Investigative journalist Gabriel Ogunjobi spent some days on the fringes of Nigeria with Cameroon, in Taraba State. He writes about how a foreign incursion leading to deaths and kidnap of people totalling 30 is still greeted with ghost silence, and the consequences of the border fragility on Nigeria’s northern state.
“No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark. You only run for the border when you see the whole city running as well.” — Warsan Shire
Scores of people dashed through the savannah forest. Others paddled the boat to cross a pool of water, leaving all behind to seek temporary stay some 100km from their countryside in Cameroon. They landed in the Nigerian state, Taraba; alas, this migration provoked an incursion that resulted in the killing and the kidnapping of nearly three dozens of distressed foreigners and their Nigerian hosts.
This is the category of people the United Nations recognized as conflict refugees. As for those who made it out of the gunfire alive — Cameroonian refugees and Nigerians — what they feel is survivors’ guilt. The uprising largely unsettled the border village. Shallow graves litter farm portions, hasty funerals conducted for a royalty, villagers left scared to ever cross the border again lest their blood be spilled on foreign soil. Their economic survival is somehow sabotaged too.
DANGEROUS ROMANCE, MARRIAGE OF CONVENIENCE
For more than half a decade, factions of a secessionist movement in southeastern Nigeria and a pro-independence movement in western Cameroon have been gathering momentum, mobilising supporters through social media, and clashing with government security forces in both countries.
In April 2021, leaders from both movements would announce a formal alliance. It is a sort of a dangerous romance that may further tank Nigeria’s frail land borders.
“The alliance will ignite cross-border ethnic violence that may have regional consequences,” a Foreign Policy article had predicted in May 2021. “Biafrans and Anglophone Cameroonians share a common enemy: Fulani herders, a nomadic ethnic group present across West and Central Africa.”
Kpwe Phillip, who fled his home at Mewchem division in northwest Cameroon for Nigeria, told this reporter that although secession may be unrealistic at the moment, “the government must return to a federal system that will not marginalise any regions of the country, for peace to reign”.
Philip was forcefully evicted from the hotspot of the crisis because swathes of people resisted joining the belligerents against Cameroon Armed Forces.
The root of the Anglophone problem in Cameroon can be traced back to the Foumban Conference of 1961, which united two territories with different colonial legacies into one state. Ten years after, the country formed a unitary government, followed by a complaint of marginalisation by the English-speaking regions. This problem has led to agitations for federalism or separation from the union by the Anglophones, who are just 20 per cent of the country’s population.
On the back of the frail borders, the alliance of Cameroon’s Ambazonians and Nigeria’s Biafra in Nigeria’s eastern flank will set the two countries on the edge, exchanging arms and building formidable forces against the two sovereign states. Foreign Policy’s article predicted so.
Up north, the tensions from the northwest and southwest Cameroon in early November 2021 spiralled onto Nigerian soil, in this case, Manga.
By the afternoon of November 17, 2021, three Nigerians, including the traditional ruler and six other Cameroonian refugees, had been killed by gun-toting non-state actors in Manga village. On record, at least 21 persons — three Nigerians and 18 Cameroonians — were whisked away during the attack. As of the first anniversary of their death, none of these kidnapped casualties had been accounted for by eithercountry.
HOW A FOREIGN INCURSION WAS POSSIBLE
Mud huts of Manga sit on the coast of the water that divides Nigeria from Cameroon. The village — by its left is Shibong in Taraba and right Barki-Mod in Cameroon — was named after the first man to settle within the border. People who are not locals feel local. Like the Ujamaa system in Tanzania, Manga sustains familyhood; individuals own less and fraternise more in their togetherness. Not as if the Cameroonians were left out of the culture: they both spoke the same language, English, and inter-married.
Manga is closer to neighbouring Cameroon by water than it is to any other village in Nigeria — just 45 minutes by road. Whenever there was a conflict in Cameroon, foreigners ran into the country for protection.
Today, the 20-metre-wide water is guarded by the joint task force of the Nigerian Army, troops from the 93 Batallalion; the Nigeria Immigration Service; and the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NCDC).
But it was not always the situation. In fact, until November 18, there were less than five immigration officers on the water, all unarmed and no other security personnel, according to a source who spoke with FIJ.
Joseph Manga, the Senior Special Assistant to Taraba Governor Darius Ishaku, facilitated the deployment of soldiers and civil defence personnel to the village after his elder brother, the traditional ruler, Udeng Manga Alata II, was killed in the attack.
The river flowing across Manga supplies the Kashimbila Dam for the 40 megawatts Hydropower plant in the state that was completed by the federal government in 2019. It also ferries villagers to the state’s hinterlands and into Cameroonside.
Chief Udeng Manga II and his council men met once a week at the palace to deliberate on family affairs. This day, gunshots knocked on the walls. Several armed men — some masked, others barefaced — numbering 19, according to eyewitnesses, penetrated their midst. The elders in the gathering panicked. The meeting was over.
The bullets could not pierce the clay muds, but they left marks on the walls and made the villagers’ hearts sore till this day. Whilst people scampered for safety, the intruders sprayed them with bullets.
The chief was cut with a machete in multiple parts until he died. “They thought he was hiding the refugees inside the palace,” says Danlami Manga, another younger sibling of the slain ruler.
“Come out! Bring out our enemies you are hiding,” the armed men were said to have shouted. The chief hid still, unwilling to give up his guests. They went on to set the palace on fire, and ransacked the village hut by hut.
The attackers laid siege to Manga from past 7am till around 1pm, Danlami revealed.
Eyewitnesses said they were certain Ambazonians attacked them. Nicholas Manga testified that he recognised “at least five of them” from where he laid in the bush during the gunfire.
“We thank the immigration officers for helping us with their boat to take our women and children through the water,” Danlami added.
Security sources told FIJ that the immigration officers couldn’t combat the attackers because they were not armed.
Nigerian authorities may have underestimated the impact of the Cameroonian infighting on the Nigerian village, but this attack was a rude shock. No soldier was also deployed to the border village until after the attack.
The locals died while Nigierian soldiers saddled with the consitutional obligation to defend territorial fronts against aggression were absent.
The incident at Manga corroborates the past investigations on Nigeria’s border porosity. As in Taraba, an undercover investigation in 2020 exposed how smugglers freely transport food produce on Nigeria’s land border in Ogun state with another state in Benin Republic.
Similarly, in Manga, for every refugee, every boat, there is a smuggler bearing gallons of fuel to sell cross-border.
MANGA: CUT FROM THE REST OF US
Whilst the attack lasted, Manga was cut out of the rest of us. Many a time, attacks in Kaduna and Plateau, two of Nigeria’s most war-torn zones, were usually reported because the news spread in a short time.
On the contrary, there was no telecommunication access in Manga to call for emergency assistance. And there still isn’t.
According to the United Nations, as of July 2022, Nigeria has a population of 216,575,538 people (over 200m), more half of whom live in rural areas. The country is also Africa’s largest single telecoms market by subscriber numbers.
Recent statistics by the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) for mobile phone users in September 2022 shows that there are over 211,852,101 GSM subscribers, spilt across the four providers, MTN, Glo, Airtel and 9mobile.
Ostensibly, all seems well in Nigeria’s telecommunication sector, but beneath the surface problems lurk.
“The fact remains that more citizens will embrace the digital financial culture when they have access to telecom services in the distant, isolated, unserved, and underserved communities where they dwell,” Executive Vice Chairman of the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), Prof. Umar Danbatta, once pointed out, stressing on the effects it has the reality on financial inclusion.
“We are therefore conscious of the urgency of increasing investment in both fixed and wireless infrastructure. This will make the target of at least 80 percent level of financial inclusion in about four years possible.”
Over 35 million Nigerians have no access to telecommunications services because of poor technological infrastructure. Manga people are part of this statistics.
They cannot exchange their fish and other goods unless they embark on the risky journey to the nearby Cameroonian town. And if they must do business with their countrymen and women in Takum local government, they have to travel more than two hours.
Far more consequential is that “if there was a phone connection, our people would have been saved or these people arrested,” Gideon Manga, another villager, lamented.
Education also cuts the people from civilization. Already, about 20 million children are out of school largely because of insecurity. The only school in the village is now the makeshift camp for the Army since they came in.
Manga people are in the dark for communication and the light that basic education offers their children.
AMBAZONIAN SPOKESMAN SAYS ‘THERE WILL BE CONSEQUENCES’
Manga lived through the bloody experience of November 21 with a damaged relationship between the two countries.
Village dwellers said it was the first time there would be such an attack on them, but it left eternal memories: a ruined reputation, a ruler’s death with no befitting funeral, refugees killed by their own countrymen, a kidnap without a trace, and a mystery unravelling.
Village council representatives strolled round the graveyard of the slain kinsmen and foreigners. A Bible with its torn chapters spread at the head of the king’s sepulchre, beside his forebear.
“This is not how to bury our chief,” says Danlami. “Our elders must observe some rites which will follow the installation of a successor thereafter.” Well, that cannot happen at the moment with their abducted kinsmen yet to be rescued.
Everyone wore a sober look the moment those words were uttered. However, they moved to the next hut, and a mystery, or so, happened. A cap had taken a strange flight to the grave of the deceased’s owner.
“This is his favorite cap of my brother. I hung it in my room myself but I do not know how it disappeared here,” Danlami claimed.
THE GRAVE WITH THE MYSTERIOUS CAP
“I believe that he wanted you to see it before.” His belief and that of others was that the presence of the slain kinsmen was still hovering around. But they could not tell if they would haunt their killers.
Africa’s most populous country is faced with overlapping security threats from Boko Haram’s insurgency in the north, to the new rising bandit warlords spearheading conflicts between farmers and pastoralists, and the secessionist outcry in the country’s east and west. Foreign non-state actors are taking advantage of this misfortune too.
Audu Super, one of the Cameroonians who escaped the Manga attack, said he had not yet been registered as a refugee.
In response to the Manga incident, Capo Daniel, the deputy defence chief of the Ambazonia Defence Forces, posted a video posted on his Youtube channel denying the involvement of his group. Instead, he accused the Nigerian government of propaganda.
“What is happening in Taraba state is a simple communal conflict that the Nigerian government is trying to manufacture a story on, in order to gain sympathy from the international community,” he said.
But apart from Gideon insisting that he recognized some of the faces, FIJ confirmed that there had been no Boko Haram attackin a long while. From Shibong to Camp 2 and Bete, 45 minutes by water to Manga, all those parts are settlement villages for refugees.
The part of the local government where attacks had persisted is Takum town, some two hours drive from Manga.
Daniel further accused the Muhammadu Buhari government of facilitating the movement of Fulani herdsmen into Cameroon, and collaborating with the Paul Biya-led Cameoonian government to fuel the genocide in the Ambazonian territory.
“I want to send a clear message to the Nigerian government that the alliance between Buhari and Biya that involves incursion into Ambazonians will have consequences,” he said.
“The renditioning of Ambazonians who are living as refugees under the protection of international laws into Cameroon by Buhari despite humanitarian international law will not go unpunished. That is why we are in alliance with the Biafra movement.”
COMBAT-READY SECURITY PERSONNEL
Soldiers who insisted their names could not be published because they were not authorised to speak to the press told FIJ that they were “combat-ready” if the Ambazonians attempt any attack again.
“We are more than ready now,” one soldier said. “More arms, more men on the land and water border.”
FIJ sought comments from Geoffrey Onyeama, the Nigerian foreign affairs minister, and Onyema Nwachukwu, the Army spokesman, on the Manga attack, but none answered calls nor responded to the text messages sent to their lines.
This report was produced with support from the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ) under the Collaborative Media Engagement for Development Inclusivity and Accountability project (CMEDIA) funded by the MacArthur Foundation
Be the first to receive special investigative reports and features in your inbox.