By Franklin Sone Bayen, Monday January 1, 2018
Southern Cameroons Journal, Mamfe – This is not a normal war. Though hard to understand and believe, it appears to be a one-sided war in which faceless gunmen proffering allegiance to the separatist Federal Republic of Ambazonia kill government troops but do not get killed even in face-to-face shootouts. It is a war that manifests signs of mysticism, difficult to explain for an urbane reporter without sounding superstitious. But the troops themselves, who face the reality, are no longer in doubt. Locked in battle with gunmen whom they believe do not succumb to bullets, about every government soldier in Mamfe and elsewhere in Manyu division now has a tiny piece of red cloth wrapped on the barrel of their gun. “People familiar with the Odey Chi ritual in Nigeria have advised that red pieces of cloth can neutralize the Odey Chi charm,” a gendarme told me.
That is so even for the reputably highly efficient and redoubtable Special Forces or Rapid Intervention Brigade (BIR). They too believe the red cloth is a potent antidote to neutralize the mystical bulletproof charm or “Odey Chi” said to have been acquired from neighbouring Nigeria by the Ambazonia fighters. I do not want to believe this, but until I find a shrine where the contrary can be proven, the actors on the ground give much to convince the prying observer that I am.
Telling this story, I become the first journalist to physically and independently report from the epicentre of this nascent war pitting defence forces of the Government of Cameroon and separatist fighters, otherwise called Ambazonia Boys or Odey Chi Boys.
Over several weeks, I have been receiving calls from people who want to share their experiences, observations and even secrets with me. They say they feel comfortable speaking to me. They say they find me credible and trust I will use the information responsibly. I have been meeting people from the field, most of them volunteering to share their testimonies. These past few weeks, I have been compiling notes from the flashpoints and visited the Gendarmerie in Mamfe located at entrance to Egbekaw village, only metres from the west bank of the navigable River Manyu that links Nigeria and is believed to be the access way of the Ambazonia gunmen from Akwaya subdivision on the east bank.
The Mamfe Gendarmerie appears to be the command centre of the government’s first column of military containment where gendarmes, regular troops and BIR as well as scores of young gendarmes-in-training are all stationed for the assignment. It appears to be the main target of the separatist fighters. They are apparently staking the fortunes of their war on dislodging Yaounde’s hold on Mamfe. In two successive weeks only in December 2017, they carried out as many assaults on the military command. It looks like attacks elsewhere are only distractions before they return to their main target – Mamfe Gendarmerie.
Back to Journalism
Amid the flood of what is perceived as half-truths, exaggerations or outright propaganda from both sides and the apparent resignation or impotency of my journalist-colleagues, most of whom are helplessly printing or broadcasting versions of war tell-tales, I decide to brave it into the war-zone. It is a risky venture but I brave it for the sake of journalism, lest my noble profession should lose its relevance in the swell of government domination of state media and others at its beck and call with its version of the story. On the other hand, fairytales – not all always false, not all always so true – are flooding social media to the point where a major social media actor, arguably doing a formidable job which Ambazonia partisans must applaud, has become the most reliable “war correspondent”. That is an aberration for journalism! (Yet, social reporting remain reliable hints or tip offs for investigation by journalists.) In the middle of government and social media extremism, visibly intimidated private media are quoting UNRELIABLE SOURCES, while others are more preoccupied with personality massaging or supporting instead of reporting.
I am a militant of journalism (I don’t mean militant journalist here). It takes some trouble saving one’s thing. I am an Anglophone; an unapologetic advocate for the rights of Cameroon
Anglophones and a voice calling for resolution of this conflict through dialogue. But I am a journalist and journalism is the only profession I practice. It is supposed to be the watchdog and fourth estate in Cameroon today. It also ought to be in any future arrangement that may emerge out of this conflict. Journalism must be kept on its feet. It must not be subdued nor traded for whatsoever prospects.
The present skirmishes are signs of the first inter-Cameroon war in my time. I was not born at the time of the pre- and post-independence UPC/Marquisard war. There may never be another. This is my war. I must report it. Daring into Manyu is not for a reporting picnic. It is like venturing into a community ravaged by a new, unfamiliar, plague. What with the risk and the uncertainty over how to approach the unknown.
Cameroonians are not used to war. Cameroonian journalists have generally not reported war independently nor dared into a war zone to live its realities. A couple of them robbed shoulders with gunmen when sea piracy erupted about a decade ago. A few have been privileged to be embedded with government forces in guided, guarded, tours in the war on Boko Haram in the north of the country. A
few were recently airlifted by government forces to some locations in Manyu. But who expects independent reporting from an embedded journalist in Cameroon? Many of them, so naïve, inexperienced and obviously excited, often return from such “privileged” guided tours with such overdose of enthusiasm, they go parroting government propaganda even better than the government and military spokespersons. Some, of another generation, who were in Yaounde during the 24-hour failed coup of April 6, 1984, could have been considered war reporters just for that.
Mamfe is not in Syria. It is not Aleppo. But even Aleppo was covered by foot reporters. I must cover Mamfe and the rest of this war. I am a bona fide journalist and can do regular newsgathering, approaching and duly presenting myself to actors and officials on the field to record testimonies, explanations and possibly rebuttals. But from my previous “war reporting” experiences, fixing and leading foreign journalists embedded with military guides to cover Boko Haram, I am familiar with the likely impediments of administrative bottlenecks. I know the usual silence from field commanders and local administrators until they obtain clearance from their bosses up the ladder, all the way to Yaounde. And I know how much more respect and consideration our authorities give to foreign journalists than to us, locals.
To be continued