Cases include the Kumba massacre, the Muyuka massacre, and the Guzang massacre. Of note, Amba General Chancha of the Bui Restoration Forces was accused of arresting and killing 23 ADF combatants. Including General Fon, in the 2020 Bui massacre.

Although engaged in the same mission, Amba Boys are fiercely protective of their territory. Amba Boys consider any infringement or trespass by other groups as an act of war [source].

Such fratricidal warfare is a consequence of rivalries between two pairs of protagonists:

  • One formed of Samuel Ikome Sako and Chris Anu, based in the US. 
  • The other, consisting of Ayaba Cho Lucas and Julius Nyih, based in Europe.

The first of these, Sako/ Anu, control roughly ten militias under the Interim Government. This includes the Red Dragons; the Bui Restoration Forces; and the Bufflalos of Bali Nyonga, among others.

The second pair, Ayaba Cho/Nyih, lead the Ambazonia Defence Forces (ADF) via the Ambazonia Governing Council, of which Ayaba Cho is the president and Julius Nyih, the vice-president. 

7.1 Splinter Groups or Splintering Groups?

In addition, the Coalition for Dialogue and Negotiations in Toronto, 2021 demonstrated such fratricidal rivalries. Ayaba Cho/Niyh agreed to participate in talks with Cameroon’s Government. However, Sako/ Anu decided to boycott.

In 2019 when Sako/Anu participated in the mediation attempt headed by Switzerland and the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, Ayaba Cho/Nyih did not.

Further, Cameroonian authorities routinely use these internal divisions to claim they do not know with whom to negotiate and continue military operations.

[Source].

Further, the Diaspora’s promises of funding do not always materialise for their forces on the ground. Several funding conventions held across Europe and America meant to acquire weapons were embezzled instead [source]. In a Facebook video, posted by the Cameroon News Agency in 2021, General Nambere (a former Amba Boy) states that: “the armed struggle is an exercise in futility”. He bemoans the in-house fighting that stymies the struggle. He further reveals that the Diaspora routinely promises arms and boasts their weapons arsenal across social media, but they seldom reach the Amba Boys on the field. In addition, the internecine rivalries amongst Amba Boys often lead some disparate factions to strike deals with the Cameroonian military. Some factions leak the supply routes/ camps of their counterparts. It often results in the seizure of weapons en route, raids, and the burning of camps [source].

8.0 Conclusion: Fall of the Amba Boys?

The phenomenon of ‘Amba’ and ‘Amba Boys’ pre-dates 2017. Low-level resistance, peaceful protests, and lobbying/advocacy formerly characterised the Ambazonian cause. However, in 2017, the Amba Boys became synonymous with armed resistance against the Cameroonian military. Once recruited, blind submission in Odeshi, substance abuse, and illusory superior titles reinforced belief in the utopic state of Ambazonia – an attractive alternative to la République du Cameroun. However, inept leadership and misdirection in command devolved into the existence of disparate, warring factions. With some Amba Boys now possessing a cathartic attachment to violence, the political project of an independent State of Ambazonia is a distant reality. 

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