In mourning over the 24 October murder of seven schoolchildren, this city in the South-West Anglophone region once dreamed of independence, but is now plunged into a long nightmare.
Despite the blistering sun, a large crowd has gathered on the esplanade of the Kumba District Hospital morgue. It’s Saturday, 31 October.
In memory of the children killed one week earlier in an attack on the Mother Francisca International Bilingual Academy, a private school located in the third district of this small city in the South-West Anglophone region, a national day of mourning has been decreed. Hundreds of women, at times in tears, have come together to pay tribute to the victims and Esther Omam Njomo’s powerful voice sets the tempo of the commemoration.
Wearing a headscarf, red dress and tinted glasses, the executive director of the NGO Reach Out (one of the civil society groups behind the demonstration) named the victims one by one – those who lost their lives (seven in all) and those who were injured (12 total) in the attack.
The memory of what happened on 24 October is still fresh on their minds. On that day, the residents recount, men perched on motorbikes swept into the streets of Fiango, a neighbourhood in Kumba. “There were three on each bike and I counted four in all,” says an eyewitness. “They were armed with AK-47s and machetes.” Fangio is near the city’s outskirts and borders a wooded area to the north. It’s no secret to anyone that armed groups have found refuge there.
The Mother Francisca school wasn’t their initial target. The assailants were headed in the direction of another school in Fiango, the Mother Ann Nursery and Primary School, but no one was there. According to a security source, “There weren’t any students at Mother Ann because they follow the recommendations issued by the delegates [education officials] prohibiting Saturday school. That’s why the attackers’ next stop was Mother Francisca.”
Once inside the building, the assailants entered a classroom of Year 7 students. The teacher had just left the room, but Victory Camibon Ngamenyi was standing in front of the blackboard, trying to solve a math problem, when they opened fire. Victory was 11 years old and the first to be gunned down. “We heard shots, people crying and the screams of those pleading to be saved,” says a pupil, his voice trembling and almost inaudible, who was in a neighbouring classroom. Days have gone by but the fear hasn’t left him.
Like Victory, five other students, ranging from nine to 12 years old, died at the scene. A sixth victim, seriously wounded, died a few hours later. Twelve others are being treated in various hospitals across the region. In the classroom where the tragedy occurred, bullet holes and blood stains are still visible on the ground and walls.
Cameroon is in shock
In Yaoundé, the authorities firmly believe that the Amba Boys, one of a number of armed secessionist groups fighting for “Ambazonian” independence, are to blame, but their political leaders maintain they were not involved in any way. In a statement released in the days following the attack, they called for the opening of an international investigation. As always, the different parties implicated in the crisis blame one other for the violence.
Army informants, Ambazonian informants and all the rest. It’s best to not bring up controversial topics.
These squabbles are of little use to Kumba residents. Over the last four years, this locality, once the South-West region’s economic heartbeat and highly frequented by merchants operating between Cameroon and Nigeria, has gone downhill.
Some 70 kilometres separate Buea, the region’s capital, from Kumba, the third largest city in what used to be Southern Cameroon. But the paved road leading from one city to the other cuts across a landscape bearing the scars of guerrilla warfare. Many bullet-riddled houses have been abandoned and overgrown with tall grass. Due to a lack of upkeep, the vegetation has begun to devour the tarmac. Between Buea and Kumba are Ekona and Muyuka, which look like ghost towns.
In Kumba, armoured vehicles belonging to the gendarmerie and the Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR) patrol the city centre.
The pervasive presence of soldiers has silenced discussions with secessionist overtones, the sort that used to spark conversations between locals. “The city is chock full of informants,” says Franklin, who owns a bar in Krammar Junction. “Army informants, Ambazonian informants and all the rest. It’s best to not bring up controversial topics.”
Every Monday over the past months, Kumba – which people here call “K-Town” – has gone along with the “ghost town” day restrictions initiated by Ambazonian militias. However, today the city does it not so much out of conviction but because of fear of retaliation.
Armed groups use crackdown as pretext
The large-scale mobilisation that characterised the start of the crisis, on 22 September 2016, has since dissipated. On that day, Kumba residents came out in droves to peacefully protest and meet up at a place called Bicec Junction, joining the fight alongside Bamenda-based lawyers and university students from Buea. The idea of secession, which certain leaders such as the Kumba-born lawyer Eyambe Elia were advocating, seemed appealing at the time.
The ‘Amba Boys’ presented themselves as upholders of the law,
Nevertheless, Kumba was ultimately overrun with violence. In October 2016, three protesters were killed by members of the GMI, a police unit called in from Buea to provide back-up. Armed groups turned the violent crackdown into their best argument in favour of secession.
One week later, the first Ambazonian camp was set up in Teke, another neighbourhood in Kumba’s third district. The “Amba Boys” presented themselves as upholders of the law, thereby winning over the sympathy of the community. Ivo, a motorcycle taxi driver originally from a neighbouring province in the North-West region, took on the rank of general and swore allegiance to Lucas Ayaba Cho, the leader of the Ambazonia Defence Forces (ADF).
Under his leadership, armed groups expanded the number of camps around the city. In 2018, such camps were set up as far as Diffa, Kosala, Kake, Cassava Farm, Matoh and even Kogne.
Across from them, the Cameroonian army quickly deployed what it calls “third category forces”, the same ones sent to fight Boko Haram. The crisis reached its height in August 2018. For nearly three weeks, daily fighting punctuated everyday life in Kumba until the army gained the upper hand over the confrontation, with the secessionist militias sustaining heavy casualties.
In December 2018, Gen Ivo was killed by the Cameroonian army. The camps were gradually dismantled. Weakened, the Ambazonian movement became further radicalised, as its members began shifting their target away from soldiers to civilians accused of being “black legs”, or traitors.
Rejecting the Republic of Cameroon
In recent years, the increased number of kidnappings and murders has virtually wiped out any feelings of sympathy the separatist fighters initially enjoyed. In February 2019, a fire ravaged part of Kumba District Hospital, leaving four people dead. A tragedy attributed to the “secessionist rebels”, according to the Cameroonian government.
The problem is that the army’s sometimes violent operations also fuel sentiments of rejection of the Republic of Cameroon.
Vigilante groups began cropping up, making it their mission to help the army stamp out the Amba Boys. “In the beginning, we were dealing with passionate fighters who believed they could successfully secede from Cameroon,” a security source says. “Today, it’s mainly bandits wanting to take advantage of the situation to make money by kidnapping people for ransom. Communities have to work with the armed forces to effectively get rid of these outlaws.”
The problem is that the army’s sometimes violent operations also fuel sentiments of rejection of the Republic of Cameroon. “The army has made some blunders,” says a local reporter, asking to remain anonymous. “Like in August 2018 when Pastor Tom, a well-known evangelist, was killed after being mistaken for a secessionist. These blunders spawned a sense of distrust and complicated people’s cooperation with the defence forces.”
The seven Mother Francisca schoolchildren were laid to rest on 5 November. Two days earlier, another school was attacked, this time in the city of Kumbo in the North-West region. Local sources immediately held the Amba Boys responsible for the violence.
To heal the wounds of war, reconciliation efforts appear unavoidable. However, Yaoundé is having trouble considering an alternative, less heavy-handed strategy. Caught up in the turmoil of weapons and tears, Kumba only yearns for peace.