Cameroon: The keyboard warlords of the breakaway republic
Two social media rivals from the Anglophone southwest, based in far-off England, have been prosecuting their own digital war – with life-and-death consequences in Ambazonia.
For the past four years, Fimba* has been prosecuting a war from his smartphone. Trading gunshots for keystrokes, the Cameroonian-turned-Brit, who requested anonymity for his family’s safety, uses social media to imperil his enemies and their families.
Fimba is the self-described brainchild, founder, and de facto leader of MKPD, an international online movement intent on bringing Cameroon’s separatist militants to their knees. Using Facebook and Whatsapp to lie, blackmail, and place hits, Fimba and his adherents have played an insidious role in a protracted civil conflict known as the Anglophone Crisis.
For decades, political, economic, and linguistic tensions – triggered by what Anglophones considered the forced annexation of their regions in 1972 via a national referendum from which they were excluded that turned Cameroon from a federal to a unitary state – strained relations between Cameroon’s English-speaking communities, primarily in the Northwest and Southwest regions, and the ruling Francophone majority. In late 2016 Anglophone teachers and lawyers held conferences and sit-ins to protest linguistic discrimination and cultural erosion by the state. When the Cameroonian government met those demonstrations with violence, war uncoiled like a loaded spring.
In the seven-odd years since, the violence has killed at least 6,000 people and displaced nearly one million more. Both separatists and government forces have been responsible for killing, torturing, and raping civilians, among other abuses, according to Human Rights Watch. And while international pressure has been brought to bear on the government, peaceful negotiation seems far-off.
Like many others, Cameroon’s civil war is fought with machetes and machine guns. But as Fimba’s story illustrates, new media makes new forms of warfare possible, sweeping more participants – the unwilling and the eager alike – into the path of danger.
But before Fimba was a sponsor of digital cruelty, he was a victim of it. And before that, he was a boy.
Now in his late 30s, Fimba spent his formative years in Widikum, a village in the now-embattled Northwest region of Cameroon. According to his brother Gislen, Fimba grew up with eight brothers and sisters and attended Catholic school, before emigrating to the United Kingdom as a teen in 1999. Once there, he studied technology and joined the Royal Navy as a Weapons Engineer, says a story by the Cameroon News Agency.
A British citizen, he currently lives and works in London, moonlighting as a kind of social media warlord.
But Gislen – who, unlike his brother, supports the separatists – says Fimba lived this life at his expense. “He took my visa, bearing my names, and he flew to England,” Gislen said bitterly. Perhaps unsurprisingly, identity theft would become Fimba’s modus operandi later in life.
Gislen says his brother opposed the separatists from the moment they took up arms against Cameroon in 2016. But Fimba didn’t start using social media to kill the rebels until two years later – when they came for him and his family.
In May of 2018, during an early apex in the war’s severity, Fimba was visiting his childhood home in Widikum when armed men burst onto the property, pressed explosive cartridges into his hands, and demanded valuables.
Brandishing crude long-barrelled hunting guns, four of the men – some as young as 19 years old – brutalised Fimba and his siblings while others ransacked the compound for cash and electronics.
Ransom attacks, aimed at extorting funds for the separatist cause (or in some cases, for mere profit), were by this point a tragic fixture of the Anglophone crisis – just one of the many ways civilians in the war-ensnared regions have paid the toll of instability.
“They had all of us tied, gagged, and beaten. One of the child was a toddler and was crying, so the mother was not tied up. She was asked to control the baby, because they did not want the neighbours to be alerted,” Fimba wrote via private message.
Gendarmes, Cameroonian government forces, could arrive at any moment. “The whole ordeal lasted around 40 minutes, although it felt like 40 days,” Fimba recalled. From the locked room where they sat bound, blindfolded, and afraid for their lives, the family – including infants as young as four months old – heard the muffled screech of Fimba’s car tires as the men scorched into the humid May heat.
Within 20 minutes, government soldiers had shot and killed three of Fimba’s attackers, his stolen vehicle left a burning heap on the side of the dirt road. But retribution was far from complete. These “Amba boys,” so named for the state of Ambazonia they long to found, had unwittingly sparked an online movement that would cost many more lives as the war dragged on into the present.
From a single callous attack arose a new, lethal strain of chaos – one that could only propagate in a 21st-century struggle.
Four years later, as midday Yaoundé traffic streamed below a bakery balcony and civil war raged a day’s drive west, I sat across the table from Fimba. He wore a floral button-up, sneakers, and a messenger bag stocked with spare smartphones, pulling each out individually to show me. His energy held steady over the course of our four-hour conversation, narrating his story like it was a rehearsed lecture.
I had awoken that July morning with a very different interview in mind. After four months of studying abroad in Yaoundé, I picked up a reporting project with the Pulitzer Center, covering social media’s fraught relationship with the truth in Cameroon.
Ironically, while researching disinformation traps online, I fell into one. That’s how I met Fimba.
To my untrained eye, “BaretaNews Exclusive” belonged to Mark Bareta, an Ambazonian internet celebrity who encouraged and funded armed resistance from its early moments. The now-deleted Facebook page featured thousands of followers – and what seemed like as many posts updating users on key developments in the Anglophone war.
But the day of the interview, I looked closer at Bareta’s Twitter, where his bio makes clear: “I am not on Facebook.” Then who had I been messaging? Who was I about to meet?
I realised I was dealing with an imposter, whose identity and role were unsettlingly unclear. I changed the interview location to a public setting in an upscale bakery-café, where my study abroad friends and I would go to eat pastries and bask in the air conditioning. It’s here that Fimba recounted the story of his scarring attack – and how he responded in kind.
“After undergoing that kind of trauma, you want to know why,” said the catfish Bareta. “I realised these were my cousins, brothers, and friends who were just misinformed… so I created a platform on social media called ‘Ma Kontre Pipo De.’”
The pidgin translation of this phrase is “my fellow countrymen,” a phrase you would hear before a moving speech. But on Facebook and Whatsapp – where it is shortened to “MKPD” – the name spells out a particular, loaded meaning.
As Fimba made the case for MKPD, a wasp drew tense circles around his baseball cap. The insect took an interest in his $30 entrée, which he’d ordered in English. He sampled his shrimp between self-aggrandising anecdotes.
Spanning seven known pages, at least 26 group chats, and tens of thousands of followers, MKPD is an international movement of online activists and informants committed to killing the Anglophone revolt.
First, via rumour or subterfuge, Fimba gathers intel; graphics are made, names and likenesses are plastered across Facebook; and if all goes to plan, an organ of the Cameroonian military uses the information to locate the threat and neutralise it.
The wasp landed on the table, making a bid for Fimba’s cocktail sauce. Briefly pausing his monologue, Fimba leaned forward, pinched its right wing between his fingers, and flung it against the window behind him, sounding a dull thud. Without looking back, he continued.
“We collect information… and then we redistribute it to the relevant causes,” Fimba said. “It’s just information.”
But some onlookers disagree with this innocent framing. Mimi Mefo Takambou, a prominent journalist in exile and a rare reputable voice calling attention to the conflict, has followed the online war from its genesis. “They identify people and say that they are separatist, the next minute you see the person being lynched. The next minute you see the person’s corpse,” she said, referring to MKPD.
“Doxxing” is the practice of exposing an individual’s personal information online to bring them harm. Though he also uses tactics like impersonation, blackmail, and spreading disinformation designed to cause infighting among rebel groups, doxxing is Fimba’s flagship technique – and he employs it with unsettling efficiency.
In November, 2022, two Amba boys from Awing, a village in the Northwest region, learned – too late – what social media was capable of undoing.
Covered in red charms called “Odeshi” (a form of Nigerian Igbo magic believed to render its bearers bullet-proof), mumbling in Cameroonian pidgin, “Commando” and “Warriors” posted a video accosting their former partner-in-arms. He had surrendered himself – and worse, resistance secrets – to the state, breaking the oath he swore to Ambazonia. The grainy, three-minute video ended with a vow for retaliation.
Two weeks later, Commando and Warriors were dead in the street. Their execution by gendarmes followed a concerted media campaign – the kind MKPD has made itself infamous for.
The virtual onslaught began as early as September. MKPD exposed one of the Amba boys on the Facebook page ‘A Better Cameroon,’ sharing his face and location and calling on the account’s 32,000 followers to “kumkumize instantly.”
“Kumkum”, a pidgin word that passes under the radar of online hate speech filters, originally refers to a regional delicacy. But for Fimba and his followers, “kumkum” is code for “kill.” Through his own brand of dark irony – announcing murders with emojis and mixing childlike insults with calls to violence – Fimba labours to belittle his targets at every turn.
On 9 November, Fimba could be heard – never seen – speaking from behind the camera on Facebook Live, with Nchinda Terrence, Blese Mondikom and Adamu Gideon, Anglophone separatist Amba boys who had turned themselves in. They responded to their former comrades’ threatening message, urging Commando and Warriors to disarm as they had.
Less than one week later, on 15 November, MKPD bragged that “kumkum” had been delivered to the two combatants. Before the dust had settled around their blood-soaked bodies, images of Commando and Warriors laying lifeless in the street had been shared across MKPD’s 26 Whatsapp group chats.
Thousands of miles away, from his home in the UK, a self-styled social media kingpin celebrated the execution he helped orchestrate online.
“We warned them just 6 days ago, to drop or be dropped.. #MKPD and the DDR boys do not make empty noise, we take action,” he wrote to thousands of Whatsapp users.
Meanwhile, a Facebook account named for Capo Daniel, a self-proclaimed separatist leader, mourned Ambazonia’s losses.
“Very sad that amba boys from #Awing, #Santa, who surrendered and joined DDR, have led the military to kill their brothers today,” the account wrote in a Facebook post, just 25 minutes before Fimba made his announcement. “MKPD has a hand in their demise.”
But the account bearing Daniel’s name, which reaches an audience of nearly eight thousand followers, is suspiciously silent on Ambazonia’s wins – unlike Daniel’s YouTube, whose content strikes a distinct tenor from the Facebook page bearing his name.
Fimba declined to comment on whether the page belonged to him, and Daniel did not respond to a message asking for clarification. Either the discrepancy is coincidental, or it’s yet another instance of a state-sympathising impersonator like Fimba masquerading as a prominent Ambazonian influencer to embarrass the other side.
For Fimba, virtual identity theft is a trademark move – one that allowed him to topple Ambazonia’s first and once-mightiest internet celebrity.
Before the pro-government camp had Fimba, the separatists had Mark Bareta Barra. The influencer-turned-activist in exile was one of the first Anglophone Cameroonians to build an audience on Facebook, where he served as a voice for aggrieved inhabitants of Cameroon’s English-speaking regions.
When calls for secession reached a boiling point in 2016, Bareta transformed from a Facebook messenger into a Whatsapp warlord.
“I preached heavily for our people to pick up arms and defend themselves,” Bareta said in an interview. “You need AKs, you need funds… Of course we do that.”
Bareta and other notable online figures, including the real Capo Daniel, Tapang Ivo, and others, began leveraging social media to proselytise and finance violent resistance. As smartphone and internet access increased, communities could more easily bypass telephone and radio, whose signals are more vulnerable to interception.
The Cameroonian government responded to the internet threat by hitting the kill switch. For a combined total of 240 days between 2017 and 2018, two internet blackouts cut millions of Anglophones off from vital services, cost the national and local economies millions of dollars in lost revenue, and drew criticism from human rights groups.
The strategy proved ineffective due to its financial toll, and the existence of work-arounds like VPN, which allow internet users to appear as though they are connected from a different geographic location.
Though transparently aimed at quelling dissent and masking government abuses, the Cameroonian government’s official justifications for the blackout – that the internet was being used to disinform users and encourage violence among them – were legitimate.
Malevolent actors on all sides have leveraged digital technology’s destructive potential. Since 2017, separatist fighters have been notorious for using the internet to coordinate attacks, extort civilians for money, and forbid movement within communities on pain of death. Announced on social media, so-called “ghost towns” forbid people from leaving their homes, even to seek medical care or send their children to school. Tactics such as these have cast a cloud of fear and uncertainty over communities across the Northwest and Southwest.
But in January of 2019, Ambazonia’s online presence took a hit. After several years at the helm of the virtual resistance, Mark Bareta’s Facebook page – and its formidable audience of half a million followers – went up in digital smoke. The platform had suddenly and inexplicably deleted his account.
At least one person knew why. “We [MKPD] caused that page to be unpublished, because we recorded it thousands of times on Facebook,” Fimba said. He has followed the same playbook to unseat other prominent Ambazonian influencers, who are now scattered across less popular sites.
“Blocking me off Facebook really impacted my outreach,” Bareta admitted. He has since been relegated to Twitter – a platform few Cameroonians use – and now boasts a fraction of his earlier following. “The Cameroonian government is happy I’m not on Facebook,” he spat.
To make matters worse for Bareta, just as quickly as his page was ousted, counterfeits sprang up in its place. Several such accounts are live as of March 2023, continuing to deceive and entrap unwitting internauts.
The man responsible for Bareta’s digital dethroning lives just miles away from him in London. He is also an Anglophone Cameroonian by birth (though Bareta would call himself an Ambazonian). Like Bareta, he is well-resourced, ideologically driven, and capable of harnessing his massive platform online as an instrument of war.
“I am impersonating someone,” Fimba said. “That’s one of the ways I could get my message to them. I had to become one of them.”
But Fimba will impersonate anyone to get ahead – not just his separatist counterparts on Facebook. MKPD has also disparaged the online publication Cameroon News Agency (CNA), one of few major news sources in Cameroon which has continued to report abuses by both the state and its secessionists (even as journalists have been killed for reporting negatively on either side).
Aside from falsely accusing the outlet’s staff of terrorism and creating fake Facebook profiles in their names, MKPD leeches credibility by superimposing CNA’s logo onto its own reports of Ambazonian activity. (The criticism is not genuine, but instrumental; Fimba admitted to personally using CNA as a source for information.)
In a war that often pits the sword – or the assault rifle – against the pen, journalists cannot afford to take threats lightly. “This kind of harassment puts you in a very fixed position, especially when you know that you have family back home,” a spokesperson for CNA said in an interview, wishing to remain anonymous for fear of further attacks.
While spending the last four years assuming identities, Fimba has sought to keep his own shrouded in mystery. Asked if anyone had ever correctly named him online, he replied, “If they did I wouldn’t tell you.”
Sure enough, in November 2022, a major Cameroonian publication ran an exposé on Fimba. Journalists spent the better part of one year piecing together elusive details about his life story from slip-ups in faceless MKPD livestreams and interviews with his estranged brother, whose comments were cross-checked with Fimba’s.
Yet Fimba still sits high on his virtual throne. “I have become too big to kill,” he crowed, likening himself to an American bank circa 2008. “If someone threatens me… I have the power to kill them. And they know it.”
In theory, Fimba prefers disarmament over death. His proudest stories involve preventing terrorist plots and convincing radicalised youth to lay down their weapons.
But he has since lost the patience to talk his victims down before sending their information to his military contacts. “Gone are the days where we used to try for nine months,” he said. “Now, I don’t even spend nine seconds.”
Triggered by trauma, propelled by ideology, and numbed by digital distance, Fimba lashes out with no discernible remorse. “For every single one of them that you’ve killed, or you remove out of the bush, you save about 100 people,” he claimed. “I will not bat an eyelid for killing one of them or killing 1,000 of them.”
In Fimba’s imagination, he is merely performing his “civic responsibility.”
In truth, Fimba cannot say how many lives he has mangled or cut short. He relays how he breaks down a suspect: “You can tell by looking at the way they dress, looking at their hairstyle”. He may even offer them the chance to disarm. “And if they refuse, then I’ll give the information to the military and they will be wiped out.”
Fimba describes himself as a paradox: somehow both a communicator of fact and a master of manipulation. He flaunts his ability to mislead, discourage, and blackmail Amba boys – the same tactics he accurately accuses separatist leaders of using.
Don’t miss a thing. Sign up to the free African Arguments weekly newsletter.
“I am not a journalist, so I don’t have to tell the truth,” he shrugged.
Nor does Fimba worry about his information being used to harm an innocent person, or someone who could find a better path. “You have to break eggs to make an omelette,” he is fond of saying, twisting a quaint maxim with macabre suggestion.
“I’ve reconciled the fact that some people have to die, like people have to be killed,” he said, point blank. “I don’t mince my words. If you carry a gun, I will kill you.”
Fimba is smart, but un-careful, with the taunts and threats of a playground bully – and the lethal power to follow through. Balancing a precarious anonymity, a tragic past, and a warped notion of vigilante justice, Fimba is living evidence of how social media democratises vengeance along with everything else.
The individual narratives of Bareta and Fimba dovetail into a broader, equally-overlooked story, one about a modern tool – social media – and war-stricken communities grappling with the new players and possibilities it has created. As the Anglophone crisis burns into its seventh year, these web-based combatants are still shaping narratives and pulling triggers from worlds away, with next to no accountability.
*Names of the subjects, their social media handles and organisations, as well as those of informants explicitly named in the story have been changed due to the strong possibility of physical attacks.
This story is supported by the Pulitzer Centre on Crisis Reporting.