On the afternoon of 28 January 2017, Ayaba Cho, surrounded by a crowd of supporters, had just escaped assassination in the heart of Antwerp, Belgium. As the leader of the Ambazonia Governing Council (AgovC), Cho had just finished a meeting with Ambazonian separatists in the diaspora.
He immediately saw in this attempt to eliminate him the hand of the government in Yaoundé and its dreaded Direction générale de la recherche extérieure (DGRE, the counter-espionage service), which he says is after him.
Since the start of the fratricidal war ravaging the English-speaking regions of the North-West and South-West in 2016, Cameroonian intelligence has launched several operations to track down separatist leaders both within the country and abroad, often successfully.
Among their targets is Ayaba Cho, who has so far escaped these attempts. But who is this enemy of Yaoundé, born 25 August 1972 in the North-West region? How did this man, who became involved in the so-called Anglophone cause during his university years, become the figurehead of the fight for Ambazonian independence?
A man of violence
In 1993, Ayaba Cho was expelled from the University of Buea in the country’s South-West following a demonstration against the increase in university tuition fees. He fled to Norway, where he managed to obtain political asylum. The former secretary general of the Southern Cameroons Youth League (SCYL) studied human rights at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences near Oslo, which became his new activist headquarters.
“I’ve known Lucas Ayaba Cho since university, and he has always remained consistent in his way of fighting: violence. He is convinced that that is the only language the authorities will listen to,” English-speaking Cameroonian lawyer and activist Félix Agbor Balla tells The Africa Report.
From Norway, the future separatist began to denounce the “marginalisation” suffered by the English-speaking population of his native country. Then, little by little, he turned to armed struggle. In 2013, Ayaba Cho founded the AgovC.
Three years later, the first protests in the Anglophone crisis broke out in Cameroon, through lawyers.
In September 2019, Ayaba Cho turned down Yaoundé’s invitation to take part in the Great National Dialogue, opting to retain a hard-line stance against the Francophone central government.
Ayaba Cho has grown in stature. He has evolved from a student protester into one of the main leaders of a protest movement that has resurrected the dream of independence: that of Ambazonia.
During the leadership dispute that divided the separatists in 2019, Ayaba Cho was one of the voices that counted. He openly sided with Sisiku Ayuk Tabe, a senior Cameroonian separatist leader who was proclaimed the first president of Ambazonia. However, Ayuk Tabe was arrested in Nigeria and sentenced to life imprisonment by the Cameroonian courts the same year.
A time of alliances
Ayuk Tabe is still serving his sentence at Yaoundé’s main prison Kondengui. Pragmatic Ayaba Cho withdrew his support.
In his view, political prisoners were not in a position to negotiate with the Cameroonian government. Above all, he chose to step up the fighting on the ground in order to push Yaoundé to take a hard position.
It was the beginning of a new era for the restoration of the “lost dignity” of the English-speaking people of Ambazonia, he said at the time.
To keep up his struggle, Ayaba Cho also allied himself with the Biafran separatists, led by Nnamdi Kanu, a British-Nigerian political activist, and began to focus on the desire to remove President Paul Biya from office.
Between January and March 2021, he launched a vast operation to recruit “amba boys” to replace separatists who had fallen at the front. This appeal met with a favourable response in the ranks of the secessionists, particularly from another Ambazonian leader, Mark Bareta.
Asserting himself as the main leader of the secessionist cause, Ayaba Cho eventually rallied 26 other separatist groups to his faction – with whom he plans to launch the All-Anglophone Conference in June.
His latest invective against the head of state dates back to January. It confirms that the former Buea student has no intention of changing his strategy. Scathingly critical of Biya’s end-of-year speech, he explains that 2023 will be the year of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”. An ominous and bloody omen for the already bereaved regions of the North-West and South-West.
Violence over negotiation? Ayaba Cho had already set himself up in 2019 as an opponent of the Grand dialogue national, initiated by the Cameroonian government.
On 26 September 2019, like Ebenezer Akwanga, another leader of an armed group, he declined Yaoundé’s invitation to take part in the dialogue, saying he found it hard to believe in the “good faith” of Biya and Prime Minister Joseph Dion Ngute’s men. While certain pundits in Yaoundé also took a dim view of possible negotiations, Ayaba Cho continued to opt for a hard line.
On 21 August 2021, when a decisive meeting had just brought together the secessionist leaders and Swiss mediators, he decided this time to play the game… only to better impose his leadership on the Ambazonians. His attitude was not to the liking of the other leaders, who denied him the right to speak on behalf of the separatist movement. Moreover, within his own faction, some fighters opposed any negotiations with the government. As a result, Ayaba Cho eventually retracted his statement and the negotiation process was brought to a halt.
The Ambazonian leader also expressed serious reservations about the talks initiated by another foreign player, the Canadian government, which proposed to “initiate a formal process [that] would be an essential first step towards peace for civilians affected by the conflict”.
In a tweet, Ayaba Cho called on Mélanie Joly, Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, to withdraw her statement on the process. The Cameroonian government followed suit, abandoning the talks.
At the same time, Ayaba Cho quietly continued to lobby for his cause, particularly among the ranks of American diplomats, including Tibor Nagy, former Under Secretary of State for African Affairs. On Nagy’s initiative, leading American figures have met several times with the Ambazonian general’s men. The content of these “strategic meetings” in July 2022 has not been revealed.
A contested leader
Some of Ayaba Cho’s methods are contested by other dissidents. In September 2022, the separatist leader launched a vast kidnap-for-ransom operation in Bali Nyonga, in the North-West, incurring the wrath of the Buffaloes of Bali Nyonga, a local armed group.
Ayaba Cho then made threats against them for having thwarted several of his activities. “Any attempt by Ayaba Cho and his henchmen to sow discord among freedom fighters in Bali will be dealt with ferociously by all possible means,” said Bali Nyonga president Bah Nji, speaking with the Ambazonia Broadcasting Corporation, an Ambazonian news website.
Ayaba Cho’s men have carried out several large-scale operations in the departments of Boyo, Donga-Mantung, Mezam, Ngo-Ketunjia and Mémé, sometimes in collaboration with Nigerian independence fighters from Biafra.
In a video posted on social networks on 11 February, the AgovC militia claimed responsibility for an attack on workers at the Cameroon Development Corporation (CDC), killing five civilians and injuring dozens of others. In November 2017, an assault killed three gendarmes and at least one civilian in the North-West region, and in March 2018, a delegate from the Ministry of Social Affairs, Animbom Aaron Ankiambom, was assassinated.
Partners in the struggle
The AgovC controls the SCYL (the youth league) the Southern Cameroon National Council (SCNC), the Movement for the Restoration of Southern Cameroon (SCARM) and the Southern Cameroon Peoples’ Organisation (SCAPO), and has some 20 partners in the struggle, including the Southern Cameroons Civil Society Consortium (SCACSC) and the Ambazonia Coalition Team (ACT). But this has not stopped Ayaba Cho from being challenged within the Anglophone and separatist movement, particularly for his methods.
“Violence can only breed violence, and it cannot solve a problem,” says lawyer Félix Agbor Balla. “It cannot be the rule; on the contrary, it must be the exception”.
For Capo Daniel, another secessionist leader we spoke to, Ayaba Cho has above all failed to compromise, and has not been able to allow the Ambazonian movement to leave the “battlefield” for the “negotiating table”.
“Ayaba believed the propaganda, and adopted an intransigent rhetoric aimed at motivating extreme positions that are incompatible with an international comprehension of the situation,” he says.
Does this mean Ayaba Cho is in danger? Could he be sidelined in favour of other Ambazonians with different methods? Capo Daniel says he has already “taken over the role of principal leader” and is “the new leader of the war for the liberation of Ambazonia”. The man himself did not want to respond to our requests.
But this vision does not seem to be shared by the Cameroonian authorities – even if certain pundits in Yaoundé are perfectly happy with the ongoing conflict, the former refugee from Norway officially remains, for the time being, public enemy number one of the government and its eternal leader, Paul Biya.
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