At a series of sentencing hearings in recent weeks, a fifth-floor courtroom in downtown Baltimore was packed with attendees sitting shoulder to shoulder, while dozens more who couldn’t make it sent stacks of letters of support.

The defendants — all 10 of them — had never been in trouble before, yet were each facing years in federal prison.

One was a state auditor and Navy Reservist. Another owned a shipping company. There was a logistics supervisor for the U.S. Postal Service, a grandmother who owned a home health care company, a construction contractor, a cybersecurity consultant and a nurse.

Their common bond: all were naturalized citizens from the African country of Cameroon, gripped by grief and spurred to action as a civil conflict waged back home. Trying to make a difference from the United States, they had sent supplies and raised money, participated in protests, lobbied members of Congress, marched in front of the White House and sent busloads of people to the United Nations.

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“Help wasn’t coming, your honor,” said one of them, Godlove Mancho.

They came up with a new plan.

Consulting over encrypted chats and meeting in the basement of a home in Rosedale, they worked to assemble an arsenal to ship back home through the Port of Baltimore in order to help arm their side of the conflict.

Their code name for their group: Kindness.

A resistance emerges

Mancho, 44, has built a full life in Maryland: He has a wife, three children, and a successful home renovation business. He’s an active member of his church, serving on the board of trustees and helping to develop a Christian Men’s Fellowship chapter. He’s organized Easter egg hunts and a soccer league, and lent his construction skills to church members, seniors and members of the community who are low-income.

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Yet the atrocities in Cameroon are never far from his mind. When he wakes up in the morning, he’s often hesitant to open messages waiting for him on his phone from friends and family in his home country.

“Most of the time,” he said, “it’s really bad news. Someone has been shot, someone has been arrested. It’s scary. And the worst thing is that, just sitting here, there’s really not much I can do.”

Mancho came to the United States in 2002, initially taking on odd jobs as a day laborer, delivering newspapers and working as a retail sales clerk. He had entered on a tourist visa and was granted asylum after he said he was targeted by the government for his involvement in a protest over the marginalization of the country’s English-speaking minority.

Located in West Central Africa, Cameroon was colonized by the Germans in the late 1800s and divided between France and the United Kingdom following World War I. French Cameroon gained independence in 1960, and the next year the former British territory followed suit and unified with French Cameroon.

But divisions between the French- and English-speaking regions have continued to exist, with Anglophones — who number about 5 million of the country’s 29 million people — saying they are discriminated against.

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Maryland has been a landing spot for the largest number of Cameroonians seeking refuge in the United States: The Center for Migration Studies estimated that as of 2019, 6,000 of the 15,700 Cameroonian refugees in the United States had settled in Maryland. Texas was second, with 2,600.

Overall, there are 13,000 Marylanders who were born in Cameroon and countless more of Cameroonian descent, two Maryland Congressmen wrote in a letter to the State Department.

In late 2016, people in the English-speaking regions of the northwest and southwest part of the country engaged in mass demonstrations mandating of French in schools and courts. The government cracked down with violent arrests and imposed an internet blackout.

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A resistance emerged in hopes of forming their own independent republic, with a government-in-exile for a territory they call “Ambazonia.”

The U.S. Department of State has noted that atrocities have been committed by both sides of the conflict, citing human rights violations and abuses, arbitrary and unlawful killings, forced disappearances, and torture by separatists as well as government forces. There have been attacks on health care centers and schools.

More than 6,000 people have died in clashes since 2017. In addition to the deaths, almost 1 million people have been displaced, the majority of them becoming refugees in nearby Nigeria, according to the International Crisis Group think tank.

Godlove Mancho, one of 10 Marylanders from Cameroon convicted of sending weapons to their home country, sits inside a home he's renovating in Capitol Heights. He's trying to get as much done as possible before he must report to federal prison.
Godlove Mancho, one of 10 Marylanders from Cameroon convicted of sending weapons to their home country, sits inside a home he’s renovating in Capitol Heights. He’s trying to get as much done as possible before he must report to federal prison. (Justin Fenton)

Mancho says his brother was jailed in the protests, and family and friends regularly send photos and videos of terrifying violence. He recalled seeing images of the charred body of an 80-year-old woman burned to death in her home, which he said was carried out by the government. His cousin was shot at a government checkpoint while riding in a taxi, he said.

“Things were going down the drain,” Mancho said.

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‘God bless Ambazonia’

At a demonstration in Washington, D.C., to bring awareness to their cause, Mancho said he met a man named Tamufor St. Michael, who lamented Mancho’s jailed brother.

“The way things are going, if we don’t do something,” he recalled St. Michael telling him, “they’re all going to die.”

St. Michael said they needed to help their brothers defend themselves. How, Mancho asked? St. Michael responded that he had a license to acquire arms. “It’s not a problem,” Mancho recalled St. Michael saying.

St. Michael, who also fled to United States and received asylum after taking part in protests, had a day job as a state auditor. He had also been a U.S. Navy Reservist since 2008, and indeed had a collections license issued by the state allowing him to collect and buy firearms. Others who would become involved in the plan to ship arms said St. Michael often wore his military uniform. In warning of growing carnage, they said he was seemingly conveying military intelligence that would later prove to be correct.

Members of the group called St. Michael “The Ghost.”

Cameroonians living in Maryland were already familiar with sending shipping containers full of aid overseas. Whenever people in the community got word that someone was preparing a container, others would chip in to make sure it was full of clothes, medicine and supplies. Tse Ernest Bangarie had created a shipping company in order to meet the needs of the community, and was recruited to take part in the effort — like the others, compelled by suffering of people close to him.

The United States sells tens of billions of dollars in military weapons to foreign governments each year, from Boeing aircrafts to tanks to Sidewinder tactical air missiles. That’s all regulated by the Arms Export Control Act, passed in 1976 and signed into law by President Gerald Ford, and requires countries receiving weapons to use them for legitimate self-defense.

Past double cellar doors at a home on Golden Ring Road in Rosedale, St. Michael had a full-scale firearms manufacturing operation that the group referred to as “the lab,” according to court documents and testimony. Volunteers worked whenever they were able. For members like Eric Fru Nji, who already worked two jobs as an information technology expert and Uber driver, that meant every Sunday as well as late nights. Supporters pitched in thousands of dollars to fund the acquisition of materials. They used code words — “sticks,” for example, referred to guns, while “popcorn” was code for explosives.

When the war first started, one of the fighters had died on the battlefield, and the serial number of his gun had been traced, so the group worked to file off serial numbers using a grinder. A stack of tires functioned as a work table.

The group also repurposed used ammunition. Using his gunsmithing skills, “The Ghost” was able to build and refurbish bullets that were more precise and effective than anything available for purchase.

In what was a breach of the group’s secrecy pact, Edith “Ma” Ngang, a Minnesota resident and owner of an assisted living business, filmed herself in the lab surrounded by enormous bullets and it was posted to social media.

“I told you, we are coming for you. And we are coming for you,” Ngang said on the video. “Self-defense is a right for every human being.”

One of the three dozen rifles found by customs agents inside a shipping container sent to aid Anglophone Cameroonians. (Image from U.S. Attorney's Office)

As the project neared completion, members urged vigilance.

“We all know the challenges are huge, but [we] are up to it. God bless Ambazonia,” Nji wrote in a group message.

The test was the Port of Baltimore. If the container made it through, it was likely in the clear.

On Jan. 17, 2019, container No. GESU456254 left without a hitch, on its way across the Atlantic to Onne, Nigeria, where it would be smuggled into Cameroon.

Cracking open the shipping container

Tonya Matney, a special agent with the Department of Homeland Security, received a tip in February 2019 that a person named “St. Michael” may be involved in illegally exporting firearms and ammunition, possibly in a vehicle, for which they provided the VIN number.

Matney searched the export system and found a vehicle with that VIN number on its way to Nigeria, and saw that the paperwork for the shipment hadn’t been filled out correctly. St. Michael hadn’t filled out information for the intended recipient and the person who would receive the materials; in giving his home address, he left off the last number.

On Feb. 25, 2019, U.S. Customs and Border Protection ordered the container be returned sealed. It took until May for it to arrive in Baltimore, where customs officials broke a lock and cracked it open.

“It was very tightly packed and very difficult to negotiate,” Matney testified.

There were chairs and steel doors, air compressors, and the two trucks. Farther back were items wrapped in plastic wrap and duct tape — an obvious attempt to conceal something. Agents carefully cut through layers until it revealed four AR-15 assault rifles.

It took multiple searches to discover the full extent of the container’s contents. Months after the first search, authorities used x-rays on the compressors, and could see guns welded shut and painted within the interior of the container. The tanks were encased in foam, wrapped in plastic wrap and aluminum foil and duct tape, and painted over so they wouldn’t look like they’d been opened.

Inside were 38 more firearms, 28 of which had obliterated serial numbers.

There were 35,000 rounds of ammunition. And there were tools and manuals related to reloading of ammunition, or reusing spent bullet cartridges.

This image captured by federal agents shows the inside of a truck that was inside of a shipping container headed for Africa. Deep inside, weapons and ammunition had been secreted. (Image from U.S. Attorney's Office/U.S. Attorney's Office)

“The boys down there on ground zero ... they are not conventional soldiers,” Alambi Walter Muma testified.

Mancho says members of the group believed there had been a paperwork snafu. St. Michael contacted U.S. Customs and Border Protection multiple times in June to inquire about the container’s status. Though he’d used a phony address and a burner phone to register the container, through his conversations with CBP he identified himself as well as other members of the group.

Homeland Security received a search warrant for St. Michael’s home in July, and descended into “the lab,” where Matney said they “saw an alarming amount of material that indicated to me it was a full-scale manufacturing operation for firearms and reloading ammunition.”

St. Michael was first to be charged, in July 2019. The criminal complaint did not hint at the scope of the case, only charging him with unlawfully engaging in the business of importing, manufacturing or dealing in firearms without a license, for amassing the weapons.

Another member, Roger Akem, of Minnesota, was charged a year later in June 2020 with conspiracy to violate the Arms Export Control Act and the Export Reform Control Act.

Over the course of three months in the summer of 2021, eight more were charged.

Three members of the alleged conspiracy — Nji, of Fort Washington; Wilson Che Fonguh, of Bowie; and Wilson Nuyila Tita, of Owings Mills — took their case to trial, principally arguing that they were misled by St. Michael into believing that the operation was aboveboard.

“None of these men purchased any of these weapons,” attorney Glenn Ivey told the jury. “None of these men had fingerprints that came back on any of the weapons. None of these men were involved or had their names or participated in any way on setting up the shipping arrangements. And none of these men benefited in any way personally from sending the weapons over there. So none of these men should be convicted of the offenses with which they’re charged. None of them.

Federal prosecutors noted the secrecy group members took around the project to prove they knew they were doing something they shouldn’t be doing.

“Did you think Mr. St. Michael had a license that allowed him to hide, conceal ammunition and firearms in pressure containers and pressure tanks and ship them out of the country?” Assistant U.S. Attorney Judson Mihok asked one of the defendants when he took the stand.

“He sa[id] he has a license that covers what he does,” Nji testified.

A jury convicted all three. The seven others pleaded guilty.

X-ray images revealed weapons inside of compressors smuggled out of the Port of Baltimore. (Image from U.S. Attorney's Office)

‘I believe I was doing the right thing’

On Cameroon social media pages, the Maryland conspirators have been praised and scorned.

“Now we know their Names, we want to tell their stories, their wives, where they work in USA, where their parents come from, their village, pictures of them, and pictures of their family members,” read a post on a Facebook page called “A Better Cameroon.” “They were caught buying guns to give drug addicts to kill you in Cameroon. You have the right to know those who tried to kill you.

“Name them and shame them.”

While the American government hasn’t provided the support that Anglophones have been looking for, in Cameroon, President Paul Biya pointed to the prosecutions as support for the Francophone majority.

“I thank our partners for their multifaceted support and, in particular, the United States of America, for their decisive actions aimed at bringing to justice those who, from abroad, contribute to the financing of terrorist activities in Cameroon,” Biya said Dec. 31 in a speech to the country.

U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett was tasked with deciding the sentences for members of the conspiracy. At a series of sentencing hearings held over the past month in U.S. District Court, Anglophone Cameroonians begged him to show the defendants mercy.

Outside the courtroom, one of Mancho’s supporters posted on Twitter praising him for “making sacrifices and taking risks to seek Southern Cameroons freedom and independence. We thank you and all the others in this case for your patriotism, bravery and sacrifices for our people and Amba.”

The lead prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathleen Gavin, said members of the group had interfered with U.S. foreign policy, and sent guns destined for their allies, but which could also be used for any number of other purposes. She agreed that all of the defendants were otherwise law-abiding citizens driven to the brink, and that she did not believe they would engage in such a plot again. But people in the United States, Africa and even Europe were closely watching the outcome, she said.

Though she didn’t mention it, another case has since emerged, with the FBI last fall charging three alleged members of the resistance — living in Missouri, Minnesota and Buffalo, New York — with raising $350,000 to fund “equipment, supplies, weapons and explosive materials to be used in attacks against Cameroonian government personnel, security forces and property, along with other civilians believed to be enabling the government,” according to the indictment. Among the allegations: funding related to the kidnapping of Cameroon’s first and only cardinal. In a document touting their accomplishments, they referred to the incident as a “successful intervening and arrest.”

“The message needs to be sent: You cannot be on U.S. soil trying to arm one side of a conflict,” Gavin said.

“Your honor is sentencing a good man today,” attorney Richard Finci told Bennett. “This is not a crime of greed, or narcissism, or sexual deviance. This is a crime of trying to help your family. It’s the opposite of greed.”

Supporters spoke of his commitment to his family, his community, his church. “We feel blessed when he’s there,” said a minister with Mancho’s Presbyterian church.

Mancho, like most of the others, continued to insist that he’d been misled by St. Michael.

Bennett, like he told each of the defendants, said he was well aware of their positive qualities and the atrocities in Africa that had motivated them. He cited the Irish immigrants here who funneled guns to the Irish Republican Army, which went on for decades. If the federal government hasn’t responded, “that’s why we have elections,” he told him.

Bennett sentenced Mancho to 46 months in prison, following prosecutors’ recommendations along the sentencing guidelines. Some would receive 60 months; one who cooperated received 18 months. That defendant had begged to receive the same sentence as his peers, saying he and his family had been threatened — by fellow separatists.

An open question is how the group got caught. Despite the secrecy the group undertook, someone with specific information down to the VIN number of the vehicle in the shipping container tipped off customs. It did not come out at trial whether the tip was anonymous or from someone known to law enforcement; the U.S. Attorney’s Office refused to provide clarity. Mancho, for his part, thinks someone in the group told someone outside of the group, who made the call. But he seemed unaware when told about the VIN number detail.

Mancho says he’s been having sleepless nights lately — less about the Cameroon conflict and more about being away from his family. His children are ages 9, 11 and 13. The oldest, a daughter, could graduate high school and enter college while he’s incarcerated.

“I’m just hoping that something will happen and I won’t have to serve all that time, some kind of clemency or something,” he said, taking a break while working to put the finishing touches on a renovated home in Capitol Heights.

“I have remorse for breaking the law of the United States, but I believe that what I did and the purpose I was doing it at that moment, I believe I was doing the right thing.”

He recounted a story where he says the Cameroon military arrived at an Anglophone village, believed to be intent on destruction, and were met with high-grade weapons and retreated. “They saved those villages, they saved those houses,” he said. “I wasn’t focused on the law. I was focused on saving lives.”

The name of Cameroon President Paul Biya was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.

Justin Fenton is an investigative reporter for the Baltimore Banner. He previously spent 17 years at the Baltimore Sun, covering the criminal justice system. His book, "We Own This City: A True Story of Crime, Cops and Corruption," was released by Random House in 2021 and became an HBO miniseries.

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