Via Cross River, Calabar, and Mawuh: En Route to Ambazonia

Ambazonia most surely exists, with defined land mass, distinctive long history, culture, and most especially people. But you won’t find it on any maps, or even most accounts of modern Africa or peaceful struggle. For human rights activists, the words “peaceful” and “struggle” don’t appear together that often. Yet Ambazonia still remains a mystery to most. This is the beginning of a report of my journey to Ambazonia, my first of many routes which move in the direction of freedom.

Flying into Calabar, the capital of Nigeria’s Cross River state, I was met at the airport by a group of women, girls, and a few men clad in bright purple shirts: the design of the Mawuh Global Solutions, a Nigerian NGO which helps coordinate aid for the refugees and displaced people pouring over from just across the border, so-called Southern Cameroons. But this group is not Nigerian! They are national, regional, and local leaders of Mawuh, and they are all from Ambazonia, the contested English-speaking region of the French-speaking Republic of Cameroon, which is acting much more like a petty dictatorship than like a federal state.

At the crossroads of West Africa and Central Africa, this area has always been a strategic spot, which is perhaps the reason that the man who today holds the dubious distinction of longest presidency on the planet sticks tenaciously to power in Cameroon, despite his 86 years. Paul Biya has been head of state for close to 40 years, with each passing year overseeing increases in acts of intolerance, repression, and — for the people of Ambazonia, on Cameroon’s western border across from Nigeria — terror and genocide as well. Among the leaders who have crossed the Nigerian border into relative safety, but suffering impoverishment and difficulty, becoming leaders of Mawuh is a way to continue the work of community-building: creating self-help, skills-based training in dozens of areas, as well as looking after housing, health care, and education efforts.

Though the Nigerian government is generally tolerant and often supportive of these efforts, there are some who stand out as exemplary solidarity chiefs. The Nigerian presidency has developed a National Commission for Refugees, Migrants, and Internally Displaced Persons. Akintunde R. Oyasanya, as zonal co0ordinator for South-South relations, serves as an informal and highly dedicated ambassador for the peoples of Cross River and the Ambazonias who have ventured across the border to live in this border town in a world of confused and contested borders. Akintunde, a few Ambazonian leaders, and I stayed up late into the night discussing the current period, tactical considerations, and the vital role of international support.

The next day’s visit to local projects showed how many displaced peoples were using their time and skills in developing grassroots programs that will train, support, and empower their fellow refugees and neighbors. [With machetes in hand, using our own tools and methods to liberate a people, we noted the symbolic and actual role of Los Macheteros in the context of the contemporary Puerto Rican independence struggle against U.S. colonialism in the Caribbean].

The Ambazonian spokespeople themselves are clear: our stay as exiles in Nigeria must neither be permanent nor long; we must plan to go back to the homeland which is historically and rightfully ours. But whether spoken by the youthful and dynamic Dr. Sama or the soulful, embracing, and powerful Vivian Akoachere, the message is clear: we will use our time here productively, building capacity and empowerment among the people. They repeat and represent the classic adage of all strategic organizers: “when you give people fish, they will eat for one day, but when you teach people how to fish, they can be set for life.”

These photos from my days on the border, en route to Ambazonia in more than simply physical ways, represent just a taste of the irrepressible energy of a people who will be free.