From US through Nigeria to Cameroon: The Ambazonia diasporan caught shipping arms to home country

Some see him as a lawbreaker. Others see a patriot who went too far.

They called the cramped basement of the red brick house in Baltimore County in the United Statesthe lab” and agreed to leave their phones in a bucket at the door before they went in. On group chats, they went by aliases and spoke in code words about the projects they worked on inside. 

Deliveries kept arriving at “the lab” in 2018 and 2019, federal agents later discovered. Thousands of rounds of ammunition. A gas mask. A ghillie suit, a full-body camouflage suit worn by hunters or military snipers. They were addressed to Tamufor St. Michael, the house’s owner. He bought 24 rifles online between 2017 and 2019, according to court records, and picked them up from a nearby gun shop. 

St. Michael didn’t intend to keep the arsenal he’d amassed at his home in Baltimore County’s Rosedale community with a group of volunteers. Instead, he wrapped the guns in metal foil and hid them in the bed of a Toyota pickup truck loaded into a shipping container to Nigeria, prosecutors said, destined for the front line of a bloody civil conflict over language and identity in St. Michael’s native Cameroon. 

Cameroonians in Maryland, who’ve spent years watching conflict unfold in their home country from afar, are torn as sentencing looms for St. Michael, who is out on supervised release after pleading guilty to felony charges of conspiracy and violating America’s Arms Export Control Act. 

Some see him as a lawbreaker. Others see a patriot who went too far. 

St. Michael and Robert Bonsib, the lawyer representing him, declined to comment on his case, per Washinton Post. But court records and interviews with those who knew St. Michael tell the story of a journey that took the now-42-year-old activist from a quiet arrival in the United States and enlistment in the U.S. Navy to the leader of a covert effort that prosecutors cast as a plot to evade American authorities and smuggle arms. 

Federal investigators who testified in court about what they found described alarming volumes of weaponry and a basement of equipment resembling a full-scale manufacturing operation, capable of inflicting serious damage. 

Toward the end of 2018, St. Michael loaded a cache of weapons and military equipment in a shipping container that left the Port of Baltimore bound for Nigeria in January 2019. It was never unloaded there. Federal agents ordered the container to be redelivered to Baltimore after flagging that it had been shipped under a false name and address. The ghillie suit still had a shipping label affixed, addressed to St. Michael’s Rosedale house. A judge quickly issued a search warrant. 

Federal agents recovered over 30 rifles and handguns from the shipping container, some with obliterated serial numbers and attachments like scopes and bayonets, according to court documents. In St. Michael’s “lab,” they found a tangle of firearms, ammunition, and hobbyist tools to assemble firearms and load cartridges by hand. 

St. Michael was arrested in July 2019. He pleaded guilty at the end of the year. News of his case spread quickly in the Cameroonian community on group chats and social media — Tataw was “devastated,” he said when he learned. 

In 2021, a French Cameroonian news site incorrectly reported that St. Michael and his associates had been charged with arming secessionists, not smuggling. Prosecutors did not specify to whom the guns were being sent. In testimony, St. Michael said he was approached by the Ambazonia Defence Forces, an armed Cameroonian secessionist group, but declined to sell or transfer weapons to them. He wanted instead, he said, to give them to “responsible” individuals to protect their communities. 

A sentencing date has not yet been scheduled for St. Michael. Violating the Arms Export Control Act, which prohibits the export of various categories of firearms and ammunition without a license, is a felony that carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and fines of up to $1 million. 

As he awaits his punishment, conflict simmers in Cameroon. Threats of attacks from separatist groups in January loomed over the Africa Cup of Nations as Cameroon hosted the continent’s soccer tournament. Gunmen torched a church and kidnapped five Catholic priests in southwest Cameroon in September, which separatists disavowed as the actions of a splinter group. 

Reports of violence still stir those in the diaspora to action, Boh said, though they fear they’ve been overlooked as newer conflicts command the world’s attention. Watching from afar, they wait and worry, wondering how best to help. 

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