Traditional village chiefs in Cameroon's restive western regions are for the first time creating armed militias for protection against separatists. Cameroon's government has been asking traditional rulers who fled the separatist conflict to return to their palaces and take part in December's regional elections. But a majority of the chiefs has been reluctant to return due to threats from the rebels.
The Nso people of Cameroon’s Northwest region shout and applaud in the town of Kumbo. They came out to listen to a plea from their elders and palace notables to give a memorable welcome to their traditional leader, Sehm Mbinglo, whenever he returns.
Mbinglo fled the area three years ago after separatists abducted him three times and killed two of his children for unknown reasons.
Among the nearly 1,000 people who came to listen to the notables was Dorothy Yekong, who said she is longing to see her Fon, or traditional ruler.
“When the peace makers said the Fon will be coming back, we just felt some peace in Kumbo because when we were there without the Fon it was just as if to say the child is there surrounded by lions. So, if he finally comes, we are sure that peace will return in Kumbo. He is the father of everybody in Kumbo," she said.
Yekong said she was pleading with separatists fighting to create an English-speaking state in Cameroon not to attack palaces and notables who are only there to promote African cultures and traditions.
But shortly after the Nso elders and notable made the plea on people to welcome their village chiefs, separatist groups on social media warned against the chiefs returning.
Donatus Kewa, who said he is a spokesperson for separatist fighters in the North West region, says the chiefs act as informants for the military.
He said the village chiefs and their notables who escaped from the English-speaking regions to the French-speaking zones, especially Cameroon's capital, Yaounde, will be killed if they return. He said the chiefs received help in escaping from the Cameroon military, which he said is an enemy that all English speakers should fight against.
John Ewome Eko, traditional chief of the southwestern village of Boassa, said he is ready to face the separatists. He said he has armed a militia to protect his palace, notables and all traditional artifacts.
“I have put in place a strong vigilante group of more than 100 youths ready to stand and face the Amba guys. They came and burned down parts of my own palace. They left with two girls and they stayed with them in the bushes for two weeks. They were raped, they tortured them, they came back with wounds all over their bodies. They came again, they seized goods from my villagers," he said.
Deben Tchoffo, governor of the Northwest region, said militias created by chiefs should collaborate with government troops. He said no one should fear the separatists, whom he says are only intimidating chiefs and civilians.
"The traditional rulers are committed. The municipal counselors are committed. Elections Cameroon is ready. The security services are securing the region to allow us come the sixth of December to organize those elections in a peaceful environment," he said.
Tchoffo said they were giving fighters another opportunity to drop their weapons and be pardoned or to be crushed by the military.
The separatist crisis that is in its fourth year has killed at least 3,000 people and displaced 550,000, according to the United Nations.