Why are Cameroonian separatists attacking local chiefs?

Some local chiefs attend a ceremony in Northwest Cameroon. Credit: Christian.

The recent murder of three chiefs highlights traditional leaders’ role in the Anglophone crisis and suggests the conflict is far from over.

On 13 February 2021, a group of armed men stormed the town of Lebialem in Southwest Cameroon, dragged three traditional chiefs from their homes, and shot them dead. The attack was quickly attributed to secessionists rebels calling for an independent state of Ambazonia led by a man nicknamed Field Marshall.

This brutal assassination of three customary rulers was shocking, but not completely surprising. Customary rulers have come under attack since soon after the Anglophone crisis descended into violence in 2017. Several chiefs have been killed in the conflict, while many more have been kidnapped.

Not all secessionist groups agree on targeting traditional rulers. And in fact, not all the violence aimed at chiefs has come from the rebels – they have been victims of government abuses too. But their role and place in the ongoing Anglophone conflict warrants unpicking, especially as the February attack may be a sign of growing animosity towards them or of an evolving rebel focus. What can we learn from this escalation?

A history of chieftaincy

The history – and therefore current place – of chieftaincy in Cameroon’s two English-speaking regions is notably different.

In the Northwest region, the role of traditional leaders stretches to pre-colonial times and is well-established. They form a critical function in the social and political functioning of the region and some communities believe them to have a sacred status. To this day, traditional leaders are highly entrusted by the population. In the Southwest region by contrast, chieftaincies were largely created – or at least formalised – under  colonial rule. Traditional leaders’ roles are more decentralised and they are far less influential than in the Northwest.

At independence in the early 1960s, when Cameroon became a two-state federation, traditional leaders formed a key part of the state government through the House of Chiefs. However in 1975, a few years after federalism was abolished, this body was dissolved. As President Ahmadu Ahidjo centralised power and eliminated the Anglophone regions’ autonomy, chiefs became largely symbolic custodians of culture and customs.

Since then, there have been occasional confrontations between chiefs in the Anglophone regions and the government. But for the most part the relationship has been cooperative. With few exceptions, chiefs today are seen as being primarily concerned with their own economic interests and political powers.

The Anglophone crisis begins

This certainly appeared to be the case when the Anglophone crisis began. As peaceful protests by teachers and lawyers in 2016 were violently attacked by the government and escalated into demands for an independent state of Ambazonia in 2017, the chiefs stayed quiet. Even when demonstrators marched to their palaces, they received no response.

Though traditional leaders tend to avoid politics in general, many may have felt they had little choice in this instance. By law, chiefs in Cameroon are auxiliaries of the government and are answerable to a government-appointed Divisional Officer. This is a source of anger for many people, who resent the fact that their traditional rulers are subject to orders from officials with no standing in the community. Whatever the true feelings of the chiefs might have been, their silence was largely interpreted as tacit support for the government in Yaoundé. As the crisis became more violent, they became targets.

Targeting chiefs

In January 2018, Chief Johannes Ekebe Niongo of Ngongo village, Southwest region, was found dead in a pool of his own blood. Secessionist groups had recently clashed with the army in the area, and some believed that the rebels suspected Niongo of collaborating with the government. Either way, his murder spooked many other chiefs, some of whom fled to cities or stopped wearing their traditional attire.

Nonetheless, more traditional leaders were kidnapped or killed as the conflict intensified. In July 2018, nine chiefs from the Fako division in Southwest region were abducted and accused of using mystical powers to disrupt the secessionist movement. One died in captivity before the others were eventually released. Speaking about the incident, one separatist said the chiefs were “rising against the people and actions like that cannot be tolerated”.  The following month, a traditional ruler in in Ndian Division, also in the Southwest, was dragged from a church and shot dead.

In the lead-up to the 6 December 2020 regional elections, there was a fresh uptick in kidnappings of chiefs who had expressed support for the elections or planned to stand. On 5 November, a paramount chief from Northwest region was kidnapped. On voting day itself, several chiefs were abducted in both Northwest and Southwest regions. They were later released, though one leader died while being held.

Most of the violence against chiefs has carried out by secessionists, but they have also been victims of government abuses. In September 2018, for instance, the elite Rapid Intervention Brigade (BIR) attacked and destroyed part of the Royal Palace of Bafut, a tentative UNESCO World Heritage site, claiming it was holding rebel militants. In September 2019, the BIR raided the palace again during a ceremony being attended by 200 people. The soldiers looted the museum and seized some 18th century bronze masks. No secessionist fighters were found on either occasion.

A significant escalation

With a few exceptions, separatist rebels have tended to target local chiefs with kidnappings. Those who have lost their lives in captivity are understood to have died of shock rather than executions. That all changed, however, this February when a group known as the Red Dragons abducted and killed three chiefs in Lebialem. It is suspected that the separatists targeted them for allegedly opposing the ongoing school boycott and refusing to pay proceeds to the fighters.

These brutal murders represent a significant escalation and highlight several aspects of the Anglophone crisis as it currently stands.

To begin with, it suggests a growing disconnect between certain factions of the secessionist movement and civilians in the Anglophone regions. The killing of the chiefs was widely condemned and, a few days after the incident, hundreds of protesters – mostly from Lebialem – marched in the capital Yaoundé in protest.  The government has tried to exploit this divide by painting the secessionists as reckless guerrillas that are destroying the fabric of local communities, ignoring its own role in escalating the conflict and putting chiefs in a position where they are seen as extensions of the state.

The recent attack also exposed divisions within the secessionist movement. Among separatists, the targeting chiefs is heavily contested. The faction led by Samuel Sako appears more open to it, whereas those led by Cho Ayaba and Sisiku AyukTabe tend to be opposed. This echoes other disagreements around strategy. When six civil servants were kidnapped and one decapitated earlier this month, some secessionist groups condemned the act, while others praised it. Fissures within the Ambazonia movement have morphed into open disagreement and even internal conflict.

More than anything, however, the killing of the chiefs demonstrates that the Anglophone crisis continues to escalate – despite government claims that is beginning to come to an end.


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