Separatist Diplomacy in Action by Omar Khan
“I saw the vehicle in which the little girl was shot,” recounts a journalist in Buea, “I saw the gendarme. He had already been killed…They beat him with stones and took his gun.” Caro Louise Ndialle was being driven to school in October with two other children and her mother when police stopped them at a checkpoint in southwest Cameroon, shortly before opening fire on the car and killing her. She was four years old.
Caro Louise is only the latest victim in the so-called Anglophone Crisis, the parting gift from British and French colonialists, with the English-speaking regions struggling for independence from the French-speaking majority in Cameroon. The Federal Republic of Ambazonia was declared on 1st October 2017 after decades of marginalisation by the Francophone governments of Yaoundé. While the nation is not recognised by any other country, in October 2021, Ambazonia announced an alliance with the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), a secessionist movement fighting for the independence of the breakaway region of Biafra from Nigeria, which opens up the world of separatist diplomacy. How do movements founded on disruption work together?
While ties between breakaway states like Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the Caucasus are fairly straightforward since they are both propped up by the Kremlin, separatist alliances in active warzones are almost always more complex, and with the announcement of a nine-party rebel coalition in Ethiopia, seemingly united despite major ethnic tensions, formed to oppose the federal government, the factors that dictate diplomatic action between insurgent groups are becoming more important. Why has this Biafran-Ambazonian alliance formed now? What impact will it have? And what does this mean for peace prospects in the region?
“I think, that when [civil war] does come, that the people on the other side would be surprised as to what they’re going to get,” Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu declared with a telling grin at a press conference on 19th July 1967, a month after proclaiming the independence of the predominantly-Igbo region of Biafra. The Nigerian Civil War would end in January 1970 in Biafran defeat but the memories of one of the most devastating conflicts in Africa would never be forgotten.
Like the Cameroon conflict, the civil war in Nigeria stemmed from European colonialism: Britain’s 1914 Amalgamation policy deliberately stoked tensions between the Hausa-Fulani in the north, Igbo in the southeast and Yoruba in the southwest to make the state easier to control. With post-colonial politics in the 1960s built along ethnic lines, these tensions would only worsen. The 1966 counter-coup, headed by northerner Lt. Colonel Yakubu Gowon and intensifying anti-Igbo pogroms, led to the declaration of a separate Igbo state and all-out war, which saw the Nigerian military brutally blockade Biafra, cutting off vital supplies, causing mass starvation, and the deaths of 2,000,000 people, now infamous worldwide.
Biafran secessionism has had many advocates and campaigners over the turbulent decades following the end of the civil war, but none as colourful or wide-reaching as IPOB founded in 2012 by Nnamdi Kanu, who gained widespread fame for his inflammatory broadcasts against the Nigerian government on London-based Radio Biafra. Although a long-time opponent of armed struggle, 54-year-old Kanu has recently been accused of encouraging violent raids on police stations and stealing weapons like AK-47s, after rebranding the Biafran Security Services, his “mock militia”, as the more aggressive Eastern Security Network (ESN), the armed wing of IPOB. While the Jewish convert has always been a target of government suppression, his Igbo critics have cited embezzlement of funds and his cult of personality as serious issues.
President Muhammadu Buhari’s spat with Twitter earlier this year, after the platform deleted his tweet referencing the civil war and reaffirmation to “crush IPOB”, highlights why their personalities have clashed so loudly. It is thought that the 2017 police raid on Kanu’s family home pushed him to establish the ESN to lead the ongoing armed insurgency. However, while his arrest in June and current trial may embolden his supporters, many others (especially young people) have been disillusioned after seeing the military’s ruthlessly efficient crackdown.
A Facebook post on the Ambazonia Defence Forces’ (ADF) page this year showed Cho Ayaba (head of the Ambazonian Governing Council) and Kanu (before his arrest) discussing their “strategic and military” alliance to “ensure an open exchange of arms, intelligence and personnel.”
So why now?
Though the Ambazonian insurgency has entered its fifth year, IPOB’s struggle only turned violent relatively recently and still, the violence in southeast Nigeria is sporadic. While the COVID-19 pandemic set the conditions for IPOB’s insurgency to begin, it allowed the parties to the Cameroonian conflict time to recover. The alliance could offer both insurgent groups bases they can retreat to outside the jurisdiction of their respective countries’ armed forces. This takes advantage of the failed proposal for the two militaries to be allowed to conduct cross-border offensives against the mutual threat of Boko Haram. But can this alliance really make a difference?
The fuel of any insurgency is a reliable supply of arms, and this cross-border pact enables mutual access to the Niger Delta. The enormous, densely-forested area is swarming with tiny creeks and inlets and therefore filled with small, clandestine ports – the Niger Delta is a haven for arms trafficking and with the ADF and IPOB both conducting raids on the military and police, weapons supplies could be a mutual benefit. The aforementioned problems with Kanu and IPOB, however, present a vulnerability in the alliance, but another significant issue is that Ambazonia has two presidents.
As the Armistice was signed in 1918, German Kamerun was handed to joint British-French overseership, with 80% of the territory becoming French Cameroun, and the western 20% being divided by Britain (again intended to make the people easier to manage) into Northern & Southern Cameroons. While the north opted to join the new nation of Nigeria in a February 1961 plebiscite, the south reluctantly agreed to unify with newly-independent French Cameroun in a Federal Republic that protected their regional autonomy. Francophone President Ahmadou Ahidjo, however, introduced a unicameral, centralised authority and imposed a French-speaking governor, civil service, police and military on the southwest region, often dismissing English-speaking leaders. In 1984, two years after Ahidjo handed power over to Paul Biya, the new president established the Republic of Cameroon further suppressing southwestern autonomy, leading to Fon Gorji Dinka’s call for the secessionist state of Ambazonia. The All Anglophone Conferences in the 1990s demanded either the return to the 1961 constitution or independence. Protests in 2016 over French-language laws led by lawyers but joined by students and teachers were met with brutal repression from the Biya regime leading to the establishment of the Federal Republic of Ambazonia, led by self-proclaimed Interim President Sisuku Julius Ayuk Tabe.
In 2017, in a major show of solidarity between Abuja and Yaoundé, Nigeria arrested Ayuk Tabe and the Ambazonian leadership (taking refuge across the border) and extradited them to a Cameroonian prison where they remain. Samuel Ikome Sako then took over as interim president. Disappointed in his successor, Ayuk Tabe dismissed Sako from prison which became very complicated when Sako turned to dismiss him instead.
Out of the two presidents, it is Ayuk Tabe’s faction which allied with IPOB, with Sako and his supporters heavily criticising Kanu and pushing for friendly ties with the Nigerian state. The ADF (and now AGovC, Ayuk Tabe’s faction) is only one of several separatist militias, including the Red Dragons, ARA, Seven Kata, ABL and the Tigers, seemingly united in the Ambazonian Coalition Team to have a “joint front for negotiations” with the government. The range of Biafran secessionist groups (e.g. MASSOB) presents the same problem: a lack of stability for any alliance to move beyond short-term mutual interests.
“When I asked what had happened, they said my husband was shot. I was in shock and started crying. As all these were going on, I saw some groups coming in my direction. My mother-in-law quickly told me to take my children and leave,” recalls Jennifer Eze whose family was embroiled in the devastating insurgency in the Niger Delta, a separate conflict in Nigeria driven by local militias, such as the Avengers or Greenland Justice Mandate, who want control of the oil-rich region.
Ultimately, separatist movements are fuelled by years of discontent, anger and desperation which clearly influences their relations with foreign governments and other groups of similar sentiment. Alliances forged in war, anguish and desperation between unofficial authorities suffer significant flaws: no stability, no long-term plans and no real trust. Regardless of the rhetoric, the fact that separatist movements in many parts of the world are divided into different armed groups led by different strongmen with different ideas and plans for the future of their nation, means that there will always be a lack of lasting trust, making agreements very fragile.
However, despite these flaws, alliances between separatist groups can be extremely effective for both sides. Before the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) announced their alliance in Ethiopia, both were struggling against the military – after, the prime minister declared a state of emergency with Addis Ababa itself under imminent threat. The only thing for certain is that any progress made by any side of any war means peace becomes that much harder to achieve. As for the effect this ADF-IPOB alliance will have on the violence in Cameroon and Nigeria, that remains to be seen, but it is highly unlikely that there will be a peaceful resolution anytime soon. That is, until the day separatists start encouraging each other to put their guns down and take a seat at the negotiating table.