Cameroon: Ambazonians and the kidnapping business

By Georges Dougueli
Posted on Wednesday, 11 May 2022 10:30

A still image taken from a video shot on October 1, 2017, shows protesters waving Ambazonian flags as they walk along a street in the English-speaking city of Bamenda, Cameroon. REUTERS/via Reuters TV

Extortion, kidnapping, ransom... How secessionist movements finance themselves through predation.

The voice is hesitant and the English is a bit laboured. “I, Regina Mundi, Ambazonian by birth and nationality, speak today, 30 April 2022 […]. I ask everyone to join the struggle to drive the Republic [of Cameroon] out of Ambazonia”.

Kidnapped that same day in Bamenda, in the northwest province, the senator obviously did not write the text she is reading before her captors. Filmed by the Ambazonian Defence Forces (ADF), Mundi is a member of the upper house of parliament and wears the colours of the Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (CPDM, French acronym RDPC), the ruling party.

Threats of execution

In exchange for her release, the hostage-takers are demanding the coalescence of all anglophone dignitaries as well as the release of 75 people incarcerated in various prisons in the country. According to our information, they have threatened to execute the parliamentarian on 20 May, Cameroon’s national day, which commemorates the unification of the English and French-speaking territories.

 

The rest of the video consists of a long self-congratulatory comment by a leader of the ADF, a movement remotely directed by Ayaba Cho, a secessionist warlord who has taken refuge in Norway. It was he who, last March, claimed responsibility – on his Twitter account – for the Ekondo-Titi attack. It was carried out with an improvised explosive device and killed seven people, including the sub-prefect and the mayor of the south-west town.

Behind the scenes, they negotiate ransoms in exchange for the release [of their prisoners]… This is how they finance their troops and the purchasing of weapons.

Ayaba Cho’s movement prides itself on having won the leadership battle within the secessionist nebula. The thugs of this former radicalised activist control large parts of the territory, where they impose their law. Senator Mundi’s kidnapping is not the first such act by this militia or rival groups.

“In their videos, they only make political demands, but behind the scenes, they negotiate ransoms in exchange for the release [of their prisoners],” says a journalist in Bamenda. “This is how they finance their troops and the purchasing of weapons.”

Target and trophy

Military, police, students, teachers… No one is safe. “Kidnapped people only regain their freedom in exchange for ransom payments. I say this with full knowledge of the facts because two of my relatives were victims,” says Ayah Paul Abine, a former attorney general at the Supreme Court.

Many personalities – whether they be close to the government or the opposition, or even members of civil society – have had run-ins with armed groups while spending time in the north-west or south-west. If Mundi has become a target – and a trophy – it is because she sits in CPDM’s sacrosanct political bureau. On 12 January, the body of another senator, Henry Kemende, from the opposition Social Democratic Front (SDF), was found in Bamenda, riddled with bullets.

In November 2020, a few months before his death, Cardinal Christian Tumi was kidnapped for two days by armed men before being released.

“For me, his death in April 2021 was precipitated by the mistreatment he suffered during his abduction,” says Elie Smith, journalist and biographer of the prelate, who assures us that “no ransom was demanded by the kidnappers”.

The same cannot be said of Emmanuel Ngafeson. Kidnapped in January 2019, this former secretary of state in charge of prison administration in the ministry of justice was abducted from his residence in Ntabesi, not far from Bamenda. He was released thanks to the intervention of his family and for a certain amount of money, says one of our sources.

In addition to kidnappings, the ‘Ambaboys’ impose a toll on funeral convoys.

Another source says that in 2021, a large sum of money was also paid to the kidnappers of the brother of Francis Faï Yengo, the coordinator of the National Committee for Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration. Although the embarrassing affair was kept secret and the family has refused to communicate about the negotiation that led to his release, our source mentions “a ransom of about 50m CFA francs ($80,480)”.

As for John Fru Ndi, the historic leader of the SDF, he was kidnapped twice – in April and June 2019 – without his party mentioning any payment. He explained that the separatists asked him to join their cause, which he refused.

In addition to kidnappings, the ‘Ambaboys’ impose a toll on funeral convoys. Families wanting to organise a funeral for their loved ones in the region must pay up, or risk the threat of reprisal. The Muna family went through this when one of their siblings, Wally – a cardiologist who died in 2019 in Paris.

Crimes of foul play

“According to his last wishes, my brother wanted to be buried in our village, in Ngyen Mbo, near Bamenda,” Akéré Muna tells us. Founding member Salomon Tandeng Muna, a former vice-president of the Republic, is one of several well-known figures in the family, including Akéré, a candidate in the 2018 presidential election, and Ama Tutu, a former minister of culture. “We had been warned that the armed groups were waiting for us, but there was no question of giving up, so we left Yaoundé in the middle of the night. We planned to arrive in the early morning, to hold a short ceremony – half an hour – before leaving.”

However, nothing went as planned. Armed men intercepted the convoy at the edge of the family estate and tried to seize the two SUVs and a mini-bus. They finally gave up after they came under fire from a rival group. “We were able to leave the scene after the shooting thanks to this confusion,” Akéré Muna says.

The crisis in Cameroon’s two English-speaking provinces, which emerged at the end of 2016, shows no sign of abating. The bridges – as well as channels of discussion – now seem to be burned between Yaoundé and the secessionists who, over the years, have had to find new ways to finance themselves. “To make matters worse,” says Jean-Vincent Ntuda Ebodé, a lecturer at the University of Yaoundé II, “they are financially drained by the increasing power of Nigerian and Cameroonian forces in controlling the movement of goods and people along the border between the two countries”.

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