Leadership Legitimacy in the Southern Cameroons: Through a Revolutionary Uprising or an Anti-Colonial War of Liberation?

It is an illusion to think that the matter can be resolved through words.” –  Che Guevara

By Effiom Mbong*

Balla, Fontem , Tassang and other leaders of the consortium

The Southern Cameroons conflict is variously characterised either as a revolution or an anti-colonial liberation struggle. These are not mutually exclusive phenomena, and both may well be applicable in this context. Nevertheless, as has been established, the Southern Cameroons is under colonial occupation, and as such, the operative principle for the Southern Cameroons is if it has the right to self-determination. Establishing this also clarifies its right to achieve self-determination through all means necessary, including through violence. It so happens that in this instance, the first shots were fired by the genocidal regime in Yaounde, transforming its intermittent acts of violence since 1961, including the structural and latent violence, into a full-blown armed conflict.

That is why many of the leaders of the armed conflict in the Southern Cameroons based in the diaspora can go about their business freely despite several ill-conceived attempts by the Yaounde regime to depict them as terrorists. However, in a situation of the use of revolutionary violence, legitimacy can only be momentary, and two conditions must be present at all times: (i) as long as the violence furthers the objectives which it seeks to redress; and (ii) concerted effort is made to retain the following of the majority of the people who stand to benefit from the liberation quest.  Hence, a critical element is the unity of purpose between the various partisan formations and not the absence of partisanship per se.

Revolutionary violence aims to arrive at a political settlement, and once achieved, legitimacy becomes incidental. In a revolutionary uprising, the leaders are constantly changing since revolutionary actions and outcomes determine revolutionary legitimacy – this also implies that multiple leaders can all enjoy simultaneous revolutionary legitimacy at any given point. What is important is that these leaders are all working towards the same objectives. Each of these leaders does and often enjoy a significant following. Sustaining revolutionary legitimacy beyond the momentary requires that it be routinised, and of which this can be either through a multistakeholder dialogue that arrives at amongst others, a transitional constitutional framework, including setting the rules for organising transparent elections, and having a transitional government, as was the case of CODESA 1 and 2 in South Africa.

Similarly, in Rhodesia’s (Zimbabwe) case, the Lancaster House Agreement in December 1979 established the basis for a constitutional framework, setting the conditions for free and fair pre-independence elections organised in 1980. After these elections, a distinction can be made of the political weight between the leading nationalist movements, as was the case with ZAPU (Zimbabwe African Peoples Union) and ZANU (Zimbabwe African National Union). Often conditions for free and fair elections include the temporary handing over of political administration to a neutral body or an external power, and in the case of Zimbabwe, to the British Government for a limited period to conduct the elections and grant independence, as provided for in the Lancaster House Agreement.

Thus far, there are three events in the Southern Cameroons anti-colonial liberation war, each of which conferring revolutionary legitimacy on its principal protagonists. First, Mancho Bibixy’s singular act of mounting a makeshift rostrum with a coffin in Bamenda, signalling his willingness to die for his cause, was an act of revolutionary violence that conferred such legitimacy. While Ayuk Tabe’s 01 October 2017 independence proclamation also confers him with revolutionary legitimacy. Similarly, Ayaba Cho’s act of inspiring his partisans to pick up arms and initiate ‘self-defence’ at Dadi confers him with revolutionary legitimacy. That is why when Ayuk Tabe, from his prison cell, writes:

Mancho Bibixy’s coffin revolutionary resonated with many in the Anglophone regions

 It is incumbent on me as Servant-leadership Fiduciary to bring redress to the Southern Cameroonians-Ambazonians, to their struggle, and their nation, from their slow descent into a footnote of our own history.

He makes such an assertion in his personal capacity as Ayuk Tabe, and not necessarily in the name of the so-called Interim Government, precisely for having declared the restoration of the sovereignty of the Southern Cameroons on 01 October 2017.  However, such legitimacy does not confer to these protagonists, individually, or with their partisans the prerogative to arrogate to themselves exclusively the right to create an interim government in the name and on behalf of the people of the Southern Cameroons. And that is why it is equally problematic for the AGovC to insist that its president, Ayaba Cho, be recognised as ‘the leader of the Ambazonian war of liberation’ as a precondition for collaboration with other movements. As problematic as such an insistence is, the evidence reflects that the AGovC/ADF have obliged many independent armed groupings to sign MoUs recognising its primacy on the ground as the basis for collaboration. Such MoUs also recognises that the AGovC’s armed wing, the ADF, will form the backbone of a post-independence national army in Ambazonia.  Whether or not the ADF is the leading armed group on the ground is altogether another matter.

One of such MoUs between the Ambazonia Defence Forces (ADF) in a specific locality, states among other things:

The objective of this MOU is to spell out the terms of collaboration between the parties herein with the view of creating a collaborative atmosphere among armed combatants fighting in … County/state with the hope that such a collaboration model would eschew unnecessary conflicts between the forces and would be emulated by other Counties/states to lay a smooth foundation for the integration of the various armed combatants into a true Ambazonian National Army.

Such attempts at collaboration at face value should not be an issue per se. Indeed, the ADF should be commended for taking the lead in collaborating with, organising, and coordinating the motley armed groupings and bringing a semblance of order on the ground. However, what many argue is disquieting, is the intention behind such collaboration, beyond the liberation of the territory. And the MoU itself is revealing in this regard since a preceding paragraph declares that:

WHEREAS the Ambazonia Defense Forces envisaged to comprise The Navy of Ambazonia also to be known and called Ambazonia Marines/Amba Marines, Ambazonia Air Force/Amba Air force and Ambazonia Army including all and the various specialised forces and the engineering corps is a military wing of the Ambazonia Governing Council (AGovC) for the prosecution of the Ambazonia War Of Independence (AWOI) considered as the liberation phase of the independence project;

The Fork in the Road

It is essential to note the studious avoidance of the CACSC era of Agbor Balla, Neba Fontem, et al. as a revolutionary act that advanced the quest for the liberation of the Southern Cameroons – precisely because the formation of the CACSC and its failed attempt at negotiating with the Yaounde regime was but a useful side-show that does not merit qualifying their actions as revolutionary. During the heyday of the CACSC, there were already parallel processes afoot with the declaration of the ‘coffin revolution’ by Mancho Bibixy. While professional bodies such as the teachers and lawyers’ associations certainly have a role to play, it is not necessarily at the forefront, and hence their efforts soon petered out, with the banning of CACSC, the jailing of several of its leaders, and others escaping into exile. The vast majority returned to their classrooms and law chambers.

Much of the controversy beyond the formation of umbrella groups that purport to be the only legitimate body to represent and speak for the peoples of the Southern Cameroons is in part because of the search for a hero-cum-messianic figure by a substantial portion of the population. Such fixation on the would-be-messiah often shifts focus from the principal objective, which remains liberation – and the need to rally behind those who remain faithful to the cause. The disappointment with Agbor Balla’s stance for not siding with and taking an active role in pursuing independence upon his release from prison is a glaring example of this phenomenon. It may be worth recalling that the demands of CACSC before the abduction of these leading trade union activists was for a return to the federation. However, while Balla and a number of his then comrades were in prison, the demands for restoring the ill-fated Federal Republic of Cameroon (otherwise known to be between West Cameroon and East Cameroon) evolved to a call for outright independence.

The vast majority of the population expected these early-day leaders of the putative mass revolution to be in lock-step with their fast-evolving aspirations for outright independence. But these were met with stunning disappointment from both Agbor Balla and Neba Fontem upon their release from prison. Agbor Balla maintained his initial stance for federation, and Neba Fontem, on the other hand, while still in the country, understandably remained mute. The disappointment was so palpable in many quarters that in a cautionary to a friend on 25 October 2017, I wrote:

If I may, and for what it’s worth, my advice to you would be never to subscribe to any cause because of anybody or personality but because you adhere to the ideals, principles and values. Otherwise, you’d find yourself regularly disappointed and demotivated by impostors and scoundrels who often mask their motivations and real intent. Don’t be moved by forked tongue rhetoric, but your fundamental objectives and goals, otherwise you will meet with disappointment and bitterness at every turn, for betrayal, like Cain and Abel, predates Esau and Jacob.  The unscrupulously ambitious often ride on the blood and corpses of their unsuspecting and naive victims to power and glory.

On the specific of the Southern Cameroons cause, rest assured it cannot be betrayed, for like in a relay race, people will play their assigned roles at various moments, and others will pick up the baton. Perhaps you were not here yet when I said what the lawyers and CACSC were doing was a side-show. Otherwise, how do you expect a cause such as this to be championed by professional trade unions? They certainly have a role to play, but not at the forefront – it will be asking too much from them by expecting that they commit class suicide. The veritable leadership lies in and with the masses whose consciousness has been awoken. So, I leave you with this: Francois Mitterrand, it was, who said in politics, you have but travel companions, and as each of the travelers reach their destination or take a fork in the road, so do the others continue. The only danger to the project is those who believe in certain leaders at given moments, not in the cause itself.

Thus, the IG’s formation prevented many well-intentioned people from recognising the proverbial fork in the road. It introduced partisan politics at a time when what is required is revolutionary action. It has led the naïve and too trusting foot soldier at what has become known as ‘ground zero’ to an untimely death orchestrated by false comrades and traitors working to further Yaoude’s objectives. The inability to profer creative solutions and progress beyond parochial thinking, as exhibited during Anyangwe’s interview with Bernard Ngalim, remains a hallmark of the Southern Cameroons armed conflict. 

The IG’s declaration of the restoration of the independence of the Southern Cameroons is replete with such intriguing and contradictory paragraphs, as:

RESOLVE that for reasons of culture, geography and history, Ambazonia’s future lies with Africa generally and with the English-speaking world specifically, and therefore declare our intention to take all steps necessary to apply for full membership not only of the United Nations, the African Union, the Commonwealth and other international organisations but also of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), these being fora in which Ambazonia shall seek to contribute to the pursuit of international peace and stability;

While language is a vehicle for the transmission of culture, it is not the primary determinant, and in the case of Ambazonia, the indigenous languages are more pertinent to its cultural outlook. Language-wise, the world is much more than ‘the English-speaking’ and La Francophonie.  Making such a consequential declaration is highly limiting and implies that the country defines itself out of engaging fully in mutually beneficial relations with the non-English speaking world, which happens to be in the vast majority. While two of the five countries with English as the official language in ECOWAS, Nigeria and Ghana, are economic giants, eight are French-speaking, and the other two are lusophone countries, making the community predominantly French-speaking. Under such circumstances, it is not surprising that France has an overwhelming influence on the organisation and its policies, as exemplified this far by the inability of these countries to implement a common currency. Why the haste in making such a far-reaching policy statement? Why not wait for the appropriate time to explore the possibility of negotiating bilateral agreements with this regional body similar to the kind of arrangements Switzerland has with the European Union, and appreciate the challenges and benefits of becoming a state-party before resolving to commit or otherwise?

An empty street in Buea. Ghost towns on Mondays remain a strong symbol of the struggle

At the helm of the Commonwealth presides those who had previously batered the territory to their cousins, the French. They have done nothing subsequently to redress the situation despite decades of entreaties from generations of the people of the Southern Cameroons. Thus, it is taken as a given that Ambazonia might be able to make progress only by joining neo-colonial clubs such as the Commonwealth without much thought about the actual benefits of membership.  In essence, to continue with the pattern of returning the state under neo-colonial authority and influence shortly after gaining independence, as has been the case for most post-independence African states.

There is no doubt that the Southern Cameroons will eventually gain independence. However, this could have been less costly in lives lost and human suffering if more time had been put into organising a rebuttal to Yaounde’s onslaught on the territory. Most importantly, one wonders what strategic reflection took place on how to go about executing the resolve of a significant segment of the population rather than a premature declaration of independence and creating a moribund Interim Government. Despite its multiple challenges that make Yaounde a  weak enemy, it is not surprising that it continues to take advantage of the muddling that stems in considerable measure from the decisions of a few thoughtless individuals in 2017 to inflict untold suffering on Ambazonia and prolong the war unnecessarily. Those who thought and still think that the formation of an Interim Government was the best vehicle to lead the peoples of the Southern Cameroons to their destination are clueless about where they were driving them to and are most ill-suited for the task at hand.

* The analysis are those of the author and reactions may be sent directly to him at Effiom.Mbong@gmail.com or through this publication. This is the third of a three path series on the Southern Cameroons Case. The first part can be viewed here. The second part can be viewed here

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