“We were terrified,” Aissatou, 24, recalls in an interview with Minority Africa. “I and my two children laid flat on the floor to escape from stray bullets. We do that whenever we hear gunshots.” Her husband had gone out to look after their cattle and had exceeded the time he would usually come home. Though worried, she was sure her husband would find his way back home amidst the gunshots, as he always does.

At about 7:00 pm, Aissatou received the news of her husband’s whereabouts: he was drowning in a pool of his own blood in the village square. The militia had shot him.

“I fainted immediately when I heard the news. I probably would have followed my husband if Allah had not intervened,” Aissatou said.

The Mbororos people have been disproportionately affected by the prolonged armed conflict that has erupted in Cameroon’s English-speaking regions since 2016.

This ongoing armed conflict is between the Cameroonian government and Ambazonian separatist rebel groups and has significantly impacted the civilian population and the economy of the Anglophone regions. Rooted in the long-standing Anglophone problem, tensions between the English-speaking regions of Cameroon and the French-speaking majority have fueled this strife.

In 2016–2017, protests erupted in the Anglophone regions, driven by perceived marginalization and discrimination by the Cameroonian government. The government responded with suppression, leading separatist groups in the Anglophone regions to initiate a guerrilla campaign, challenging the authority of the Cameroonian government and seeking independence for the Anglophone regions.

As emphasized by GIS Reports Online, the ongoing crisis, typical of similar conflicts across the continent, stems from the impact of colonization, artificial borders imposed by colonial powers, and the subsequent failures of decolonization and post-independence state-building.

This ongoing armed conflict has resulted in the death of more than 6,000 people and displaced over 500,000 in the country’s northwestern and southwestern regions.

A report by Amnesty International indicates that about 162 Mbororos had been killed, 300 of their homes razed, 2,500 of their cattle seized or killed (a move that severely impacts their livelihoods), and about XAF 180 million (about USD 293,900) paid in ransom for over 102 of their friends and relatives who have been kidnapped as a result of the conflict.

The constant violence has pushed some Mbororos to fight in the militia alongside government forces against armed separatist fighters, commonly referred to as Amba Boys, who want to create a separate state for Anglophone Cameroonians.

“We don’t have a choice. We have to protect our cattle and our land from Amba Boys”, noted Adamou, whose name has been changed to ensure his anonymity. He fled his native, Wum, to Bamenda, the capital of the northwest region of Cameroon, in 2020 due to constant threats and assassination attempts from separatist fighters.

Though in a new environment, Adamou is one of the main advisers and a founding member of a vigilante group in his village.

“The vigilante group is purely for self-defense. We work in collaboration with Cameroon’s military forces,” he said as he flaunts his bracelets, which he claims have magical powers and have helped him to survive numerous Amba boys’ assassination attempts. “We don’t like Amba Boys,” he added. “A top government official told us that they are out to wipe out all the Mbororos in Cameroon, and we shall not watch them do that. It would never happen,” he adds, waving his index finger in disagreement.

Map showing the Anglophone/crisis-affected regions of Cameroon. Photo by Shuimo Trust, used with permission.

Historically, the Mbororos, who are primarily pastoralists, have been engaged in perpetual conflict over land with native farmers in Nwa, located in the Northwest region of Cameroon, who constitute the majority, if not all, of the separatist fighters. The Mbororos, who are not native to this region, are nomadic people who have historically relied on grazing land for their cattle. This led them to migrate from their original home in the Senegambia region, Senegal, to Northern Nigeria, then Northern Cameroon, eventually settling in various areas in the North West Region.

Initially, the Mbororos were warmly welcomed by their hosts in North West Cameroon due to the economic benefits they brought and the heavy taxes they paid to the government. However, as the population of farmers in the region increased, there arose a higher demand for land for agriculture, triggering the conflicts.

Beriyuy Cajetan, a human rights activist, said Mbororos are sometimes targeted by armed separatists “just because they are Mbororos.”

“Three of my wife’s cousins, her two aunts, and 20 of my cows were killed by Amba Boys before we left the village. They also threatened my life, and as a driver, it was risky for me to continue in my village,” said Aliyou Gidadoh, a taxi driver in Buea who escaped with his family from his village in Ntiswa, on the outskirts of Ndu in 2020. “Buea is comparatively safer than my village, but life here is very difficult for me and my family.”

Aliyou said he felt separated from his culture and homeland. “What makes us Mbororos is our relationship with cows. My cows, who I consider my children and also friends, have all been killed,” he lamented.

However, there are those who contend that Mbororos are implicated in the armed conflict and, as a result, warrant ongoing attacks by separatists.

“Both separatist fighters and Mbororo militias have committed serious human rights violations,” said Berinyuy, who is also the head of the Department of Human Rights at the NGO Center for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa (CHRDA). “When separatist fighters attack Mbororo communities, Mbororo militias retaliate by attacking adjacent non-Mbororo communities.”

In February 2020, for example, state forces aided by armed Mbororo militias massacred about 21 civilians, including 13 children and one pregnant woman, in a locality known as Ngarbuh in the Northwest region of Cameroon.

“We are victims of circumstances. We have been unfairly targeted by separatist fighters,” said Musa, a part of the Mbororo community who had fled his village, Orti, in 2021 but had to return after suffering from severe burns in a fire in Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capital, earlier this year.

While Aliyou continues to miss his slain cows and his village as he struggles to adapt to life in his newfound home in Buea, Aissatou is battling with post-traumatic stress disorder as scenes of her husband’s tragic death keep flashing in her mind.

“I have a mental breakdown almost every day,” she tells Minority Africa. “This is made worse by my five-year-old son, who keeps asking me where his father is.”

Aissatou got married at 17, is not educated, and has no practical economic skills. “I am always in tears, thinking of how I will survive with my two children. My husband’s death has left a permanent scar in my life,” she says.

Considering the complexities of Cameroon's colonial history and the territorial disputes, these narratives underscore the urgent need for a united approach among Cameroonians, rejecting division and seeking international attention to address the humanitarian crisis unfolding in this country.