By Rebecca Tinsley*
A new report describes how schools are being targeted in arson attacks across Cameroon’s English-speaking regions in the country’s increasingly violent Anglophone Crisis. Children are deliberately mutilated, abducted and killed as armed separatist groups and government soldiers terrorise civilians.
The independent investigation by Bellingcat verified 13 recent attacks using satellite images. It is thought that two hundred schools have been attacked or set on fire since 2018. Armed separatist groups use violence to enforce a ‘school boycott,’ while government security forces punish those keeping children from school, trying to convince the international community that normalcy has returned.
The investigation draws on initial research by the Cameroon Anglophone Crisis Database of Atrocities, working with the Berkeley Human Rights Center in one case. Bellingcat is an independent international collective of researchers, investigators and citizen journalists. Its report, “How Schoolchildren Became Pawns in Cameroon’s Anglophone Crisis,” is based on videos posted on social media by civilians, soldiers and armed groups, and open-source material and satellite imagery.
Among the incidents catalogued in the report are two attacks in 2018 on a Presbyterian school near Bamenda during which almost 100 teachers and children were abducted, interrogated and held for ransom. They were eventually released unharmed.
In October 2020, men on motorcycles armed with machetes and guns killed seven children and wounded a dozen at Mother Francisca International Bilingual Academy in Kumba. In November 2020, students and teachers at Kulu Memorial College in Limbe were forced to strip and then run away before the building was burned. More recently, in February 2021, the wing of a Catholic school in Nkambe was burned.
The school boycott originated as a temporary protest measure. In 2016, lawyers and then teachers peacefully protested against the Francophone-dominated central government’s placement of French-speaking judges and teachers in English-speaking courts and schools, including a systematic erosion of Anglophone Common Law procedures. “This…prompted the shutting down of almost all schools across the region in order to raise awareness of the damage such a move would bring to our education system” .
The Biya government responded to the 2016 protests with what human rights groups described as disproportionate force, arresting peaceful protest leaders and shutting down the internet for three months. In October 2017, some Anglophones unilaterally declared the regions to be an independent country called ‘Ambazonia,’ prompting more crackdowns. As the violence intensified, armed pro-Ambazonia groups emerged, enforcing “ghost towns” that shuttered the economy, and maintaining the school boycott.
Four years later, most schools have not reopened. A warning from the “Ambazonia Defence Forces” appeared on Facebook in August 2019, telling parents to continue the boycott and not send their children to school, saying, “You will have only yourselves to blame.” Although the Biya government has signed the Safe Schools Declaration, it has not kept schools safe. Government officials have urged a return to school, but parents lack confidence because there are insufficient security measures.
UNICEF estimates that more than one million youngsters (out of a total Anglophone population of six million adults and children) have been out of school for almost four years. The Cameroon Ministries of Basic and Secondary Education recently announced that 70,000 children have now returned and 400 schools have reopened. However, it is understood that those schools are in towns and cities, whereas institutions in more remote areas are reluctant to reopen for fear of attack. Cho Ayaba of the “Ambazonia Governing Council” claims that children could attend school, but only in areas controlled by his armed group, and only learning from an Ambazonian curriculum.
The Bellingcat report quotes teachers who “walk a thin line” between the armed separatists enforcing the boycott and the government security services trying to end the ban. In addition, teachers say they are harassed by not only the warring parties but also by criminal gangs extorting money. Voices in civil society express concern that the school boycott is self-defeating, producing a generation of illiterate youth and deterring any international allies from supporting legitimate Anglophone grievances.
Before he died earlier this year, Cardinal Christian Tumi warned that violently enforcing the school boycott was turning the Anglophone population against the separatists. He mentioned a girl whose hand was amputated by separatists as she went to sit her exams. Cardinal Tumi was kidnapped and interrogated by an armed Anglophone group in November 2020. He was later released unharmed but died in April 2021, age 90.
Ambazonian leaders believe the boycott demonstrates their control over the Anglophone population and their leverage over the Biya regime, although only Anglophone children and their communities are suffering. Many parents keep children home while those who are wealthy enough send them to schools in the Francophone regions (where, paradoxically, they learn in French), forcing education in the Anglophone regions to largely cease. Before the conflict began, Anglophone schools had a reputation for such high standards that Francophones would send their children to school there.
Most separatist leaders live overseas, where their children are not missing school. They refuse to back down unless they are seen to win concessions from the government. In a Newsy video accompanying the Bellingcat report, Ebenezer Akwanga, leader of the Southern Cameroons Defence Forces (SOCADEF) separatist group, says that the boycott could compel the government to come to the table, although there is no evidence this tactic is working.
The prominent barrister Felix Agbor Nkongho of the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa (CHRDA), co-led the first peaceful protests in 2016 that started the Anglophone Crisis. He was imprisoned for eight months by the Cameroonian government. He says, “Perhaps at a time the school boycott was good, but a school boycott cannot run for long. And you cannot sacrifice the well-being of kids for political reasons.”
Meanwhile the Swiss Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue continues to offer to host inclusive peace talks. Both the government and some armed separatist groups have declined to participate. Meanwhile, a million Anglophone children live in fear of violence today and unemployment in the future.
*Rebecca Tinsley is a human rights activist and journalist. She is the founder of Network for Africa, and her most recent novel, When the Stars Fall to Earth, is set in Darfur. Stars Fall to Earth, is about Darfur and is available in English and Arabic