Imagine that one day, soldiers appear in your village. They are hunting members of a local separatist militia. When villagers cannot say where the militia may be hiding, the angry soldiers begin burning down the village market and several homes, including yours. As you and your family run into the bush at the edge of the village to hide, you hear gunfire. Turning, you see your mother collapsed on the ground, shot dead by soldiers of her own country. You are 12 years old, your father died of poor health the year before, and you watch your junior sister crying over your mother’s corpse.
You live in Cameroon, a French-English bilingual country in Central Africa. You and your sister and 800,000 other kids have not attended school for the past three years due to the conflict between separatist militias and the government soldiers. The militias, who want a separate English-speaking country, forbid children to attend school. The government has not restored order, choosing increased force rather than negotiations. The Major National Dialogue held by the government in fall 2019, due to its restricted agenda and a boycott by separatist leaders, failed to produce a sufficient solution.
Today, there is a full-blown humanitarian crisis in the two Anglophone regions. The eight Francophone regions of Cameroon are also suffering, as hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Anglophones have fled there, and over fifty thousand have become refugees next door in Nigeria and beyond. More than three thousand are dead, including one thousand soldiers, and one million are hungry—many barely surviving in makeshift shelters.
You and your sister are alone in the bush. What choices do you have? How will you express your grief, abandonment, fury, and hatred toward your government and the world? Will you choose, or be coerced, to take up arms?
No one knows how many child soldiers there are in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions or other trouble spots in the country, such as the Far North, where Boko Haram terrorizes inhabitants. Videos from the Anglophone regions show children learning to use guns, children talking about killing, children standing with a self-proclaimed leader of an armed separatist group. Stories from hospitals describe lost, orphaned children who wander for days, looking for a home. The trauma is immense, and it is possible that the pain or need for survival drives some children to join a militia that is fighting against the government.
With no school lessons to keep children busy, and the loss of mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers, some have chosen guns in place of books and family, while others have become pregnant. Militias have burned schools, kidnapped students, harmed teachers and headmasters, and worse.
Although the Cameroonian government has signed the UN Safe Schools Declaration, its military has not kept schools safe, and even burned down a school in Eka, verified by University of California-Berkeley’s Human Rights Centre (https://dataverse.scholarsportal.info/dataset.xhtml?persistentId=doi:10.5683/SP2/QF5HP7).
The uneducated generation of Anglophone youth taking shape may cause child soldiers and others to become permanent fighters or criminals bereft of other economic survival skills.
Use of child soldiers constitutes a war crime under International Humanitarian Law. Currently this law pertains to those under 15 years, but a universal change to under 18 is underway. Use of child soldiers encompasses more than fighting—it includes using children as spies, shields, porters, and so on. Last month, the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa published a pamphlet to educate both military and separatist fighters about humanitarian law, which includes a scenario about child soldiers (https://www.chrda.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/EDUCATION-Three.pdf).
In the age of ‘never again,’ the world must stand together to protect children, because using them as weapons of war is not normal and, in fact, is unconscionable. Indeed, the term ‘child soldier’ is an embarrassment for the world of today. A true and proud soldier, whether in Cameroon or elsewhere, will always protect and never intentionally harm civilians, and will always protect and never intentionally recruit or harm children.
It is the responsibility of the Cameroon government to urgently seek a peaceful resolution to the Anglophone Crisis so that children may become children again.
It is the responsibility of non-state armed separatist militias to neither accept nor coerce fighters under the age of 18, to lift the ban on schools, and enter negotiations for peace.
The United Nations (UN) and the African Union Commission (AU), among other world bodies, should be actively assisting Cameroon in the Anglophone regions to “silence the guns,” which is the AU’s theme for 2020. Guns and other weapons have no place in the hands of children.
On this International Day Against the Use of Child Soldiers, we call on the belligerents in Cameroon and all other countries of the world to treat children as children.
*Barrister Felix Agbor Nkongho is President of the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa, based in Cameroon.