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Assessment of the Existential Threat Posed by a United Biafran and Ambazonian Separatist Front in West Africa

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Assessment of the Existential Threat Posed by a United Biafran and Ambazonian Separatist Front in West Africa

Ekene Lionel

This article is published as part of the Small Wars Journal and Divergent Options Writing Contest which ran from March 1, 2019 to May 31, 2019.

The Nigerian separatist group the Indigenous People’s of Biafra, under pressure from the Nigerian military, recently met with representatives from the Cameroonian separatist forces who operate under the banner of the Ambazonian Defense Force.  If these two organizations form an alliance, it could represent an existential threat to both Nigeria and Cameroon and lead to civil war.

Two countries currently at war, one against ravaging Islamist terrorists trying to carve out a new caliphate governed on the basis of Sharia law, the other, against Anglophone separatist forces seeking to establish a new autonomous nation. Nigeria is currently neck-deep in a bitter war against both the Islamic State’s West African Province (ISWAP), as well as Boko Haram colloquially known as the Jamaa’atu Ahlis-Sunnati Lid-Da’wati Wal-Jihad. However, Nigeria has successfully curtailed a growing threat in the form of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB)– a highly organized separatist group led by Mazi Nnamdi Kano; a Nigerian with British citizenship. The IPOB was formed as a breakaway group of the Movement for the Actualisation of Biafra with the sole purpose of completely severing ties with Nigeria through non-violent secession.

Meanwhile, across Nigeria’s eastern border towards Cameroon, a new war has been brewing for some months’ now, the Ambazonia War. For years, Southern Cameroonian citizens predominately located in the Anglophone territories of the Northwest and Southwest region have been constantly oppressed by the Cameroonian Regime led by Paul Biya, a former rebel leader. This oppression led to protests across the Southern Cameroon region. Biya responded by cracking down on the protesters resulting in at least 17 people killed. As calls for either integration or autonomy grew louder, the regime stepped in with heavy-handed tactics. Security forces were deployed to the regions; protests were met with violence, arrests, killings, and hundreds of homes were razed. Biya’s actions forced separatist forces under the banner of the Ambazonian Defense Force (ADF) to initiate a full-fledged guerrilla war in Southern Cameroon[1].

At the moment, the West African battleground poses a unique challenge to defense planners in the region simply because the ADF continue to grow stronger despite determined efforts by the Cameroonian Military to dislodge them. Several different armed groups have since emerged in support of the ADF such as the Red Dragons, Tigers, ARA, Seven Kata, ABL amongst others[2].

The Ambazonian War has since caused the death of more than 2000 people while 530,000 have been displaced. About 180,000 Cameroonians have fled to Nigeria putting more pressure on the already stressed infrastructure in the country’s Eastern flank[3]. Furthermore, the Cameroonian military which was focused on the Boko Haram insurgency, has divided its attention and deployed on multiple fronts, resulting in an upsurge in Boko Haram activities in the country. On a more tactical level, the Cameroonian Military’s most elite fighting force, the Rapid Intervention Battalion, which has been traditionally tasked with halting the rampaging Boko Haram terrorist’s onslaught, has also been largely withdrawn from the North and redeployed to the Anglophone region[4].

On the Nigerian front, as the IPOB continuously loses focus, ground, and drive as a result of the Nigerian Government’s “divide and destroy tactics” coupled with the intimidation of the Biafran separatist members, this breeds resentment amongst the rank and file. With this in mind, the top echelons of the Biafran separatist struggle under the banner of the Pro Biafra Groups, met in Enugu State, with the prime minister of Biafra Government in Exile in attendance and some other diaspora leaders of other pro-Biafra groups where they resolved to work together. The coalition met with the leadership of the Ambazonian Republic from Southern Cameroon where it discussed bilateral relationship as well as a possible alliance in achieving their objective[5].

Leveraging cultural and historical sentiments, since they share a common history and heritage, both the Biafran and Ambazonian separatists could band together and present a more formidable opponent to national forces in the region. On a strategic level, this partnership or alliance makes perfect military sense, given that both share a similar ideology and ultimately, the same goal. In an asymmetric conflict, the separatist forces can easily share valuable scarce resources, bolster their depleted ranks, accumulate valuable combat experience, provide a safe haven for fighters and also acquire human intelligence through the notoriously porous Nigeria/Cameroon border. 

Such an alliance poses an existential threat to the unity and existence of both Nigeria and Cameroon given that at the moment, Boko Haram and ISWAP are constantly pushing and probing from the Northeast of Nigeria, bandits are ravaging the Northcentral along with the current farmer/herder crises still troubling Nigeria’s center. The Nigerian military, although quite tenacious, cannot realistically hold these multiple forces at bay without crumbling.

Nigeria is the largest oil and gas producer in Africa, with the majority of its crude oil coming from the delta basin. Nigeria desperately needs its oil revenue to keep its battered economy running. Also, the bulk of Cameroon’s industrial output, including its only refinery, is in the Ambazonian region[6][7]. Hence, the economic impact of such an alliance could threaten the integrity of the West Africa, the future of the Economic Community of West African States, also known as ECOWAS, and the overall security, stability and progress of the entire subcontinent. 

With the militaries of both Nigeria and Cameroon already stretched thin and battered by years of constant war, if an alliance of ADF and Biafran separatist is allowed to succeed, it would open up opportunities for Boko Haram and ISWAP to grow stronger and overrun several key cities in the region, destabilize the economic balance and also the equipoise of military region in Africa.

End Notes

[1] Sarah, L. (2018, June 14). Cameroon’s anglophone war, A rifle is the only way out. Retrieved May 14, 2019, from https://www.africanmilitaryblog.com/2018/06/cameroon-ambazonia-war

[2] BBC. (2018, Oct 4) Cameroon’s Anglophone crisis: Red Dragons and Tigers – the rebels fighting for independence. Retrieved 14 May 2019, from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-45723211 

[3] Aljazeera (2018, August 2). In Nigeria, Anglophone Cameroonians turn to low paid labor. Retrieved 13 May 2019, from https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/nigeria-anglophone-cameroonians-turn-paid-labour-180801222453208.html

[4] The National Times. (2019, March 12). Insecurity Escalates In North Region As Gov’t, Military Concentrate In Anglophone Regions. Retrieved May 14, 2019, from  https://natimesnews.com/cameroon-national-times-there-has-been-growing-insecurity-in-the-three-northern-regions-of-cameroon-as-both-the-government-and-the-military-concentrate-their-strength-and-might-in-fighting-an-endles/ Archived

[5] Jeff, A. (2018, June 27). Pro-Biafra groups vow to be under one leadership. Retrieved 14 May 2019, from  https://www.sunnewsonline.com/biafra-pro-biafra-groups-vow-to-be-under-one-leadership/

[6] John, D. (2012, March 25). Cameroon, West Africa’s Latest Oil Battleground. Retrieved May 14, 2019, from https://oilprice.com/Energy/Crude-Oil/Cameroon-West-Africas-Latest-Oil-Battleground.html

[7] Ajodo, A. (2017, September 12). Towards ending conflict and insecurity in the Niger Delta region. Retrieved May 13, 2019, from https://reliefweb.int/report/nigeria/towards-ending-conflict-and-insecurity-niger-delta-region

About the Author(s)

Ekene Lionel presently writes for African Military Blog as a defense technology analyst.  His current research focuses on how technology intersects national defense.  He holds a Bachelor’s Degree from Michael Okpara University.  He can be found on Twitter @lionelfrancisNG