Cameroon: Secessionist leader returns to challenge Yaoundé
Ten months after the news of his death, the mysterious secessionist fighter and commander of the Lebialem Red Dragons, Field Marshall, resurfaced and proclaimed himself traditional chief of Essoh-Attah, in southwest Cameroon.
On October 1, 2019, the day of celebration of the “independence” of Ambazonia, a man wearing a military fatigues with the insignia of the Cameroonian army appeared on the esplanade of the Royal Palace of Essoh-Attah. His green beret barely concealed his face: it was Field Marshall, the commander of the Lebialem Red Dragons militia.
The warlord of this militia, one of the most violent in the armed conflict between secessionists and armed forces in the English-speaking part of Cameroon, was thought to be dead.
His appearance, filmed by an amateur cameraman, showed him surrounded by armed fighters, celebrating his claim as the traditional chief of Essoh-Attah, a village isolated from the rest of the country since the crisis broke out.
Field Marshall seems to have carefully prepared his return. In his speech from the throne, he said, “I am the leader of the Lebialem. I love my people, and I will not let anyone harm them. Anyone who comes to bother you in this village, let me know and they will know who Field Marshall is.”
The threat was obvious: it was either submit to his reign or die.
A reputation built in blood
The Field Marshall, whose real name is Leke Olivier Fongunueh, built his reputation in blood and is one of the most feared secessionists on the English-speaking war front.
According to Amnesty International, the Red Dragons and their leader are responsible for several deadly attacks, “aimed at spreading fear among the population, even going so far as to burn down schools and target teachers who do not apply the slogan of boycott”. This is in addition to the targeted killings of members of the security forces.
Under his violent regime, the Cameroonian administrators disappeared from the villages in Lebialem, as did the traditional chiefs who abandoned their palaces to take refuge in the neighbouring regions. By replacing them, Field Marshall strengthened his grip on the territory where government forces are struggling to regain control. So far, none of the military interventions undertaken there have succeeded in dislodging the militia.
His successes against the government, and despite the announcement of his “death” in December 2018, created a myth of invincibility, making him a much a feared figure in the region. The Field Marshall remains defiant and taunted the Cameroonian army.
They announced my death in December, here I am. Let them come and get me!”, he said when he returned to Lebialem.
A family business
The defence force accuse the Field Marshall of using civilians as human shields. “It is difficult to carry out certain types of intervention in this context because of the presence of civilians,” said an anonymous Ministry of Defence official, explaining that the “terrorists hide among the population, and it is impossible to attack them without causing collateral damage”.
The former Cameroonian army soldier, born in December 1968 in Azi (South-West France), seemed an unlikely candidate to challenge the republican order. His relatives remember an “obedient boy” who, however, did not complete his schooling, due to “poor results”. His brother, Chris Anu, on the other hand, was known as a “troublemaker” but excelled in his studies and embarked on a career as a computer engineer in the United States.
Today, the two brothers are in the front line of the armed demand in the English-speaking area. Field Marshall leads the military front while Chris Anu provides political coordination as spokesman for the Ambazonia interim government. Although their families have paid a heavy price, the two brothers will not give up.
“Let them come and get me”
Last August, Field Marshall’s mother, Grace Mafuatem, and her sister, Beza Berist, were arrested in Yaoundé in possession of CFAF 1.6 million. They had settled in the Cameroonian capital after a fire in their family home in Lebialem.
The authorities claim they are suspected of concealing the ransom bounties collected by Field Marshall in the field. But their lawyers say that they have “lost all contact” with him.
While the opening of their trial for complicity in terrorism is still awaited at the military court, Field Marshall believes that it is a plot to force him to return it.
“The Republic soldiers caught my mother, my sister, my best friend, my wife. They locked them up. They are asking that I, Field Marshall of Ambazonia, lay down my arms. Here I am in Lebialem, let them come and get me,” he repeated, during his induction as head of Essoh-Ettah.
The Ambazonian leader has rejected the final conclusions of the Grand National Dialogue organized by President Paul Biya. Although his stance conflicts with other secessionist fighters such as General Ayeke and General Ivo, he has recently reaffirmed his loyalty to the Ambazonia interim government led by Samuel Sako, since the imprisonment of Sisiku Ayuk Tabe.