Frying Pan to Fire: Is the Ambazonia War of Independence a “Non-International Armed Conflict”?


    Atemnkeng B. Clifford
    Ambanews24, Amsterdam, Netherlands

    In the last week, a storm has blown across the Ambazonian communities at home and in the diaspora following Ebenezar Akwanga’s statement on his unilateral ceasefire in which he wrote, “SOCADEF is ready to support international monitoring of the ceasefire upon recognition of the Ambazonian conflict as Non-International Armed Conflict (NAIC) under International Humanitarian Law….” Critics have seen such statement as a promotion of the “One Cameroun” agenda – in other words, they have argued that classifying the War for Independence going on in Ambazonia as a “Non-International Armed Conflict” implicitly makes Ambazonia part and parcel of a “one and indivisible” Republic of Cameroun.

    In this article, I want to delve on types of conflicts and provide insight as to whether the Ambazonia War of Independence is a “Non-International Armed Conflict.”

    Types of Conflicts Recognized by International Law

    Broadly speaking, International Humanitarian Law as elucidated in the Geneva Conventions and interpreted by scholars thereto recognizes three types of armed conflicts. These are: international armed conflict, internationalized armed conflict, and non-international armed conflict.

    What is an “international armed conflict”, and is the Ambazonia War for Independence an International Armed Conflict? 

    According to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, common article 2, an international armed conflict involves “all cases of declared war or of any armed conflict that may arise between two or more high contracting parties, even if the state of war is not recognized, the Convention shall also apply to all cases of partial or total occupation of the territory of a high contracting party even if the said occupation meets with no armed resistance.” “High contracting parties” refers to states that are party to the Geneve Conventions. The American invasion of Iraq in 2002, for example, is an international armed conflict because it involved parties that have both signed unto and ratified the Geneva Conventions.

    The central qualifying factor for an armed conflict to be classified as an international armed conflict within the context of International Humanitarian Law, therefore, is that it has to be a conflict between two or more “high contracting parties” to the Geneva Conventions.

    On September 16, 1963, the Republic of Cameroun ratified and accessed to the four Geneva Conventions of 1949. On March 16, 1984, the Republic of Cameroun also ratified and accessed to the Additional Protocol (I) and Additional Protocol (II) of the Geneva Conventions of 1977. On April 2, 2013, Cameroun ratified and accessed to the Optional Protocol of 2000 on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, while declaring some reservations.

    I contend that because Ambazonia, which is at war with Cameroun, is currently neither a state signatory nor has a government that has ratified the Geneva Conventions (thus, is not a “high contracting party”), the Ambazonia War of Independence is not an international armed conflict within the meaning of international humanitarian law. This context should be clearly stressed because although the conflict can be viewed as “international” within the loose sense of involving two nations, namely the nation of Ambazonia and the nation of Cameroun, the conflict will not qualify as an international armed conflict within the strict sense of international humanitarian law as elucidated in the Geneva Conventions.

    It should also be stressed here that whether one calls Ambazonia a “State” by rhetoric or by historical and legal facts is inconsequential to the argument because nowhere in history – as known to me – has a legitimate government of such “Ambazonia State” signed unto, ratified or accessed to the Geneva Conventions. What qualifies a conflict as an “international armed conflict” within the context of international humanitarian law is not the international status of the territory, but whether that territory has access to the relevant Geneva Conventions.

    What is an “internationalized armed conflict,” and is the Ambazonia War for Independence an Internationalized Armed Conflict? 

    An internationalized armed conflict is a relatively new phenomenon. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the scholar, James Stewart, are reliable authorities in the international community on this type of conflict vis-à-vis international humanitarian law.

    Stewart writes: “The term ‘internationalized armed conflict’ describes internal hostilities that are rendered international. The factual circumstances that can achieve that internationalization are numerous and often complex: the term internationalized armed conflict includes war between two internal factions both of which are backed by different States; direct hostilities between two foreign States that militarily intervene in an internal armed conflict in support of opposing sides; and war involving a foreign intervention in support of an insurgent group fighting against an established government. The most transparent internationalized internal armed conflicts in recent history include NATO’s intervention in the armed conflict between the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) and the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) in 1999 and the intervention undertaken by Rwanda, Angola, Zimbabwe, Uganda and others, in support of opposing sides of the internal armed conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) since August 1998” (J. Stewart, Towards a single definition of armed conflict in international humanitarian law: A critique of internationalized armed conflict, 2003, p.315).

    I have underlined the words “often complex” and “most transparent” because there are very many cases of internationalized armed conflict in which the involvement of State parties supporting “an insurgent group” in the hostilities may not be “transparent” or clearly visible.

    France has been sending its military from Gabon to aid the Cameroun soldiers fighting in Ambazonia but this has not been transparent to the public. They have provided both intelligence gathering assistance, technical assistance with training of Cameroun soldiers on combatting guerilla warfare and have been in the battlefield firing guns. I am in possession of indisputable evidence of this involvement. In this regard, one can say the war in Ambazonia has become “internationalized”. However, this has not been support to “an insurgent group” against the “established Cameroun government” for one to speak of an “internationalized armed conflict” in the strict context of international humanitarian law.

    State parties under the umbrella of NATO intervened in the Kosovo War of Independence, supporting the KLA. That qualified the armed conflict as an “internationalized armed conflict”. Is it possible that in the complex circumstances of international relations, there is a hidden state party somewhere that is providing some degree of support to any of the Ambazonia fighting forces? I will leave that to those who know for certain whether there is, to those who have taken issues with Akwanga’s statements may be because they know something Akwanga does not know or simply refuses to admit, and to the books of history when all is said and done.

    What I can say is that with the active involvement of France by sending its troop from Gabon into the war in Ambazonia, the Ambazonia War of Independence has been “internationalized”; and with the hidden hand of any state party supporting Ambazonia in the armed conflict to any degree and in whatever way, the Ambazonia War of Independence qualifies as an “internationalized armed conflict” within the context of international humanitarian law.

    What is a non-international armed conflict, and is the Ambazonia War of Independence a non-International Armed Conflict? 

    Simply put, a non-international armed conflict according to the Geneva Convention common Article 3 is basically “‘armed conflicts that are non-international in nature occurring in one of the High contracting parties.” In other words, it is a situation within the territory of a high contracting party/state and assumes that an armed conflict exists when the situation reaches a certain level that distinguishes it from other forms of violence such as riots, sporadic and isolated forms of violence. The two distinguishing factors that raise mere riots to the level of conflict are the intensity of the violence and the level of organization among the parties. Needless stressing that these variables are very relative.

    I have underlined the words “occurring in” because here is the fury of the Ambazonian people against Akwanga’s call for the classification of the Ambazonia War of Independence as a “non-international armed conflict.”

    As has been mentioned above, the Republic of Cameroun has ratified the four Geneva Conventions, and is thus a “high contracting party.” Classifying the war as a “non-international armed conflict” implies that the war is “occurring in” Cameroun’s territory. It ipso factor implies asserting that the territory that Ambazonians call theirs is the territory of Cameroun – “One and indivisible.”

    The territory of Ambazonia is not the territory of the Republic of Cameroun. Cameroun has provided no justifiable claim to it under international law and principles, and in accordance with its history of how it came to legally acquire title to Ambazonia’s territory. And Cameroun has presented no such evidence because there is none. The Republic of Cameroun simply moved in its troop and occupy Ambazonia in annexationists style in September 1961 without a legal union treaty ratified by the parliament of the Southern Cameroons (Ambazonia) as it were. In fact, the existence of Cameroun today, as a territory claimed to include Ambazonia, is nothing but one giant case of international deceit and fraud. Therefore, the Ambazonia War of Independence is not a “Non-international armed conflict.”

    The Blunder in Advocating the Classification of the Ambazonia War of Independence as a “Non-International Armed Conflict”

    The classification of the Ambazonia War of Independence as a “Non-international armed conflict” erodes all history of the annexation and illegal occupation of Ambazonia by the Republic of Cameroun without a union treaty ratified by the House of Assembly of the Southern Cameroons as it were in 1961 when the Republic of Cameroun moved in its troop and occupied Ambazonia. Ironically, this is the same history that Akwanga has professed for over three decades, but which out of a sudden he has thrown in the dustbin and opted for an “Ambazonia is Cameroun’s” ideology.

    It is fair to agree with Akwanga’s critics that when in his unilateral ceasefire declaration he said “LRC (La Republique du Cameroun) commanders, troops and militias are advised to stand down and remain in their current position as of this ceasefire,” he committed one of the greatest acts of blunder, if not a betrayal in the history of the Ambazonian liberation struggle.

    How could he ask the Cameroun military to “remain in their current location” as they are in Ambazonia, except he finds it justifiable that they are and should be there? What is this justification for their presence in Ambazonia? What could it ever be, except a claim that there are in a territory in which they should be in, defending their territory from “secessionists terrorists” as Paul Biya and Atanga Nji have attempted to convince the world for the past four years? If Akwanga by asking a few fighters he had left in Fako a couple of months ago to stop fighting against Cameroun’s occupation was being in the frying pan, his request that Cameroun’s soldiers should remain in Ambazonia is a journey to the fire! The ICRC has a special role given by the Geneva Conventions: it handles and is granted access to, the wounded, sick, and POWs.