Cameroonians in a refugee camp in Cross River (December 2018)

In December 2017, SaharaReporters visited four communities playing host to Anglophone Cameroonians fleeing violence and a general hospital, where many were receiving medical attention.

At the crest of the Obudu Mountain in Obanliku Local Government Area (LGA) of Cross River State, women were seen quarrying stone to build a toilet for their makeshift camp. In a community called Amana in the same LGA, there is a woman who lost seven children while fleeing a rampaging army. At Ajaso LGA were irate youth, swearing to resist suppression from the Francophone Cameroonian government. Nigerian families forced by the dire state of their guests to share their little morsels with more needy mouths were also captured in the report. Still ringing, though, is the encounter with Kelly in Etung Local Government Area of Cross River State. Forced out of school by the violence, she finds herself in Nigeria with three siblings. Kelly is an epitome of the many dreams that have been shattered or suspended by a three-decade-old government bent on having its way. There are some, though, who migrated to Lagos and found school once more. We meet a few of them later.

What has become an armed struggle for independence started out as a gentle call by the English-speaking Cameroonians to the Francophone government to halt reforms that saw Francophone teachers foisted on Anglophone students and French civil law imposed in English Common law courts.

Sixteen months later, several secession leaders and refugees have been arrested by the Nigerian government and deported to Cameroon. Refugees are running from border towns to find succour elsewhere. SaharaReporters sought out those camped out in Lagos to find out if events have steamrolled them or if they are putting up a resilient stance.

Cameroonians in a refugee camp in Cross River (December 2018)      

We are welcomed with a wave of skepticism. A jet of verification questions are squirted at us before we are allowed to enter a compound hosting three migrant families. One would have thought that pained asylum seekers would willingly face the lens and voice their suffering to any microphone wishing to pick up the sound of their anguish, but not these ones. “No names, no pictures, no video,” they demand, before we are permitted to speak with them.  All the names used in this feature therefore have been changed to protect the identities of the respondents.

When we finally gain their confidence, these are the stories we hear:

Schooling on Empty Stomach

Rosa has just resumed schooling. She does not recall when last she sat in a classroom. It could have been way back in December 2016, when a call for reform by lawyers and teachers in Anglophone Cameroon metamorphosed into a shout for independence. As the larvae formed, schools were locked up and students were sent home.

Home for many is undefined like the shape of an amoeba; Rosa finds herself in Lagos — many kilometres from home.

Standing beside her father, she declares in a small voice that the last meal to pass her mouth was garri soaked in water with sugar. She has no idea, when she would have the luxury of tasting anything.

“One of her neighbours always saw her at home,” her father said. “When he comes to the house, he asks why she is not going to school. So I explained to him and he helped me send her to school.”

In his life before the war, Mboh was what Lagosians call a ‘radionique’ — that guy who fixes your electronic gadgets. Like every hustling parent searching for the most profitable means of raising family, Mboh switched to being a taxi driver. Now though, there is no other occupation to turn to. Charity is the sole means of paying Rosa’s fees.

“I’m tired of looking for a job. In this Lagos there is no job opportunity. I tried to get a security job but it has not been easy. I applied to several security companies but they never got back to me.” Mboh feels he is getting rejected because his identity declares him to be Cameroonian.

“When you apply, they see that you are a Cameroonian. I believe that is our difficulty here in Nigeria.”

“So, have you tried driving?” the reporter asks.

“I have not been able to get a driver’s licence.”

“I know a friend who applied to be a taxi driver. He went to one company and was asked to bring two Nigerian citizens who are civil servants. It’s like the system is to frustrate us. I don’t understand,” Malfoy, the reporter’s access man chips in, in his authoritative, gravelly voice.

Back to Mboh, he recounts that he was forced out of his street when the war broke out. His urge to leave Southern Cameroon survived the spate of attacks that began in September 2017. The killings and massive troop deployment saw many Southern Cameroonians flee into border towns on the Nigerian side.

With Cho Ayaba’s ‘1,500’ strong Ambazonian Defence Force in full swing, the Cameroonian security had a guerrilla warfare to deal with and they were ruthless at it. The Cameroonian media reported stories of military personnel burning down villages. There was the report of an old woman getting burnt in her house. It was no wonder Mboh got to his village in search of respite and found it empty.

“The violence was affecting me in my street, so I decided to take my family and flee to the village,” Mboh narrates. “When we arrived at the village, everywhere was empty, because the military were there burning people’s houses and destroying people’s property. So I decided to flee with my family to Nigeria.”

Cameroonians in a refugee camp in Cross River (December 2018)

It was in July 2018 that Mboh’s ration of luck in Cameroon ran out.

Rosa went to school on a hollow stomach and came back to meet empty pots and plates. Jack has just come back as well to meet a bowl of jollof rice. Both children have a thing for flying objects; they wish to be pilots in their adult years. Jack and Rosa live with their families in an accommodation paid for by Southern Cameroonians in the Diaspora. He supports his flying dream, by stating that he loves math. His father, Amfon, a man with a good sense of humour, sits on his wheelchair listening to our discussion.  The shy boy says he has no idea if there would be dinner for him that night and his father confirms that uncertainty. As Jack leaves, Amfon calls out in a sardonic voice asking: “Did you see meat in your rice?” Jack has no knowledge of when the fabric of his life turned inside out, but his sister, Gwen, does. She remembers when school was denied her.

“They burnt down the head office in our school and the teachers were afraid,” she told SaharaReporters. “They told us to come back one week after. When we did, we were told that they were on strike. We were asked to come back after two weeks; since then we have not gone to school again. For three years, Gwen stayed home and her father says he made sure she had all her books to read, because he knew she must go back to school. She was fortunate to meet helpful friends who lent her textbooks to prepare with.

“I attended tutorial for one month. I went to different friends’ houses. What I did was to borrow one book and return it, borrow another person’s book and make notes on it. I took exams in Cameroon; I came to Nigeria to rewrite and it was better. I want to study medicine at Olabisi Onabanjo University (OOU).”

Even if Jack and Gwen stay in school, feeding will remain a thorn.

“Once it’s getting to dawn, I don’t always complete my sleep,” Amfon says, as he details the struggle to feed. “If it’s getting to dawn, I begin to manipulate, manipulate in the sense that I start thinking of where or whom I will beg for N100 to survive. Sometimes, we may have some little money to cook, you know… we are many in the house, so the little we get, we divide it among ourselves. I beg from friends from the Diaspora. But now, it’s like they [the friends in the Diaspora] are tired. Since this problem started, they have been helping me.”

By Amfon’s accounts, life on a wheelchair began 16 years back, but it was not unconnected to agitations by Southern Cameroonians.

“I was an auxiliary in a hospital, preparing to become a nurse. During that interval, I was one of the Southern Cameroonian activists. So we had a meeting in Bamenda. I left from my job to that meeting. Then, policemen arrived and we were well beaten. My back was hit with the butt of a gun.

“I am handicapped. I am a refugee with disabilities. I was down and they saw that I could not get up again; they had to arrest the other people. One person died.

“My wife came and picked me from there; she took me from hospital to hospital. I had to frame up a story that it was a road traffic accident, if they knew you were a Southern Cameroonian activist at that time, they will come and pick you up.” This spine shattering experience happened to Amfon in 2002. 15 years later, August 2017; Che Chi Joseph, an Anglophone Cameroonian activist and journalist, was picked up by the Paul Biya-led government. Rumours spread of impending arrests of everyone who worked with him; Amfon was numbered in the list and so he had to seek refuge.

“I told them at the border that I was coming to Nigeria for treatment for just two weeks,” Amfon said, explaining how he came into the country.

Fresh Signs of Hope

Mboh lives in a three-bedroom apartment. In the living room is Nina, her husband Ken, and their one-year-old child, Bissong. A plate is just getting scraped clean and Nina uses giggles to decline, saying what she just ate for launch. Persistent questioning reveals the meal to be rice and ‘kanda’, slang for cow intestine.

The young couple and their child came into Lagos two weeks ago. Their plight is no different. Nina says a family has just cooked and shared with them. It’s probably from the same pot Jack just ate.

Ken picks up the story. He says the violence, which began in September 2017, did not affect him until December 10, 2018. So when did he decide he had to run away from Cameroon with his family?

“It was when I lost all my things, my properties; my landlady’s compound was burnt. My family and I were in the hospital. We came back and met the landlady crying. I asked her ‘Mama what happened?’ and she said; ‘Look at what happened.’ Some people were able to remove their properties but our door was totally locked. We tried to break the door and we saw that everything was completely burnt.

“I didn’t have anyone taking care of me. My father married two wives and my wife’s parents are very old. I had no one to turn to. We stayed in the bush in Mamfe and spent some time in a village, but we saw that we could not survive there, so we had to sneak into Ikom in Nigeria.”

Ken says a woman advised him to take his family to Lagos where he would have better chance of survival. When he got into the state, he spent the night with his family at a branch of the Synagogue Church of all Nations. He found a Southern Cameroonian, got registered at the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) office and found the shelter. Ken has not lost hope of finding a way to keep his wife and son off charity. First, he remembers the good old days.

“I was doing my fine business. I used to sell potatoes and fried eggs from 7pm till about midnight, depending on how good business is. When the separation and the misunderstanding started, things began to get worse. So I started going to Douala to buy shirts, bow ties, inner wears, among others, to sell. Things got worse and that one had to stop.”

“I am planning to start selling bread and mayonnaise in the evenings,” he reveals, as little Bissong begins to cry. “I am still studying the community and I don’t kno A Cameroonian in a refugee camp in Cross River (December 2018) w if they will like it. You know these Yorubas; Cameroon to Yoruba is very different. What they eat, what they like, is very different. I am praying someone will like it.”

Flash Arrests and the Search for Refuge in Lagos

Cameroon shares nine borders with Nigeria — Cross River, Akwa Ibom, Taraba, Adamawa, Benue, Borno, are states that share boundary with the former French colony. No state in the western region is close to the nine entry corridors, so why are there a handful of refugees finding their way down to Lagos?

One of the main entry points for fleeing English-speaking Cameroonians has been Ikom in Cross River. It was here that Amfon and his family made their first stop.

“When we got to Ikom, we stayed there three days. We decided that we could not stay so we came to Lagos,” he narrated.

“When we were coming, we just knew that we were coming as refugees. We were migrating inside Nigeria. What made Ikom unsafe for Amfon? I chose to come to Lagos, because the Police in Ikom and the Gendarme arrest people at the border towns. That is why I moved right into Lagos.” Amfon says he made the decision to leave Cross River before the DSS raid in Nigeria’s capital city.

“I moved in before they arrested our leaders. I never knew that they could come right into Abuja. That’s when I knew that for Southern Cameroonian refugees, nowhere is safe for us,” he said, clapping his hands together. Being an activist in his former life, Amfon’s palpitation is an expected feeling. Like the crippled activist, Mboh stayed a night in Ikom before scampering to Lagos.

“In Ikom, I just spent a night there. There is no security, because I have been hearing different stories of them arresting refugees from Southern Cameroon and deporting them back to La République du Cameroun. Judging by time spent in Lagos, Malfoy is the oldest. He says the fear expressed by Mboh and Amfon are founded.

 “Of course, they do. Currently, six of our brothers are in Ikoyi. They were brought from Cross River and arrested here. They claim they were carrying arms but that’s not true. They asked them [the Cameroonians] to bring N1.5million to release them but they could not.” Ken alone came to Lagos in search of an opportunity at life, like many other Nigerians do.

No Food, No Job; What Does the Future Hold?

Speaking with them, one gets the feeling that they see no tomorrow; just today. Help for them comes from the pinched pockets of Anglophone Cameroonians in the Diaspora. Several Anglophone Cameroonians the reporter spoke to say many decades of underdevelopment and marginalisation have forced them to seek better life abroad. That exodus has become the backbone of survival for lots of refugees. With lots of needy people scattered all around, from the epicentre of the struggle in Cameroon to the bedlam of refugees in the border towns, the sun of aid is fast spinning away from those in sparse clusters. Even the hope of a job — anything to do to stay alive — remains elusive.

As people left Ikom to lose themselves in far-off places like Lagos, Malfoy and other Southern Cameroonians known to the UNHCR office in the state were tasked with finding a roof for the migrants. He was detained for eight months alongside two of the major activists who headlined the demonstrations in the sunset months of 2016. When he was released, he decided to open a new sequel in Nigeria.

“Our brothers in the Diaspora paid for this house for a year. But, right now, things are difficult. An arms struggle is going on and those still in the country are the people they regard as priority. They think their own suffering is worse than those of us that are here in Lagos. So maybe they are attending to them. We cannot really complain, they have been good to us. Malfoy says the UNHCR has been a disappointment.

“The UNHCR has been a big disappointment. They have not done anything for us. I don’t even know if they exist,” Malfoy laments.

“Even the conventional documents [papers that allow asylum seekers travel to other countries legitimately] we asked for, they have not given it to us. I don’t know… maybe my brothers here have a contrary opinion. As far as I’m concerned, they have not helped matters in any way.”

Amfon corroborates Malfoy’s stance. It is time for Gwen to write the Joint Admission Matriculation Board (JAMB) examination, but Amfon has no money. He says the UNHCR promised some assistance and there has been no word from them.

“The UNHCR told me to bring their documents and their data which I did,” he says. “I sent all the data. Since then, we have not heard from them. They told us that they would assist, not that they are paying the school fees. Since then I have seen no assistance.”

Just before publication, SaharaReporters called to check on Amfon once more. He says a friend, as always, borrowed him money for Gwen’s JAMB fees after much persuasion.

Fifteen persons, consisting of three families, live in the apartment wherein there are three rooms and a spacious living room, where Ken, his wife and some of the children sleep presently. The inhabitants say the one-year rent paid by their friends in the Diaspora expired in November 2018 and they will be forced out of the accommodation by June 2019. Besides the challenge of food and shelter, the fear of deportation is palpable among these refugees.

Malfoy and other Southern Cameroonians say arbitrary arrests have been the pattern. In months gone by, nine refugees have been deported back to Cameroon and 11 more have been arrested. The six brought to Lagos were detained at the State Police Command Ikeja. They were subsequently charged to court and ordered to be remanded in Ikoyi prison. Mails, calls and text messages sent to the UNHCR External Media Relations Officer were replied with unfulfilled promises of a response.

Are Tales of Arbitrary Arrests the Whole Story?

Maurice Fangnon is Secretary General, Centre for the Defence of Human Rights and Democracy in Africa, a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO). The body has taken charge of the legal needs of the six Southern Cameroonians confirmed to be in Ikoyi prison at the time this article was written. Fangnon said the six had been charged with possessing firearms.

“The detainees are still in Ikoyi. We are waiting for the [Director of Public Prosecutions] DPP advice,” Fangnon said over the phone. He explained that the refugees were brought to Lagos and kept in the state command under the unit handling kidnapping and possession of firearms. He said his organisation was yet to see the charge sheet but the contention is over the presence of locally-made guns in the premises they were staying in at Ikom.

“I met them try to talk about the matter. They took them to court without informing me. Even, that day we had an appointment on their case,” Fangnon said. “We are yet to have the charge sheet in our possession. You know, the insecurity that is happening in their place, they said that they are trying to look for a means to protect their people. The arms were found in their premises.”

CSP Chike Oti, Lagos State Police Command Public Relations Officer, denied knowledge of the arrests. He requested that we provide him details of what unit the refugees were detained in, in order for him to give an informed response. When SaharaReporters called back he said: “I have just called and they said there is nothing like that. You might have to hold on until we can dig out the facts.”

Fagnon disclosed in another phone conversation that the accused refugees had been arrested over two months ago. An official of the State Emergency Management Agency in Cross River promised to give detailed information on the fate of the nine Southern Cameroonians allegedly deported, but has been unresponsive.

Government’s Attitude to the Struggle

The line of action adopted by the Cameroonian and Nigerian governments in tackling the different conflicts besetting parts of their countries has provided fuel for the pyres of copses still living. For other victims and would-be sufferers, torture cells of painful memories and stunted dreams are being constructed.

Documented evidence of deportations of Nigerian refugees and maltreatment of persons in communities scourged by Boko Haram torches continue to shape feelings of hatred and give extra fodder for militancy. The silence and stealth cooperation given by the Nigerian government in solidarity with its partners against Boko Haram, Cameroon, is only building up the intensity in Southern Cameroon and sending more hapless persons into the homes of Nigerians in villages near the Cameroon border.

Randy Joe Sa’ah is a Cameroonian journalist covering the armed struggle for independence. In a voice note conversation on WhatsApp with SaharaReporters, he narrated the state of security in Southern Cameroon at present.

“Out here, there are too many people being killed. Even though the soldiers are no more having as many casualties as before, because they have changed strategy, they now go out battle ready like they are fighting a country. They go with armoured cars and heavy artillery. But this is something that cannot be won by guns, because the groups are spreading out. We hope they come to the dialogue table but for now it’s still a distant dream for peace,” Sa’ah said.1

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